“I’m tired of being weak,” I told Nina Williams. Six of us were on an editorial trip to Cayman Brac in December 2018, and earlier that day I’d been shut down on the difficult dyno crux of a 5.13 at Dixon’s Wall, In Vino Veritas, that she’d hiked the first ascent of, flashing it with energy to spare—and calling the dyno “V4” with a semi-sadistic grin upon lowering. That night while our group savaged the buffet at the resort where we were staying, I talked about my frustrations.
“I’ve never really trained for anything—just gotten by doing what I could,” I continued. “But I feel like something needs to change.” Now in my late 40s, I was seeing the inevitable power decline of middle age. But of course, like the stubborn, old-school climber I am, instead of facing the facts about my plateaued climbing, my outsized ego, and my longtime training aversion, I’d kept puttering along, conflating just climbing whatever had fresh tape on it at the gym with actual training. (Note: Just because you’re in a rock gym doesn’t mean you’re “training”—you’re just climbing…on plastic.) Or, on my more “serious” gym days, doing some light-duty bouldering circuits, then finishing out on the auto-belays for the “ultimate pump.”
And so, you know, staying fit enough but never really getting stronger.
When Nina offered to develop a training protocol for me for Big Poppa, my spring sport-climbing project, I jumped at the opportunity. With sends up to V13 and ticks of all of Bishop’s most terrifying double-digit highballs (Ambrosia, Footprints, Evilution Direct, and later, Too Big to Flail), she knew her material. That night, we talked about goals, strengths, and deficiencies. As we climbed together on Cayman Brac, Nina noticed that I can climb lots of pitches in a day and can hang on forever—endurance wasn’t the problem. But she and I both agreed that I just didn’t have much torque—the sort of snappy, jumpy, speedy-and-precise Grr you need to tame cruxy sport climbs.
So, to build raw power, Nina prescribed twice-weekly MoonBoarding as the central foundation. I was also supposed to campus (sorry, Nina, I bailed), deadlift (umm, about that…), and do weighted pull-ups and max hangs (OK, I did do these—good job, me!). Then, as the months wore on and I had built a power base, we’d focus on power-endurance with 4x4s and route-climbing doubles, all while keeping the power high with ongoing MoonBoarding and max hangs.
Back in Boulder, February 2019, day one of my training plan at the Boulder Rock Club (BRC) with three months of MoonBoarding ahead of me: There I was up at the MoonBoard on the second floor, getting my ass roundly and fully kicked, despairing, bouted, wondering how I was going to effectively use this tool on which I could barely do the easiest problems, the “V3s” and “V4s.” As I scrolled through the app on the tablet mounted to the wall and lit up problems, I struggled to find my flow. The holds seemed way too small, crimpy, and distant. I struggled to locate the lights under the grips (or to remember whether I was supposed to grab the hold above or below the light) and, being unfamiliar with the grid of holds and each hold’s unique orientation and peccadillos, didn’t know how to best grab them. And I had no idea what to do with my feet, conditioned as I was by commercial setting to expect a scattering of helpful foot jibs—and so my feet would rip off the wall, leaving me swinging away from the 40-degree overhang without the requisite core tension to reel it back in. I just wanted to go back to the bouldering cave downstairs and do laps on 15-move problems that suited my enduro-pig style, that flowed and felt easy. Fuck this falling off six-move, sandbagged, jumpy problems shit! I thought. I just wanna go climbing.
But then something Nina had said came back to me: “It’s going to be hard to keep you from climbing,” she’d said. “Because you like to climb a lot”—as in, volume.
“But our goal here is to get you to slow down, train, and focus on power,” she’d continued. “You’re probably going to hate it at first, but give it a chance.”
OK, I’ll give it a chance.
That day at the MoonBoard there was another climber, much stronger than me, well-versed in how to move on the dynamic problems. As he methodically worked on his projects, doing them off memory since I was using the app to light up the jugs for my paltry efforts, I could see that he’d taken the time to learn the nuances of the holds and techniques like the MoonKick (swinging your leg to generate momentum or a dyno), the ubiquitous MoonBoard hand-foot match, and rocketing upward off the small, sloping kicker-panel footholds to snag the grips in the middle of the wall. He was using the tool well and effectively, and moreover looked like he was having fun.
“Man, these problems are hard,” I said to him at one point, probably after punting off my fifth V3 in a row. “Does it get any easier? Like, I can barely hang on.”
“It does, eventually, yes,” he’d said.
“Do you think it’s helped you get stronger?”
“For sure. You just need to give it time.”
OK, I’ll give it time.
* * *
My second MoonBoard session went better. This time, I waylaid one of the coaches/setters at the BRC, Aubrey, and asked her to walk me through using the app, as well as for pointers on problem selection using its filter feature. Like me, Aubrey is height challenged, and she said that she’d struggled with many of the problems until she realized she could just move on from ones she didn’t like or that seemed too stretchy getting going off the kicker panel.
“And sometimes I’ll just add a foothold,” she said, “or use the screw-ons.”
“Also,” she said, “ignore the ratings. Just look for problems that look good to you.”
As green as I was to MoonBoarding, I still thought I had to tick a bunch of problems at a given grade before moving on to the next. Little did I know that the grades are infamously sandbagged and that there are “V3s” on the board that are harder than the V8s—and so the ratings are often irrelevant. As my friend Remy, an experienced MoonBoarder, would later put it, he’d worked out an equation: Take the grade, cut it in half, then add that half back to the given grade to get the actual rating. So V6 would be V9, V7 would be V10, and so on. A test drive of any of the benchmarks (go ahead, give Mitch Master Hard a quick spin) would seem to confirm the logic. MoonBoard ratings are a world unto themselves, a bottomless vortex of one-upmanship sandbaggery, and you just have to take the problems for what they are regardless of the grade. If it looks like you can pull on the holds, great; if not, move on.
For the uninitiated, the MoonBoard is on its surface a relatively simple training tool that is in fact infinitely complex. It’s an 8-foot-wide by 12-foot-long flat wall with a grid of holds set in 18 rows (numbered 1 through 18) and 11 columns (lettered A through K); the most recent set of holds, the Master’s 2017 set, has a hold in every spot in the grid. The holds are situated in the same spot on every board (with that particular hold set), and are rotated at prescribed angles corresponding to the cardinal directions. So, for example, hold H10 on every MoonBoard with the 2017 set would be the big, white, incut jug, with its rotational arrow pointing north. Each hold also has an LED under it that lights up to denote the holds on a problem, with green being your starting hold/s, blue being hand and/or footholds, and red being your finishing hold/s. Having this standardized grid lets users the world over try the same problems using an app that interfaces with a database of problems. Thus the Ben Moon V4 Blade Runner would be exactly the same on every MoonBoard. The only variable, really, is the wall angle, which is either 25 degrees overhanging or 40 degrees overhanging (or can be adjusted through that spectrum if you have an adjustable frame, like the Grasshopper Industries one), though the condition of the holds—especially the 10 sloping yellow footholds on the kicker panel—can certainly influence difficulty.
One of the coolest features of the board is that the problems are crowdsourced, plugged into a database by users. With 198 holds on the 2017 set (and 140 on the 2016 set), the options are essentially limitless. As of September 2019, there were 55,205 problems in the database. Meanwhile, users can comment on and log problems, and each grade also has myriad benchmark problems. The benchmarks tend to be the best problems, with wild, engaging, consistently difficult moves; they also tend to be the most difficult, and ticking a benchmark V-whatever-at-your-limit can take days. (“I work with a small group of MoonBoard “administrators,” says Ben Moon, the founder of Moon Climbing and a top free climber for the past 30 years, of establishing benchmarks. “Firstly, we try and seek out the classic problems and then check to see if we feel the grade is about right to be a benchmark. We also look closely at other users’ comments to see if they agree with us. It’s a pretty tough job.”)
Watch many of the online “MoonBoard Porn” videos online and MoonBoarding doesn’t look so bad. Grab a couple holds, put your feet on, jump for a grip, put your feet back on, repeat a few times, snag the top of the board, jump down. Voila, easy! However, almost all of these videos are filmed head-on, flattening out the angle, belying the true effort it takes to generate momentum at 40 degrees past vertical. And the climbers posting are often very strong—and have worked on the problems for god-knows-how-long. The wall’s difficulty is not an accident, but is in fact by design, going back to the late 1980s in Sheffield, England when the “wads” (strongmen and –women) in this pre-rock-gym era trained on “cellar boards”—sheets of plywood with small wooden grips screwed on, or what we in the US called “woodies.”
In an essay he wrote about the MoonBoard, Moon details the wall’s genesis: “In the late 1980s I was frustrated by the lack of training facilities, and so I followed the example of my friend and training partner Andy Pollitt and built a training board in the basement of my terraced house in Sheffield, England.” Moon’s wall, like others of the era, was rudimentary—commercial holds were only beginning to emerge, and so he used “rough cuts of wood” on a short wall that led to a framed-out ceiling. But it was all he needed: spending most of his “time on the roof of the cellar swinging around footless on the pieces of wood,” Moon cultivated the raw power to establish Hubble at Raven’s Tor, a six-move V13 start to The Whore of Babylon (5.13b) that is likely the world’s first 5.14d, freed by Moon in 1990 and then undergraded at 8c+ (5.14c).
“My basic training board … was one of the main factors in the success and opened my eyes to the effectiveness of simple wooden training boards,” wrote Moon.
In 1993, Moon and other Sheffield climbers established a training cooperative in an empty 30-by-30-foot classroom at the Anns Grove School, an old Victorian school where the Sheffield City Council was renting space to local artists. Here, in what became colloquially known as the “School Room,” the climbers honed their fingers on three different walls: a 50-degree-overhanging wall, a 30-degree-overhanging wall, and a 10-degree undercut overhang. Moon, Gavin Ellis, Jerry Moffat, Malcom Smith, Stuart Cameron, and other top climbers established problems on the boards, whose holds remain fixed in place, allowing for the creation of benchmarks at each grade.
From this unassuming classroom sprung the MoonBoard: Ellis one day suggested that Moon devise a standardized commercial wall based on the School Room problems. In 2005, Moon and Rich Simpson created the original MoonBoard using, wrote Moon, “geometric shapes that mimicked the pieces of wood we had trained on in our basements and then in the School Room.” These holds, the “Originals,” as well as other specific hold sets, ended up on a handful of MoonBoards throughout the world. In this pre-app era, MoonBoard users could download and submit problems through the Moon Climbing website; there was, in essence, a PDF-driven, crowdsourced guidebook online.
In 2016, Moon Climbing released its 2016 hold set (which includes the “Original School Holds”—the tiny yellow crimpers), the LED kit, and the app, and by 2018 there were roughly 2,000 MoonBoards worldwide. (As of press time, there were 3,000-plus worldwide and counting.) In 2017, the MoonBoard Masters set came out, featuring the Original School Holds plus two new sets—Set C (the red holds) and the notoriously punishing Wooden Holds—and optional screw-on foot jibs. The MoonBoard has now become a ubiquitous tool, be it in climbers’ homes or garages, or at your local gym. Most anyone who’s serious about training has recognized its benefits for core strength and power—one professional climber I spoke to, with multiple 5.15 redpoints to his name, has scaled back his campusing, saying the MoonBoard gives him everything he needs to cultivate explosive power.
“The style of climbing is very basic, and the focus is on strength as opposed to technique. There are no tricks to climbing the problems. They rely mainly on pure strength,” wrote Moon. “Often the problems involve big dynamic moves between small holds where your feet need to cut loose. The key is having the strength to control the swing and get in position for the next move.” Using the MoonBoard as part of his own training regimen, Moon himself has continued to see gains in his own climbing. Last November at age 52, he repeated Jerry Moffat’s savage 1995 climb Evilution (5.14c) at Raven’s Tor, and has come very close to redpointing his longtime project Northern Lights (5.14d; FFA Steve McClure, 2000) at Kilnsey, a climb he first started trying in 1993.
By session two, even I—47 years old, a desk jockey, and a stressed, tired, overwrought father of two very energetic little boys—began to notice gains. This time, something clicked, and I began to understand the style. My muscles began to adapt, and the aggressive movement even began to feel pleasurable—and would, over time, become something I came to crave, going through “MoonBoard withdrawal” if I didn’t get a weekly fix. Jump, control the swing, feet on, jam the shoulder blades down the back, suck in the core, toe in hard, set up, CRANK for the next grip, rinse and repeat, get in position to latch the finishing hold, launch, stick, match hands, jump down, BOOM! There, at the BRC, alone up at the board on the second-floor deck at 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, snow, bathed halogen orange by streetlamps, blanketing the cars outside the big picture window, I began to “get it.”
This is really fun, I remember thinking. And it seems to make you stronger. That day, I was finally getting up stuff, and it was a cool feeling. For the first time in a while, I felt like a “real” climber, clinging to tiny grips on a radically steep wall like I imagined Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra do. I felt like a superhero, not some washed-up, two-kid-having Napa Auto Parts dad. You had to dig deep just to stay on, with a feeling of “I can barely hang this hold but I’m going to readjust my grip and try to crank for the next hold anyway.” It’s a hard sensation to re-create indoors, and one I’ve usually only found on the crux of a hard-for-me sport route, a limit boulder problem outside, or on occasion a well-set gym problem (you know, one with holds and logical sequences—not the usual span moves between giant slopers or, god forbid, that loser parkour crap). Do moves like these over and over for a one- or two-hour session once or twice a week, and suddenly your finger strength and power ramp up. Which is exactly what I would come to see as the weeks wore on.
I could get into this, I thought, dusting my hands with chalk between burns. Like, for the rest of my climbing life.
* * *
There’s a slang term video gamers use, OP, which is short for “overpowered”—your character is so leveled up and decked out in the most powerful ammo, weaponry, skill upgrades, etc. that he’s overpowered against any threats in the gaming environment, or against other players in head-to-head combat. Think of it like a V13 boulderer firing a V6 in the gym—she’s overqualified for the challenge and so to her it feels easy.
My goal for the spring was Big Poppa at Staunton State Park in the South Platte region of Colorado. My friend Dave Montgomery had bolted the route, put in days of effort, then given up, opening it up to me and a few other friends. I’d put in eight or 10 days of attempts in summer/fall 2018, and for a while was seeing new highpoints. Essentially, Big Papa breaks down to thuggy 5.12 for four bolts to a wave of black rock. At the base of the wave, you sink a kneebar, shake out, then dive into an unrelenting, 22-move sequence that ends only when you snag an incut flake at the wave’s crest.
Big Poppa is one of the those routes that you can sort the individual moves on quickly, and so lures you in to thinking, “Well, maybe this won’t be so bad.” But the reality, again, is that there’s no rest throughout the crux section—and you have to stop in the middle of it to make a precarious clip. The two times I’d gained a new highpoint up in the second crux, I’d exploded off the wall with dead, leaden forearms—staring up breathlessly at the 10-odd taxing power-endurance moves barring passage above.
And then I began to regress. And then in early October it snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more. When Halloween came bringing more bad weather, I tore into the surplus of trick-or-treat candy my kids had brought home, putting on a polar-bear layer of winter fat, giving up any pretext of trying to stay in shape for this—or any—climb.
My goal with Big Poppa was to return to the climb in spring 2019 feeling OP on the first crux—the layback section—so that I could segue into the second crux with energy to spare, punching it through the power-endurance hell above to reach the jug instead of falling off because my hands were opening. Or, barring that, to at least be strong enough to make it through the first crux consistently so I could keep pushing the high point. With 2018/2019 being possibly the single worst climbing season in recent memory, with snow starting in October and not ending till May, I had plenty of time to focus on this goal.
By my third session on the MoonBoard, what had begun as hate and turned into curiosity and stoke had become a full-blown obsession. I posted on Facebook asking friends to share their problem lists so I could have high-quality options already loaded on my phone, trolled through the app at night before going to bed looking for new problems that seemed appealing, watched YouTube videos of people MoonBoarding, and began to keep a list of projects I returned to over various sessions. Former nemesis problems became part of the circuit as I wired them out, and with all the other training Nina had me doing, in addition to four or five different lifts in the weight room and my daily yoga, pushups, and core, I began to see performance gains—at least in the gym.
I came to covet my MoonBoard sessions, and would often get to the gym when they opened, at 6 a.m., to have the board all to myself. Some days I’d even do double sessions, bouldering at a gym in the morning then going to my friend Phil’s house in the p.m. to MoonBoard with him on the 2016 set in his garage facility, the “Pain Box.” Gangster rap blaring, chalk motes thick in the air, we—a couple middle-aged sport wankers—pushed each other on the little white, black, and yellow crimps like two overstoker kids on the junior bouldering team. As I boarded with Phil and other friends, I began to pick up the key techniques: the Moon Kick, in which you swing one leg in the air like a pendulum to generate for a dyno; the my-foot-is-so-high-I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-on-the-wall hand-foot match you can do on the bigger grips; the mini-bicycle, in which you bicycle your feet on a single hold to keep them both on, which somehow works because the holds stick out; and the “kicker-board jump,” in which you push off the sloping feet on the vertical panel below the wall to jump for and latch a hold in the middle of the wall, a technique that cultivates precision and power and lets you reel in surprisingly small crimps.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to be OP when it came time to try Big Poppa again, but I kept working in that direction. As spring wore on and the weather failed to improve (I was hoping to try the route by April, but would not get up there until June), I realized that I’d become so enthralled by MoonBoarding that I wanted—OK, needed—to have a wall in my garage. When my wife and I had moved into our current home, in 2012, I’d built a garage wall that quickly fell into neglect, especially with the arrival of our second child. And so, in stages, I began to prep the space for a MoonBoard. After ripping out the old 40-degree overhang, installing a side-mounted jackshaft garage-door opener to get rid of the old ceiling-mounted one that blocked where the wall would go, clearing out, storing, donating, recycling, and tossing seven years’ worth of “saving sticks” and “collecting rocks,” random toy trucks, disintegrating pool noodles, and single, laceless shoes, it was time to put in the board itself.
This latter phase, while the most labor intensive, was also the easiest and most satisfying, mainly because we had a leg up in the form of a Grasshopper Industries Adjustable Climbing Wall. If you’ve ever built a home wall from scratch, then you can appreciate what a slow, laborious, and tedious (infinity-squared trips to Home Depot) process it is. However, with this prefabricated frame, fellow MoonBoard addict James Lucas and I were able to have the frame itself assembled in two quick half days, with roughly another day for hoisting it along with a contractor friend, Jacob Neathawk (also a climber), who cut the hole in the attic and helped us mount the cables, pulleys, and hoist.
The Grasshopper is an ingenious invention, an adjustable-angle wall you can put together with just a few simple tools and that’s been set up, with 436 T-nuts and LED holes, to be compatible with the three main light-up walls currently on the market: MoonBoard, Tension Board, and Kilter Board. Grasshopper Industries is the brainchild of two men: industry pioneer and bad-ass rock climber Boone Speed, a Salt Lake City climber who was the first American to establish 5.14b, with Super Tweek in 1994, and a product designer who was an early hold shaper for Pusher and was on the team that designed the first wiregate carabiner; and Jeremy Huckins, a climber and industrial designer who’s worked on such projects as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, helping create the world’s largest digital camera (3.2 gigapixels), which will be brought to the telescope’s site in Chile to photograph the night sky and help scientists probe the mysteries of the universe. The men knew each other through the climbing scene in Portland then both moved to Salt Lake, where they’ve set up shop with their business. Grasshopper currently offers the Adjustable Climbing Wall and the Freestanding Adjustable Climbing Wall, and is also working on the Ninja Board, a smaller wall, at 7-by-10-feet with no kicker panel, designed to fit inside most any room in one’s home.
After the wall was together, a final four-hour push with James, Nina, and I screwing in the MoonBoard holds, and we were good to go. The night after our hold-setting push, I went out and climbed on the wall after work for its inaugural session, blaring hip-hop and techno, running through favorite problems with the set screws jangling in my pocket that I’d then drill into each hold upon confirming its orientation. By the time I was done, it was midnight, and I took off my shoes and curled up to rest on the futons at the base of the wall. I must have dozed off, because I woke up at 1:30 a.m., the cat having wandered into the garage, nuzzling my face to see if I was still alive.
I had big plans for the home MoonBoard and Big Poppa. We’d left a 20-degree overhang, ceiling panel, and a 15-degree overhang in the garage adjacent to and facing the MoonBoard, and I’d envisioned simulating the Big Poppa experience by setting a 20-move 5.12-ish route across these features that then linked into the board. Here, I figured, I’d do a MoonBoard V6, drop down, swipe my phone, do a V5, drop down to swipe the phone again, and finish out on a V4, thus re-creating the three back-to-back cruxes on the climb. I pictured whipping myself into a sweaty, panting, power-endurance frenzy, doing this maybe once or twice a week to prepare for the exigencies of the Big Poppa, which I figured might take me all summer to redpoint.
But in reality, I never got that far, because I didn’t need to. The truth was, all that MoonBoarding had made me OP. I just didn’t know it yet.
* * *
My first day back on Big Poppa, I almost did it. It was June 8, a Saturday, the first warm weekend of the season, and my buddy Bennett and I headed up to Staunton to hang the draws and have a look. The wall was a mob scene—“This is everything I hate about climbing,” Bennett said drily when we rolled in to a fracas of climbers, dogs, and kids, though oddly no Bluetooth speakers or hammocks. But we made do, navigating the crowds, which we of course were a part of. By midday I felt limber enough to have a look at Big Poppa, which by virtue of its red tag was practically the only route not occupied. It appeared that nobody had been on the climb since the autumn season, as there were no draws on the upper three bolts and not much chalk.
My first burn went well enough—I did most of the initial crux layback sequence without falling, getting reacquainted with the beta, feeling sufficiently powerful to get into the awkward body position required. But on the second crux, I noticed something different: the terrible, pimpy sidepulls and crimps felt way more useable, almost as if my fingers had been Velcro’ed to the holds, and it took way less effort to bring my feet up and get the high left heel hook that sets you up for a moment-of-truth, MoonBoardian snatch to the “ice cube,” a small, square brick of a crimp that is uncannily similar in size, shape, and orientation to the next-to-last (crux) hold on the V6 benchmark Hard Times. It was as if I’d been transported onto another, easier version of Big Poppa—one with the same moves but slightly bigger grips.
On my second burn, on crux one, I almost stuck the good layback at the top of the soap bar, but botched my hand sequence and fell. Hmm, I thought. That didn’t feel that bad. Curious about what it might feel like to try to link the full crux section—both cruxes plus the outro—after a winter of training, I lowered back to the start of the first crux and rested a bit. I then proceeded to fire through to the jug at the end of the crux section, and from there to the top.
Whoa, holy shit, WTF?!
This was unexpected. I figured I had multiple days of effort in front of me before I reached this point. But suddenly, on day 1, here I was, linking the entire crux section. Now all I needed to do was add the 5.12 intro, and I had it. Was today going to be the day? Had all the training paid off? On my third burn, I made it to by far a new highpoint, sticking the ice cube, bringing my right hand up to an intermediate, then…panicking. I had never been here before on redpoint, and like an actor so consumed by stage fright that he forgets his lines, locked up. I stabbed half-heartedly for a sidepull up and right, forgetting that I needed to maneuver into a drop knee to reach it, and then jumped/fell, taking a 20-footer.
“Damn, that was close,” said Bennett.
“I know,” I said. “It was completely unexpected. I just forgot what to do…”
I returned a week later and redpointed the climb on my third burn of the day. It was a miserable day, cold, wet, windy, and stormy, with only two other parties at the crag, one of which—Matt and Tom—was also trying Big Poppa. Staunton is a long drive plus a long walk, so we all made the best of it. Eventually enough rain fell that the top, 5.12- exit got soaked, necessitating a new sequence left of the bolts on a handful of incut sidepulls that stayed “dry enough.” On my second burn of the day, I made it to my previous highpoint but numbed out in the cold, jumping off to preserve energy. I didn’t hold out much hope of sending that day, as I climb terribly in the cold, but after Matt and Tom each gave a burn, I figured I’d give one more effort. The rain had tapered by then and the sun shone wanly through the clouds, warming the air beyond the gloomy Dungeon.
I strapped on my kneepad, tied in, borrowed my friend Ryan’s heated chalkbag, and began to climb. With the sequences engrained over so many attempts, I moved on autopilot, up the thuggy, 5.12 refrigerator to the kneebar at bolt 4, straight into the first crux, grunting, huffing, beasting on the laybacks, quick clip and shake of the right hand at the sloper, then right away into crux two, ticky-tacky, ticky-tacky, jack the feet high, left heel on, slap the intermediate arête, drop the right foot down to the “rainbow smear,” then left hand to the ice cube where, for the first time I felt like nothing was “wrong” and I might as well keep going.
Then, a few moves higher, I hit the power-endurance wall, as I had on so many other efforts. Right hand on the good sidepull I’d whiffed off a week ago, left hand on a roughly textured gaston, I reached up into a right finger-slot. And began to ooze out of it. Then I felt my hips sag, core wilt, and body begin to peel leftward, away from the rock. I was two hand moves from the jug, staring at it at the top of the vertical seams.
No, damn it, no, no, no! I had not trained so hard only to fail here. All those cold, lonely, sleepy mornings were not going to be for nothing. And then I remembered: You know what to do. It’s the same as the MoonBoard.
Giving a Chris Sharma power scream, I tightened my core, shrugged my shoulder blades violently down my back, and kipped my hips into the wall just like you do on the board to re-engage after a swing. And suddenly, as my body realigned with the rock, the finger slot became usable again. I reached up to the final left gaston, placed my right foot on a knob, and stuck the jug for the first time ever from the ground.
“Whoooo!” I yelled, my body flooding with endorphins and relief. “Yesss!” Ryan, Matt, and Tom celebrated with me, then I picked my way slowly to the top, taking care not to slip on the wet rock. Back on the ground, Ryan, who more than anyone had supported me with belays and encouragement, gave me a big bear hug.
The journey was over. The training had worked. The MoonBoard had done its magic, and I hadn’t even needed to do the punishing power-endurance circuits I’d envisioned because the thing had made me OP—and a hell of a lot tougher and more apt to try while climbing. Each and every problem on the board is so difficult, making you dig deep for some good, old-fashioned try-hard. Meanwhile, everywhere else you climb, all other holds feel like jugs by comparison to the board’s tiny grips. And so you start realizing your goals. It had been a four-month education in what I really needed to do to improve as a climber, and a lesson I would not soon forget.
I’m sharing this story with you because I believe that if I can pull this off and realize what initially felt like an unobtainable goal, then so can you. We are fortunate to live in a time in climbing history when it feels like, finally, climbers are training in a smart, focused, scientifically sound way, with the evolved tools to support them. This is not like the 1980s when you starved yourself, blew your elbows out doing fingertip pull-ups on the hangboard, tweaked your shoulders on the Bachar Ladder, did some random weight lifting, and had no gym to train at in the off-season but instead were relegated to doing silly shit like traversing on flagstone walls.
No, today, we have amazing inventions including adjustable climbing walls like the Grasshopper that fit in our homes, and light-up, app-driven, database-supported wall setups like the MoonBoard, Kilter Board, and Tension Board that give us access to an infinite number of boulder problems. I feel like I’m stronger now, at age 47, than I was even in my mid-20s, and with a Grasshopper/MoonBoard just 20 steps away from where I sit typing, there’s no reason not to keep improving. Again, if I can do it so can you, and if you’re serious about getting better at rock climbing, there is likely no better tool than these.
MoonBoarding Tips and Tricks
Here are a few tidbits I picked up along the way, both from other climbers and based on my own experience.
- Wear semi-soft, downturned shoes: I know this sounds like a no-brainer given the wall’s aggressive angle, but I have seen people trying to MoonBoard wearing flat-lasted shoes like TC Pros. It did not go well for them.
- Warm up elsewhere: If you can, don’t warm up on the MoonBoard—even the “easy” problems are way harsh first thing in your climbing day. Instead, spend 30 to 60 minutes doing routes or stepping up through the grades in the bouldering cave before you fire up the LEDs. If you have no other option, you can warm up on the MoonBoard by doing the easiest problems in “pitches,” a couple moves at a time, until your muscles are warm and firing.
- Brush the holds while you rest: Again, a no-brainer, but not everyone does this, and especially at the gym, this quickly leads to unusable holds. Brushing also helps you familiarize yourself with the grips and their location on the grid, as certain holds seem to be more popular than others and get used with greater frequency.
- Don’t tweak your fingers: If a hold initially feels tweaky, move on to another problem. Also, don’t try any single problem more than three or four times in a session, to likewise avoid injury (repetitive strain).
- Work problems in sections: One beautiful thing about the MoonBoard is that it’s not so tall that you have to re-climb the bottom of a problem every time just to work the top. It’s easy to pull on and work individual moves or sequences in sections. Sometimes I’ll break a project up into two or even three sections before trying to link it.
- Don’t be a “Benchmark Barney”: The benchmarks are among the best problems in the database, but they aren’t the only good ones, so don’t get sucked into only trying those. I’ll often search for new or unrepeated problems, and have learned from experience to tell which ones might be good and which are trash—and I’ll often add the good ones to the problem lists on my phone to revisit later.
- Quit while you’re ahead: It can be tempting to go till the very end with your MoonBoard session, until you can’t hang on anymore and are blasted. But every time I’ve done this I paid for it afterward in the form of a creaky-fingered, deep-rooted, no-power fatigue that took four to seven days to lift. It’s better to stop, as with all power training, while you still have a little gas in the tank—the focus, if working on strength building, should be on quality not quantity. I’ve also found that MoonBoarding more than twice a week or doing so two days out of three (even with a rest day in between) is overkill.