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Why You Ought to Try Harder Routes

Projecting climbing routes isn’t widely taught, so how do you learn this complicated art?

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I take climbing seriously. I’ve lived the dirtbag lifestyle, chased El Cap dreams, and been a gym rat. I’ve climbed many pitches of frozen waterfalls and embarked on remote alpine routes. I’ve prioritized climbing over relationships and put pebble wrestling above family. Yet I still don’t know how to project a route. Not only have I never memorized every move of a route and devoted weeks or months to its completion; I have never even had the motivation to work on a single route beyond a handful of tries. 

Frankly, I’m jealous of my grade-motivated peers who target certain routes and work them until they succeed; not only do they tend to progress faster through the sport, they seem to find more purpose in their climbing, which motivates them to put their heart and soul into each project. I meanwhile find it comfortable and easy to “train” by simply going into my local gym and climbing as hard as I can each session; but I’m frustrated by the plateau I’ve been stuck in for years. And I’d bet my #5 Camelot that most climbers are in the same boat. 

Which got me wondering: Why don’t I project? And why do so few climbers learn this specific skill? What’s the secret?

Nathan Hadley, a Seattle-based software developer, 5.14 climber, first ascensionist, and all-around crusher, understands why more climbers don’t take up projecting. 

“Being able to intuit how to read something is really rewarding,” he told me. He enjoys trying to onsight and flash routes, finding flow in climbing without rehearsing moves, and knowing that he can climb a wider variety of routes if he doesn’t spend as much time on an individual route—and he thinks that’s why most climbers don’t project much, myself included. (Why spend an inordinate amount of time on one route when there are so many routes to climb?!)  

But Hadley also recognizes that to climb his hardest, he needs to spend significant time on a route—honing the beta and muscle recruitment, and getting stronger by doing harder moves. “There is more potential to climb that upper limit [through projecting],” he said. 

Ally Cruz, the head routesetter at Edgeworks Climbing in Tacoma, Washington, has similar motivation for projecting routes. Climbing 5.12 was a barrier for her in the past, something that felt intimidating and out of reach. But the process of working harder routes made the grade feel more attainable over time, said Cruz. Now that she’s seen her effort pay off, she finds herself trying to convince her coworkers that trying harder things—and accepting that success won’t come easy—can change their climbing and adjust their sense of their own limits.

As a North American Ice Climbing Champion, rock climber, and elite dry tooler , Kevin Lindlau knows a lot about the art of projecting. For him it requires time, commitment, and a very analytical approach to climbing. Before he even touches rock, he tries to watch videos of other climbers sending his proj, giving him an idea of the movement and the possible cruxes of the route—a method that proved particularly useful when working his dream route, A Line Above the Sky (D15) in the Italian Dolomites, during a short trip from his hometown of Bozeman, Montana. (Some context: D16 is currently the world’s hardest dry tooling grade.)

When I asked him how I might start projecting, Lindlau told me to begin by thinking of a route that got me stoked. “Find something that inspires you,” he said, “so you don’t get burnt out or give up.” He also said it was important to find different goals, both long-term and short-term. “Find a dream route and then backtrack to find mini goals,” he said. “A lot of people go for their dream project [first] and get burnt out.”

Hone your process

Talking to each of these climbers, it became clear that, once you’ve identified a route that you’re psyched on, finding a process is essential. There is no right or wrong way to work a route, though there are common methods that projectors follow. Hadley likes to “give it a good [first] effort from the ground, even if I know I don’t have a chance,” while Lindlau likes to suss out the route and touch all the holds before he even starts to climb. After he gets comfortable with how the holds feel, Lindlau gets into the nitty gritty. “After figuring out where all the holds are, I’ll draw the whole route on paper with arrows on it with direction of pull.” He will then go bolt to bolt and try to physically do the moves. “I’ll stop at a crux and rest and then do another sequence. I’ll do that move 3 or 4 times.” After a day or two of going up the route and getting comfortable, he’ll take a rest day and then give it a redpoint try.

When he isn’t physically trying the route, he uses visualization tactics to memorize the sequence and get him in the right head space. “Once an hour I’ll go through the movement [in my head],” Lindlau said.

Hadley echoes the importance of learning a route. “You have to memorize the route. You don’t have an excuse not to,” Hadley said. He has seen too many climbers blow their send, not because they couldn’t do the moves, but because they forgot the beta.

Practice projecting in the gym

As a routesetter, Cruz has a daily pulse on the gym climbing scene. She finds that most members at her gym are “really here to just climb and not to send something.” Her observation resonates with me, as I find myself drawn to the gym for socializing or simply to blow off some steam from a busy workday. As a dedicated projector, Lindlau sees the gym as a place to hone his projecting skills. “Mini projects in the gym can be helpful. It gets you in the right headspace to find out what you need to do when you do go outside,” he said.

So why don’t people project more often?

Because it’s so damn hard. “Projecting is tough mentally because you are trying something at your limit. Each attempt is stressful,” Hadley said. But once you accept that it’s going to be hard, once you acknowledge that sending is not the only metric of success, it can be incredibly rewarding—as I myself have recently discovered.

That’s right: News flash! I found a project, and I’m totally stoked. 

Japanese Gardens (5.11+, 4 pitches) is located in Index, WA, and it felt impossible at first. The climb is sustained, very beta intensive, and involves a lot of precise smearing. After my first try, I almost gave up. I’ve climbed the grade before, but I’ve never put together that many hard pitches in one ground-up effort, which is my personal goal. But after speaking with Hadley, Cruz, and Lindlau, I felt ready to employ their tactics, and I’m hoping to discover the joy of really sticking with a route. 

I don’t fully know what I’m doing yet, and I’m still winging it, but I’m motivated and more excited about climbing than I’ve been in years. As a father of two kids under three years old, my time is limited, and I need to be focused to find moments to climb. I’m using methods like toprope soloing to work on my project when I have time, instead of relying on the schedules of my partners. I can do all the moves now, and that’s given me hope. I’m not sure I’m ready to call myself “a projector,” but I am smitten by this route, and I’ve discovered a new joy in this way of climbing. 

The only thing I’m left wondering; why did it take me so long?

Key Takeaways for the Aspiring Projector 

  1. Pick a climbing project that you are 100% stoked on, not just something you think you should climb because it’s classic or the right grade. 
  2. Figure out a repeatable projecting process that works for you.
  3. Break down routes into sections and memorize cruxes rather than trying to remember the entire route. 
  4. If you are stuck in a plateau, projecting can help you break out and have fun climbing again. 
  5. Learn to try hard  without taking it too seriously; If it’s not fun, you aren’t doing it right!