Is it actually better to climb harder?

Most climbers want to get better at climbing.

I ask all my clients what motivates them, and progression is the most common answer. Generally I’m of the mind that progression is a great goal and motivator. But I think progression has downsides which are rarely discussed.

Angelina Jolie, V10. Falling on the next move for like 8 years straight has been really fun.

There are two obvious reasons we want to progress: First, so we can perform better on our selected objectives. And second, so we can have more climbs available to try.

However, if we’re not mindful of our reasons for climbing, getting better at climbing can be a form of self-sabotage.

Imagine that you spend your entire spring season projecting a 5.12b. After many days and tons of emotional investment, you’re staring at the chains, only to whip off before you can clip them. Let’s say you double down on this investment, and spend the entire summer training for this one project. You’re effective and committed, your training works, and you get notably stronger. You send the 12b on your first day back on it. So you set your sights even higher. You spend the rest of fall repeating the entire “epic at the chains” process on a 12d.

Maybe after that, you realize that serial projecting isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, so you decide to do all the 12bs at the crag instead. After another furious winter training cycle, you spend the next spring tearing through all the lower 12s. Now you’re out of new 12bs. Where does that leave you in fall? Right back on the 12d project again.

The crux hold I broke off my 13c project after spending 20+ days on it this winter. Fun!

This story makes performance climbing sound like a hamster wheel. The truth is there are probably a thousand inspiring moments and happy memories in any of the seasons I just described. And not losing those moments in the frenzy of trying to send something is one of the points I’m trying to make.

Our reasons for wanting progression were to perform better, and have more climbs to do. But as we progress, we just keep selecting harder objectives. And while we have more climbs available, we also go through them faster. Couldn’t we find just as much satisfaction by picking easier things to try in the first place?

I remember watching Nalle Hukkataival’s V17 video a few years ago and feeling mostly pity. “What a bummer for him,” I thought, watching him suffer through grim Finnish conditions to connect a few of the hardest moves ever done on rock. “If he was as weak as me, he’d have amazing V10s and V11s to project all over the world.”

I’m always harping that identity, logistical ability and life circumstances have a bigger impact on climbing performance than max hang numbers. Part of the reason for that is because it’s a lot more complicated to change those big things than it is to train your fingers year after year. If you climb out your local crag, getting your fingers stronger becomes a lot less meaningful – at that point, your path forward would have to involve a major change like a move or a job change.

Grades are supposed to be linear, but the effort necessary to progress through them is exponential. It might take 10% more effort to go from V4 to V5, but it takes ten times the effort to go from V11 to V12. Strength becomes harder to even maintain season to season, much less make gains. High-end technique becomes bafflingly individualized and complicated to analyze. Poor tactics that we used to be able to overcome with raw determination can ruin a session, or if we’re unlucky, a whole trip.

Most climbers are not in any danger of actually running out of climbs to do. Gyms and boards are an infinite playground of projects. Even still, many of us reach a point where we feel we’ve easily done everything that’s easy, and yet can’t manage to scrape our way up something that’s hard.

This “easy is too easy, hard is too hard” is the liminal space of climbing progression in which many climbers find themselves. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

It should be obvious now that what makes some climbers able to continue to be satisfied, and to continue progressing, is their ability to focus on other things besides the progression. It’s not about the climbs, it’s about the climbing. We have to find satisfaction with the climbing part. If we aren’t satisfied with our climbing day, ticking some higher number will never fill that void.

Rather than having more climbs available, maybe we should strive to have enough things to do to motivate us, without running out. We should be careful to select objectives that are hard, but not so hard that we drive ourselves crazy.

Most of all, we should pay attention to the little things that make the climbing life so damn satisfying. The involuntary smile when you know the conditions are good before you even set your pack down. The serendipitous moments with nature and wildlife. Meeting new and interesting people from all over the world. Laughing so hard it hurts at some inside joke at the crag.

For me, it’s the feeling of satisfaction and surprise when I find success on a climb on a wing and a prayer, and the feeling of establishing mastery over something that once felt impossibly daunting. I’ve been lucky to have those feelings many times over the years and I can say, they felt just as good when I was climbing 5.10 as they do now. My dopamine receptors really don’t care about the Yosemite Decimal System.

It’s just an unfortunate side effect that as I’ve gotten better and stronger, I’ve had to choose harder projects in order to find that margin where success is possible, but not guaranteed.

I cried when I did my first V12. Not because it was so much more satisfying than my first V7, or my first V10. But because I was so relieved that the suffering – the holding my own season hostage – was over. The next couple weeks of glorious, pressure-free climbing are some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. In fact, those ensuing weeks are just as pleasant a memory as the send. 

There will always be another project. The question is, how hard do you actually want that project to be? Not how hard grade-wise – but how hard in terms of your experience? And how ready are you to make major changes in your life to make that process convenient and satisfying? These are difficult and essential questions to answer.

I’m in the middle of moving to a new state so I can have more hard boulders to try. I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and making the hard logistical changes that unlock progression. This also comes with the social and emotional cost of uprooting my life. Is it worth it? I hope so. I know as long as I focus on the climbing part, I’ll be satisfied, no matter how “hard” I climb.

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