Quiz: What Kind of Climbing is Right For You?

Three climber types - a woman carrying bouldering pads, a man on top of a mountain, and a main with a big trad climbing rack
(See below for image credits)

Tommy Caldwell came out to Ventura the other day to present and screen the movie A Line Across the Sky. If you haven’t seen it, A.L.A.S. is pretty much a home movie shot with a point-and-shoot by two of the world’s most accomplished rock climbers and then professionally edited into a bromance that happens to take place against the backdrop of the world’s most impressive alpine enchainment.

In the movie, Caldwell and his partner Alex Honnold (a master of stone but, we learn, an alpine gumby), traverse the ragged skyline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks in the monumental, weather-wracked wilds of Patagonia. Despite legendary prowess in the vertical realm, the duo is pushed into uncomfortable territory more than once, as when Caldwell must lead the half-frozen upper face of Fitz Roy with one ice tool in the dark, leaving Honnold, who is wearing approach shoes with ill-fitting, borrowed crampons, to follow.

At work the next day, my friend asked me how I liked the movie. I explained that my attention was riveted to the screen throughout, which doesn’t often happen with climbing movies these days. Then he asked me if I’d done much alpine climbing. No, I explained, the suffering and danger quotient had always been too high for my taste. Complex body movement, a peaceful communion with nature, and the social aspects of climbing have long been my prime motivators; as such, I tend to prefer sport to trad and bouldering to big wall.

As we talked, I realized how bright the line has been for me: key elements of alpine climbing like complex logistics, prolonged period of extreme physical discomfort, and numerous objective hazards, hold no appeal. But to my fiends who excel in the mountains these are part of the attraction.

I find it fascinating the distance between one type of climber from the next: alpinists and gym climbers, low-angle traddies and red-point obsessed sportos—at times, it can feel like we’re different species. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to use the label “climber” to say anything valuable, or to explain what’s so great about climbing. After all, the answer is different from group to group and person to person. Rare is the true “all-arounder” who relishes all types of climbing at once, perhaps because each style has certain core elements that cut across a few sub-disciplines, but rarely all.

As I pondered such frivolities, I drew in my notebook a little matrix of climbing styles and their particular attractions. Then I went ahead and put together a “handy” online quiz to help identify the types of climbing that best suit your particular tastes. I have no idea if it will work for you. Give it a try and let me know…

TAKE THE QUIZ

 

––––

Image credits (left to right): Kasia Pietras with maximum paddage, photo by Terry Paholek. By Tom Murphy VII (taken by uploader (user:brighterorange)) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. By Garrett Madison (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Just This Move

The Billboard crag
The Billboard, American Fork Canyon.

I had been working a route up at a limestone crag called the Billboard, in American Fork Canyon, about thirty miles south of Salt Lake City. Beeline, the route is called, an old Boone Speed classic that feels pumpier than its eighty-foot height on account of the meandering course it charts through rasping pockets and slots. Slightly overhung with mostly positive holds, an endurance climber might call it soft. But for a convenience boulderer like me, trained on forty-five minute lunch sessions in the gym and weekend projects of eight moves or fewer, it might as well have been El Capitan.

A few weeks ago, I reached a tricky section less than half way up Beeline and asked my belayer to take. I didn’t have an ounce of extra juice to get me through the uncertain sequence. I decided I would have to pick apart the most efficient way to do each move, so that I could eventually race from bottom to top without thinking. If I didn’t make any mistakes, I reasoned, I’d have just enough gas for the trip to the anchors. I dangled from the rope and scrutinized each possible foot hold (there were a lot) and rehearsed the section of climbing until it felt pretty good. Then I climbed on, falling several more times along the way.

My next two attempts were only marginally better. It was hard not to compare myself with my self of eight or nine years earlier, when I warmed up on routes not much easier than this one—it’s a tricky mental trap. At the same time, it was because of past events that I had some strange faith that I could do the climb next try, if only I came at it from the right angle. But what was the angle?

Seven days later, my partner and I returned to the Billboard and warmed up on two of the only quality moderate lines there. It wasn’t long before I stood below Beeline again, wondering if I could beat my highpoint from last time.

I quickly passed through the familiar opening section of the route and through a low crux. At the first good rest hold, I was only a little pumped, but because I had done well up to that point, anxious words began to spin around and around in my head. “Don’t blow it now. You don’t want to have to do this thing again.” Tension locked my muscles, made my breathing shallow and rapid. “You should have done it by now. Don’t mess up this time…”

I was caught in the cycle of worry, but I worked to stop it. “You have nothing in the world to do but this next move,” came the counter to the nervous voice. I started to relax again. With deep breaths, the pumped feeling receded. As I moved on the tension crept back, but I returned to my mantra: “Just this move… Just this move…”

I had to extinguish the sparks of anxiety repeatedly along the route. As I neared the top, I was surprised to find I had energy left. The final redpoint crux, for the first time, felt like no big deal. I pulled through to the anchors, sat back, and called for my belayer to lower me, a little surprised at how the climb had gone.

I knew the route well enough, but hadn’t memorized it move for move. Nor had I gained any significant amount of endurance since the previous week’s session. All I had really done was not fight myself.

You’ve probably heard the saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or the one about the best way to eat an elephant (one bite at a time). Like many adages, they fall on our ears as platitudes until, often all at once, we grok their inner meaning.

A route is composed entirely of individual movements, a life of individual moments, and we really can only deal with each as it comes. It’s so obvious, yet it’s not so simple to climb or to live that way; a constant remembering is required.

The Art of (Almost) Letting Go

nick_overgripping

Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. … This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.
– Tao Te Ching

Over-gripping, in climbing parlance, means you’re expending more energy than actually needed to hold on. Usually out of fear, the climber clutches the rock with undue force, becoming tense and and burning through her strength reserves.

Despite a surfeit of effort, over-gripping makes the climber less likely to succeed. It is a case of energy misdirected.

Common wisdom has it that if you want something badly enough, if you push hard enough, you will achieve your goals in life, whatever they may be. It’s all about maximum effort, even force. I won’t dispute the importance of motivation and perseverance, but when our energy is not being directly wisely, we’re likely to run into problems. The over-gripping — or “gripped” — climber works against herself and against the very motion that will bring her most efficiently to the next hold.

“Sport climbing is the art of almost letting go,” I heard someone say once. I thought it was original sport climbing hardman Steve Hong, but when I emailed him about it, he said the phrase didn’t ring a bell. Still, he didn’t dispute the idea that applying right effort — not too little or too much — is pretty important. “When you have to do 40 moves, you have to portion it out just right. Or else,” he said in his reply. It’s how you save energy for the end crux, or the sequence you bungle and have to down-climb. Plus, climbing efficiently is good style and good fun.

A big step to holding more lightly is to overcome your fear. To move more fluidly, you can’t just change your mindset; you have to rewire the connection between your mind and your body through practice. Here are a few ways to start that process:

  • Climb more. The more time you spend up there, the less freaky exposure becomes and the more sense the safety systems will make. If you’re a normal human, you won’t banish fear altogether, but you will learn to manage it and move smoothly despite it.
  • Climb with partners you know and trust. Nuff said.
  • Run through your safety checklist prior to leaving the ground (biner locked, rope end knotted, harness tightened, knot finished, etc.).
  • Take stock of your situation before and during a climb. ID bad fall zones, the condition of fixed gear, and any other possible objective hazards, like loose rock or a hornets’ nest. Act accordingly. The goal here is to minimize surprises and avoid trouble before it starts.
  • Breathe steadily and consistently throughout the climb. When you’re tense and your core is locked, you can’t breathe smoothly. Breathing will not only help you maintain a sense of control, but it will force you loosen up.
  • Practice taking falls to relieve the tension of “What will happen if I fall here?!” (From a relatively safe position, of course! I say “relatively” because where gravity is concerned, safety is a relative term.)
  • Explore the art of almost letting go by finding a rest on your climb and then holding on more and more gently until you relax yourself right off the hold. You might be surprised how much less you can grip and still hold on. (Let your belayer know you plan to attempt this.)

One can also over-grip when it comes to goals, desires, worries, and the like. Like the physical version, mental over-gripping wastes large amounts of energy without offering any value in return. There’s a Zen story about two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, traveling on a road in the rain. They meet a girl in a silk kimono, unable to cross the muddy intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

All day long, Ekido clung to his anxiety. For Tanzan, there was no problem. He acted according to his instinct and moved on. What good was Ekido’s worry? From what I can tell, most of us carry such burdens in our minds. We play out fictitious scenarios behind our eyes, imagine consequences and tactics for dealing with our many “problems.” But, often, it’s not until we loosen our grip that we find solutions — or realize there were no real problems to start with, only interesting challenges. The next move flows naturally from a more supple position.

On a climb, the line can be fine between over-gripping and not holding tightly enough, but most of us err on the side of over-gripping because it feels safer. While we might feel safe momentarily, we’re more likely to get tunnel vision, miss good opportunities, or run out of gas at a bad time — just when we need make that next clip, for example. Learning to apply just the effort needed is a process. As we become more familiar with the ideal balance, climbing grows to feel less like a battle — with gravity, with the rock, with ourselves — and more flowing, like water over stone.