Adaptability Matters: The Challenges and Benefits of Being a Shorter Climber

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“I can’t reach!” “That move is too big for me.” “This is a tall person’s route.”

As climbers, we’ve become accustomed to hearing these sentiments expressed on a daily basis, both at the crag and at the gym. While they sometimes hold merit, most of the time they can be chalked up as mere excuses we roll out when we aren’t willing to assess the complex nature of rock climbing—or the skills we’re either lacking or avoiding working on.

Short or tall, all climbers deal with difficulties relating to their physical attributes, height being chief among them. Statements like “He’s taller than me—look how easy that move was for him!” are less about overcoming our personal challenges and more about wallowing in this idea that others somehow have it easier. Generally speaking, we climb for the challenge, so it’s time to accept the fact that the unique challenges you face as a climber are also your best opportunities for growth.

At 5’ 7”, I’m considered a shorter climber for males. I recognized early on that my height could be a limiting factor in how I approached certain moves. This proved especially frustrating when I watched taller climbers reach through moves that I couldn’t. And particularly with indoor competitions, I found that course-setters oftentimes didn’t do the best job considering people of all heights—for example, making moves long to add difficulty and not putting enough footholds to make these reaches feasible for shorter climbers. It would have been easy to accept my fate early on and avoid situations where I felt I was at a disadvantage, but that would have been holding myself back. Instead, I opted to re-contextualize my relationship with climbing. I would focus on mastering climbing movement purely within the confines of my own physical attributes, without comparison to others. It would be a personal journey in which I’d open myself to the creativity allowed by my unique characteristics.

For me, the journey forward looked a little something like this:

1. Acceptance

I am shorter than some people, but taller than others. I am not going to grow anymore. My unique characteristics offer certain challenges when approaching climbing. These challenges are valuable because they offer the most opportunity for growth. They will always be with me, so I may as well face them head-on.

2. Identify the Challenges

Is there a specific move where I’m having trouble reaching the next hold? Have I exhausted all potential foot- and handhold options that could bring that distant target hold within reach?

3. Isolating Opportunities for Growth

The first and most obvious place to improve is with strength. However, strength takes a long time to gain and, if pursued too aggressively, can lead to injuries and other setbacks. I find that the next option—and usually the best option—is improving technique. Specifically with reach issues, one of the best techniques I’ve learned is moving more dynamically.

4. Understanding Dynamic Movement

This begins with relinquishing a bit of control. By moving more dynamically, I have opened myself up to a greater selection of holds and I also move more efficiently on the wall. But it’s important to start small: Hucking the biggest moves without control has always resulted in finding myself back on the mats or hanging on the end of the rope. Dynamic skill needs to be built incrementally.

5. Turn a Weakness into a Strength

Forcing myself to climb more dynamically has changed my entire style and approach to both boulders and routes. I can now alter my pace much more effectively, flowing quickly through strenuous positions, and using my momentum from one move to help carry myself through to the next.

As I’ve learned through my journey, climbing is enjoyable because of the massive variety of unique challenges it offers. As a climber, adaptability is king, and I’ve become far more adaptable with dynamic climbing techniques in my skill set. Short or tall, we all deal with moves that feel a little out of reach. Shorter climbers are at a bit of an advantage because they are forced to adapt to this issue earlier in their climbing progression, while taller climbers—though they have the innate reach advantage—will see gains from learning to climb dynamically as well. We can all stand to adapt. Dynamic climbing is the way forward.

Want more tips, tricks, and technical-movement wisdom like this from professional climber Carlo Traversi? Then visit climbing.com/masterdynos to sign up for Carlo’s new course, Master Dynamic Movement. In only six short weeks, Carlo will take you from a slow, static slug to a pouncing gazelle who moves up the walls with speed, style, and dynamic efficiency, all for only $50.