Journey to…Climbing Slightly Harder

January is coming up, with it’s resolutions and hangovers and promises of fun-austerity measures. Looking back to the blog a year ago, January was when James and I got down to the nitty-gritty of training for our trip to the Bugaboos. After that success and the following four months of general sloth it’s time to get back down to business.

A training plan needs a solid goal. Looking forward to the next year I decided to forgo another big alpine trip for a couple of reasons.

a) I wanted a goal that was closer to home

b) The alpine routes that really caught my attention out West are hard as balls

I know that to climb the ultra-classic alpine routes that are worth travelling for like the Becky-Chouinard on South Howser Rower in the Bugaboos I’d need to step my general climbing level up a few notches. The BC is 15 pitches of 5.10 (mostly 5.8 and 5.9) climbing that takes most parties a 2 days to climb. Looking at the Tower from the top of the West Ridge of Pidgeon I realized I could either have fun moderate 5th class outings in the mountains with my current skills, or put in some serious work.

My climbing level right now would be generously described as moderate. I’ve been at it for five years or so and have, up until recently, been content to excuse away my poor climbing performances because I was ‘just having fun, who cares how hard I climb?‘ Looking at inspirational routes like the BC finally made me care. It’s through this lens that I’m looking towards climbing objectives for 2016.

Goal setting starts with a self-assessment to see what is possible within a given time frame. A route like the Becky is likely several years away for me, skill wise, so I feel it’s appropriate to set a number of intermediary goals, starting with a general goal of ‘climb better.’

There’s a few different ways one could define climbing ‘better.’ It could mean climbing better at long multi-pitch routes, but there are so many variables within a long multi-pitch that it’s a poor objective goal. It is easier to reduce the goal down further to a single pitch as a starting point.

In order to climb 5.10 alpine routes a climber would, at an absolute minimum, need to be able to climb one pitch of 5.10 trad. This is what you would call a ‘necessary but not sufficient’ criteria. Let’s start here for my self-assessment.

My utmost high-point of single pitch climbing performance so far has been climbing 5.10c on two separate occasions. The first was a few years ago in Kamouraska, Quebec, that I’m pretty sure I beta-busted by using my height to sneak off route for a few moves, and again two years ago in the Red River Gorge on a sport route in the Muir Valley. I’ve also successfully led a few 5.10 splitters in Indian Creek, but anyone who has climbed there knows that it’s basically sport climbing with trad gear. My best trad leads to date have all been in the 5.8 range.

10c in the Muir Valley, Red River Gorge
10c in the Muir Valley, Red River Gorge. Calves for days, son.

It’s obvious that I’m a ways away from calling myself a confident 5.10 trad leader. I would also say that it seems like my trad grade trails my sport grade by about a grade and a half. There would conceivably be two ways to get my trad grade to 5.10:

  1. Work progressively harder and harder trad lines, potentially risking my safety through pushing limits continually and wasting time by not working maximal strength.
  2. Work towards raising my sport grade to a level higher than my trad goal grade and then working to apply that strength to trad climbing

I’m not interested in holding max-limit holds while trying to fiddle in gear so option 1 is likely not the most efficient way to move my grades up. That leaves option 2, working to become a stronger sport climber so that I can then return to trad climbing with more absolute physical strength.

Now that we’ve started to distill a goal for 2016, it behooves us to concentrate it into a SMART goal. I use SMART goals all the time through my work as a business coach and trainer and think it provides an excellent framework for creating actionable goals. A SMART goal is a goal that is:

Specific – using objective and concrete language

Measurable – is quantifiable in some way

Attainable – stretches the limits but is still reasonable

Relevant – this is more of a meta-feature. It means that ALL activities are aligned with the overall goal

Time-bound – has a distinct time boundary for completion

Looking at this framework you can see that ‘climb harder’ is not a SMART goal. Neither would ‘climb 5.13R trad next week’ be a SMART goal. But how about this:

‘Climb three separate single-pitch sport routes of varying styles  graded at 5.11a on lead from the ground with no falls by Christmas, 2016.’

Specific – I’ve narrowed the style of climbing down to a specific level. Including the caveat of three separate climbs of different styles is a more of a guarantee that I’ve ‘achieved’ the grade. Otherwise I could cherry-pick a baby-soft 11a and double down on training for that exact climb. This wouldn’t be an accomplishment that is true to the intended goal.

Measurable – 5.11a. I either clip the chains or I don’t, that’s as measurable as you can get.

Attainable – this is debatable. I’m saying I’m going to go from a 10b climber to 11a in a year, that’s almost a full number grade. However, I don’t think setting a goal at 10c/d is as motivating, and even if I fail at 11a I’ll likely accomplish those goals anyway.

Relevant – again, this is more of a meta-goal and comes up in the planning stage. It will likely manifest as not spending time during the training or performance periods trad climbing or bouldering. Having a lazer-like focus will be key.

Time-bound – Christmas 2016. Our climbing season here runs into December (it will be 10 degrees C here next weekend, December 12-13) so this is a realistic window of time and will run into our best climbing temps. It will also let me run at least two complete training cycles in that time (I’ll address this later).

The last step is to identify specific goal routes. This will provide focus when getting to the end of the training cycle. It will also help with specificity of training. If my goal routes are crimpy balance routes then I’ll need to train for that. If’ the route is an overhung endurance test then I’ll need to train for those specific skills.

I’ll select a small list of potential goal routes around a few criteria: either a local climb that looks fun and is accessible or as a destination to build a climbing trip around. The local climbs will be easy to select as there are actually very few 5.11a sport routes in Nova Scotia to choose from, and most tend to be crimpy and technical.

I’ve decided to plan a return trip to Kentucky to climb at the Red River Gorge in April. I’m familiar with the climbing style and will be able to create a specialized training plan. As much as I enjoy going to entirely new places on climbing trips, the RRG is awesome and I had a great time there. Some of my usual climbing partners are also excited to go there, which certainly helps make the choice easier. The style of climbing there is a nice contrast to our local style and will be a solid challenge to train for effectively. There is also an abundance of 5.11a’s to choose from.

I’ll leave the third route undecided until midway through 2016. Depending on my progress and time availability I may try to do a fall trip somewhere or select another local route.

I’m going to spend December and January writing posts about each facet of my plan for 2016 to help me design a program that works. I’ll be using ‘The Rock Climbers Training Manual’ as a base for the program. The book is fantastic (review coming soon). It’s essentially a rock climbing version of Training for the New Alpinism so fits the blog nicely. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks for more detailed posts.



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