By Micah Elconin
Eugene, Oregon is not famous for its rock climbing. My home for more than a decade is better known for its hippy communes and track athletes. So, it’s not surprising that climbers from out of the area usually have one of two responses when learning where I’m from.
- “So, you must climb at Smith a lot?”
- “Oh cool, I’ve climbed on those columns (Skinner Butte) just outside downtown.” This is always followed by awkward silence indicative of someone practicing the art of not saying anything at all when they don’t have something nice to say….
My answer to both questions is “no”. The truth is, I hate driving to Smith. It’s an almost three hour one-way trip (assuming the passes are clear), which makes day trips challenging. Hordes of outdoor enthusiasts also converge on the park every weekend. Sure, from time to time I can sneak away for a midweek getaway, but given a full time work schedule, weekends are for warrioring.
Skinner Butte is far more convenient. It’s about 5 minutes from my house and the approach is 10 seconds. Yet, I’m also not a huge fan of crack climbing on the same half dozen or so 40 ft slabby routes day after day or making up hundreds of eliminates to keep myself challenged and entertained. However, I should point out the little known fact that Alan Watts spent most of his college years doing just that at Skinner Butte. Seemed to work out alright for him… so the jokes on me I guess.
Five years ago, fed up with what felt like a lack of inspiring options, I set a goal to redpoint Better Than Life, an infamous 5.13c at Owl Tor in Santa Maria, California. Owl Tor was my local area back when I lived in Santa Barbara and my friends still climbed there regularly. Yet, even with belays at the ready, this was logistically challenging. For those without a map handy, Santa Maria is about 1000 miles south of Eugene. The route was also well beyond my current abilities. I had only redpointed two other 5.13’s at that point in my career. So yeah, it was going to take some time, effort, and more than one trip down south.
Over the course of four months I booked three plane tickets. The first two were for long weekends and the final for a two week trip - the final siege. My training was dialed in and I had loads of stoke fueling every session. It’s pretty amazing how focused you become after dropping a thousand bucks on plane tickets.
On the first trip, I did all the moves except one - a heinous twin gaston passing the first bolt. On the second trip, I hiked the gaston and even linked it with the shallow pockets leading to the third bolt. By the third trip I was making large links. While the crux is low, the route is also incredibly resistant, so I had been working it top down. About a week in, I climbed to the chains from just above the low crux - which was arguably the hardest bit of rock climbing I’d ever done. It was on! Two rest days later, I was back and ready to send. After a good warm up, I tied in and gave it hell. Locking down the very powerful gaston crux, my oblique screamed out in pain. My hands hung on for a few more moves, but it was clear something was very wrong.
Hanging on the end of rope, reality flooded in. I’d definitely just torn something. My bid to climb Better Than Life was over.
It was a number of months before I could climb with any intensity. Thankfully, hanging was possible without much strain, so my time was mostly spent training finger strength. Hangboarding alone in my studio apartment I processed the past few months. I still wanted to redpoint Better Than Life, but had spent every last drop of myself on it over the past summer. Like Icarus, I’d flown a bit too close to the sun. I’d have to let it go, at least for the time being.
So what now?
While my oblique healed up, I started devising a new set of goals. The truth is, my local climbing options were more diverse than eliminates at the Columns or long drives to Smith. There were a few crags within striking distance that had an assortment of sport routes - as many as 200 or so. But as is often the case with “local crags” hardware was not always up to snuff, topos confusing at best, and routes often covered in a thin layer of moss because the rest of the local community was still predominantly operating in the “Smith vs Columns” mindset.
Not sure where to begin?
We have training plans available for any level athlete!
But 200 routes is still… quite a bit of climbing!
I didn’t want to travel for projects anymore and it felt essential to build a new bulletproof base - a better set of wings for my next flight towards the sun. I also felt like a bit of a wanker bemoaning my poor situation in Eugene not having enough rock to climb on.
A wise hippy once said, “If you can’t be with the one you love honey, love the one you’re with.” And that’s what I did. My new mission was to climb as many local routes as I possibly could. If I climbed them all, I’d figure something else out.
I started working my way through routes at Flagstone, Wolf Rock, and a newly bolted wall at a local bouldering area called The Garden. From time to time, I’d end up on a bomb, but for the most part It was super fun. I was doing a ton of climbing. Most days were spent working though 5.11 and 5.12 routes, some going down quickly and others pushing my ego to its limits. I also groveled up awkward 5.10 and somewhat horrifying 5.9.
By the end of the first year, I’d climbed dozens of new routes including a second ascent of a 5.13 in the area. I’d also started bolting a new crag thirty minutes from town with folks I’d met while focusing my efforts locally. By the end of the next year there were a few dozen more routes. Soon, other crags were (re)discovered. More and more routes started going up and I just kept trying to climb as many of them as I could.
At the end of 2020, I redpointed a new route at one of my favorite local sectors. The moves were hard and it was incredibly resistant with a hard boulder problem leading to the chains. Easily the hardest route of my life. Current consensus is that it’s 5.13c. And it’s 30 minutes from my house.
Most climbers seem to understand that:
- Climbing requires very specific fitness and skills.
- There’s an endless variety of movements to master.
- Finger strength doesn’t matter if you’re too scared, nervous, or confused to execute the moves.
Yet, I see the majority of climbers spending more energy avoiding new skills, movement, or opportunities to explore their mental edge. In the gym, I hear folks scoffing at problems that feel awkward and then walking away without taking advantage of the golden opportunity to learn new movements. At the crag, I watch people avoid 5.10s that they might fall on only to continue failing on their 5.12 project. “Dammit! I have no endurance!!”
Here’s the simplest training plan on the planet:
Climb them all.
I’m serious. Pick a region, crag, gym, sector etc and commit yourself to climbing every single route. You don’t get to skip the dumb ones, scary ones, or the ones covered in moss. This might take a day or it might take a decade, but if you commit yourself to this plan, I guarantee your climbing will improve.
It’s a mistake to think that the best climbers in the world can climb literally just about any route on the planet because they are so good. You’ve got it backwards. They are that good BECAUSE they’ve climbed so many routes all over the planet. Many climbers who have ticked 5.15 have also ticked a thousand 5.13s, and I promise you that they didn’t love every single one of these routes. Don’t believe me? Head on over to 8a.nu and scope Adam Ondra’s profile. His all time log currently includes 1155 redpoints between 8a and 8c (he doesn’t even bother to log anything less than 8a).
If you haven’t climbed over a thousand routes two number grades below your current limit, then you’ve got more routes to climb. Boulderers, you’ve got the same homework assignment using a span of a 4-6 V grades below your max. Gunning for your first V10? I bet you haven’t topped out a thousand V4 to V6 problems.
Ok, I know. Like me, you don’t have easy access to thousands of routes, but there may be more options than you realize. First, take a good look at the rock nearby. Like, really take an assessment of what you have access to. If you haven’t climbed every route/problem within a reasonable day trip’s distance, then you’ve got work to do. If you live in Boulder, Bishop, or some other town blessed with quality stone, reduce the scale. Pick an area or a sector and get to work.
Last year my wife set a goal of climbing her first 5.12 at one of our local crags. We worked out some short strength sessions that she did a couple times each week, but the meat of her training was to try and climb every 5.11 at the crag (she’d already climbed every 5.10). Of the thirty or so 5.11 routes, she’d done a handful at the start of the year. By the time she sent her 5.12 project in the Fall, she’d also sent almost every other 5.11 at the crag. Oh, and then she sent another 5.12 a few weeks later.
Again, the climb them all strategy almost guarantees improvement. It sorts out just about every common weakness I see in athletes. Climbers who engage in this strategy end up with better tactics, better movement, less fear, less performance anxiety, more capacity, more endurance, and last but not least, they almost always end up really enjoying the experience. Show me a plan that can guarantee all of that!
Climb them all.
This philosophy also applies at the gym. If your schedule/season has you spending multiple days bouldering inside, hold yourself accountable for climbing every single route of one grade before moving on to the next. You don’t get to work on the new v6 unless you’ve climbed every single v5 that is up. You can also do this on the Moonboard, Tension Board etc. And before you start rolling your eyes, let me get two more words in: Ravioli Biceps. If you know, you know.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s little better than climbing a really hard project. The hunt for, work towards, and battle with these climbs has shaped a significant part of the past 25 years of my life. Those projects are often the first and last thing I think about each day.
Athletes are not misguided seeking mastery through the pursuit of limit level projects. However, pursuit of this peak at the expense of breadth can slow down the process and only add to the physical and emotional challenges (risk?) of climbing at our limits.
Every piece of local stone or plastic is a resource. Whether you live in Boulder, CO or Omaha, NE, your job is to take full advantage of the resources you have.
Climb them all.
ABOUT MICAH ELCONIN
Micah has cultivated his climbing practice for more than twenty years. Based in Eugene, Oregon he coaches local athletes through his business Good Stone, and offers remote coaching as a part of the team at Climb Strong. Micah has climbed all over the world including dozens of first ascents on the Central Coast of California and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Despite entering his fourth decade in 2021, he continues to slowly, yet steadily, improve.
As a coach, Micah draws on a variety of experiences to support his athletes. He is well versed in climbing specific training modalities and holds multiple Performance Climbing Coach Certificates. He spent the first half of his twenties deeply committed to Ashtanga yoga practicing under the guidance of Steve Dwelley and Michele Nichols. He also spent 3 months at Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India. As a former professional chef, Micah has extensive culinary experience and holds Nutrition Educator and Natural Chef’s certificates from Bauman College. He’s also earned an MBA in Entrepreneurship from University of Oregon and a BA in Philosophy from University of California at Santa Barbara.