My bouldering season is winding up, whether I like it or not. I'd love to get in another trip or two, and I still can, but spring weather is moving in and leaving me itching for those feelings of managing pump, skipping bolts, and keeping focused over the course of 80+ feet of hard climbing. It's been a successful season on the boulders, though the goal of V10 has narrowly avoided a send on several occasions. Three V9's and a few iconic southern V8's did allow my passage, and those are more than enough to leave me smiling.
As the seasons change, so too does my training. My power is at an all time high, and I finally feel like I've discovered what it means to boulder. I bouldered like a boulderer, and less like a route climber. Of course, what that means for my route climbing is that I'll be much stronger... but on my first day back on the rope... it felt more like disaster.
Well before I tied in and clipped that first bolt, I expected I would be in for a beat down. I knew that the "rhythm" of climbing routes would take some work to rediscover. I knew that being pumped above a bolt would elicit worry and breaks in confidence. I tied in anyway, and it was worse than I imagined. I said "take" 15 feet up a 5.11. After nearly 4 months of only bouldering, I'd have been better off soloing the routes. Stopping to clip every few moves (I was in the gym... bolts every 6 feet) completely threw me off. Not only was I trying as hard as I could on every move, but clipping felt like the crux move on a V7. All I could do was hang on the rope, scratch my head, and make excuses. Where the hell is my crash pad when I need it?
By the end of the night I had barely eeked out a send on the steep 11 that had stopped me cold earlier, and narrowly repeated an 11 that I had warmed up on last fall. The one 12 I got on felt like 5.14 to link. A full day of rest later, I was back in the gym, beneath the lead wall, and tied in. I warmed up slow, feeling the rhythm of climb/clip/shake, and forcing myself to pause and breathe, rather than blast to the top. After taking a bolt-to-bolt run to remember a sustained mid-12, I was able to send it easily, downclimb the 10 next to it, and nearly send the 12 again. I finished off the session with an encouraging couple of rounds of "Diminishing Returns". Game on.
Fact is, training hard gives us certain expectations toward our performance. No matter how unrealistic, we expect that if we give it our all in the gym, we'll go outside and 100% of our work will transfer over to real rock and performance situations. I wish it were that simple.
If you're transitioning from bouldering to routes like I am, you can expect a little (or a lot of) frustration. When building your power, you teach your body how to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible to complete difficult moves. While this builds animalistic power, it is the absolute opposite of what we need to do to succeed on rope length pitches. Before you can go out and send the route of your dreams, you'll need to get comfortable up there, just as you've become on tiny edges above a distant crash pad. If you're an experienced route climber, getting comfortable again should only take a few sessions on the rope. If you're switching over to routes for the first time, set your bouldering ego aside, and prepare to be humbled.
As hard as it may be, resist that overwhelming urge to go out and get on the project you've been dreaming about. Mix it up by trying onsights well below your limit, and by doing routes you've done dozens of times, but in both cases, leave your ego on the ground. It's going to feel harder than it did when you were in your best route climbing shape. If you're new to routes, start even slower. Build up to where you think you should be by doing lots of routes a full number or even two numbers lower than your goal. The key is to move slowly, confidently, and pay attention to your breathing, and maybe most important, your rhythm.
This is easier said than done. You've spent all this time telling your body NOT to relax, but to try hard all the time. Now you're asking it not to try so hard. Talk about confusing! The trick here is where your focus lies. When you're bouldering, the send is only a few moves away. Here, you've done 20 moves, but you're only 1/3 of the way up this monster. Stop focusing on how hard you have to try for the next move. Instead, watch your feet carefully make contact with the footholds. Listen to your breathing. Feel your heartbeat. When you reach a clipping stance, don't immediately pull up rope. Hang out there for a second... relax... clip when you're ready. At a good stance, look around. Remember why you're up there, and why you love doing it. And know that you've trained all winter to try hard... but can save it till you really need it.
Find Your Rhythm.
Everything moves in it's own specific rhythm. The Earth, your heartbeat, Fred Nicole. I recently saw an interview in which Fred says that he's tried to climb fast, but he can't do it. Fred climbs like, well, Fred. Nobody else moves that way, and that's ok. Ultimately you should aim to move like you. Sure, practice climbing in several speeds, but when it comes down to it, move how you feel most comfortable. While on a rope it will likely be different than while on a hard boulder problem. Keep in mind that rhythm is not all about speed... but more the fluidity of each individual movement. It may be dynamic or static, powerful or graceful. What's important is that it's YOUR rhythm. Once you're inside it, the whole experience takes on a new synergy.
You've trained hard, and you have all the pieces at your fingertips. The performance will come, if you let it. Take a deep breath, relax your mind, leave your ego at home, and let's put this puzzle together.