As the year wraps up, I’ve decided to write up a summary of my year as well as some things I’ve learned this year with climbing. I’ve been climbing for about four years total, but this past year definitely stands out to me as the year I experienced the most measurable growth as a climber. Case in point: In mid-February 2019, my hardest outdoor send was still a 5.10c but by November 2019, I was able to send my first 5.12a. I surprised the heck out of myself, as that achievement felt totally out of reach just a few months prior.
Here’s a brief summary of my year:
In 2018, I had sent multiple 5.10c’s and had tried several 5.11s as well, but had not sent any, nor committed myself to sending any. My biggest growth in 2018 was my mental game on lead, so as of January 2019 I felt like I was finally ready to step my game up and commit to sending a 5.11 in 2019.
In February 2019, Dustin and I took a 2 week trip to Red Rock Canyon. Despite 8 inches of snow (!), we still managed to get plenty of dry days in the Canyon to work on some of our single-pitch sport route goals. Early on in the trip, I was able to send Glitter Gulch, a 5.11a at Sweet Pain wall in only 3-4 attempts in a single day. Even though the route was soft compared to other 11s on the east coast I’d tried, I was ecstatic to finally break into the 5.11 grade. Several days later (after the snow had dried), I tried another, slightly harder 5.11a called Scorpions at Sunny and Steep wall. I was also lucky enough to send this route on the last day of our trip- it took me multiple days and approximately 5 or 6 attempts to send.
Fast-forward to this past summer/fall, and I had spent every weekend that I possibly could climbing outside at our home crag, the New River Gorge (commonly referred to as “The New”). The New, although perfect, bullet-hard sandstone, is notoriously reachy for us short folk (I’m 5’2 with a negative 2 wingspan…). However, my persistence paid off, and Dustin and I spent most weekends building our base of 5.11s. Some weekends, the only route we had climbed all 2 days was our designated “project” route, but the gratification we felt from finally sending it felt like we weren’t missing out on anything.
Early in the fall, persuaded by a friend, I tried leading a 5.12a, Starry, at the New for the first time. Despite hang-dogging the last 4 bolts, I surprised myself with being able to make every move. I fell in love with the movement with this particular route, and felt that the power enduro crux section suited my strengths as a climber. Although I still tried to convince myself that I was better served by continuing to build my base of 5.11s, I still ended up trying Starry most weekends I went to the New. In mid-November, after 9 or so attempts, I ended up sending my first 5.12a! I’m not going to lie, it felt incredibly gratifying and made all the countless hours of driving and hiking to the crag totally worth it.
Here are some strategies that helped me along the way from 5.10c to 5.12a:
1. Projecting Routes Outside…. A lot
This strategy probably seems pretty obvious from my narrative above. But I really think that climbing outside almost every single weekend (an upside of the drought that the southeast US experienced this year) between June and November was super beneficial for me. And more importantly, I spent most weekends projecting a single goal route that I had in mind prior to the weekend, which was usually in the 5.11a/b range. I tried to be thoughtful about the routes I chose to attempt, and would scour Mountain Project ticks for the routes I chose for any and all conducive beta that I could find. The New can be reachy, as I mentioned, so I ended up becoming a lot better at finding intermediate holds and finding high feet whenever possible. And more often than not, I sent my selected route by Sunday afternoon.
I also feel like this strategy helped my mental game a lot too. Even though I spent the majority of my weekday training in the bouldering cave, I maintained a strong lead head throughout this year due to all my constant outdoor mileage. I’ve even started to become okay with (gasp) runout sections on routes as long as the falls seem okay-ish. Consistency really is key in this aspect.
2. Hiring a Climbing Coach
This was another critical part of my growth as a climber this year. Even though I spent most weekends outdoors, I also spent a fair amount of time on weekday mornings training in the gym. In September, I found a coach through Instagram that specializes in creating customized training plans for female climbers. I bit the bullet and purchased a 3-month training plan. As of December 2019, I’ve continued training with the same coach and have been impressed by the results. I spend three 1.5 – 2 hour training sessions in the gym per week with a heavy focus on finger strength and power, as those both are weaknesses of mine. I’ve found it incredibly validating, as I know each training session is deliberate, and I’ve made gains quicker than I expected. Just this past week, I was able to do 1-4 on the campus board for the first time!
The downsides of hiring a coach is that it can be expensive. However, I personally feel it was worth it for me as I truly believe it helped (and will continue to help) me reach my outdoor climbing goals. It saved me a lot of stress of whether or not I was overdoing it in the gym and provided me someone to be accountable to… trust me, there is NO way I would ever that much core work if I wasn’t paying money for it.
3. Climbing With People That Are Better Than Me
I think this strategy is pretty underrated. But I probably would’ve taken my sweet time hopping on a 5.12 if it weren’t from the insistence of a friend who had climbed it before and knew it might suit my strengths. Stronger climbers (than you or I) can also sometimes give out pretty good beta and recommendations for other potential project routes, which can be way more helpful than depending on a guidebook or Mountain Project.
Seeing progress with my climbing really helped me believe in myself and take myself seriously as a climber. I previously always felt like I held myself back climbing outside, whether due to poor mental game or not believing that I could send a route of a certain grade. But through incremental progress, I felt increasingly psyched to get a little bolder with my climbing goals, even if they seemed a little scary at first. I felt psyched to put everything I had into training 3 days a week at 6:30 in the morning. I felt psyched to drive 4 hours one-way to the New most weekends, despite freezing temperatures and the possibility of coming away without a send. I felt psyched to try new-to-me routes, even if they felt intimidating at first. I knew deep down that working my butt off was finally starting to pay off for me and for me, that was totally worth the risk.