Eleven years ago, my hardest-ever send was a 5.12c I flashed in Red Rock, Nevada, called The Sound of Power. At the time, redpointing was a foreign idea. One year later, I had jumped an entire number grade and climbed Screaming Target, my first 5.13c, at Mt. Charleston, Nevada, with help from my climbing mentor, the send engine/philosophy professor Bill Ramsey.
When other climbers heard about my massive leap in performance they were baffled. And frankly, so was I. How could I have made such quick progress through the grades?
It certainly did not come from having a solid base. It was from training the specific moves on my route. I’d throw myself at the same moves over and over again at the end of a long climbing day, then head to the gym to reproduce the crux of Screaming Target. I’d pick out gym holds that simulated the ones on my route, treating it like a boulder problem to try over and over again. This also probably explains why I regularly fell off 5.11 after sending Screaming Target—I’d become a specialist! I soon got in the habit of seeming disinterested in “easy” climbs to avoid the embarrassment I felt after falling off everyone else’s warm-ups. I would rather have been seen hanging all over something really hard. There was less pressure this way.
Over the past month here at my home in Colorado, I’ve been working on building my base, trying to climb many lower 5.13s as quickly as possible. But like most things in life, it’s nice to have cycles. It’s advantageous to switch between this type of base-building and route-specific training in order to reach the next level and push your physical and mental limits in redpointing.
So how do you train specifically for your route? There are tactics to employ both on- and off-route. The first step is figuring out why you’re falling on redpoint—or, if you’re having trouble with individual moves, what is holding you back from executing them? Is it lack of finger or shoulder strength, pumped forearms, or a saggy core?
On China Doll, my year-long 5.14 trad project in Dream Canyon, Colorado, I was having trouble linking individual moves on the upper crux for the first couple months of working the route. I had to get a left crimp and a left foot jam, then campus to small fingerlocks and crimps with my right hand, locking off hard with my left arm in order to reach the holds. Although this movement on technical granite obviously differs from that found on a campus board, the moves certainly reminded me of campusing. I needed that raw power, lock-off, and crimp strength that only the campus board could provide.
I knew that once the China Doll season was over, I’d have to train specifically for the route if I wanted any chance of sending that next spring/summer. So I incorporated campusing into my training regime, specifically starting matched on a low rung then bumping my right hand progressively up, one rung at a time, until I was failing to grab the upper rung with max reach attempts.
That following spring, I could tell I was stronger within a couple days of getting back on China Doll. Within a few tries, the moves that once felt extremely powerful were still hard but more reproducible. The crimps felt closer together and more positive than I remembered, too—my lock-off and finger strength had improved, and I sent the route in early summer. As I’d learned, It’s all about being prepared for battle: training specifically works.
Another crucial tool involves duplicating the crux and rests on your climb at the gym (a la Tony Yaniro, who made tinfoil “molds” of the crux pockets on Scarface [5.14a] at Smith Rock back in the late 1980s then re-created the sequence on his home wall). Ramsey, my projecting guru, still builds cruxes and rests in his home gym, measuring the holds and distances between them so he can replicate them in his garage. You can find him on a Friday night hanging in his garage on a manufactured “rest,” blasting techno while confused dog-walking neighbors look on in disbelief at the odd spectacle.
Another masochistic tactic to increase your odds of redpointing is the “torture burn,” which is a great way to train specific fitness on your route. At the end of the day, after you’ve given your project a few solid redpoint efforts, dedicate another, final attempt to “training.” By this time of day your skin burns, your muscles ache, and you’re ready for dinner. But if you can dig in and exert the effort, knowing that you’re taking the next day or two off, this type of extra work pays off.
Let’s say there’s a five-move crux through which you consistently have trouble linking from the ground, but it’s not so vicious that you can’t repeat the moves off the dog. Try resting on the bolt before the crux, then climb through the crux, take, lower, and repeat three to five times. You might be resting 5 to 10 minutes between crux attempts; alternately, for greater challenge, you could try resting only 30 seconds between burns, firing the moves with a pump on. This exercise is supposed to feel nearly impossible (you’re repeating the hardest part of your climb over and over again!) so don’t let it intimidate you. The muscle memory you’ll gain is as beneficial as the specific strength gains.
You can also do max-hangs on small crimps or slopers on your route and even pull-ups on these holds if you’re really motivated and have enough skin at day’s end.
It all comes back to your motivation and what you want out of climbing. Eleven years ago I was chasing grades. It was fun to see how hard I could climb if I put all my eggs in the redpointing basket. Today, my goal is to be a better overall rock climber. I want to feel confident on many different rock types and styles, as well as be able to hunker down with a big project for part of the year. But, there is value in both approaches, which are equally important stepping stones on your journey to becoming a better, more accomplished rock climber.
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