This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 179 (July 2009).
Can you provide background for a quote that I read from Malcolm Smith? He said, “Finger strength is everything and if you lay down a foundation [at] between 14 and 18 years old it gives you a real advantage, both in terms of performance and avoiding injury.” Is this true?
—Mike Jonas, Commack, New York
Malcom Smith made the second ascent of the world’s first 5.14c when he repeated Ben Moon’s Hubble in the U.K. back in 1992 at the age of 18. Malcolm became notorious for his fiendish dieting and training regimes and for achieving incredible power levels in a very short period of time. Regarding his quote, I don’t think this is something that we can prove, but serious anecdotal evidence supports it. You can’t expect to reach your full potential in any sport with a high power and skill element if you get into it late in life. There are two important corollaries here. First, Malc was talking about reaching world-class levels. You can still make massive finger strength gains in your 20s and 30s and climb some very hard things. We all know that progress slows down a little and in general it becomes trickier to avoid injury in your 40s and 50s, but you can still get really strong. Staying healthy boils down to the way you train rather than age. It is possible for a teenager to completely break himself with poor training practices and for a veteran to get super-strong without the slightest tweak. The key point is to be progressive.
Consider also that finger strength is only “everything” for bouldering and short power routes. If you shift the focus to endurance-based climbing in your later years then you are less likely to notice that you missed out on power training. Not only do humans hang on to endurance slightly longer than power, but it also seems that stamina-based climbing is less stressful on the body than bouldering. A recent example is the aging British rock star, Stevie Haston, who redpointed an enormous 5.14c roof in his mid 50s! Of course it is possible to list older climbers who have climbed extremely powerful routes or boulder problems, but most of these climbers have built up that strength from an early age, and so I guess they support Malcolm’s theory rather than disproving it.