All injury stories are the same. I was feeling pretty good, starting to climb well when I…
(Choose a verb: BROKE, STRAINED, TORE, DISLOCATED, LACERATED…)
(Choose a noun: KNEE, SHOULDER, HAND, ACL, WRIST, ANKLE, LEG, MCL, pinkie…)
I wasn’t feeling very good, hadn’t been working out hard enough at that time, when I pushed it more than I should and I…
The injury’s not where the story gets interesting. Yeah, I’ve had injuries before (broken ribs, dislocated thumb, fractured wrist, etc.) and yes, you’ve had injuries as well. You tore your rotator cuff. You snapped a tendon in your ring finger. You injured the whatever-its-called in your elbow when you fell off your nephew’s trampoline. Really, our individual injuries are not that interesting.
But our attitudes? What we do after our injuries? That – to me – is much more interesting.
Unfortunately – for a while at least – after surgery or getting the cast off or the knee brace, or doing physical therapy, we have to climb easy. We can’t go hard. We can’t run up The Rostrum. We can’t send that Bishop highball we’ve always to finish. We can’t project that 5.12+ trad route at the Gunks. For a while, we have to keep from getting injured again. We have to maintain good attitudes and sound training fundamentals while still climbing easy. And that’s difficult. Most of us – naturally – want to go hard, want to push our abilities, want to send something that we’ve never sent before. But the road back to climbing hard starts with climbing easy. There’s an art to climbing easy, and in my experience, a lot to learn from that time period of easier exertion.
With Beginner Routes, There’s No Competition
I’m a competitive person. If three of my friends and I are attempting a difficult route, I want to send it first. I don’t mind if someone else is successful on the route as long as I’ve already been successful on the route. See, I like to win the game. I want to win the game even if no one else knows that we’re playing the game. If everyone thinks we’re just having fun, I might be competing in my head. That makes me seem like a jerk, but truthfully, I sometimes am a jerk. I’ve competed for who can be the best at throwing rocks at a metal sign, for who can open the well-sealed jar of jam, for who can find the prettiest piece of petrified wood.
I’m way too competitive.
The problem with being a way-to-competitive-climber and having a significant injury is that there’s no competition on beginner routes. Everyone can climb VB or 5.6.
That bodybuilding guy with zero footwork who wears a leather vest to the gym, wears no shirt underneath, and climbs with bent arms all the way up the wall? Yep, he can climb 5.6.
That college girl who yells “SPOT ME! SPOT ME! SPOT ME!!!!!” in a hysterical voice the second she leaves the ground on the easiest VB taped-route? Well, she sends that level too.
So if I’m climbing beginner routes – and only beginner routes – I’m on everyone’s level. Actually, I’m below most people’s level. There’s no one to beat at climbing, no one to be better than. So I have to let go of my competitive mindset, and that’s probably good for me. Thinking about it a little more, I realized that letting go of a competitive mindset – at least once in a while – is probably good for most climbers. Maybe if we all spent a little more time climbing easy routes, we’d find joy in the process and we’d let go of ridiculous competitiveness. For example, we might stop selfishly hoping for our own friends to fail on tougher routes until we send them ourselves.
Because Beginner Climbing Is Climbing Just For Fun
Climbing is supposed to be fun. When Alex Lowe was told in an interview that he was one of the best all-around climbers in the world, he shook his head and said, “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”
And it’s not like I don’t have fun climbing. I have a lot of fun. I sometimes laugh and smile all day long. But I’m pushing myself, pushing hard. I have a lot of goals, and if I don’t meet my own high expectations, I get disappointed. I feel like I haven’t “performed.” And how weird is that?
It’s as if a day of climbing with my friends is actually a violin recital and there’s some classical music critic in my head asking if I played Tchaikovski’s symphony well enough.
I tend to get caught up in my “what’s next?” mentality as well. If I can trad lead these five middle-grade routes in one day at my local crag, then I should be able to do “Astroman” the week after next.
But what’s after 5.7 if you’re only a 5.7 climber right now and you don’t push it? Oh wait, I know the answer to that: More 5.7. Always. And maybe a few VBs and a sprinkling of 5.6s as well.
To be honest, isn’t Royal Arches one of the best routes in the Valley? And what does that go at?
Never mind that you’ve always avoided Royal Arches because you don’t want it on your 8a.nu scorecard…
Make Up Endurance Challenges
Since you’re not at the gym or crag to “perform,” you can climb without worrying about sending hard routes. But just because you’re climbing without a high-end goal, doesn’t mean you can’t make up challenges for yourself. Easy endurance challenges are great.
- Climb 20 VBs in one session. Then another day, climb 30. Then 50. Inside, at the gym, this challenge is sort of a fun one or two-hour workout. But outside, it takes a lot of exploring to find twenty or more VB rock routes, and it’ll be fun finding that many easy boulders even in your home area. The first time I did this challenge at my favorite bouldering area, I realized how much I loved the location, how cool it was to climb easy volcanic rocks in a beautiful ponderosa and juniper forest.
- Do pyramids on a VB. Climb up one move, down one move, then up two moves and down two moves, up three and down three, slowly building to climbing the whole route in one vomit-pumping, VB-obsessing manner. This is an excellent drill inside or outside, and your forearms get tired.
- Research the height of a famous, long, easy rock route, then go to your local crag and climb that height in one day. If you want to be obsessive compulsive, count the total pitches of 5.5, 5.6, 5.7, and 5.8 on the famous route and climb the route in full-imitation-mode, pitch by pitch, at your home crag.
Don’t Care What Other People Think And Don’t Get Caught Up
This is difficult for competitive people. Trust me, I know. Although I’m not the strongest climber in the world…or North America…or my own region…or even at my small, local gym (please don’t tell anyone how weak I am), I like to be thought of as a strong climber. I hope people think, “Look how strong he was on that cave route. He made that look easy.” But the truth is, “strong” is a vague and relative term for most of us. Stack me up against a beginning climber and I look pretty strong. But when I hear that Chris Sharma warmed up on two V7s at Bishop, I don’t feel so strong anymore. So why do we worry about comparisons? Why do we hold so tightly to our faulty illusions of greatness?
To climb easy well, that is, to enjoy easy climbing, I have to stop caring about what other people think and how I compare to them. And to do this, I have to turn down local “hard-man” offers. I have to avoid getting caught up.
A local hard-man takes a long drag on his cigarette. Crushes the tip with his calloused fingers. Says, “Pete, I bet you could send this route pretty quick? Wanna jump on it?”
I shake my head and am grateful for what I get to climb this day. I say, “No, I’m doing an easy day on these 5.8s over here.”
Local hard-man, shirtless and tan, stretches his neck one way, then the other. “But don’t you wanna burn down this 5.11+ real quick? I’m sure you could.”
It’s a trap. I have to watch out. I just saw him fail on that route and he doubts I can do it. He wants a failure comparison. He hopes that maybe I won’t make it to his highpoint, so maybe he can say, “Yeah, but Pete looked like crap on it too. It’s pretty sandbagged for 5.11+.”
But I can’t fall for this trap even if I think I can do the route, even if I’ve done the route many, many times before. I can’t get re-injured on something meaningless. So I have to say, “No thanks. But lemme give you a belay if you wanna try it again.”
It’s a dangerous world out there at the crag. Stick to your easy game plan. Stay easy. Stay healthy. Get stronger slowly.
Focus On Form
Quiet feet. Straight arms. Steady pace. Decisive hand-placement. Use every part of your body. Don’t waste your time trying to find the best part of every hold. Push off your feet much more than you pull with your arms. Rotate your hips. Roll your body through each move and keep a steady progression.
In Fall Of The Phantom Lord, Dan Osman talks about putting three-quarters of his body weight on his feet. Think about that as you climb 5.6, 5.7, 5.8. It’s pretty cool to focus on that sort of efficiency and recognize when you’re climbing smoothly, effortlessly, like a trout swimming through an eddy.
Climb With Kids
Some of this essay makes climbing easy sound like a mental challenge or somehow less fun, but that’s not true. Some of the most fun climbing days of my life have been on easy routes. Many, many, short, easy routes. Or long easy routes. So many fun days when the grades didn’t matter at all.
Climbing easy is especially fun with kids because kids climb for pure joy. They swing on overhanging holds. They sing as they climb. They chase lizards to the other side of the boulder. And sometimes they only want to climb barefoot.
So do what they do. Take on their mentality. Sing with them. Run around and explore. Take off your shoes and catch that lizard. Climb with a child’s sense of wonder.
Finally, Renew The Mind
So what’s wrong with VB? What’s wrong with infinite 5.7 pitches? Do I always need a challenge, or have I always been worried about what other people think?
VB is like a beach in Costa Rica, like body surfing warm moderate waves. Don’t worry about how it looks. Don’t be too competitive. Relax. Enjoy the process. Go back to the beginning of your climbing life but with better technique and more gratitude. As Bob Dylan once sang when he was apparently talking about rock climbing, “There’s no one to beat you, no one to defeat you, except the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.”
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is currently climbing easy in the sun, recovering from a car accident.