Sunday, November 21, 2010

Plastic Season

Posted by Ken Turley

After mild fall weather that's allowed us to climb outside well into November, it looks like winter has finally arrived in western Montana. For many of my climbing friends, this signals the time to retrieve the skis from garage rafters, dig out crampons and ice tools, or dust off the hockey stick and put rock climbing on hold for a while. For others like me, the cold spells a shift in focus away from natural rock toward serious training, and that means changing modes, coming indoors and embracing artificial holds.

Gym climbing can certainly be an acquired taste. Those whose main enjoyment centers on movement over natural lines in pristine settings can seldom even stomach it. A friend of mine used to say climbing in the gym was like having sex with a plastic doll (a remark that later turned into the route name "Plastic Doll" given to the little 2-bolt diversion on Mulkey's Domino block).

For me, the key has always been to remember one basic thing: It's a gym! In the same way you use weights to strengthen your quads for skiing, or endure spinning sessions to improve your weekend trail runs, gym climbing benefits your performance outside. Climbing on plastic may be truck stop coffee to burr-ground, french-pressed, shade-grown brew, but if you gotta have your fix, then you make the most of what's available.

I approach boulder problems and routes in the gym as a related, but distinct activity. It's certainly not as divorced from climbing movement as, say, weight training, but it still differs from the techniques and skills required of natural rock. For example, I can usually onsight 5.11c outside, but an 11c gym route will take me 2 or 3 sessions before I can climb it without hangs. By reminding myself that it's a gym 11c, I avoid the frustration I used to feel by not performing at the same level inside as out. Working mid-11s is my current standard in the gym. Onsighting mid-11s is my current standard on rock.

Climbing-specific indoor training is not just about routes or boulder problems, but also includes hangboards, campus boards and other complementary devices. There is no shortage of examples of the gains that can be made pursuing a combination of these off-season activities. As is well known, Wolfgang Gullich invented the now-ubiquitous campus board as a means of training specifically for what would be the world's first 9a (5.14d) Action Directe, a notoriously powerful climb that's only seen 13 repeats in the 19 years since Gullich established it. If you want to get psyched to train this winter for your own project, watch Obsession featuring UK climber Rich Simpson as he works toward Action Directe's 6th ascent (5th repeat) in October, 2005.

Before Action Directe, Ben Moon's climb Hubble was the world's hardest at 8c+ (5.14c). Scottish climber Malcolm Smith entered the spotlight when, at age 18, he got the second ascent. What's more remarkable is how Smith trained for the climb. Jerry Moffatt, in his autobiography Revelations, reports that Smith built a small training wall in his bedroom with a replica of Hubble's moves. At that time, the hardest route Smith had climbed was 7c+ (5.13a). Writes Moffatt,
Over one winter he trained hard on his board. After [that] he came to Raven Tor and redpointed Hubble. It was an incredible achievement, going from 7c+ to 8c+ over a winter.

The highly-recommended short Splinter will gave you a taste of what Malcolm Smith is about. Smith also talks in greater detail about training on a small board here.

More recently, Dave MacLeod, also Scottish, has become well-known for his first ascents of bold trad climbs such as Rhapsody, To Hell and Back, and Echo Wall. Each features runout 5.14 climbing above sparse gear where a fall has dire consequences. With his penchant for non-bolted climbs located in mountain settings or on remote sea cliffs, one might assume MacLeod is a traditional purist who avoids climbing on plastic. But as can be seen in his Online Climbing Coach blog, personal blog, and book Nine out of Ten Climbers Make the Same Mistake, he is one of the most studied and analytical climbers of current times and in fact dedicates many hours to serious indoor sessions. MacLeod's training equipment has often been at the very extreme of simplicity. Much of his conditioning for Rhapsody was done on a single campus board rung attached above a doorframe in his apartment as shown in this video excerpt from the film E11. He has since switched to a home wall located close to Scotland's Ben Nevis. But as the following video shows, it's still only a guest room's worth in size.

To see the kind of sport climbing power and endurance a wall like that can build, have a look at MacLeod firing the second ascent of a horizontal 8c (5.14b) roof in Spain.

The inspiration I draw from climbers like Smith and MacLeod is the way they propelled themselves to the top of the sport by making do with whatever was available. If a single 1x2 finger board in an apartment, or a bedroom replica of the crux of the world's hardest climb was enough for them, then my own basement woody and hangboard, not to mention access to an entire university climbing gym, should certainly allow me to achieve much more modest gains.

Despite the plentiful evidence of its benefits, there still seems a reluctance among U.S. climbers to engage in sport-specific training. Chris Sharma has famously said that he doesn't train, he just climbs. This echoes a tradition in the culture of American climbing. During the 70s and 80s climbers who formally trained and practiced aside from doing pullups were looked upon with suspicion. Tony Yaniro, whose approach to climbing was well ahead of its time, was criticized for preparing too seriously for many of his groundbreaking ascents such as Lake Tahoe's Grand Illusion (5.13b), which, in 1979, was reportedly the world's hardest climb.

But times may be changing for American climbers. Pro athletes like Paul Robinson and Jon Siegrist, both in their early 20s, show evidence of a new trend. Robinson, who is one of the world's strongest boulderers, gives one example of gaining considerable fitness while recovering from a broken ankle by working out on a single hangboard in his parent's garage. Robinson's workout eventually appeared in Rock and Ice No. 178 Strength issue under the heading 10-Minute Hangboard Routine.

Siegrist, who emerged full-on into the national scene about a year ago, has been quickly dispatching our country's hardest sport climbs. Siegrist warms up by onsighting routes that are my dream projects, like Smith's Darkness at Noon. In his Sept. 12th blog entry announcing that he'd done his first 5.14d, Tommy Caldwell's Kryptonite, Siegrist says,

A number of years ago, while training for my first 13d, I built a campus board in my parents' garage. I dragged an old cushion from a patio chair underneath my feet and I cranked laps on those dusty Metolius rungs til my fingers gave up. On that campus board I inscribed '9a or bust' and dreamt of one day achieving such an astonishing difficulty.

Of course, it isn't necessary to look only at pro climbers for examples of climbers who take training seriously. It's no coincidence that our top local climbers devote time to indoor workouts. I've seen Scotty in the UM gym climbing non-stop roped endurance laps. Kyle routinely works and sends every single problem in the bouldering cave. And Levi just posted this summary of his training since the weather turned, in which he writes, "Lots of pulling on the woody [and] lifting weights, 5 days a week, like a job."

Examples are everywhere of the gains we can achieve by dedicating ourselves to a season of indoor training. For any of us who want to push toward our limits and reach new levels of performance, there should be no shortage of motivation to get after it during the dark, cold months of winter. Here are the goals I'll be working on over the next few months:
  • Increase my max pullup count to 20.
  • Boulder V5 in the UM cave.
  • Climb Gym 5.12 routes in 2 to 3 sessions.
  • Do the hard 4x4 on my own wall.
  • Narrow the gap between my outside and inside performance.

Personally, these goals are as significant as any I've set for outside climbing. They'll also be every bit as rewarding to achieve. I can't imagine being bored or lacking the enthusiasm to pursue them just because the setting isn't on natural rock. In fact, I'm super psyched to get started. It'll be a tall order to reach them all by spring. I'd better hope for a long winter.