Climbing hard with a fulltime job is … hard. Projects take longer to finish, after-work sessions at the crag can fall flat because you’re too smoked to try hard and reaching your goals in a sport that requires dedication can prove frustrating, all because of accumulated fatigue, lack of time and demotivation. I've landed a job that is all about climbing, but after a full day of writing, editing and obsessing about climbing, hiking to the crag in waning spring light to have a go on my project usually bears little fruit.
That's why I take notice when someone with more on their plate than just climbing steps up and climbs really
hard. To me, the world-class weekend warrior is more inspiring than any full-time pro pulling down another sick-hard line.
Scottish climbing polymath Dave MacLeod once tried to define these rare individuals, writing:
"Beware the focused weekend warrior. At their best they can be among the fittest and most gritty athletes out there. They know exactly what they want, they know their resources and abilities really well, and their time is precious—so they’re gonna get that next hold because they can’t come back tomorrow."
Recently, a dude I'd never heard of, from a small village near Zurich, Switzerland, established a V15. Embedded in the cluttered news matrix of futuristic achievements by the usual suspects, Martin Keller's V15 first ascent of Gepresster Hase
almost went unnoticed for me. As I started reading more about Keller's send, however, I began to suspect that he was a member of that extremely rare tribe I find so intriguing. Reports of Keller's 10-year projects and the 100-plus attempts needed to send his latest masterpiece seemed to verify my suspicions. And sure enough, after a little research, I discovered that Keller is indeed a world-class weekend warrior.
In fact, Keller spends the majority of his time not climbing. As a business and economics teacher for a high school and technical university, the 36-year-old Swiss boulderer has his hands full. So much so that when I approached Keller about an interview, he graciously agreed, however, as the deadline drew near and he still hadn't responded to my questions, I got worried. I dropped him a reminder to which he replied:
Had to step in at work for somebody who was sick. I am sorry it took longer than expected. That's the problem with a "non-pro"—work comes first....
Keller eventually found the time between establishing cutting-edge boulder problems and working full-time to answer my questions, and give insight into the life of a world-class weekend warrior.
R&I: How many years have you been climbing?
Must be around 14 years of intensive climbing. I climbed a few times a year at a local crag and occasionally in the gym when I was a teenager. But I never had time to climb as much as I wanted because I was playing soccer and had practice basically every day. I had a redpoint level at route climbing of 5.10b at that time. It was not until I turned 22, until I quit soccer and together with my brother and a friend built a woody in our parents’ garage that I started the big adventure of climbing.
R&I: How did you start bouldering?
The first few years I did just indoor bouldering during winter to get strong for route climbing. In 2002, I began bouldering for the first time outside. It was at Cresciano, Switzerland, and I hated it! After two hours my skin was gone and I had climbed nothing. I was quite strong but had absolutely no technique for the slopey gneiss holds and the often non-existent footholds. I swore to myself to never do this again.
Well, I got bored of route climbing with pumped forearms and falling off "easy" terrain because I just was too pumped. So I started to climb shorter, bouldery routes and the next year a friend took me to a secret spot called "Avers”—Magic Wood these days. We had no guidebook, but he kept telling me how amazing the area was. There was no bridge to cross the river, but after walking through the ice-cold river and entering the wood, I was blown away by the beauty of the area. I climbed my first boulder and instantly knew what I would be doing that summer. Bouldering in the magic woods ...
R&I: You recently climbed your second 8C [V15]. How did you discover this project and how many days did you invest into climbing Gepresster Hase?
Ten years ago I was at Sustenpass, Switzerland, for bouldering. I got introduced to the various problems and there was this very hard looking stand-start problem called Pit Bull
, 8A+ [V12]. By the look of it I was wondering if there would be a possible sit-down-start. There were holds but nobody had climbed it yet and I was still very far from being strong enough. But since then this thing was in the back of my mind. Over the years I climbed all the classic lines at that boulder, got stronger, and one day I put my pads down and started to try and find a way to link the holds into a sequence. I was not able to link into Pit Bull
but found a sequence a bit to the left with great compression climbing. It was a nice little line by itself. I started to work on it in fall 2011 and was able to finish it in fall 2012. I called it Kein Schneehäschen
(V13ish). Already back then I was asking myself if it was possible to start lower. Together with a friend I tried the lower moves. The good news was that we were able to do them, but the bad news is that we had no chance at linking more than two out of the eight moves. Not to mention linking the Kein Schneehäschen
at the end of it. Then I injured myself, spent eight months in rehab, and trained for the first time on a campus board. As a result, I got stronger than ever, and spent summer, fall and even the beginning of the winter 2013 working the problem. I was getting really fit and managed to stick the crux move but dry-fired off. In early spring this year we got an unusual weather window with dry and warm weather over several weeks. The road was still closed (I had to ski, hike and bike up) but I managed to pull it together after a few days back on it.
If it is an "8C" [V15] for somebody else, we will see in the future. There are 8B's [V13s] I cannot do the single moves on. So maybe it's just an 8A+ [V12] for somebody else. Honestly I don't care. It was a great process to transform something impossible to possible. It's a personal experience that involves so much more than a number. And that's something I like so much about climbing. It does not matter if you climb 5A or 8C. From the beginner to the professional, everybody can test his limits and everybody can live through these kinds of experiences.
R&I: What was a typical day/session on this project like for you?
I would work till noon, eat lunch, maybe take a power-nap, drive up to the parking, walk or bike 45 minutes to the boulder. Eat something. Warm up on some easier moves, brush and tick the holds, do the single moves, start with attempts, rest 10-to-20 minutes between attempts (normally I had three good attempts) and then climb some laps on the sequences of the Highlander project which is just to the right.
R&I: On the day of the send, what was different? What happened and what did it feel like?
It was quite different actually. It's something that just recently Chris [Sharma] described in a Rock and Ice interview
: That you have to really want something, but that you have to let it go at the same time as well. I’ve heard that before but it never made too much sense for me. I mean how can you go fast and be slow at the same time? The day I sent the boulder, the weather forecast had been bad for the whole weekend, so I went out for a pretty wild party night with my girlfriend. Getting up at noon, I checked the weather and it was way better than expected. I still felt trashed from the night out and I thought maybe some holds were still wet, but I just wanted to make use of the good weather and go for a training session. When I arrived at the boulder the conditions were perfect: 10 degrees celcius [50 degrees Fahrenheit] with a bit of wind. On the warm-up I still felt weak, but I felt better with every move. On the send I hit every hold perfectly, every move was done exactly right, not even a minor error. It felt hard but I was in control and suddenly I was facing down the last hard move. I did not believe I would stick it—some days I had been barely able to do it as a single move—but I just went for it and I hit that last hold perfectly as well, but nearly fell off because I was so surprised to still be on!
As I topped it out the sun came out from behind a cloud—it was nearly too perfect. I spent 20 minutes up there on top of the boulder, laying in the sun reflecting on the last one and a half years and soaking up the silence and the beauty of this place. It was a great moment, for sure, but just one part of the journey.
R&I: You also recently established Nike (V14), a problem many considered impossible.
Yes. Back in 2008 a friend and I unlocked the very tricky sequence to this nice little roof-crack in Brione, Switzerland. It was the same day that I managed to grab the third ascent of the super classic Confessions
, V13 in Cresciano, but I was barely able to do the single moves on Nike
. Every year I went back a few times to try it and eventually did the first ascent of the straight up version and called it Supertussi
V13 (still unrepeated). But that was not the line we originally wanted to climb so I went back again and again ... falling again and again on the last hard move. This May, a crazy weather window with a lot of wind created conditions I’d never experienced before. I still managed to fall on the last move once and therefore worked out some new micro-beta. Luckily I managed to send Nike
just before the weather window closed again.
R&I: This problem was an open project, right? Why had nobody climbed it?
Yes, a very old project in a very popular sector. There is obvious beta but it's super reachy and very hard. Strong guys tend to try hard beta. Compared to the other guys climbing in the upper grades, I don't have that much raw power so I often have to figure out a way around the really hard moves. It was exactly the same here. We figured out super tricky beta, which was still hard but climbable. I love it when it's not just about power ;).
R&I: How do you train?
My climbing is my training. I like to feel fresh and strong when climbing so I normally take two full rest-days, which means I climb two-and-a-half days a week. Most of the time I try to climb some nice boulders at my limit and once a week I try to do some cross training (body tension, antagonists). When the weather is really bad (in winter) I don't go out at any price anymore. Instead I go to the gym and work a bit on a campus-board/hang board and do some boulder-cycles later in the season to get some power-endurance. Twice a year I take some weeks off from climbing.
R&I: You've been described as a "regular guy" as far as having a full-time job, struggling to find time to climb, yet climbing as hard as the pros. Is this accurate?
I don't think that there is such a thing as a "regular guy" out there at all. But some climbers are maybe a bit more “comfortable” than others. I've never just gotten something for free. I always had to work hard. Like heading down to Ticino to climb after work while friends go for a beer. Or dismissing a bright career in a bank or insurance company to scramble on stones. Or trying to climb one of these stones over several years again and again. All of that needs a certain amount of passion and stubbornness. I started focusing on climbing hard at an age others retire from it. But it's great to see how far you can come if you really want something and if you are really willing to work hard for it.