How Hard Do I Climb?

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“What class are you moving up to?”

It’s a common question when climbers meet. Along with questions like “Do you prefer sport, bouldering, or trad?” it can serve as an icebreaker. and “Where do you like to climb?” The answers paint a picture of what the climber enjoys and where he is in his career. They can also help climbers assess potential partners – similar skills and goals make a good match.

I used to respond with my hardest red point or the grade I’ve climbed most, depending on how boastful I was feeling. For a more nuanced discussion, I might break it down by discipline and/or area—a 5.10 sport route in Boulder Canyon isn’t the same as a 5.10 trad climb in nearby old-school Eldorado Canyon. Today I don’t know what I would say. It varies.

For better or worse, it seems I can succeed or fail up to a number mark above my toughest tick on any route. I sometimes reddot 5.11s and sometimes fail at 5.9s. So do I upgrade to 5.11? Am I only climbing 5.8.? Perhaps the most honest answer would be to say I climb 5.8, 5.10 and 5.11 but not 5.9.

Climbing has been a cycle for me of gaining confidence and becoming humble. Every time I hit a winning streak and decide I’m competent at a grade on my local rock, I get slammed by a route of that grade. I’ll find myself gripped to death over a bolt and have no idea what to do before I ask to be lowered. On the descent I will ask myself if I even know how to climb the rock.

I know what you’re thinking: Perhaps you are proficient on some one difficulty routes, Kevin, but need more experience with other rock types or angles or climbing styles.

That’s probably true, but there’s also no consistency for routes I’ve climbed before. Sometimes I get on tracks where I struggled years ago and see a definite improvement as you would expect.

I climbed first herbal essence (5.9) on the Little Eiger in Clear Creek Canyon, Golden, Colorado in 2016. At the time, I felt the route was characterized by sustained friction climbing with no positive edge for five straight bolts. It was frightening. Halfway down I got the shortest hit of my life as my shoe rubber slipped off the smooth stone while my waist leaned against the stud. The inch-long fall didn’t help my head in what had already felt like a traumatic lead. As I clipped the chains, I wasn’t thrilled that I’d reached the top, I was relieved that it was over.

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I jumped back onto the route this winter, excited to see how it would feel after four years. I found no friction climbing. All feet were positive and there was no shortage of handholds. I was still waiting for the crux when I cut the chains. The route felt so easy that I wondered if I was going the right way. I only knew I had it because it had a prominent 1-foot roof that slopes into the bottom third of the line from the left.

This is supposed to happen. Progress is linear. You climb and train over time, and you improve. Things that were difficult become easy. And yet I also experience the opposite.

Laurel & Hardy meet Abbott & Costello (5.9) at Animal World in Boulder, Colorado is my warm up for the rock. I’m not sure how many times I’ve climbed – at least 6. Guess when I had to hang from the rope? This winter I was nearing my best climb time, and although I’d climbed the route five or more times, I couldn’t rediscover the difficult balance crux of tiptoeing over a rail and then around one corner to move without much tightening. I shuffled my feet while my left hand hit a sloping ridge above me. My right hand groped for a thank god grab around the corner that I knew didn’t exist based on my previous experiences on the track. I shouted “Take”.

Maybe I had a day off or the conditions were bad. Happens. Climbing outdoors is more variable than the gym. But my experience with herbal essence seems to be the exception rather than the rule. When I repeat a route, I’m often impressed that I was able to climb it years ago when I was a weaker and less technically skilled climber because it still feels tough.

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To be more consistent, I chose to climb every sport route under 5.9 in Jeff Achey and Adam Brinks 2017 Climbing in Boulder Canyon Travel Guide. It was a fun project that took me to obscure rock and took me down routes I wouldn’t otherwise have considered. I hoped it would give me a high level of proficiency in easier terrain, at least in Boulder Canyon.

Many top climbers and coaches advocate building a strong base. For example, Jonathan Siegrist wrote about using route pyramids to reach target routes Climb:

“A well-ordered pyramid is a list of achievements that slowly and steadily lay the foundation for the next level,” he wrote. “For example, if you are aiming for 5.12a, then your pyramid should include something like ten plus 5.11a, seven 5.11b, five 5.11c, three 5.11d, and at the top your 5.12a target route. ”

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Inspired by Siegrist’s article, this January I printed out his 5.12a pyramid and hung it on my office wall as a to-do list. I crossed out two 5.11a for previous ascents and wanted to tick off the remaining 11a, b, c and d in order on the way to my first 5.12a red point.

Then I started projecting instead A big cooler (5.12a) at The Bowling Alley in Boulder Canyon because it was close to the road and it was easy to glue on the clip to hang a top rope. My first time on the route, I was surprised that it felt quite doable. I pumped off and tried to figure out the feet during the initial sidepull rail keypoint, but after a bit of hanging and inspecting, I passed. After climbing a right ramp into a break and then traversing left again, I reached the second key point: another side pull that led to a series of tiny pinches. This stunned me a bit until I worked my feet up and left enough to toss for a final pitcher. Then I stood on a ledge and prepared for the final crux. This would require a powerful release of an underhand grip. I got into position, not confident I could hold it. I lowered myself to my feet, my right hand holding my weight on a low jar, my left hand high in the bottom not doing much yet. I started. The repression got better and better as my left arm relaxed and my body moved up. I threw my right hand for the next mediocre hold and… pinned it. It was anticlimactic. The last crux was exhausting but not difficult.

I had made all the moves on my first time on the route. I thought I might reddot it in another session or two. That was March 8th, the last day I climbed outside before the pandemic. I haven’t been back yet, but I’ve been training at home A big cooler in the head. When I finish, the top of my pyramid will hover above the rest; I didn’t reddot an 11b, c or d – I didn’t even try.

Maybe I should look at my ability to fight on any route as something positive. I get the most enjoyment from working on climbs until I succeed. It’s my favorite aspect of the sport. It should be like this, the more tracks I complete the better – there are just more challenges to complete. I couldn’t convince my ego. As much as I want to get the same satisfaction out of fighting on a 5.10a as I do on a 5.12a, the latter feels like I’m working hard to improve. The former feels like I’m just bad at climbing.

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Lately I’ve been trying a different perspective. After completing the 45 sub-5.9 Boulder Canyon routes, a friend asked me what I learned from the experience. The result wasn’t what I expected. “Climbing can feel hard, no matter how hard,” I had said. “I should approach any route prepared to make an effort, to be afraid and to doubt myself, even if it is a supposedly ‘easy’ route.”

In the past I have approached routes that were lower on the YDS scale with the attitude that I should be able to climb them because they were “easy”. On the other hand, I approached routes at the limit with the attitude that I had to do my best because they were “tough”. I misunderstood the scale. It doesn’t go from “easy” to “medium” to “difficult”. All climbing is hard. The scale ranges from “hard” to “harder” to “really difficult” to “really, really difficult” and ends at some point with “impossible”. I have to approach each route with the expectation of a challenge – as if it weren’t a gift and that I had to work to be successful. I have to say things like, “That step felt really hard for 10a‘ out of my vocabulary.

Maybe I drove herbal essence that winter because I remembered how hard I struggled the first time and expected it to be difficult. Maybe I failed last time Laurel & Hardy meet Abbott & Costello because I had climbed it so many times that I expected it to be casual. Maybe A big cooler seems possible because I expected it would take everything I have.

It’s a tricky balance because we have to have the confidence to believe that we can hold that dyno or hold that lock or break that jam or we’re not going to try. We have to believe that we can be successful in order to be successful, but at the same time, taking success as a foregone conclusion leads to failure.

At least that’s how I try to see things. I’m sure that after I redpoint A big cooler I’ll jump up near happy end (5.10). “It’s going to be a good cool down, it’s only 5.10,” I’ll say. Then I reach the top wall where I have to blind throw for that one good spot on the ridge before my arms get exhausted. Then I freak out and yell “Take” without trying the move. My ego won’t know what to think.

So how hard do I climb?

I can show you a list of routes I was able to climb on the specific days I climbed them. Beyond that, who knows? Climbing is difficult.

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