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Interview: Nina Williams on How She Approaches Projects

Pro climber Nina Williams talks about her mindset and training for taking on new challenges.

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Nina Williams
Tory Powers

A few years after her move to Boulder, Colorado, professional climber Nina Williams was excited to tackle an old project, the 30-foot-tall Speed of Life (V10) at Farley Ledge in Massachusetts, during a visit back to her hometown in New England. She felt strong and confident after her time out west, having sent other V10s in the Front Range. But then, as she puts it, she got “spanked” on Speed of Life, failing to reach her old high point on the overhung gneiss crimps.

That moment, she realized she needed to change her approach to training for her project. Here, Williams, who will assist coach Justen Sjong in Climbing’s AIM Adventure U online course Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond, describes how to approach a new challenge.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You said projecting Speed of Life was a turning point for your training. Tell me how your approach changed while working on it.

The first time I returned to Speed of Life after moving [to Colorado], I had gained enough strength for the climb to become a serious goal, but not enough to send. It’s not like I went back to Colorado like I’m going to train just for Speed of Life, but it was more like I’m committing to this project. I’m going to climb as much as I can in the meantime and get stronger and go back to the project with a different mindset—so that was the first serious climb that I really worked. My turning point was the realization that I would have to take my training seriously by creating a training plan and sticking to it if I wanted to achieve my goal.

What do you mean by different mindset?

A humbler mindset. I wasn’t going to approach Speed of Life as if I was all that, because I was coming back to the East Coast from Colorado. Anything can happen, and that was a mental switch for me to being, like, OK, expect the best, prepare for the worst.

Since then, you’ve climbed some proud highball ascents. What’s your process been for those?

Ambrosia [a 50-foot V11 in the Buttermilks, California, which Williams climbed in spring 2017] was a mental breakthrough for me as far as what I can achieve when I really put my mind to something. When I first tried Ambrosia two years ago on a rope, it was terrifying.

I thought, OK, I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready mentally, and not ready physically, so I’m just going to put it on the back burner. I would like to do this climb, but if I don’t feel comfortable on the climb, if I don’t feel 100 percent prepared, then… You want to be really safe with this stuff.

I went back to Ambrosia a year later. I had been training a bunch—I do Nationals every year because it gives me a good excuse to train in the winter—and I went to Bishop right after. I got back on it and it felt a lot better physically. Then I approached the mentality of it because the physical aspect is probably the hardest. If I can do every move, then I can do the climb—that’s my mentality. The first step is doing all the moves. Then it’s just about rehearsal and doing it.

What’s your training like now?

My first step is I decide how much time I want to commit to training. Whether I have two weeks to commit or four weeks or six weeks or eight weeks, any sort of timeframe, that’s where I start. Then within that timeframe, you drop it down even more, think day of the week, Monday through Sunday. Always pick two rest days: one active rest day and one full-on couch-potato rest day. Then take the other five days and decide, Am I going to train fingers or am I going to do deadlifting? Am I going to do power-endurance? I essentially take what I want to focus on, just two or three things, and then fill up those five days with mixtures of stuff within those elements.

What’s next for you?

I find myself in a strange crossroads—one I I’ve struggled with for the past year and a half— maybe because I am still really drawn to highballs, and I have highballs goals, but I also want to get into trad climbing.

I don’t want to make a career out of highballs because it’s only a matter of time before I get injured. So what’s another way to push myself mentally where it’s not quite as dangerous? Trad climbing came into the picture because it requires that same mental concentration, but you’re at least attached to a rope.

I have a personal goal: I would like to climb V14, 5.14 sport, and 5.14 trad. Just one of each. I am not trying to be a V14 boulderer or 5.14 trad climber necessarily, but for me personally it would fun.

In Climbing Magazine’s Climb a Grade Harder: 5.12 and Beyond online course, Williams demonstrates skills and drills with pro coach Justen Sjong. For the big boost you need to reach your own climbing goals, sign up today.