This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 195 (July 2011).
One of the most important performance skills is the ability to maintain good technique in high-pressure situations, and one of the best ways to achieve it is to work from a checklist of the most common mistakes that crop up when you’re climbing by the seat of your pants.
In the heat of the battle, instincts often take over and we ignore the highly counterintuitive, learned aspects of climbing technique. Last issue this column tackled five mistakes. This issue we take on five more. At the end of this article, you should have a good idea what to do next time you’re staring down the crux with your forearms feeling like balloons.
6. Stalling on cruxes
Why is it that when you reach a poor hold you stop in your tracks and waste time wishing that it was bigger? Stalling won’t make the hold get bigger or you feel stronger. If you’ve sussed the hold once or twice, sized up your feet and located the next handhold, then all you’ll achieve by delaying is increasing your pump and reducing your chances. If you can retreat to a good rest, then feeling around for a better grip might be viable, but a common error is to hold back for no good reason. The smallest hold on the route is the one you want to spend the least time on.
7. Tunnel vision
A surge of adrenaline has the effect of narrowing your vision. This primal response may prepare us for combat, but in a modern climbing situation it can cause some of the most irritating and easily avoided failures. By forcibly reminding yourself to “look wide” when the pump kicks in, you will be much less likely to miss crucial holds.
Acknowledge that when you are pumped or scared, you are less likely to spot rests or decipher sequences. Often, rests require you to break the climbing sequence and step to one side. I remember being way too amped for my own good while trying to redpoint Punks in the Gym (5.13d) at Arapiles, Australia, a route that I’d wanted to climb since childhood. Having fallen off the last move and split my fingertip on the third day, I found the only rest on the route by accident while lowering down. Infuriatingly, it involved shuffling half a move left and changing feet. The busted tip prevented me from nailing the route before I left but I know that if I’d had my eyes open, that rest would have made all the difference.
8. Forgetting to breathe
If you can take one thing for granted, it’s that you’re going to be breathing during a climb. But the chances of you breathing in a manner that maximizes your prospects for success are about a million to one, unless you make a conscious effort to override instinct. You naturally hold your breath during cruxes and then gasp off the oxygen debt afterward when you make it to a good hold. When a degree of fear enters the equation your natural breathing becomes even less effective as you suck thin, shallow and rapid breaths through your mouth and make yourself even more anxious. Entire books have been written on breathing but the key is to remind yourself to breathe deeply and regularly. By lengthening your exhalation you will naturally induce a
deeper inhalation. This is undoubtedly hard to remember when you’re fighting through a crux and effective breathing is often the last thing on your mind.
9. Not shaking the key arm
Picture this: You’re pumped out of your mind and you see the clipping hold. What do you do next? Option A: you go for it and then realize that you don’t have enough reserve in the tank to pull up the rope, so you’re forced either to grab the draw or pitch. Option B: you hang back, shake the arm you’ll be using to make the clip (perhaps even to the point that the other hand virtually uncurls) and then you take the clipping hold and make the clip with ease. This important tip for pump-management can also be used to enable you to save strength for a poor hold at the crux when you’re maxed-out. Of course, it requires that crucial extra bit of planning and restraint that so often evades us in the heat of the battle.
10. Not stepping through
This is the big one for anyone transitioning from vertical routes to overhangs. Most of us learn to climb on vertical walls, and master the parallel-hips style. When you see a foothold to the left side of your body, you use it with your left foot, and footholds on the right get used with the right foot. This approach works perfectly well on vertical walls, but has disastrous consequences on steep walls. First, you are forced wildly out of balance as your hips barn door away from the wall as you make each reach. Second, you must use extra arm strength to make each move. The net result is that most low- to intermediate-level climbers think that overhangs are impossibly strenuous.
It comes as something of a revelation to realize that there’s an alternative method that makes overhangs feel much easier. By stepping through and using the outside edge of the opposite foot (i.e. placing your left foot on a foothold to the right) you twist your hip into the wall and bring your body into balance. Better still, you can make the reach with your arms virtually straight, by twisting your torso instead of blasting your biceps. Other important variations to this technique also need to be learned and practiced—the drop-knee, the inside and outside flags and so on—but the key is to remember that this is not a natural way to climb. Even a 5.13 climber, pumped out of his mind, 10 feet above a bolt on a wildly overhanging wall, must remind himself to step through.
Neil Gresham has been training and coaching for two decades. In 2001, he made the second ascent of Equilibrium (E10 7a/5.14X) on Peak District gritstone, and last year established Freakshow (8c/5.14b) at Kilnsey, also in the U.K. On October 13, 2016 he made the first ascent of Sabotage—an 8c+ (5.14c) extension to Predator (8b/5.13d) at Malham Cave, North Yorkshire, England. Sabotage is Gresham’s first climb of the grade.