Book Review: 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes by Dave MacLeod

Continuing on my promise of having a man crush on Dave McLeod this year, I just finished reading his book ‘9 out of 10’ and wanted to give it a quick review along with some reflections on the content from some recent experiences I’ve had. One of our loyal readers, Jason K…..or wait, that’s too obvious…let’s call him J. Kenney, was kind enough to mail me his copy of the book (along with a delicious house warming present) all the way from Vancouver, British Columbia.

The book, at around 150 pages, is much more approachable than Make or Break. I read it in two quick chunks across two days. I also expect to go back and read parts of it again before I return it to its rightful owner. It’s main premise is that a typical climber is already strong enough to achieve their immediate climbing goals and are held back not by strength but by lack of skill, experience and mental fortitude. Basically, we all suck and it’s not because we’re not strong enough. It’s because we’re not good enough.

I think we can all find personal anecdotes for this idea. One of our formerly local climbing partners climbs hard 11 sport and onsights 5.10 trad. She also can’t do a single pullup and boulders about V1. Weird, right? Strength isn’t her strong suit but she still climbs harder on lead than probably 80-90% of the climbers in the Halifax region and I think it’s for three reasons.

  • Her technique is solid.
  • She. Does. Not. Give. A. Fuck. about falling while leading trad or sport (or at least that’s what it seems like)
  • She learned to climb in Britain (see point two)

She works routes on lead, routinely takes whips onto bolts or gear and subsequently gets to the top of a lot of routes around NS that worked over supposedly ‘stronger’ climbers.

I think this illustrates one of the major sections of 9 out of 10. MacLeod says that many, many climbers are held back from improvement because they’re scared of falling on lead and of failing in general. It can be hard to push yourself when you’re leading because our brains aren’t wired to let us fall and I think MacLeod is correct in that this holds a lot of people back. This comes in two forms:

  • fear of falling leading to not trying moves and yelling ‘TAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAKE’ way too often
  • fear of falling leading to poor technique and sub-optimal performance, which leads to more pump, more fear, worse technique, etc. etc. and pretty soon you’re yelling TAAAAAAAAAAKKKKKKKKKKKEEEEEEEEEEE again with the bolt at your waist

This, for me, is completely true. As much as I like to think that I’m ok with taking big falls its historically been more a function of my lack of skill. When you suck you tend to fall a lot. After reading the book and looking back on some recent climbing outings, however, I realized that my technique on lead suffers quite badly from the second version of fear-induced performance issues.

The first was from two weeks ago. We were out climbing ice and I had the opportunity to do my first lead of the season. Up to that point I’d been out ice climbing on TR three times and was feeling really good about my technique, pump management, etc so wasn’t at all worried about the pitch of probably 8 meters or less of thin, slabby ice. Then I started climbing. By the time I stopped to place my first screw my technique had totally fallen apart. I was scared to bring my hips in (what if my feet cut out, the ice was really thin?!) and wasn’t pulling confidently on my tools. By the second screw I was starting to get pumped out (I’m likely 5m off the ground at this point). At the top, before my final screw, I wanted nothing more than to come down but I was stuck up there and had to force myself to hold it together to top out. By then my pulse was racing from fear as I slung an anchor around the tree. Of course, when I repeated the line on TR later in the day it was the easiest thing in the world. It was the fear of falling that made me more likely to fall, which of course is the ultimate no-no when you’re leading ice.

The next example came last weekend while we were climbing in a local gym in Truro. This gym is a fun alternative because it’s the tallest in the province and has 8-10 lead routes. I had just finished 9 out of 10 and was committed to taking more falls to build my head up in advance of my trip to Kentucky in April. Even though the wall is grid bolted with no run-outs, the first fall was still a bit hard on the head. The next one was easier, mostly because it was later in the session and I got pumped to the point where I couldn’t clip so I didn’t have a choice. Regardless, reflecting on 9 out of 10 made me aware of how not ok I am with falling, and how fear can negatively impact my technique to the point where I’m operating well below my technical performance capabilities. To deal with this I’m going to be taking a weekly trip to this gym leading up to Kentucky with the goal of taking as many falls as possible to help clear that mental block out.

The second major takeaway for me from 9 out of 10 is that moving dynamically, rather than statically, helps me make moves that I never would have thought possible. This is likely another component of fear-induced performance reduction. I tend to climb very statically. If I couldn’t lock off and move to the next hold I wasn’t going to try for it, because what would happen if I missed the dynamic move? Not too much, as it turns out. I’ve been building dynamic movement into my A.R.C. sessions and have noticed that my movement is feeling much more natural and athletic. I’m also starting to realize that I can make much larger reaches than I previously thought possible. I’m fairly tall for a climber (somewhere between 6’2″ and 6’3″) but I don’t think I’ve made great use of my height until now, because making those big reaches meant moving dynamically, stretching out and grabbing small holds that I may or may not fall off of. It turns out that I’m able to hold more than I expected and that falling after a dynamic move isn’t the end of the world.

Lastly, MacLeod’s approach to improvement encourages working on very weak areas rather than eeking out minor improvements in areas you’re already strong. This means finding the routes or problems you hate and working them into submission. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that I say some mean things about bouldering, but that’s just because I’m terrible at it, so I don’t do it, so I stay terrible. Focusing a bit more on bouldering would likely see me improve quick a bit faster, which should carry over to my sport climbing.

All in all I think it’s possible that 9 out of 10 is going to have a bigger impact on my technique and approach to climbing than anything else I’ve read up to this point. I think every climber owes it to themselves to give this book a read and think truthfully about how they’re potentially holding themselves back.


P.S. I’m super annoyed that the title uses ‘9 out of 10’ instead of ‘Nine out of Ten.’ There’s no way that’s grammatically correct?

The truth hurts because it’s true.

BUY: 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes

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