Anyone can hit the campus board and get strong, but a truly skilled climber is someone who can keep it together even when he is drowning in lactic acid, miles above the runner. Too often our inner caveman—the beast with no technique—asserts himself at the worst possible moment, and our panicky fight-or-flight response causes us to do the wrong thing, and take flight. Among the first things we hear when we start climbing are exhortations to “stay calm,” “relax” and “use your feet.” Prompts like these shape our technique in the early stages, but such advice eventually dries up, making it harder to take technique to the next stage.
One secret to advancing your ability is to understand exactly how your technique is thrown off when you’re outside your comfort zone. We tend to blow it because we presume that our subconscious always knows best. Humans are a climbing species, and certain components of our natural, default climbing style are helpful, but the key is to carefully define those aspects that are counter-productive and counterintuitive. In the heat of battle, no matter how skilled and experienced you think you are, you will always have that simmering tendency to do the wrong thing. These five counterintuitive technique pointers can help you go from Stone Age to Stone Crusher.
1. Don’t bang your feet
Everyone knows how important it is to place your feet accurately, so why refuse to when you’re pumped or scared? Nine times out of 10, you bang your feet when you’re maxed because you’re off balance, or, to be more specific, you keep your hips in the center as opposed to directing them over the active (higher) foot. Stand on the floor with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and then stand on one foot. You must shift your hips to the side, over the weight-bearing leg. A good climber’s hips will zig-zag up the wall. A bad climber’s hips will move in a straight line. So the next time you‘re about to drag your foot when you’re flailing at the top of a route, you know what to do. Shift, baby!
2. The biggest footholds aren’t always the best
Another classic symptom of being pumped or hit by adrenaline is to throw your foot onto the largest and most obvious foothold, even if it is in a bad position, either too high (which makes it hard to stand up) or too far out to the side (which throws you off balance and necessitates a giant rock-over). If only you’d had the confidence to trust those smaller dinks that were lower down and closer in, they would have enabled you to build your feet up in smaller steps. more to the point, if only you’d seen them in the first place. Next time the red mist descends, look again for your footholds and consider the position before you make a hasty decision.
3. Build the feet first, then reach
It’s a simple decision: either step up and then reach, or reach and then step up. I guarantee that when you’re fresh and on easy ground you’ll see the sense in stepping up first, so why when you’re redlining will you be so tempted to go for the reach? If you stretch for a handhold with both feet low down: your heels lift up, and you may slip and slam against the wall. Best case, you stay on but are tucked against the wall, lose visibility below you and have a nightmare trying to locate the foothold again. Yet when your fingers are uncurling, the handhold always seems more tempting. This is perhaps one of the most common reasons for failing on an onsight. Last year in Céüse I dropped from the last move of the onsight of a route that I’d been saving for 15 years, purely because I slapped for the pocket before building my feet. Coping with the failure was hard enough, without reminding myself that I’m supposed to be the guy who teaches this stuff!
4. Arms straight
Bending your arms wastes strength and restricts the blood supply to your forearms. It’s obviously smarter to hang from straight arms and direct all the force through your skeleton instead of draining your muscles, so why do you only do this when fresh and composed?
Once again, the straight-armed style does not come naturally. If you ask a beginner to step onto a climbing wall, using any holds, he will do so with straight legs and bent arms. an orangutan would probably do the exact opposite and pull on with straight arms and bent legs, but the natural human instinct is to stand and bend the arms and this becomes your undoing on steeper routes. Lowering the center of gravity is also counterintuitive because you’re focused on trying to climb up. The last thing you are thinking about is moving down. So the next time you’re holding a lock-off, shaking out, chalking up, or feeling for a hold, ask yourself if you could simply lower your hips and relieve the strain.
Related to this: you know that you shouldn’t lock off, pull up reels of slack and stretch up to clip from a tiny crimp when a better hold next to the draw would enable you to clip from a straight arm. But when you’re maxed you fool yourself. Perhaps there’s something different about this particular clip? No, there’s not. Think about it.
5. Don’t over grip
Over gripping is natural when you’re halfway up a rock face. It’s usually when you’re cruising on easier ground that you relax your grip as much as possible, but this is one of the first things to vanish when anxiety levels rise. Those moments of madness when you start trying to rip the holds off the wall are invariably the times when you should attempt to conserve grip strength. Similarly when you’re composed and thinking straight, you often stop to reassess how you are gripping a hold—perhaps there’s a sneaky catch for the thumb, or a hidden incut section, or maybe you can switch from crimping to a more relaxed open-hand grip?
For some reason, when you’re on the brink of taking a whipper, it’s usually a case of anything will do. How many times have you pulled back up the rope, only to realize that you weren’t gripping the hold properly? The answer is not to waste precious time faffing with holds, but instead make a split-second check of your grip. It could easily determine the difference between success and failure.
Feature image: Sean Bailey hanging from a straight arm to make a clip in the 2019 Toulouse Olympic Qualifier. Photo Eddie Fowke/IFSC