The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.
The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.
I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.
But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.
Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.
Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.
In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.
We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.
As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.
It was the last day of Petzl RocTrip and all of the participants were re-packing their enormous bags. Mylène, a member of the video crew documenting the trip, grabbed me to help shoot some closing interviews with RocTrippers who had stayed on for the whole 40-day journey, which started in Romania and finished in Turkey. These folks, who hailed from all over the world, had taken to the road for over a month with only a rough outline of a plan. Most of them lacked vehicles and so either hitched rides or rode the RocTrip buses from one country to the next. They camped everywhere they went, rain or shine, on rocky ground or flat, subsisting on minimal supplies and tight budgets. They relied on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers to get by, and, on the whole, trusted in the fates to bring them safely through it all.
As we called these nomadic climbers into our makeshift studio in the back of the Petzl Airstream trailer, I was surprised at the similarity of their answers. “How do you feel now that the trip is over?” asked Mylène. “I feel full,” said one woman. “I’m really satisfied,” said one of the guys. “I feel enriched,” said a third person, “and ready for more.” No one said they were burned out or eager to return home. Several suggested that they would travel on after the trip, seeing new places and meeting new people for as long as they could. Clearly, there was some underlying source that powered these wanderers through the challenges and uncertainty such travel entails…
When I was in college, a buddy and I took a month-long backpacking trip across Western Europe, bouncing from hostel to pension to campsite, exploring great cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. Along the way we met people who made us think outside the insulating bubble that American culture and media had built around us. We threaded old cobblestone streets, gazed at millennia worth of art and architecture. We drank too much and stayed up too late, talking to locals and fellow travelers. Exhausted, we dozed off sitting up in train stations, under the boughs of old trees, and on city benches, lulled by the murmur of languages we didn’t understand. But always we awoke ready for more.
On our trip, my friend and I tapped in to the same energy as the RocTrippers, I think—the energy of people on the move, untethered from the responsibilities of life and the banality of the familiar. If you don’t stay in any place too long, you can, in a way, game the system and experience only the new and the exciting, constantly feel thrill of fresh friendships, uncomplicated by past history, unburdened by obligation. …
But, of course, there’s a catch. Stop in any one place for too long, and the radiant sheen starts to fade. The wonders of the place—seen in three-dimensional hyper-clarity by the starry-eyed traveler—become mere background, just part of the everyday scenery of a more static life. The new people, brimming with new ideas and perspectives, become known quantities. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay “Circles”: “Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations.”)
In this light, it made sense that the people we interviewed about RocTrip were ready to keep going, despite the long and tiring miles they’d already logged. To stand still would be to gather moss. To return “home” would be to admit that the adventure was over and accept the staid and pragmatic travails of a more stationary life.
Freedom or stability, short-term excitement or long-term fulfillment, newness or consistency—it seems we’re always being asked to take one at the expense of the other. Often, the flashiness of the itinerant lifestyle is held up as the antidote to our modern malaise, our workaday routine that keeps us moving predictably, as if on rails. I tend to think that the best we can do is to seek a balance between motion and stasis, to move when it’s time to move and also to stay put when it makes sense, letting the contrast of the one enhance and inform the other.
At the same time, I want to believe that we can carry a certain mindset of home with us wherever we go; a certain comfort within ourselves, whatever the circumstances. And on the other hand, wouldn’t it be ideal if we could also bring the traveler’s sense of openness and fresh eyes when getting groceries or walking the dog? What is the perfect balance, after all? I suppose it’s up to each of us to find that point in accordance with our own nature and time in life. What’s been the best balance for you? Are you a constant traveler or a homebody, or some creative combination of the two?
“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
As I write this post, I’m recovering from a cold. It came on suddenly Friday, starting with a tickle in the throat, and quickly escalated to fits of sneezing, a dripping nose, and glassy, red-rimmed eyes. Today, with flower-print tissue boxes planted all around the house and a dwindling supply of DayQuil, I have almost recovered.
Still, I move through a viscous atmosphere. Sounds and sensations are dampened. When I recline, I slip naturally into a womb-like sleep. In this sickened state, my body requires rest and I have decided not to fight it. What would be the point? To push too hard would only draw out my illness. As the Zen teacher Bankei said, “When I feel hungry, I eat. When I feel thirsty, I drink. That is my miracle.” When I’m tired, I rest. I have learned the hard way the consequences of not doing so.
Climbers are prone to obsessive activity. We want to be stronger and lighter all the time, so we train and diet and train. And because most of us climb for personal reasons and not for any specific competition or event, we don’t usually work in cycles (periodization, in sports training terms). We expect constant progression — every trip to the crag or the gym should be better than the one before. We live by the fallacy that more climbing or more training is always better. Day and night, summer and winter, birth and death, action and rest… everything around us moves to an undulating rhythm, and so do we. When we ignore our cycles or fight against them, we fall out of balance. We only hurt ourselves.
There’s a story* about a man who complains to his teacher, the Zen master Mokusen, of his wife’s unflagging stinginess. Mokusen goes to see the wife and holds his clenched fist in her face.
“Suppose my fist were always like that. What would you call it?” he asked.
“Deformed,” replied the woman.
The he opened his hand flat in her face and asked: “Suppose it were always like that. What then?”
“Another kind of deformity,” said the wife.
“If you understand that much,” finished Mokusen, “you are a good wife.” Then he left.
After his visit, this wife helped her husband to distribute as well as to save.
To this day in America, we cling to a puritanical sense of industriousness that birthed adages like, “Idle hands are the devil’s plaything,” or, to quote Ben Franklin, “Waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” On college campuses, in executive offices, in athletic endeavors, even at home, we live in a culture of burnout. We glorify the epic and the “all-nighter.” We are all in a race, it seems, but for some reason we rarely ask ourselves: Why? To where? Against whom? Metaphysical pondering aside, proper rest has been shown to be critical in maximizing both physical performance and creativity.
After I finished college, I worked in a climbing gym. I wasn’t sure what I wanted from my life, from my career, but I knew that I liked to climb, and that it felt good to improve. So I trained. I trained or climbed (often both) five days a week, sometimes more. For a time, it worked. I scored several personal bests. But my gains were short-lived, and today I still pay the price. My left shoulder pops and aches, and whenever I start to feel fit, its weakness limits my progress. I felt the damage happening, but I was young and surrounded by obsessive climbers; injury was just part of the game. Despite physical therapy, I’ve never managed to return my shoulder to a fully healthy state. I have learned many lessons from this challenge, but none more important than the value of rest.
It is a particularly tricky problem for us climbers — we love what we do and our culture romanticizes the most extreme behaviors as admirable examples of passion and commitment. Because of this, it is easy to forget that balance between effort and rest is, for most of us, the best way to improve and, more importantly, to take joy in what we do.
Balance is central to the act of climbing; it allows for controlled movement, for rhythm and flow from one hold to the next. Balance between a pushing foot and a pulling hand, between two feet pressing against the sides of a chimney, between the downward pressure of a foot and the equal and opposite upward pressure of the rock.
Without balance, climbing becomes nothing but a test of strength: who can haul his poor bones farther up the wall before exhaustion sets in. One who climbs out of balance looks, in climbing parlance, “thrutchy,” which is as graceless as it sounds.
To climb with balance is to climb efficiently. For every degree of misalignment, you must pay with strength. Out of balance and you are out of control, at the mercy of gravity, easily pushed and pulled about in its unrelating warp.
“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher,” said the Dalai Lama. In the practice of climbing, gravity is both adversary and instructor. Balance is the language of gravity. The climber speaks it with his body. Fluency comes only through time, study, and relentless practice.
A strong climber might appear impressive, but a climber in balance makes difficult things look easy.
I have a very athletic friend who routinely asks me, “I want to climb 5.13. What do I have to do to get stronger?”
I always tell him the same thing: Don’t worry about getting stronger; work on your technique, your balance. Strength is my friend’s crutch — he thinks it will solve his problems to have more and more of it. In reality, he could do with a little less, as it’s confusing the real issue. He can do many moves using mostly strength, but really, he could do them much more easily if he relied less on his muscles and more on his balance.
The lesson is replayed every time a young couple visits the gym for the first time. The man climbs with his arms, as if trying to pull the wall down to the ground. The young woman dances up the wall, balanced over her feet. “The softest things in the world overcome the hardest things in the world,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao de Ching.
Of course, both strength and balance are required to climb. Too much of one and not enough of the other is its own kind of imbalance. Likewise, the mental and the physical must be balanced. Activity and rest must be balanced.
In climbing and in the rest of life, it is easy to forsake one thing for another while completely passing over the Middle Way. Many of my climber friends have let promising careers and relationships stagnate in exchange for more and more time to climb. Many of my career-oriented friends have let their bodies and their senses of adventure atrophy in exchange for advancement or money. These just are a few examples of lives lived out of balance.
I have found it is helpful to constantly monitor balance and to adjust whenever things fall out of line.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, released more than thirty years ago, is to kung fu movies as The Good, The Bad, And the Ugly is to spaghetti Westerns. In typical fight-flick form, the act of training, of mastering one’s self and one’s art, is the focus. That makes The 36th Chamber a great metaphor for just about any pursuit, but especially for climbing: we set our sights on projects, objectives, and grades, but as soon as we attain them, they lose their luster, and we must set new goals. Even the Chris Sharma’s of the world are still learning, still fighting against their own inner struggles.
A product of the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studios, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka Shaolin Master Killer) is the tale of a young man, San Te (Gordon Liu), who seeks revenge after his family is killed and his home burned by the oppressive Manchurian government. San Te makes his way to the a Shaolin temple, where he is allowed to stay on and train with the badass kung fu monks. The film follows San Te’s passage through the temple’s chambers, each holding a particular kung fu lesson. (Not all thirty-six chambers are actually portrayed, Buddha be praised.)
The training methods employed by martial artists have inspired diehard climbers over the years. The intensity of focus and the acceptance of suffering, coupled with the strong desire to master and control one’s body, make martial arts training and climbing training close cousins. Also, there is danger inherent in both activities — in martial arts, other fighters; in climbing, gravity.
For those looking to truly understand and master the intricate psycho-physical art of rock climbing, San Te’s travails at the Shaolin temple serve as a solid framework. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, to be sure, but mostly because kung fu is awesome and so is climbing I have here adapted five key training tips for climbing from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin for climbing purposes.
A brief disclaimer: the recommended exercises below are not based on any formal education, just decades of climbing experience and exposure to the thoughts of other, far more skilled rock jocks. Know thy limits. If you tweak your groin or sprain your scapula trying one of these exercises, you have only yourself to blame.
Step 1: Footwork, balance, timing
“I kept it moving: fast, balanced, light… that is the secret. So, balance your movements.”
Soon after San Te begins to study kung fu at the temple, he finds that he must cross a pool of water to access the dinning hall. Floating in the water is a bundle of logs, the only stepping stone to help him across. Try as he may, he cannot make the leap, and always ends up in the water. In the end, he learns how to combine timing, momentum, force, and balance to cross the gap.
In climbing, balance and timing are basic critical elements. It is typical to watch experienced climbers “float” up difficult routes and think that their strength must be very great, but, in fact, balance and footwork are the foundation of any skilled climber’s repertoire. Without them, strength will only take you so far.
Recommended exercises: Climb slabby routes or problems without grabbing any handholds — use only your palms flat against the surface of the wall or rock to balance yourself, relying on your legs for support and your toes and sticky rubber for contact with the wall. To do this, you’ll need to focus on balance, timing, and momentum to shift your weight from your lower foot to your higher foot and gain upward progress.
Step 2: Shoulders, upper body strength
“Most techniques need strength of arms.”
San Te’s next challenge involves carrying water buckets up to the top of a long chute. He must dump the water into a chute to help the monks below wash dirty robes. (I can’t help thinking there must be a better way… .) The catch comes in the form of knife blades strapped to San Te’s upper arms, pointed inwards. He must carry the buckets with arms outstretched or risk stabbing himself in the ribs.
For climbers, a powerful upper body is important, especially on overhanging climbs. But it’s not only about pulling hard… pushing is involved in a variety of scenarios, from stemming in dihedrals to Gastoning to manteling. Most importantly, strong shoulders, upper arms, and back offer support while climbing, allowing you to move upward with control and precision, and without injury.
Recommended exercises: To prepare the upper body for the rigors of difficult climbing, you can’t go wrong with the basics: pull-ups, push-ups, curls, dips, front and side shoulder raises, rows, and overhead presses. When using weight, it’s best to avoid lifting too heavy — anything you can’t control (read: move smoothly, without shaking or hoisting) through the whole range of the movement is likely to cause more harm than good. If you don’t know what these exercises are or how to perform them, best to consult a trainer or at least a really good YouTube video. As always, if you feel any pain, other than the pain of muscles burning with fatigue, stop immediately and don’t do what you were doing ever again. If you’re like me, you already have problems with your shoulder joints. This article does a good job offering basic exercises to help develop the small, weak muscles around the shoulder that help protect against rotator cuff implosion.
Step 3: Wrist, grip strength
“How are your wrists? Are they real strong?”
In a later chamber, San Te has to lift a hammer on the end of a ten-foot pole and with it bang a massive bell. The exercise was devised to strengthen the hands and wrists, to create and unbreakable grip on one’s own weapon or an opponent’s weapon or body.
Finger, hand, and forearm strength is the hallmark of a rock climber. They are responsible for maintaining contact with the rock. Just a glance at a persons digits (are they calloused? Are the knuckles enlarged?) or forearm muscles (are they bulging, laced with veins?) will tell the story.
Recommended exercises: Better than all the fitness-shop grip-strengthening doodads combined is hangboarding. Workouts are brief (mine usually run for twenty minutes) and you don’t need to do them more than twice a week, especially if you’re mixing them in with a regular climbing routine. You can probably find a used hangboard on Craig’s List or eBay, and your local gym almost certainly has one, too. The most effective hangboard routines don’t involve much movement: you basically grab a pair of holds and dangle for three to eight seconds (if you can hang for longer, the holds are too easy for you), and take a brief rest. repeat three more times, and then move on to another pair of holds. I usually warm up on the bouldering wall, then start with a set of hangs on jugs. Then I progress through slopers, two-finger pockets, medium edges, small edges, and finish with slopers again. Simple. The Moon Fingerboard has consistently received good reviews , and Moon provides a nice, battle-tested workouts you can use with it.
Oh, and don’t forget to climb. Climbing tends to be the best training for climbing.
Step 4: Eyes, focus, relaxation
“A man who wants to fight, he must have perfect eyes.”
To make sure San Te can track rapid motion with his eyes while keeping his body still, he is asked to place his head between two burning incense sticks (they’re more like logs, really). The instructor in this chamber then whips a lantern back and forth, asking San Te to follow it only with his eyes.
Most climbers often think first about their hand holds, then their foot holds, and then maybe a third thing, like breathing or core tension. How you use your eyes, though, is important. Just like batting in baseball, where you keep your eyes on the ball until contact is made, when making a deadpoint or dyno, maintaining visual contact with the goal hold is key. In addition, what you do with your eyes at a rest can make a big difference in de-pumping and preparing for the climbing ahead.
Recommended exercises: Find or set dynos and practice making the leap. Once you’ve stuck a particular dyno three times, staying conscious of your gaze’s direction, find a farther dyno or pick goal hold that requires more accuracy (obviously, this will be easier to do in a gym). Breathe, focus your eyes on the prize, and jump, watching your hand all the way to the hold.
You can also practice using your eyes to recover. The simple act of looking down and “softening” your focus (letting your vision go slack, so that everything is blurry) while on a rest hold allows for a more rapid relaxation and, therefore, recovery. This I picked up from the Boulder-based climbing trainer, Justen Sjong. Get yourself good and pumped on a long route, series of problems, or treadwall, and then settle in to a rest and look down, practicing deep, belly breathing until you feel your heart rate slow. Continue climbing and repeat as many times as possible.
Step 5: Head, determination, toughness
“This phase here usually needs two years. You must pass it, or you’ll never go any higher.”
The final chamber shown in the movie is focused on the head. Not so much a matter of thinking, it’s all about toughness. Heavy sandbags dangle from the ceiling, and San Te must run through them using only his shaved dome to clear a path. It’s painful to watch as he butts the bags this way and that, stumbling around drunkenly with red welts on his forehead from the impact. Still, he passes through, and goes on to train with various weapons and fighting techniques.
I have seen more climbers stymied by their own fear and doubt, usually baseless, than by any lack of strength or skill. For instance, the second most of us experience a deep pump setting in, though we might have a good bolt, cam, or pile of pads at our feet, we start to climb like a fall means certain death. We manhandle every hold and fling our feet from one solid perch to the next in terror, literally shaking ourselves off of the wall. Nearly paralyzed, we attempt to downclimb to a safer position, only to fall awkwardly in the process. But letting fear guide your decisions on the wall is almost never a good idea. Unless you are certain that a fall from your position will result is injury or worse, it’s better to pause and breath and try to let the adrenaline blinders fall away before deciding where to go next. Often, we are just a move or two away from a good stance, a huge jug, or the next point of protection.
Recommended exercises: Look, I’m not going to recommend people go out and start taking mondo whippers on purpose. But that’s what I did. At the gym where I worked, my friend and I agreed that we’d each lead climb out the wall’s long roof, turn the lip onto the headwall without clipping the last bolt (or two) beneath the roof, and then jump. That first moment, when no clipped bolts were visible and the air started to move around my ears, was terrifying, but the bolts and my belayer were steadfast. The falls were soft pendulums into empty space. After a while, they became less scary and more fun. It helped build the trust in the system required to climb without spirit-sapping anxiety. A similar exercise could be performed with much smaller falls than the twenty footers we took, but only on an overhanging wall with plenty of ground clearance. Of course, this is not to be attempted if you’re not a confident and competent lead climber and your belayer doesn’t have a Word’s Greatest Belayer mug. As with all things in climbing, the wisdom of taking “practice falls” is yours to determine. As the disclaimer goes, climbing is inherently dangerous, and so on and so forth.
Even more basic, the simple act of climbing more frequently can help reduce discomfort on the wall. As you get used to moving in the vertical, everything becomes more tranquil. Climb up to the point where your fear starts to kick in, then pause and practice steady, deep breaths, until you feel composed enough to look up and read the route ahead. Practice using your eyes to steadily scan the terrain around you, spotting holds that might be good for resting or for clipping, making a mental note of their location and possible sequences to attain them. Then, focus on moving to the next good hold and the next, rather than aiming for the top all at once. This works as well outside as it does in, on a trad climb as on sport routes. It is the art of confident, purposeful climbing, and it takes time and practice to perfect. In the end, no matter how you do it, you must develop a strong head if your hope to move on to climbing proficiency and even mastery.