The Rotpunkt Method

Last week I wrote about climbers who are afraid to admit they care. It’s a phenomenon especially common in teenagers, but many adults struggle with this fear, too. To care is to open yourself up to the frightening possibility of failure. It’s safer not to care —  send or fall, you’re meh either way. Of course, most people who pretend not to care do so because they care too much. If you really want something, then you run the risk of being embarrassed, demoralized, or otherwise disappointed if you don’t succeed. Better to keep the world at arm’s length and pretend you’re all good just where you are.

My friend Charley recently told me about a kid — let’s call him Billy — on his gym’s youth climbing team. Billy was naturally strong, but he never worked routes. Instead, he’d get on a climb, look good up until the crux, fall, and then move on to something else. One day after doing this, Billy’s coach asked him why he gave up. “I don’t need to get back on that route; I know I can do it,” was Billy’s reply. The coach called bullshit and ordered him back on the climb, where, not too surprisingly, he fell lower than on his first attempt. It was exactly as Billy had feared — he wasn’t that close after all. But the part I want to stress is that Billy could do the climb. Maybe it would take him one more try, or maybe 10, but if wanted to prove himself the route’s equal, he’d have to enter the difficult, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding world of the redpoint.

The german climber Kurt Albert coined the term Rotpunkt while climbing in the Frankenjura region in the 1970s. In a 1994 interview with Will Gadd, Albert recalled that climbers in the Frankenjura aided all the routes. “If you saw a piton,” he explained, “you grabbed the carabiner or put [an aid] ladder on it. So there was no free climbing for the sake of free climbing.” But after a trip to the Elbsandstein area, where people had been freeing routes for decades, Albert started climbing the routes of the Frankenjura without the use of gear for aid. When he freed a route, he painted a small red dot at the base, to let other’s know it was possible. Rotpunkt in German means simply “red point.” The name, catchy and with a colorful history, remains a staple of the climbing lexicon. For our purposes, the redpoint’s most important aspect is the process of working out the sections of a challenging climb — memorizing every crux, rest, and clipping stance — and then linking the sections into a whole, as a dancer executes a dance.

In life, there are few big challenges that don’t require a redpoint mentality. Alison Osius, Executive Editor at Rock & Ice, used a redpoint-like strategy when tackling her book, Second Ascent: the Story of Hugh Herr. “I really just focused on it chapter by chapter,” she said. “If someone ever asked me where I was in the process or how much more was left, I would say I couldn’t think that way. Or it would have been overwhelming. If the person would ask if I could say that I was halfway, I wouldn’t even touch that.” It’s how we must approach any project that, on its surface, is too big to swallow. The best way to eat an elephant, as the adage goes, is one bite at a time.

When a climber approaches the limit of his or her ability, the rehearsal period required for a redpoint grows longer. Martin Keller, for example, spent three years and over 100 days on a single boulder problem in Chironico, Switzerland. In a less extreme example, I worked Tuna Town, a long, pumpy route in the Red River Gorge, over the course of two seasons, failing, often miserably and near the end, dozens of times before succeeding. When I finally clipped the anchors for the send, the route felt easy and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why it took so long to happen. It is one of redpointing’s greatest wonders when a climb once so difficult comes to feel almost easy. Small holds feel bigger, big moves feel smaller, long sections climb themselves, scary clips lose their fangs… . In his blog post, Keller describes his feelings after sending his longstanding project as “something you can’t buy anywhere and there is no number to express it.”

There are few things more satisfying than a long-worked-for redpoint. You feel like you’ve done the impossible, almost like you’ve become someone else entirely — the type of person who can do a climb that difficult, or, thinking more broadly,  get into a school that good, or get that job, or what have you. When I climbed my first V10, Squeenos, in the Gunks, my friend Jason swatted me on the shoulder and exclaimed, “You did it, man! Today, you are that strong!” But I only made it there through a long and frustrating process of getting to know the problem — how much pressure to exert on each rough little crimp, which way to turn my hips, where to drag my toe for extra friction… . There were days when I couldn’t do two moves in a row on Squeenos, days when I couldn’t do the crux moves, and days when I couldn’t even get my ass up off the ground. I had to remain open to failure, unsure of success, and willing to keep trying. Working towards such seemingly distant goals can feel, as Keller describes it, like an act of hubris, but I can think of no other way to achieve anything worthwhile. It’s what we do when we care. But first we have to admit we care, and then we have to do the work.

It’s a simple (and as complex) as that.