The One Thing
Ten climbers share their best performance secret
Becoming a world-class athlete takes more than simply being genetically gifted or having a rabid passion. It takes sophisticated introspection into how one relates to one’s sport. Rock climbing is no exception, and each top climber dives deep into his or her psyche.
We started with a simple, performance-oriented question asked to some of the country’s finest rock climbers. The result was 10 surprisingly unique and genuine answers. Despite the personal nature of each reply, or perhaps because of that, the insights shared by these elite athletes will benefit all climbers, regardless of experience level.
We talked to young pups brought up on plastic, old masters who cut their teeth leading trad on stoppers and hexes, as well as the middle guard, who know how to climb a big wall, but do so in sticky rubber instead of aiders. Here’s how 10 of America’s best rock climbers answered the question, “What’s the one thing you have done that has most improved your climbing?”
Although recently known for his 5.14 trad pitches, Matt Wilder, 31, has made the most of his 16-year climbing career. Wilder did the first free ascent of the South Face of Washington Column (IV 5.14a), has climbed seven in-a-day El Cap routes, bouldered up to V14, and redpointed 5.14d. Wilder is now working toward a Ph.D., studying machine learning and cognitive science.
“If I were to distill the answer into one word, it would be diversification. At each point that I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my climbing, I have found that, most of the time, it happened shortly after I switched up what I was focusing on. Basically, I climb what I am psyched on, and when the enthusiasm wears off, I’ll change my focus. Climbing with lots of motivation lets me push myself to new levels. It also keeps me from getting stuck in a rut where I might get used to what my limits are. When you know what your limits are, it’s very hard to break them. An example is, I’ve been able to apply the mental space gained from highball bouldering to hard trad climbing. And after being psyched to climb in the gym, I took a new level of power outside and climbed The Egg in Squamish. It was my first V11 and was the start of me breaking a plateau I was on.”
A self-described “comp kid,” Emily Harrington, 23, started climbing at the Boulder Rock Club when she was 10. Harrington was soon winning national competitions and competing in Europe, where she placed second in the Sport Climbing World Championships in 2005 and won the Serre Chevalier International Championship in 2006. On the rocks, Harrington was the second American woman to climb 5.14b, with Burning Down the House in Sonora, California.
“I could say something about learning to train harder or smarter, but for me, what has helped the most is realizing that climbing is a process and a lifestyle, with ups and downs that you have to learn to embrace. Appreciating the variety that climbing has to offer is also super important. It keeps me from getting burned out or injured. I went ice climbing for the first time last winter and loved it, especially the bolted mixed climbing. It’s so gymnastic, as safe as sport climbing (almost, not quite), and you are able to use the tools in really creative and interesting ways. It’s another aspect of climbing that I have yet to explore in depth, and I’m excited to do that now. I’ve also been on two deep-water soloing trips recently, to Venezuela and Mallorca. That’s another completely different mentality and style of climbing. You’ve just got to embrace it all and enjoy every step.”
Angela Payne, 25, starting pulling plastic in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of 11, and never looked back. She has won three ABS National Championships and two PCA competitions. Payne is equally good on the rock, with many notable sends, such as the third female ascent of Yosemite’s classic Midnight Lightning (V8). Payne’s first female ascents are numerous, and include European Human Being (V12) and Sunspot (V11) in Rocky Mountain National Park, and Castaway (V11) in the Poudre Canyon, Colorado. Right now, she is working toward a degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and gearing up for a strong alpine bouldering season.
“The one thing that I did to most improve my climbing was, ironically, take time off. I sprained my ankle badly in the gym and ended up having surgery to tighten all the ligaments and clean out the joint. In the end, I was forced to rest for nearly eight months. Without climbing, I had no escape, no outlet, and no exercise. But when I started up again, I realized my persistent finger tweaks and overused muscles had healed and my motivation had reached an all-time high! I also now move with more purpose, perhaps because I know how easily climbing can be taken away from me, and I feel the need to climb now, while I can. I carried this new energy into the Battle in the Bubble and gave those young whippersnappers a run for their money!” (Editor’s note: Payne placed a very close second in her first post-surgery comp, against a strong national field.)
Over the last 38 years, Steve Hong has established or repeated some of the country’s hardest climbs, many of them cutting edge for the era. Think over 150 first ascents in the Moab area in the late 1970s and '80s, including the first free ascent of Moses Tower and iconic Indian Creek splitters such as Tricks are for Kids. Add Colorado’s Sphinx Crack, at 5.13c the state’s hardest climb in '82. Hong reigned as the National Sport Climbing champion in 1997. Hong, now 55, continues to climb solid 5.14.
“That’s kind of a hard question because I’ve been climbing for almost 40 years and grew up in the era of trad climbing. We had a lot of respect and fear of falling. So, I’d have to say that over the last 10 years, climbing with my kid Matty has inspired me to climb a little differently. When I watch him climb, he doesn’t even think about being above a bolt or falling. I’m still a chicken, but I’ve gotten better at not thinking about falling, at consciously putting that fear far back in my head. This really worked for me last summer when I redpointed Stock Boys Revenge in Rifle (5.14c). I was feeling strong and ended up skipping four bolts. I was just going for it.”
Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, 47, dominated the European competition circuit in the early 1990s, winning the World Cup title four times. Robyn was also the third woman to redpoint 5.14a and the first to onsight 5.13c. Two yeas ago, at the age of 45 and after having two children, she redpointed Bad Attitude (5.14a) at St. Antonin Noble Val, France. Robyn currently runs the acclaimed ABC for KIDS program at the Boulder Rock Club. Some of her students have gone on to win international competitions and climb at the highest levels.
“What has changed my climbing the most is learning to execute rhythm. During my progression as a climber, I recognized that I needed to flow and connect movements together in a different way than what was natural to me, to start letting the energy from one movement lead me into the next one. To train for this, I focused on climbing with flow, even though at first it hindered me. But, once this new movement style became automatic and natural for me, it became my strength, and when it became my strength, I redpointed my fi rst 5.14 and started to win World Cups. Others saw it, too — people would watch me onsight a route and think that I had done the climb before. It was a big shift! Even today when I go climbing, it’s what I cherish the most: my rhythm.”
Chelsea Rude was introduced to the rock as an 11-year-old, and by the time she was 16, had climbed the Nose in 34 hours and the Northwest Face of Half Dome in 23 hours, under the tutelage of Hans Florine. Now 23, Chelsea has competed in World Cups, boulders up to V8, has onsighted 5.13a, redpointed 5.13c, and placed fifth in the 2009 USAC National Championships. Chelsea is currently finishing up her undergrad degree at CU Boulder.
“What has helped my climbing the most is learning to have fun with the whole process. When I was younger, if I ever had a bad day training or climbing outside, I would get so frustrated. I even became so frustrated with climbing that I put it on the back burner and focused on triathlons for a few months. Now I hold my expectations and goals loosely, and head down the path in a fun way. I know that if I get frustrated or mad, those feelings are just going to hold me back, that they will take away from my natural ability.”
With a slew of V13 ascents, Carlo Traversi, 21, is best known for his bouldering prowess. But when tied in, good things also happen. Two summers ago, Traversi made quick work of Girl Talk (5.14c) at Rifle, Colorado, and is the reigning U.S. Sport National Champion. Most recently, he ticked the sixth ascent of Jade in Rocky Mountain National Park, a V15 famed for its crimpy sequence. On off days, Traversi sets problems at the Spot gym in Boulder.
“The thing that has improved my climbing the most has been surrounding myself with people who are much stronger than me and are also inspired to improve their own climbing. In California, I’d climbed a couple of V10s, but within a few days of moving to Boulder, I climbed Clear Blue Skies, V12. This was a huge jump! I’d watched my friends do the problem easily, so I did it, too. Within a month, I’d climbed a bunch of V12s and a V13. I was climbing at a new level—it was not a fluke. Watching people climb who were further ahead gave me the chance to see and understand that next level of performance. The understanding made it possible for me to reach that level as well.”
No one could have predicted the impact Lynn Hill would have on the climbing world when she first booted up as a 14-year-old. Her tear of new and cutting-edge routes started just a few years after her first day out, and includes classics like Levitation 29 (5.11, nine pitches) in Red Rocks, Nevada, Yellow Crack Direct (5.12c R) in the Shawangunks, New York, and Greatest Show on Earth (5.13a trad) in the New River Gorge, West Virginia. Hill was the first woman to onsight 5.13b and redpoint 5.14a. She is perhaps best known for her 1993 FFA of the Nose on El Cap (VI 5.14a). Hill, now 49, is currently working on a series of instructional climbing videos… when she’s not crushing at the crags.
“One thing that has allowed me to continually improve as a climber is trying routes or boulder problems that are harder than anything I have done before. A big part of this process is being willing to try really hard, to push myself to rise to the level of the goal I have chosen. A prime example was the Nose on El Cap. It had all different types of climbing, but the hardest thing was the psychological component. “There were times when I just had to take a big breath and believe that I could make the next move. While training for the Nose, I learned not to get stressed holding onto small features. I adopted the attitude that small holds felt easy, even at the end of a 20-pitch day. Mental shifts like this have allowed me to rise to a whole new level.”
In six short years, Jonathan Siegrist, 24, has become one of the country’s top climbers. His talent was showcased during a fall 2009 trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, when Siegrist climbed Lucifer (5.14c) in five tries, flashed three 5.14a’s, and onsighted 13 5.13s. A recent college graduate, Siegrist now finds himself with plenty of time to travel and climb.
“The most important thing I’ve done for my climbing has been the process of turning intimidation into empowerment. For a long time, I experienced an overwhelming sense of intimidation when I imagined myself trying a difficult route. Fear of failure, and the reality of not feeling completely comfortable or confident, was plenty of reason for me to carry on climbing something easy, or just easy enough that I still felt in control. This was frustrating, because above all, I wanted to progress. I eventually started forcing myself to attempt something hard. “Every time I felt intimidated, I immediately convinced myself that I at least had to try. At times, it felt like my subconscious was burdening me with a chore, but this directly led to all of my initial breakthrough ascents. Eventually my confi dence emerged. Now I can’t hold myself back from attempting something difficult.”
Justen Sjong, Head Coach & Program Director at Movement Climbing & Fitness in Boulder, has been climbing for 16 years. His coaching style is uniquely informative, and it’s not uncommon to see him working with 5.13+ climbers. Sjong has ticked numerous 5.14 sport routes and helped establish the El Cap free routes Magic Mushroom (5.14a) and PreMuir (5.13d).
“I’d been climbing for five years and was on a trip to Smith Rocks with my wife. She was watching me work Aggro Monkey (5.13b) and mentioned that I always fell off, regardless of the route, whenever I started to do things wrong — like botching a sequence, getting sloppy with my hip positioning, or letting my body language show defeat. Her observations made me realize that when tired, I ignored my beta and tried to hack my way to the top. The question or goal then became, 'Can I climb to the point of physical failure but still do what is correct?' I started to erase my bad habits and after four years of disciplined training had developed a deeper level of fitness and improved technique and body control. I was then able to send Vogue (5.14b/c), my first 5.14.”