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I Have No Idea How Hard I Climb

After climbing every bolted route below 5.9 in Boulder Canyon, Kevin Corrigan learns an essential truth about rock climbing.

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“What grade do you climb?”

It’s a common question when climbers meet. It can serve as an icebreaker along with questions like “Do you prefer sport, bouldering, or trad?” and “Where do you like to climb?” The answers paint a picture of what the climber enjoys and where they are in their career. They can also help climbers evaluate potential partners—similar abilities and goals make for a good match.

In the past, I would’ve answered with my hardest redpoint or the grade I climbed most-often, depending on how boastful I felt. Maybe for a more nuanced discussion, I would break it out by discipline and/or area—a 5.10 sport route in Boulder Canyon is not the same as a 5.10 trad climb in the nearby old school Eldorado Canyon. Today, I don’t know what I’d say. It varies.

For better and for worse, it seems that I can succeed or fail on any route up to a number grade above my hardest tick. I sometimes redpoint 5.11s and sometimes fail on 5.9s. So, do I climb 5.11? Do I only climb 5.8.? Maybe the most-honest answer would be to say that I climb 5.8, 5.10, and 5.11, but not 5.9.

Climbing for me has been a cycle of gaining confidence and getting humbled. Every time I have a streak of success and decide that I’m competent at a grade at my local crags, I will then get spanked by a route of that grade. I will find myself gripped out of my mind above a bolt with no clue what to do before asking to be lowered. As I descend, I will question if I know how to rock climb at all.

I know what you’re thinking: Perhaps you’re competent on some routes of a grade, Kevin, but need more experience on other types of rock, or angles, or styles of climbing.

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

I’d first climbed Herbal Essence (5.9) at Little Eiger in Clear Creek Canyon, Golden, Colorado in 2016. At the time, I felt the route featured sustained friction climbing without a positive edge for five straight bolts. It was terrifying. At mid-height I took the shortest whipper of my life when my my shoe rubber slid off the smooth stone while my waist leaned against the bolt. The inches-long fall didn’t help my head during what had already felt like a traumatic lead. When I clipped the chains I was not excited that I’d reached the top, I was relieved that it was over.

I hopped on the route again this winter, curious to see how it would feel after four years. I found no friction climbing. All the feet were positive, and there was no shortage of handholds. I was still waiting for the crux when I clipped the chains. The route felt so easy I questioned whether I’d gotten on the right one. I only knew I had because of a distinct one-foot roof that angles into the lower third of the line from the left.

That’s what’s supposed to happen. Progress is linear. You climb and train over time, and you improve. Things that were hard 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 crag. I’m not sure how many times I’ve climbed it—at least 6. Guess which time I had to hang on the rope? This winter I was nearing my climbing best, and yet, despite having climbed the route five-or-more times before, I could not re-decipher the awkward balance crux, which involves tip-toeing across a rail and then moving around a corner without much to pull on. I shuffled my feet back and forth as my left hand pumped out on a sloping arête above. My right hand pawed for a thank-God hold around the corner that I knew did not exist from my previous experiences on the line. I called “take.”

Maybe I was having an off day or conditions were poor. That happens. Outdoor climbing is more variable than the gym. But my experience with Herbal Essence seems more the exception than the rule. Often when I repeat a route, I leave impressed that I was able to climb it years prior, when I was a weaker and technically worse climber, because it still feels hard.

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To become more consistent, I decided to climb every sport route below 5.9 in Jeff Achey and Adam Brink’s 2017 Boulder Canyon Rock Climbs guidebook. It was a fun project that took me to obscure crags and put me on routes I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I hoped it would give me a high level of competence on easier terrain, at least within Boulder Canyon.

Many top climbers and coaches advocate for building a strong base. Jonathan Siegrist, for example, wrote about using route pyramids to achieve goal routes for Climbing:

“A well-sorted pyramid is a list of accomplishments that slowly and steadily lay a foundation for the next level,” he wrote. “For example, if you’re aiming for 5.12a, then your pyramid should comprise something like ten-plus 5.11a’s, seven 5.11b’s, five 5.11c’s, three 5.11d’s, and, at the top, your 5.12a goal route.”

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

Then, instead, I started projecting A Tall Cool One (5.12a) at The Bowling Alley in Boulder Canyon because it was close to the road and easy to stick clip up to hang a toprope. My first time on the route, I was surprised to find that it felt pretty doable. I pumped out trying to figure out the feet during the initial sidepull rail crux, but after a bit of hanging and inspecting, I got passed it. After moving right up a ramp into a rest then traversing back left, I reached the second crux: another sidepull leading into a series of miniscule crimp-pinches. This stumped me for a bit until I worked my feet up and left enough to throw for a finishing jug. Then I was standing on a ledge shaking out in preparation for the final crux. This would require a powerful throw off an undercling. I got into position, not confident I could stick it. I sunk down onto my feet, my right hand holding my weight on a low jug, my left hand high in the undercling not contributing much yet. I launched. The undercling got better and better as my left arm uncurled and my body moved up. I threw my right hand for the next mediocre hold and… stuck it. It was anticlimactic. The final crux was committing, but not difficult.

I’d done all the moves my first time on the route. I thought I could redpoint it in one or two more sessions. That was on March 8, the last day I climbed outside before the pandemic. I haven’t been back yet, but I’ve been training at home with A Tall Cool One in mind. Should I finish it, the top of my pyramid will hover above the rest; I have not redpointed an 11b, c, or d—I haven’t even tried.

Perhaps I should view my ability to struggle on any route as a positive thing. I get the most joy out of working on climbs until I succeed. It’s my favorite aspect of the sport. It should be that the more routes I struggle on, the better—It’s just more challenges to be overcome. I haven’t been able to convince my ego. As much as I’d like to get the same satisfaction out of struggling on a 5.10a as I get from struggling on a 5.12a, the latter feels like I’m working hard to improve. The former feels like I’m just bad at rock climbing.

Lately, I’m trying a different perspective. After completing the 45 sub-5.9 Boulder Canyon routes, a friend asked what I’d learned from the experience. The outcome wasn’t what I had expected. “Rock climbing can feel hard no matter the grade,” I’d said. “I should approach every route ready to try hard, be scared, and doubt myself, even if it’s supposedly an ‘easy’ route.”

In the past, I 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 my limit with the mindset that I would have to try my best because they were “hard.” I had misunderstood the scale. It doesn’t go from “easy” to “medium” to “hard.” All climbing is hard. The scale goes from “hard” to “harder” to “really hard” to “really, really hard” and at some point ends at “impossible.” I need to approach every route expecting a challenge—like it’s not a gimme, and that I will have to work to succeed. I need to remove phrases like “That move felt really hard for 10a” from my vocabulary.

Maybe I cruised Herbal Essence this winter because I remembered how much I struggled the first time and expected it to be difficult. Maybe I failed that last time on Laurel & Hardy Meet Abbott & Costello because I’d climbed it so many times that I expected it to be casual. Maybe A Tall Cool One seems possible because I expected it to take everything I have.

It’s a tricky balance, because we need to have the confidence to believe we can stick that dyno, or hold that lockoff, or hang off that jam, or we won’t try. We need to believe we can succeed to succeed, but at the same time, viewing success as a foregone conclusion leads to failure.

That’s how I’m trying to view things, at least. I’m sure that after I redpoint A Tall Cool One I will hop on the nearby Happy Ending (5.10). “This will be a good cool down, it’s just 5.10,” I’ll say. Then I’ll reach the upper headwall, where I’ll need to make a blind throw for that one good spot on the arête before my arms pump out. Then I’ll get freaked out and call “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 that I was able to climb on the specific days I climbed them. Beyond that, who knows? Rock climbing is hard.

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