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Out on a Ledge: The Last Excuse

Reaching past your shortcomings.

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The author making big moves on Shart Attack (5.14a), Pine Creek, California.Ben Ditto

“If I were taller, this would be easier,” shouted the Belgian superstar Nico Favresse from the crux move of Shart Attack (5.14a) in Pine Creek, a granite crag just north of Bishop, California. The climb is 30 meters long, gently overhanging, and features a teched-out shallow corner to a V10 crux. Eight bolts up, trying to sort out the best beta at the crux, Favresse starfished his skinny 5’9” frame, searching for the optimal body position. Earlier in 2018, I had made the third ascent by throwing to a sloper, a move the lanky, guitar-toting big-wall gypsy could easily reach. “You poor thing,” I yelled at Nico. “It must be so hard to be average height.”

Clocking in at 5’0” with a plus-2” ape index, I learned early on that the rock doesn’t offer equality. Through two decades of dangling on the rope, searching for intermediates on my way to the anchors, I’ve thrown tantrums and even temporarily quit climbing because of reachy moves that thwarted my every effort. I’ve even accused tall people of “cheating” as they skipped holds. I’ve felt the unjustness of the world weighing me down, my potential never being fully expressed in terms of grades. As I’ve let my Napoleon Complex shine through, I’ve also often wondered if my woes about height were truly justified.

At 5’2” with a negative ape index, Lynn Hill states in her book, Climbing Free, that “height has nothing to do with it; it is your strength that counts.” As the first person to free the Nose on El Capitan, she certainly has a leg to stand on. Nonetheless, while there is truth to Lynn’s statement, on a strictly physical level height does allow taller climbers to cover the same amount of ground in fewer moves. Additionally, the most commonly shared beta is usually that suited for climbers of average height (5’7”–6’), who can more easily enjoy these crowdsourced sequences. In a recent assessment of 500 climbers, Tom Randall and Ollie Torr of Lattice Training uncovered interesting data in regards to height. In a Training Beta podcast, Torr stated, “ … there is relatively significant supporting evidence that suggests there is a difference in performance required for differing heights, with the taller climbers showing significant advantages in every single area except for core strength.” That is, due to their longer levers, taller climbers need more core strength at a given grade in order to optimize their limb/body length. But otherwise, they have an edge.

Another interesting finding revealed by Randall and Torr is that shorter climbers need the strongest fingers for the grade, with every reduction of 10 centimeters in height correlating to the climber needing to be 2.5 percent stronger. “A taller climber at the taller end of a normal spectrum requires significantly less finger strength than a much shorter peer, regardless of the grade and regardless of weight. If one climber is 20cm taller than another they will require 5 percent less finger strength to do the same moves,” said Randall on the podcast. Essentially, taller climbers are good because of their height, while shorter climbers are good because they are stronger and, perhaps, technically better. For the shorter climber, strength counts more.

With time, I’ve come to accept and work with my height—to stop walking away from climbs because of being shut down by reach. One late-winter day in the Owens River Gorge, I watched in amazed excitement as Ben Gilkison, who clocks in at 4’11”, threw his small frame upward for a quick ascent of one of the reachiest, most dynamic routes in the canyon, Aurora (5.13). I realized that all I had been doing was pigeonholing myself and missing out on a lot of great climbing movement and learning. I was afraid to fail, but I was already failing—so why not just try? I learned to morph my frustration into motivation, and to let go of the same-old, tired, ego-driven excuses.

Excuse-making is a universal trait we climbers could all stand to address. Regardless of size, we all seem to come up with excuses when we fail: “I’m too short,” “I’m too tall,” “It’s too hot,” “It’s too cold”—the list is endless. Some excuses are valid: It can be too hot to climb in the sun. The rock can be so cold it numbs your toes and fingers. Your A2 pulley can be torn, making crimping impossible. Often, though, excuses tend to be drivel used to assuage our damaged egos and to help us sidestep the intimidating process of actually having to try hard. The thing is, climbing is hard—like, really fucking hard. And at the upper end of our abilities, pushing into new realms requires concerted effort and time. If we want to succeed, then we have to find a way to deal with our excuses, to overcome our shortcomings and get better.

No matter how much time I spend cranking the medieval rack I built on the back of my MoonBoard, I’ll never be taller; however, as long as I avoid too many groundfalls, I also won’t get much smaller. So, to work with my height, I’ve learned not only to train my hands to be strong enough to grab the smallest crimps, hold the worst slopers, and strangle people who complain about being “too tall,” I also spend time searching for alternative beta, usually involving high feet, smaller holds, bigger moves, and sometimes more moves. At times my beta might turn a V6 into V10, but this alternative path, no matter how difficult, allows me to clip the anchors. So what if your 6’5” friend with the plus-6 ape index skipped all the holds on your project and called the route “soft” while you sent on your 1,385th try only after grabbing every sliver of rock and highstepping next to your ear? That’s the beauty of climbing—we all do it differently. It’s in the differences that we come to express ourselves, our uniqueness, and come to know where our limitations and fears lie.

If we automatically think we can’t do a climb because it’s too reachy, then we will never do it—“As you think, so shall you become,” Bruce Lee famously said. Negative self-talk, self-loathing, anger, and depression from fixating on excuses rarely help us send. When we complain about the moves instead of our own inability to do them, it dumbs down all the effort, training, and time it took others to succeed. If we constantly make excuses about why we can’t, then we will inevitably become those excuses.

I’ve never wanted to be the complainer or the naysayer, and so I now approach the reach problems I face with a stubborn openness. I will try a move an infinite number of ways—“How can I do this move?” not “I can’t do this move”—looking for the solution that suits me. I’ve found, more times than not, that through a simple desire to solve the puzzle I will find a way. This has become one of the greatest life lessons I could have learned, one that’s carried over off the rock and taught me how to stand up for myself—from handling uncomfortable situations with others, to pulling off a master’s degree in nutrition in the midst of full-time climbing, work, and travel, to dealing with family drama. If we really want something, we put in the work to arrive at the place where we are ready to face the challenge.

When I first started climbing on Shart Attack, the crux sequences stymied me. The obvious beta wouldn’t work. I tried 20 different feet. I tried using ripples as crimps. I tried throwing harder. I tried every option available. I insisted on making something work, and sure enough I found a way. I believed I could do it, and so I did it. After a few minutes of Nico hanging on the rope that day in search of a solution to the route’s crux, I yelled up my beta, telling him to highstep-smear, use the gaston, and then throw. He set himself up, lurched to the hold, and caught it, and then yelled down, “I think this route is actually hard, especially with that beta.”

Katie Lambert is a professional climber based out of a van in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband, the photographer Ben Ditto. Lambert has climbed for more than 20 years on everything from boulders to big walls.