By: Nate Drolet
If you haven’t already read part one and part two of this series, be sure to check them out.
Part three: My training in December and January, how I spent my time in Hueco to keep preparing myself for sport climbing, and what I’m doing from here.
Not everything went according to plan over the past three months, not that things ever work out perfectly, and now my plans for the near future have swapped around a little bit. We’ll start with December and January training, and you’ll be able to see where things went off the rails after we make it to Hueco.
In early December I left the frozen and rainy Red River Gorge empty handed after far too many gross days spent at Bob Marley crag trying Southern Smoke (14c) and the boulder problem that makes up the direct start. I was happy with how I did on Southern Smoke as well as the boulder start. I hadn’t trained for big steep caves, but I still felt like I climbed well on the route.
After Richmond I drove down to Chattanooga to catch up with fellow Power Company coach Paul Corsaro and to continue working on a shoulder strength resource that we’ve been developing. Paul is an avid learner and is one of my favorite guys to talk strength and conditioning with. While I was there, I was also able to get out a few days with a client who was in town, which included a perfect weather day of circuiting in Stonefort.
With these two stops completed I finally made my way to Houston.
Step one was to review my season, looking at what went well and what could have gone better. After that, I took what I learned from this last fall and applied it to my training plan for the spring.
Spring Goal: To send Southern Smoke and to complete the boulder problem on the Direct in isolation (to climb from the ground to the third bolt of the direct).
General Approach: I knew that I would spend just over a month in Hueco Tanks, so I wasn’t worried about developing power for the direct boulder. The boulder is hard, but I decided going in that I would rather overcook my fitness and be able to send Southern Smoke with the boulder to come back to, rather than be strong enough to do the boulder but still not be able to do the route.
With that in mind, I decided I would spend the six weeks before Hueco predominantly working on my endurance and only worry about getting a few hard bouldering sessions in to get back in the swing of things right before leaving for Hueco.
You might be wondering why, as someone who has never climbed 14c before, I would be projecting both Southern Smoke (14c), and Southern Smoke Direct (14d) at the same time. My reasons are as follows:
Southern Smoke feels hard, but is my style and feels doable.
The opening boulder feels hard but is also my style and feels doable.
I have a terrible track record for returning to climbs I’ve already done to do link ups, alternate starts, or extensions. If I want to do a link-up, I do best doing it right after the original rather than waiting to come back when I’ve forgotten all the beta and have to relearn the route.
Because of my bouldering background, the direct boulder feels like it will come together faster or at the same time as the full route. Working them together makes sense to me.
These climbs are AMAZING and super fun to climb on. Not always the case with hard climbs.
Real talk: I want to climb 9a.
While in Houston I followed a High/Low program (polarized training) like what I’ve done in the past while preparing for sport climbing. This means that I alternated between easy volume and short hard sessions. I first used this method in 2013 with a lot of success for sport climbing, and it was the first time that I ended a sport season still feeling powerful for boulders. Because fitness was my goal, I heavily weighted the ratio towards endurance work.
My high days consisted of circuiting boulder problems at around 80-90% effort on the Tension board. The goal here was to get quality work in on a wide range of holds and styles. These were typically 90-120 minute sessions with 2+ minute rests between efforts. Low days included much higher volume on either a treadwall or on easy boulder problems in the gym. This would typically be around 2-3 hours and rarely go above v5.
While I personally think that High/Low is an amazing way to train, the biggest thing that I advise to anyone trying it is to really take both sides (high and low) to their extreme. High days should be hard but brief, and low days should be very easy. The biggest mistake that I see people making with this is that their low work starts to creep up towards medium work, and they make their hard days last too long. When this happens, your high work suffers. You get stuck in the dreaded middle zone where your training is too easy to get you stronger, but you’re still getting tired all the time. If you do this type of training right, the low days seem like a test of will for those of us who enjoy trying hard every day.
Two weeks before the trip I cut the volume work out, only bouldered for a week, and followed that by taking the entire last week off before my trip.
Overall, I kept things simple. I added some leg exercises like banded monster walks, Nordic curls, Copenhagen planks, and a few other things to get my legs ready for the strenuous heel hooking and drop knees that happen in Hueco. This was the longest that I had been consistent with these exercises before a climbing trip, and I can say with certainty that this was the strongest my heel hooks have ever felt and the healthiest my legs have been after six weeks of hard pulling in Hueco. There were several heel hook problems that shut me down in the past that I either climbed quickly this time around or was able to finally do the moves on.
First half of the trip: Focus on longer power endurance projects. I like trying hard. Even though projecting is often counterproductive to developing fitness, I told myself earlier this year that I would dedicate part of my trip to staying uncomfortable. While doing this, I wanted to make sure to have full climbing days as often as I could so that I could develop all-day fitness.
Second half of the trip: Volume. Lots and lots of climbing. For this second half my staple would be repeating boulders. I’ve been climbing consistently in Hueco since 2011 (inconsistently since 2005), and there are plenty of hard boulders that I haven’t been on since I did them seven plus years ago. I wanted to go back and repeat climbs that were challenging for me, predominantly styles that were similar to Southern Smoke. If a problem worked well for what I wanted, I might repeat it 5+ times in a single day (which ended up being the case several times).
I’m happy overall with how things went in Hueco. I can’t say I did everything perfectly, but I stuck to the plan.
Day one, I went out and repeated several old hard for me problems including a first try repeat of a V10 that I hadn’t been on in years, and sent a new V9. After a year with a lot of sport climbing in it, and mostly climbing for volume while in Houston, I expected to feel fairly powered down, but that turned out not to be the case. It seemed that my back and forth training of bouldering and sport all last year did a good job of keeping my power up.
During my first week back I went to one of my dream boulders, Full Throttle (V13). Within a few minutes on it I realized I was feeling the strongest I’ve ever felt. It’s a long steep boulder that takes nearly two minutes to climb, so it fit my project criteria well. Not to mention, this boulder is AMAZING. The moves came together quickly and I was making plans to come back to it before the session was over.
While trying Throttle, I also started trying Right Martini (V12), a 30 move roof boulder that feels more like a route than a problem. It seemed like the perfect pairing to go with Throttle.
Up to this point I felt like I was doing things well and sticking to the plan. However, without realizing it, I had picked two boulders with crux holds that are very strenuous on the right pointer finger in strange ways. It took me awhile to realize because I was so focused on climbing the problems before the heat rolled in. By the time I did notice, it was too late.
I was afraid that the weather was going to heat up at any moment. Rather than mixing up my climbing with different intensities during the week, I spent more days on hard projects than usual for me. In the end, I tweaked my right pointer finger pretty well and had to step away from both boulders.
I’ve long been a believer that injuries like this don’t happen on their own and that if you are paying close enough attention, they should be manageable, if not mostly avoidable. Because of that, I think it’s important to explain how this happened.
Hueco typically starts to get hot around the time of the Rock Rodeo (mid February). When I realized how close I was to doing Full Throttle, I decided to go all in and try to get it done before the heat arrived. I was taking plenty of rest days, but I was only climbing on Throttle and Right Martini, both of which are incredibly taxing on the right pointer finger. The finger began to get a little achy a few days before it finally became serious so I decided to take some extra rest days before going back to Throttle.
It would have been smarter to step away from both boulders for a week or so and try other things, but I felt like my weather window was closing. The day it finally became serious, I felt a twinge on the crux hold of Throttle on my third go of the day. I stepped off and didn’t try the boulder again for the season.
This was an avoidable injury.
Upside: I now have the belief that I can climb the next level up from what I have before. This was the first time that no matter what I tried, I felt significantly stronger than in the past. Even though I had to back off from hard problems for my finger, I know what I’m capable of going forward.
Downside: My finger was tweaked badly enough that I couldn't ignore it and wait for it to get better. At this point I was still optimistic, but in the back of my mind I knew that changes would likely need to be made to my spring plans.
After taking a few days off for my finger, I still had another two and a half weeks left, so I decided to carry on with the plan and start circuiting.
Circuiting went well and turned out to be a lot of fun. Despite not being able to crimp on my right hand, I felt even stronger after my two weeks of circuiting than I had when I first showed up to Hueco. I was forced to fully open-hand all the holds with my right hand which simply meant that some things were out of the question, but I was able to work up to V8 crimp problems only open-handing, which I was pretty happy with. That said, there were V5’s that I couldn’t do because of hold shape and how painful it would be...
Return to Houston and what to do from here
Once I got back to Houston I reassessed the finger without the bias of being in one of the best boulder fields in the world. Simply put, it’s not great. With it being how it is, I’ve decided (with extreme pressuring from my friends) that the smartest thing to do is to take care of it now so that it doesn’t become a long term injury that I deal with for extra months or years.
My plan now is to spend March working on full-body strength and rehabbing this finger. I’m also mixing in some harder open-hand hanging work using my Tension block since open-hand doesn’t bother the finger at all, and the extra blood flow feels good for it. I’m using the block for this because it’s much easier to load up weight on it for rehab purposes rather than using a pulley to take weight off while using a hangboard.
Southern Smoke is off the table for the spring. I’m not certain what my sport climbing plans are from here just yet, but getting this finger back to 100% is my first priority. Initially, I wanted to go west to Smith and the VRG for the fall, but plans might change now that I missed my opportunity to get back to the Red. Fortunately, I have plenty of time to figure that out.
Overall, I’m optimistic. I’m really happy with how my climbing felt in Hueco, I made a mistake that I know to look out for now, and once I’m healthy I know exactly where to pick back up so that I can keep the ball rolling. In the meantime, this gives me a great opportunity to sink some dedicated focus into some Power Company projects that I’m really excited about and working on a few climbing weaknesses that I’ve been putting off for a while now.