On the first go, I worked out all the moves. By the third try, I had already linked from the ground through the first crux, which was, people told me, the hardest link to do. By my third week on it, I was really close to climbing through the second crux, too. A few secure kneebars separated the second crux from the third if only I could get to them, and then only one more boulder separated me from the chains.
“Somehow, I think I’ll actually get this done quickly,” I told a friend.
“Yeah, I believe it,” he said, having watched me progress so quickly. It was shocking because this Rifle route was the hardest I’d ever tried. Sure, I’d done one other of the grade, but this was known to be stiff. I’d put time in “building up my pyramid,” as they say, so I was up to the challenge. But challenges aren’t supposed to be easy.
A year later, after months of regression, after pumping off lower and lower on the climb, after suddenly being inconsistent on that previously mastered first crux, I finally sent. What the hell happened?
J.M. Blakley is a famous lifting coach. He holds a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Metaphysical Sciences, and he’s broken numerous world records for bench press and powerlifting. My partner loves to quote him, his favorite being:
“Make the gains happen. Drill holes in the plates if you have to, but make the gains happen.”
“That’s dumb,” I said the first time he said it.
“Is it?” he asked, like he knew something I didn’t.
Progress is almost never linear. Ever seen those clips of buffalo running off cliffs’ edges? Humans are like the buffalo: predestined for long plateaus and eventually grave failures.
But once, in Corsica in 2016, I did achieve something I’d entirely given up on. It was a six-pitch route that I’d swore to my sponsors and my partner would be easy for me. At the time, I’d sent two 5.14s very fast, and since the crux pitch of Delicatessen was only 5.13d, and since we’d be spending four weeks on the Mediterranean island, there’s no way I wouldn’t send, right?
But I had only ever climbed on steep limestone. And, as a comp climber, my trips outside numbered in the tens. So when I encountered a slabby granite monolith, I found myself way outside my wheelhouse. For three weeks I tried really hard. Like really really hard. I cursed. I cried. I bled. I told myself I could do it. I told myself I was doomed. I cried some more and I bled some more. Then I finally sent… the 5.11 pitch. And our trip came to its final week.
“We need to think about going for the push,” my partner Ben said. He had already sent each pitch cleanly, and while he was saddened by my lack of progress, we were running out of time. It was clear I needed to become his support.
“I’ll haul the pig,” I said, pretending to be fine with it.
On push day, something happened. Perhaps the divine forces took pity on me, or maybe I unknowingly made a deal with the devil when I whispered my hopes and dreams to a nearby squirrel. After my partner sent the 13d pitch, I focused solely on climbing quickly, so that he wouldn’t be freezing out in the winds and looming rain. Somehow, I climbed through the runnel, a shouldery sequence that I usually slipped on. Somehow I made it through the weird sloper po-go move. Somehow I made it through the high heel hook. Somehow, following on toprope, I made it to the chains.
“How the hell did you pull that off?” he asked, nicely, but in disbelief.
I shrugged, ecstatic. But I knew: I sent because I stopped focusing on even caring about sending. Had I been holding myself back the whole time?
When I did send that project in Rifle, it was 90-degrees and something like 80 percent humidity. I was tired, having arrived in the canyon at 2 a.m. And was that big tub of ice cream I’d downed the night before really setting me up for success? None of that mattered, though, because I had beat the route into submission. Through various methods, I made it so that success was not only possible but inevitable over time. I clipped the chains with energy to spare, and I thought maybe Blakley was onto something.
We are not masters of our destinies. But we do have choices in our lives, and in that sense we are co-creators of our fate alongside what is beyond our control. So how can we set ourselves up for success? Consistent, linear success, that is.
You can’t drill holds or chip routes, if that’s what you’re thinking. This is not powerlifting. And you may not be able to take pressure off yourself in the way I was able to in Corsica. But there are ways to generate and maintain momentum, making the question not if but when. You just have to stop stepping on your own toes.
How to Progress on Your Route Continuously and Send:
1. Break it Down.
Conduct a big-picture assessment of your project. Learn how it naturally breaks down and then make a list of subgoals. Start by writing down the easiest, smallest links and progress to the bigger, harder ones. These should be steps, numbered one through whatever. (Many of my own route maps require 10 or more steps.) Make sure you’re not just writing down links from the bottom: you should be going for middle links and eventually low-points, too. Having these attainable small goals will help you maintain self-belief, psych, and a sense of progression. If you really want to go to the chains of your project every working day, then give yourself two tries per day: One in which you attempt to send the link you’re focusing on, and then the next to explore the route in its entirety.
2. Show Up.
The most important part of the path to success is consistency. You have to, as Blakely said, make the gains happen. I remember knowing as a youth competitor that I had a shot at making the USA National Team. But I was 12 and not sure how to make it happen. I’ll never forget what my coach said when I asked.
“You think you’re done when you leave practice? You’re not. Go home and do push-ups, pull-ups, and core. You have to try harder than everyone else if you want to be better.”
And she made this important caveat: Giving something your all means so much more than training. It means recovery. Nutrition. Mental health. Stress levels. Balance. At the end of the day, everything matters when you want to push your limit. Show up for yourself consistently, and you may just get consistent progression.
3. Learn and Evolve.
Keep an open mind. In Corsica, when I was working the 13d pitch, I struggled with a reachy move between razor crimps. I’m 5’4” and my partner was 5’9” or maybe 5’10”. After a few half-hearted attempts at using his beta, I said I’m not tall enough for that beta. I proceeded to be flummoxed and frustrated for two more weeks before trying his beta again, only to find out that it worked. As you work on your route, be open to suggestions and possibilities, and be willing to revisit methods that didn’t at first feel possible.
In 2017, I lived in Victoria, British Columbia, with a Speed World Record holder. He was a beast of a man, training six hours a day, five days a week. You might be surprised to learn that much of his off-season time was spent lifting weights, not climbing. When it came closer to competitions, he’d jump back on the wall and… slip. A lot. At first I was alarmed on his behalf, but he was unphased. It was always like this. “You get faster and faster on the wall until you plateau. Then you go get stronger, and when you come back to the wall, you have to relearn it to some extent, because you’re pulling harder. But then you get faster and faster until it’s time to restart the cycle.”
I’m no speed climber, but I’ve found that projecting routes over a long period of time can have a similar process.
4. Renew Yourself.
Trying hard is hard, and you won’t be able to keep it up forever. Planned breaks in your training will rejuvenate your body and mind and mitigate risk of injury. And you will come back stronger from it.
It wasn’t a planned break, but I’ll offer up this anecdote regardless: In January my partner and I started a heavy training cycle. One of the initial measurements, at least for my partner, were one-arms. He could do four in a row and he hoped to up that by the end of the cycle. Then, one night after training, we visited his sister and her boyfriend at her apartment. We sat on her couch and on the floor in a circle, catching up while the TV played a video of a fire on loop for ambiance. I remember watching the reflection of the fire on the window behind where my boyfriend’s sister sat. It rose into the night, dancing amber and vermillion. But it wasn’t a reflection from the TV. The hood on her jacket had caught on fire from a candle behind her. Did you know polyester and cotton are incredibly flammable?
My boyfriend noticed right before it took her hair. He pawed the flame out in one strike, saving her head while severely burning his hand. He couldn’t climb for about two months, which among other things really threw a wrench in our training schedule. He could have biked or done some sort of cardio. He could have worked out his legs or core or stretched. But he didn’t bother doing anything. Instead he meditated. He ate good food. He relaxed and watched Netflix and took walks. He tried to enjoy the time off.
Within two weeks of returning to the gym in March, he easily surpassed his one-arm record…doing 10 in a row. Training, as it turns out, is just as much about trying hard as it is about self-renewal.
5. Trust the Process.
As long as you’re showing up to the gym and the route and following your steps and taking your recovery seriously and eating right and managing your stress and getting enough sleep, you’ll eventually send. Easy, right? Yes, it is, so long as you manage your expectations about what you can do in a given period of time. Part of what makes a limit-project challenging is that it involves a complex plan. You can’t just learn how to do one-arms to send some gnarly 5.14+. You need to to tackle many different things over time, and nothing is going to come quickly. You may start to feel overwhelmed or discouraged from not seeing results. Be patient. Trusting that you’re walking the path will get you much, much further than trying to force fast results.
6. Try Being Nice to Yourself.
Don’t fall for your own bullshit. It doesn’t help to boot up for the route and tell yourself, “I’m not strong enough for this.”. It might sound like some hippie trope, but you will believe what you think. So try replacing your self-doubt with a clear vision of where you’re at and where you’re headed.