By Steve Bechtel
Project climbing – trying a very hard route over and over with the goal of eventually climbing it in one push – is one of the most fundamentally rewarding facets of rock climbing. It drives us to higher grades and teaches all sorts of valuable lessons. But like anything beneficial to us, too much time on projects or picking the wrong ones can be devastating to our progress. Over the years, I’ve seen climbers make huge gains with effective project planning, but I’ve seen even more end up empty handed at the end of the year. Outlined below are what I consider the biggest mistakes in project climbing or problems with projecting, and the ways we’ve come up with to fix them.
- Chasing The Grade
You should seek to be a better climber, not climb a higher grade. You might think this sounds like the same thing, but it’s not. One is a reflection of effort, the other a reflection of achievement. Depending on which grade system you use, you’ll always run across “cusp” grades that somehow mark a bigger achievement than others. There is nothing special about 12a or 13a…in many other countries, these grades mean nothing. In Europe, many climbers chase 7a or 8a, which are 11d and 13b in US grades.
You simply can’t let these grades matter to you or you’ll slow your progress. A close look at almost any high-performing climber’s career redpoints shows a very big base followed by fewer and fewer redpoints of each grade all the way up to their max level. An amateur often tries to skip steps, and will often end up with a set of redpoints that looks more like a ladder than a pyramid.
A great rule of thumb is to try and do at least twice as many routes of each subsequent grade below your limit. For example, if your hardest send is 13a, you should have done at least two 12d routes, four 12cs, eight 12bs, and so on down the line.
- Ignoring the “Second Tier”
Most climbers at some point in their career get stuck trying to push to that next grade and get mired down in the process. This is where building a big base of sends really helps. It’s a redpoint sport, and we frequently don’t put time in redpointing. Related to the point above, many of us work a project level and will also spend time on “easy” routes about a number grade easier, many of which we might do in 1-2 tries.
There is a very useful level of performance that gets ignored, however. I call this level the “second tier” and I think it’s the biggest key to breaking plateaus for most rock climbers. The routes of the second tier are those one to two letter grades below your max ability. These routes are hard enough that you’ll have to spend some time with them, but are easy enough that you won’t waste a whole season on one project.
I recommend spending the early part of any performance phase working this grade range. Additionally, we’ve found that alternating days between a limit-level project and a second tier route can really help with motivation, maintain fitness, and reduce injury – all by simply getting you away from the main goal.
- Getting Comfortable
There are people who take on a project that lasts season after season. Some of these projects can be lifetime achievements that just take a long time to adapt to. Most times, these projects are a comfortable place to hang out and not have to try hard / be scared / learn. Typically, it’s a climb that fits our style, is at our favorite part of our home crag, and is hard enough to be seen failing on. The most effective redpoint climbers don’t let this happen. If you find yourself gravitating toward the same climb over and over just because it’s 13a and well bolted, you need to think about what you want out of this sport.
On a related note, you can also get comfortable failing. Time after time, you’ll climb easily up to the crux and then fall off, almost as if it were part of the beta. You’ve actually programmed it into your psyche, and may even visualize this happening. In this case, it’s time to change gears and break the cycle. The two best tactics I’ve ever heard for rectifying failure beta are as follows: 1. Hang at the bolt before the crux, rest 4-5 minutes, then send through the problem area to the top. 2. Start by working top-down. Hang as needed to get to, say, the second to last bolt. Climb to the top. Start from the third to last, climb to the top. Move on down, even so low as to hang at bolt one, and always climb to the anchors.
- Sticking to Your Beta
Your way isn’t always the best way. It’s crazy, and I mean downright insane not to gather information and try other methods of climbing a route. Even if you can do a sequence time and again, it doesn’t make it right. You have got to be willing to go back to “square one” and try again with a blank slate.
A good way of developing some mental flexibility here is to try and do your warm-ups with different beta from time to time. Anyone who climbs frequently at a single area will undoubtedly have some standard wired climbs they like to do. These are great ones for learning to unlearn your beta.
One of my biggest technique breakthroughs in years came from watching my wife do a sequence differently than I did and then trying her way.
- Wasting a Blown Attempt
When you fall, it’s time to learn. Years ago, back when “hangdogging” was a term we still used in climbing, I fell many times (and hung) on a pitch high on a wall in Fremont Canyon. My climbing partner, Steve Petro, was frustrated with my flailing and shouted up “If you’re going to hangdog, you might as well do it effectively. Look around!” What he taught me was that instead of trying again, I should try again a little differently and look for ways I didn’t think of the first time.
Sure, maybe you want to onsight a pitch. If you fall, though, your job for the rest of that attempt is to learn it perfectly for a second-go send…the very best you can do next to flashing a route. If you blow the flash, hang at every bolt, try hard sequences, try out rests…in short, bore your belayer to tears. Then you can come down, rest while your partner does the same, and then send and move on.
The greatest routes of our generation have been established by climbers working them as projects. Entire seasons, though, are wasted by people projecting incorrectly. You need to be good at project climbing in order for it to pay off. If you don’t redpoint at least a half dozen or so routes that are “hard” for you in a year, you’re probably doing it wrong. If this is you, stop training, get your tactics right, and get some routes done.