One year ago (Sept. 2020) I bought my first pair of climbing shoes. My cardinal goal was simple – 5.11 by day 365. By month 11 the chains were clipped, and along the way I learned many lessons. From sport to trad, alpine faces to lowland boulders, I pushed my limits. This article is a distillation of my first year climbing experience – the article I wish I read as a budding and infinitely inspired young climber.
September 2020 I bought my first pair of climbing shoes. I had never climbed before then, and certainly never seen the inside of a climbing gym. By summer I was traditionally a long distance runner and “didn’t have time for another money sucking sport.” By winter I was a ski mountaineer stationed in the Tetons, so for the purpose of skiing I owned a harness, belay device, a few ropes and some ice tools – but actual rock climbing? Never once. Never even considered it. Nope.
After a severe ankle injury that suspended my summer of trail racing I started tagging along on crag days with ski buddies, top-roping the polished limestone of Darby Canyon in approach shoes. One blown foot and a big whipper on my first lead attempt took me to the local climbing store for a pair of proper rock shoes. Within weeks, cams, nuts and slings started creeping through the door. Many evenings were spent practicing knots, salivating over climbing movies and sifting through the endless matrices of Mountain Project, with even more time spent swinging around the local canyon cliffs by headlamp. If you are reading this article you probably know where this story is headed. I caught the proverbial “rock bug” – and boy did I catch it good.
Within two months I was standing atop my first “alpine trad” lead, the East Ridge of Disappointment Peak, a five pitch 5.7 ramble at 11,000 feet in Grand Teton National Park. The three month mark brought my first 5.10 on-sight, The Guyver (5.10b) in Sinks Canyon. By winter, training for climbing became a full-time ordeal and most weekends were spent commuting from the powder filled lands of Teton Valley to the sunny limestone of Lander, Wyoming. By March 5.10’s were falling with ease, and my hardest on-sight to date was achieved on Iron Dome (5.10d). Somewhere around this point, I realized I might just be able to climb 5.11 before my one year climbing anniversary. With my north star calibrated I grinded and grinded to the eleven month milestone until finally clipping the chains on Cowboy’s Don’t Shoot Straight, a classic and solid 5.11a at the ever beautiful Wild Iris.
Reflecting on my first 365 days of rock climbing, I identified the five main principles that drove my success in both sport, traditional and alpine climbing. Along the way I spent far too much time in the weeds, using training protocols that only brought me closer to injury, needlessly torching my virgin muscles and more or less, spinning my wheels. Here before you is the article I wish I had read when I first picked up a pair of rock shoes.
#1 – Go Outside
Most climbers in the 21st century begin climbing in a gym. While climbing gyms are certainly phenomenal training tools, they do little for the mental aspect of outdoor climbing which many experts laud as the most important aspect of climbing success. Climbing in a gym is similar to using a treadmill for trail training. The mechanical track will build strength and endurance, but does little to prepare the body for the terrain differences and infinite nuances of running in mother nature, both mentally and physically. Plastic climbing holds and varying wall steepness in gyms attempt to mimic real rock but inevitably fall short. I experienced the sobering reality of climbing gym limitations on my first outdoor bouldering trip to Bishop, California in March 2021.
After weeks of mid-winter indoor training, rifling through a few different professional boulder-specific strength protocols, I was excited to try my hand at outdoor bouldering. In my local gym I routinely climbed V4 and projected up to V6, so I set the trip goal of climbing V4. After all, I had three whole weeks – should be easy, right? On my first sunny California afternoon I realized just how audacious my aspirations were. Granted, most of the boulders in the Buttermilks are gigantic. V0 becomes a whole new grade when you’re staring down a thirty foot ground-fall. Exposure aside, natural boulders are infinitely harder to “read” than colored climbing holds, which reveal nearly all the “beta” in a matter of seconds. In popular areas like Bishop, key holds are often polished from heavy use. While crash-pads are a hell of a lot softer than dirt, they are nothing to the endless floor of thick gymnastics pads at the gym. Without a spotter or multiple pads, it’s very easy to look down and realize your patch of foam is providing little more than emotional support, a postage stamp in a vast field of cold hard earth. Stick the jug or else!
Granted, there are many things a climber could do to remedy the above – climb with friends, on small boulders, etc. However, my story boldly illustrates the limiting differences between gyms and real rock. Most beginners opt to climb mostly indoors, only lead climb indoors – you get the point. Comfort is addictive. Climbing gyms are comfortable. Outdoor climbing is uncomfortable. By climbing outdoors you expose yourself to the realities of natural rock. Bolts aren’t always spaced perfectly. The next move isn’t always clear. The second clip might be insecure and offers ground-fall potential. The wind is blowing, a cold-front moved in or the wall is absolutely baking in the sun. The crux foothold is polished smooth and infinitely slippery forcing you to smear instead. Trad climbing? The list of natural variables extends ad infinitum. By climbing outdoors you learn to adapt in the moment, manage difficult and potentially dangerous situations and persevere through the unexpected, invaluable skills that a gym simply cannot provide.
#2 – Climb on Lead
Many beginners are terrified of lead climbing. Don’t get me wrong, “top-roping” is a wonderful way to warm up, train endurance and project sport climbs above your on-sight limit. Just like gyms in the above paragraph, climbing on a top-rope removes the mental battle of lead climbing by eliminating virtually all danger. We’ve already discussed the problems with “bubble wrapped” climbing and the importance of developing mental fortitude for the moments when climbing inevitably becomes dangerous. Too often climbers develop 5.11 strength at the hands of endless gym and top-rope sessions, only to take the “sharp-end” reigns on a wandering 5.7 and find themselves over-gripping jugs, shaking like a baby deer a mere two feet above the last bolt, clipping from illogical stances that waste energy or completely blowing simple beta to desperately lunge for the next blatantly chalked jug with a paper dry mouth and a head pumped full of anxiety. Learning to lead early on allows your mind to progress in line with your physical capabilities, keeping the scales properly aligned.
Lead climbing also allows you to develop an arsenal of climbing techniques that are actually practical for game day. Almost every time I tie into a top-rope I mindlessly make an impractical or insecure movement I would never have made on the sharp end. I am also far more likely to concede to the crux move, to let go before I truly give 100% to the rock, because I face no fall consequence for backing down. When leading the threat of a fall keeps me hungry, sharp and alert.
Lest I am projecting a climb above my limit, specifically training strength endurance (usually in a gym) or recovering from an injury, I will never tie into a top rope. Lead climbing develops the habits and skills, both mental and physical, necessary to excel in sport and trad climbing alike.
#3 – Use Your Feet
About 4-5 months into climbing I developed my first overuse injury. Albeit minor, I was beginning to experience the onset of tendonitis in my right forearm. Why? Just like most beginners, I had yet to learn the importance of footwork. I was progressing into the 5.10 realm, eager to send, and when the going got tough I reached for the stars.
Over-reaching is a well known ailment for newborn climbers. We get stuck and immediately look for the life-saving jug. How often has our experienced climbing partner barked “use your feet” as we grope around around the face with sweaty palms, grasping at thin holds and moving ever closer to an inevitably fatal pump? Far too often. For myself, the antidote to over-reaching was two-part – buying proper fitting shoes and consciously retraining my mind to climb feet first, hands second.
For shoes – no need to go ballerina tight, but often newcomers buy a floppy leather slipper that stretches over time and becomes useless beyond the glory days of 5.7 jug hauling. Save these boots for long and easy trad days and head to your local climbing shop for a more aggressive pair. When I bought my first pair of properly snug La Sportiva Muira VS’s, my world flipped on a dime. The matchsticks I used to scoff at became viable edges, mono-pockets became the high-foot needed to get me through the slabby crux and even nearly vertical rock, so long as it was textured, became an opportunity for smearing my way to success. My paradigm flipped – I couldn’t believe what I could actually stand on, and a whole new realm of climbing opened to me. The best practice I’ve found for learning good footwork goes as follows: Find an easy to moderately challenging route well-below your grade, preferably less than vertical. As you climb, ignore the obvious large footholds and instead focus on using small holds, smears, edges and tiny-pockets. Imagine the route as 5.8 only for your hands, and challenge yourself to use only 5.10 footholds. The same process can be reversed for learning to use more advanced handholds like crimps, gastons and palm-presses. In this exercise you can redefine your tolerance for thin features before taking up your next project. Not only will you develop better technicall skills, but your mind will be quicker at spotting useful beta in sections that once appeared “blank.”
Lastly, drill the moniker “climb with your feet” into your brain. Nowadays, when I reach the crux of a difficult route and the next handhold is out of reach, I immediately look down. Sometimes that little granite french-fry hiding at knee level is the only thing preventing me from reaching the next jug. Feet first – hands second – away we go!
#4 – Travel as Much as Possible
Unless you are one of the lucky few to live in a diverse climbing mecca like Lander, Wyoming or Bishop, California, where all realms of climbing and rock types are at your fingertips, it’s likely you’re limited to only one type of rock, practicing only one style of climbing that requires a particular range of movements and skills. I am lucky enough to live in the Tetons where the realms of alpine, trad, sport and bouldering are all available, as well as limestone, sandstone, basalt and most prevailingly, granite. However, even a home as sweet as mine has it’s limitations. The sport climbing here is sparse, especially for the lighter grades, and the bouldering is even more primitive. I learned to climb in the ruthless world of granite trad, plugging cams and slotting nuts out of necessity – for without my rack there was only a handful of routes below the 5.10 grade within 100 miles. While this tough upbringing did wonders for developing my head game, questing up multi-pitch old-school gear routes was far from an ideal way to develop strength and technique. Most of my time was spent relatively gripped and trying to survive the afternoon, sans style and grace. So when I found myself in Sinks Canyon for the first time, spending an entire weekend sport climbing on vertical limestone, I couldn’t believe just how weak I really was. I could hardly cut a carrot by the time the day was done!
Over the next six months I traveled to climb as much as possible. In each new place I developed a new skill set. When I returned to the home turf I only climbed better. In the limestone lands of Wild Iris and Sinks Canyon I learned face climbing techniques, how to climb steep walls, edge on slippery footholds and overall gained tremendous strength. In Bishop I learned to weight granite crystals and truly trust my feet to a whole new degree, as the unforgivingly giant boulders of the Buttermilks have a keen way of missing jugs just when you need them most, especially on scary top-outs. In the remote and wild San Rafael Swell I learned the cruel definition of “R” rated trad routes, how to calm my nerves and execute when my last piece of protection looms thirty feet below me, half-tipped out, on a seventy degree sandstone slab. On the brutally overhanging basalt cliffs and boulders of the Snake River Canyon I met my true climbing-style kryptonite, and learned the best antidote to a drawing pump is often moving faster at the expense of security. Lapping classic trad routes at the City of Rocks exposed just how garbage my crack climbing technique really was and taught me to plug gear at my absolute limit. Lastly, questing around the Teton alpine schooled me in all the intangibles of adventure climbing, anticipating terrain hazards, rope management, efficient movement, building unconventional anchors, reading maps and cryptic rock, simul-climbing, ice-climbing, mixed climbing, winter climbing, when to forgo the rope, when to deploy the rope and most importantly, what to do when luck turns sour, among many others. Simply put, the more I traveled to climb the stronger a climber I became.
What do you do when it starts snowing or raining unexpectedly, when the class five chimney you’re soloing turns to ice, when you run out of rope before the belay, when the rope gets jammed on rappel, when the sun sets on the crux pitch, when you hit your rappel knots ten feet before the next ledge or better yet, when the party next to you hits their knots, dangling twenty feet above a talus field? All of these things happened to me in the last year, and all of them taught me valuable lessons that will only make me a better climber. If you stay confined to the sport climbing and bouldering universe this lattermost paragraph will apply less, but ask any seasoned trad climber and they will tell you my experiences are commonplace. Doing homework ahead of time, in the field, books and internet, will work wonders in keeping you alive in your budding trad days, but trying to avoid the dangers is of little use. Dark times will come, and learning to manage them with a collected demeanor is crucial to alpine safety. Competency boosts confidence. Confidence breeds better climbers.
#5 – Don’t Limit Yourself
I was blown away by all the self-limiting beliefs and recommendations, both on the internet and in books, I came across in introductory rock climbing material. “Don’t trad climb for two years” – “Don’t climb outside for a year” – “Learn to lead climb in a gym” – “Don’t trad climb anywhere close to your limit” – “Don’t hang-board for two years” All the above are highly subjective and arbitrary, mostly designed to keep beginners from getting hurt. In my opinion they also impose a fear of real climbing and once again reinforce an artificial idea that rock climbing can be completely safe. I am not encouraging recklessness, however, with enough devotion to learning and a healthy respect for the real dangers of vertical pursuit, all of these misplaced notions can be transcended.
Many new climbers have no interest in trad climbing, hard sport climbing or even climbing outdoors. For some, climbing is a simply a social activity. If progressing and climbing harder is of no interest to you, than this entire article is of little use – top-rope your heart away. However, if your anything like me and have fallen victim to the rock bug, don’t succumb to the limiting beliefs of others. As long as you’re able to swim (know and have practiced the safety systems), throw yourself in the deep end. Hang-boarding is threatening for virgin tendons, but the use of a chair underfoot can lessen the loads on your fingers. Trad climbing, building anchors, placing protection and managing hazards is largely a lesson in physics and has nothing to do with climbing ability – dangerous in the hands of the ill-informed but safe when practiced in the right environment. Lead sport climbing outdoors, so long as the right route is chosen, should be no more perilous than climbing indoors and will teach you far more applicable skills.
Become a student of the craft. Challenge the status quo. Don’t be afraid to fail. So long as adequate time is spent learning the safety side of whatever climbing discipline you choose, it’s time to leave all limiting beliefs behind.