"You walk without a sense of purpose," a Berkeley bar manager once told James "Peaches" Lucas before firing him. A dedicated climber who spent 15 years living out of caves, tents, and then a Saturn station wagon to pursue the sport, Lucas stumbles through life but marches to the boulders, crags, and walls. Peaches Preaches is his monthly column.
I stumbled into the Shrimpshrine, a co-op home gym in Salt Lake City. It was winter 2014. The shrine was kitted out with weights, a few hangboards, strange sideways campus boards, a stereo, and a mattress. Nik Berry, a member of the Shrine Crew, and I passed all the other equipment on our way to the garage’s Moonboard. While it snowed outside, we thrashed our fingers on the first Moonboard in the US.
The Moonboard originated in the School Room in Sheffield, a training facility for rained-out U.K. climbers. This old school building cranked out some of the strongest Brits like Ben Moon, who established Hubble at Raven Tor, the world’s first 8c+/5.14c, the exceptionally strong Stuart Cameron, Jerry Moffat who made the first ascent of Dominator (V12) in Yosemite’s Camp 4, and Malcolm Smith, who repeated Dreamtime (8C/V15) in Cresciano Switzerland and Hubble. They all climbed in the tiny gym, pushing each other for beta, developing skills for harder climbing, and then applying their training outside.
The School Room's training walls tend to be 40 to 50 degrees overhanging and 12 feet high. They follow “shaft” rules, or tracking, meaning you use your feet only on your handholds. “These types of boards are great for building finger and core strength and flexibility,” Moon said. In 2005, he drew a grid on a board that was 2.44 meters wide and 3.15 meters high, 40 degrees overhanging, and with a small kicker at the base. Moon then screwed on 140 slopers, crimps, pinches, pockets, and foot jibs. He standardized the orientation and position of the holds so climbers could build an exact replica of the climbing wall at home. Moon then created a downloadable list of the problems so that climbers could duplicate his board in their own gyms or home gyms; the Shrine crew created an exact replica of the Sheffield board and printed out a problem list in a white binder, marking the first Moonboard in the U.S.
My initial few days on the Shrimpshrine Moonboard felt discouraging. The Shrimpshrine list lacked easier problems, and I struggled to come up with my own. I failed on V4s. The oldschool hardmen set the bar high, demanding users climb hard. Even though most problems only involved seven moves, I would forget sequences. After a few hard moves, I’d look down, pumped, forgetting where my feet should go. The climbing felt crimpy, powerful, and dynamic—all my weaknesses. I knew that the Moonboard would help me improve as a climber, even if I was just sending the warmups, and I liked bouldering with the Shrine Crew. But the Moonboard felt too hard, too overwhelming for me. I let the idea of climbing on a Moonboard, of joining this foreign club, percolate.
Two years later, I returned to train in SLC and noted three differences. First, my friends had stopped climbing at the Shrimpshrine. They traded the mattress and odd assortment of weights for the cushy floor and uniform weights of The Front Climbing Club. Though the facilities were nicer, there was still a Moonboard.
The second change between climbing on the Front’s board and the Shrimpshrine board was that the climbing felt easier. Not only had I become stronger, but the Moonboard itself felt less overwhelming. I found a new approach to training that made it approachable. I cycled through a series of easier problems with a larger longer-term goal in mind. The more I climbed on the board, the more accurate I became, I stabbed my feet on with more precision, and I stayed tighter to the wall when I felt extended. For three weeks, I climbed diligently on the Front’s board, sending the warmups until I found a project. I threw myself at Hardtimes, a benchmark Ben Moon V6. I could climb through the few pumpy moves to a left hand two finger pocket and a right hand sidepull. But every time I tried the penultimate move, a drive by to an acorn-shaped hold, I fell. Three days a week over a six-week training cycle, I tried the move and failed. Using a different right hand, I established a variation to the problem, Waiting for Hardtimes (V4). But the move off the right hand sidepull crimp and the left-hand pocket eluded me.
In my siege to latch the hold at E16, I noticed the biggest difference in the Moonboard. At the Shrimpshrine, it’d been just me and Nik. Sometimes Justin Wood or Steve Maisch would come. But at the Front’s board, seasoned hardmen and novices would climb on the board as well. At times, there would be a half dozen climbers working problems. In the past two years, the Moonboard’s popularity had surged.
“I couldn’t say for sure how many Moonboards there are, but based on our sales figures there are probably around 2,000 worldwide,” said Moon. “I imagine that maybe 40 to 50 percent are in the U.S.”
The increase was notable. In Colorado, a state where every resident follows the #outdoortrending hashtag, the sale of Moonboards had exploded. The Estes Park hardmen built a Moonboard to warm up for the bouldering in Rocky Mountain National Park. Forty miles away in Boulder, a Moonboard popped up at the Boulder Rock Club. A few months later, a second came into Boulder at Movement Climbing and Fitness. Down the road, another appeared at EVO Rock + Fitness, Louisville, a new gym 15 miles from my office. Boulder’s ABC Kids Climbing replaced their system board with one as well. Moonboards had also blown up on a global scale. The Moonboard website shows a map with little dots designating boards across the world. There are boards in Europe with concentrations in Italy, Switzerland, and near its UK origins. Strong clusters are presents in Japan and South Korea. There are boards in Austrailia, Russia, South Africa, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and even on the Falkland Islands. The huge influx on boards created a social media following, and zealous Moonboard users created a series of hashtags: #praisetheboard #ourboardandsavior and #hallowedbethyframe.
The rise in Moonboards can be attributed to a few phenomena. Early adopters, like the Shrine Crew, found value in the training device. They encouraged gyms to put up Moonboards, so that they could focus on powerful climbs more reminiscent of outdoor cruxes rather than the usual long, comp-style problems. The rating system on the board translated well to outdoor climbing. Gyms often give soft grades on problems to encourage members to return. Coupled with grade creep, climbing grades have become softer over the years. The Moonboard rating system, specifically on the older, benchmark problems that I preferred, felt hard in comparison to gym problems and more accurately reflected outdoor climbing. Further, the design improved with an LED display that allows climbers to light up problems, making the holds easier to see. At the top of the wall, I could look down and see my footholds when I was pumped. Most importantly, Moon Climbing produced a downloadable app that gave climbers access to a global range of problems. A climber in Tokyo could upload a V8, and I could try it a few minutes later at the Front in Utah, at the School Room in Sheffield, or in Joe Kinder’s Traphouse home gym.
“The current three hold sets gives you access to over 4,000 problems, and the rate at which problems are being added is increasing each day,” said Moon. “Currently, about 30 new problems a day are being added.”
The app also has a logbook function, which records problems climbers have sent. I could track my progress and know whether I needed to build more of a V5 base or attack more V6 projects. Further, the app lets me see what problems my friends are working on, and share my projects with my friends.
“James,” professional climber Colette McInerney wrote on a poster of herself, “I’m better at the Moonboard than you!!!” We’d sessioned on the Moonboard before the Outdoor Retailer show, and Colette had easily dispatched Hardtimes. I continued to fall on it. She reminded me of this at an OR poster signing. In over six weeks of work, I had stuck the crux move only three times. Her beta certainly helped me to lock off harder with my right arm, but I needed more help. Two Salt Lake City climbers and a Denver climber all sent me videos of different foot positions for Hardtimes. They offered beta on how to grab the E16 hold. They suggested I open my hip as opposed to backstepping on E6. Moon told me to do intervals on a slightly easier grade for a few weeks. I scoured the internet for videos of Japanese, Norwegian, and Brazilian climbers establishing new problems to do intervals on. While the advanced technology helped me see beta from a number of different sources, I still had to do my own pulling. When I returned to Boulder, I tacked up Colette’s poster in my cubicle. Her competitive jab pushed me to the Boulder Rock Club for a dozen sessions over a month. I stuck with it but saw few gains.
After my winter training session on the Moonboard, I traveled to Bishop for three weeks. I bouldered better than ever. I finished off a few climbs that I had tried for years, and my fingers felt stronger. In the past, I had trained in the gym but my indoor strength rarely translated to outdoor ability. This time, I noticed a correlation between improving on the Moonboard and improving outside. I felt explosive in my climbing.
“Love the style of climbing on this board,” American climber Daniel Woods wrote on an Instagram video of his ascent of Black Beauty V13. “(It’s) raw power.”
Woods established the three move problem after a global session with Alex Megos. In November of 2016, Megos sessioned on the Moonboard during a weekend at the Kendal Film Festival in the U.K. He almost sent the new problem and listed it on his app as Project 2 at 8A/V11. Woods saw the problem and made the first known ascent at the Boulder Rock Club. He wrote to Megos on Instagram, telling him he liked the problem, and that he had set a problem for Megos. Woods then climbed Black Beauty, posting a video of his ascent on Instagram. It gained 63,000 views. The social media inspired session was noted across the world, showing other climbers what sort of movement is possible on a 40 degree overhanging piece of plywood. While the list of people that have ticked Black Beauty has stayed small, the impact is large. Megos and Woods have established cutting edge climbs around the world, but it requires effort to reach Megos’s FightClub (5.15b) at Ravens Crag near Banff or Woods's Creature from the Black Lagoon (V16) at Upper Upper Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park. How many average climbers watched the video, fondled the undercling at I9, grabbed the pinch at E14, or just tried a little harder?
In 2020, Daniel Woods and Alex Megos may be competing together at the Tokyo Olympics. Through the use of the Moonboard, they were moving toward the spirit of international games, something that’s been inherent to climbing. "The important thing is not to win, but to take part," said Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics. At Movement Climbing and Fitness, Daniel gave me a brief tutorial on the Moonboard. I thought that perhaps since I’d been struggling so much with my project, climbing with someone better would help. Daniel climbed on Black Beauty. He skipped the beginning of the problem and focused on the two hardest parts, starting with a move off an undercling to a left hand pinch. He tried the first move three times and then stuck it. He tried the second move a few times before sticking it. Daniel left shortly after—he needed to pack for a flight to the World Cup in Switzerland the next day. But he’d brought a bit of the global climbing to the Movement Moonboard. Further, Daniel showed me that progression involved an Olympic spirit, an integral part of climbing. There wouldn’t always be success. The important part was to take part.
In the beginning of April, I went into EVO Rock + Fitness, Louisville. I hadn’t climbed on the Moonboard in two months but hoped to revisit my project with my friend Justen Sjong. After warming up, I tried Hardtimes. I fell on the difficult drive-by move. Justen advised me to use an intermediate and practice hitting the hold. With a higher, better left hand, I latched E16. I tried the move from progressively worse left hands until I could do it from the two-finger pocket. Then I tried the problem from a lower position. I continued to latch the square acorn hold. I was improving. I rested then tried it from the start. I fought to the left hand pocket and the right hand sidepull crimp. I toed down hard on the outside of my left foot like Nik Berry demonstrated. I pulled hard with my right hand like Colette had told me. I exhaled as I moved like Justen had said. I went for the hold. And I fell. I wondered what if anything had changed in the past three years.
The recently built Louisville Evo gym, with new Walltopia walls, ample parking, and fresh holds, was far different than the Shrimpshrine. I certainly knew more about climbing, about sharing beta, about the influence international climbers made on the board. I felt the globalization of climbing on the Moonboard. I had access to an entire world of hard problems. I’d worked with a dozen other climbers across the country on a single sheet of plywood, and even received inspiration from across the pond. The Moonboard had remained the same, but I had progressed, seeing the global scale of climbing. I started the problem from the ground. I breathed through the opening moves. When I latched the pocket, I was using a hold that had helped establish Hubble. When I grabbed the right hand, I felt like I was on an Olympic field. My hand hit the acorn at E16. I screamed. My fingers wrapped around it. I jumped to the top and finished Hardtimes.