Determination is highly valued in climbing culture. But is it always good?
Swiss legend Martin Keller recently climbed a V16 after another 150+ session siege. Johnny Kydd had an intriguing interview on the Careless Talk podcast about investing over 100 sessions in a V15. Much has been said about Daniel Woods’ winter in Vegas where he supposedly tried Return of the Sleepwalker one day on, one day off nonstop until he sent it.
These feats are clearly impressive. And lest I be misunderstood right off the bat, to be clear I’m astonished by the resilience and resolve on display.
But (you knew there was a but) when I think about the times I’ve invested tons of sessions in a project, I feel that it was inefficient. My most “limit-breaking” ascents were rarely after sustained sieges. The longest sieges were usually more about completing climbs that were out of my style, or things that I had started long before I was at an ability level where they were practical. By the time I did them, I’d invested time elsewhere becoming a better climber. So I question whether all of that determination and resolve was functional.
The obvious question is – if determination is virtuous in some cases and detrimental in others, where’s the line? I had some intuition about this, but I was curious how others saw it.
The troll poll
Based on this idea, I recently posted polls on my Instagram asking a series of trollish questions:
- Is it impressive if someone takes 100 sessions to climb their V15 project?
- Is it impressive if someone takes 100 sessions to climb their V12 project?
- Is it impressive if someone takes 100 sessions to climb their V9 project?
- Is it impressive if someone takes 100 sessions to climb their V4 project?
Okay, this is not at all scientific, and it was obviously an imperfect setup. For starters, the word “impressive” is leading and maybe poorly chosen. Several replies also didn’t distinguish between 100 sessions and 100 tries, which is a huge difference to me – an order of magnitude or more. 100 tries could be accomplished in a week if the climb is short; for an outdoor climb, 100 sessions will usually take several seasons.
My audience is also not a perfect sample for this kind of thing, since they are likely self-selected. I would guess it skews more outdoor-oriented, more towards intermediate/advanced grades and generally more “serious” than the average climbing population.
But, the polls did more or less come out as you’d expect. Determination is seen as highly impressive, but it falls off slightly as the grades become less superhuman.
There were also a lot of individual replies. They could be sorted into several buckets.
First bucket: people who disliked the question in general, ranging from calling it “elitist bullshit” to unfollowing me. So it goes. Understanding when a certain strategy stops being functional is meaningful to me and probably to my audience. If someone doesn’t want to hear about the practical limits of performance, then that person probably isn’t my core audience anyway. But I could have phrased it more gently.
The second category of responses said that a 100-session siege was always impressive, regardless of the achievement. My gut feeling is to agree. But having worked with lots of climbers, I can say that getting bogged down on a V4 project to the tune of 100 sessions is absolutely leaving gains on the table. This is slightly attenuated by other factors – “what if the climber only has one boulder problem to climb on, and it’s this V4?”, etc – but for most people, most of the time, it’s true. The distinction is in where the value is derived: if a V4 climber chooses to spend 100 sessions on something, that’s worth celebrating as long as their goal was just to do that thing.
For these people I had a monstrously trollish followup. What about 100 sessions to do an ollie? Or to screw in a lightbulb? At what point does the complexity of the performance get low enough that we no longer see intrinsic value in spending 100 sessions on it?
It’s hard to imagine anyone spending that much time trying to screw in a lightbulb without going to get help, searching the internet for instructions, or doing something else to unblock their progress. There has to be a breaking point for the value of determination somewhere.
The third category of responses cottoned onto my intent with the polls. They noted that something being impressive is a lot different from something being a good idea. From this perspective, the poll responses start to make a lot more sense. The 25% of respondents who said it “wasn’t impressive” to take 100 sessions to do a V4 project were probably more indicating that it wasn’t a good idea in that context. Again, it’s about where the value is derived. Culturally there’s a bit more of a sense that a V4 climber getting bogged down for multiple seasons might derive more value from trying something else.
Progression vs performance
We don’t like to talk about this much, but progression and performance are a tug of war. We automatically associate the two – sending our project must mean we’ve gotten better. But this is rarely true. A send usually comes because we’ve gotten over invisible thresholds. Namely, gathering the information we need to do the climb, and spending the requisite time and energy to get that information and build the physical adaptations needed. Getting over this specific threshold can happen with or without general progression.
Progress happens slowly, but is revealed quickly. At most grades, sending a long-term project is not the reason you get better, but simply reveals that you have gotten better. You will gain other skills too, but the one thing you definitely get better at while you try a project is the skill of climbing on that project. That doesn’t mean you’re getting better at climbing – it means you’re getting better at climbing that set of moves.
This isn’t a condemnation of projecting. Trying a project is a very different form of climbing from doing easier things. The mental and physical stresses are different, the tactics are different, the preparation is different. So to insinuate that projecting is a bad idea would be foolish. We need those adaptations to progress too, and we can’t get them from moderates. Projecting is still a crucial part of progressing, as long as it’s in proportion.
In other words, breaking mental limits requires banging your head against the wall. And that’s why we value determination.
Determination is directly effective for progression as well, but it doesn’t seem to garner as much status there. Surely we’d all applaud an athlete for spending 100 sessions climbing moderates on a board, or not missing a strength training session for an entire year. But it’s not as gram-worthy as sending a project after 100 sessions.
Status and value
After some consideration, I think we should separate the values of difficulty and determination. We ascribe value to achievements because they are hard. We also ascribe value when athletes who display incredible perseverance. So naturally, we see the most value in achievements that display both. This duality clouds our intuition a little bit.
Let’s say an athlete walked away from their V12 project after 10 sessions and spent the next 90 sessions of time and energy trying numerous V10s and V11s in a similar style. They return to the V12 and do it in a few more sessions. But doing a V12 in 15 sessions just doesn’t sound as cool as spending 100 sessions sieging it.
The “separate values” view of performance and determination also explains why most respondents felt that determination was impressive even when the grade range suggested that it might not be productive for the climber’s progress.
This same thought experiment makes even more sense if the project is more moderate, like V4 or 5.11. The climber should definitely go do more V2s and V3s or 5.10s, preferably of similar styles to their project, until they’ve improved the requisite skills enough to return to the project and see if they leveled up.
But this experiment breaks down if the project is V16. First of all, there just aren’t very many V14s or 15s out there. It would be a tall order to tell a climber to “just go do a bunch of V14s instead of projecting.” Second, the skills necessary to climb any V16 in the world are breathtakingly specific. Sure, there are sequential V4s out there. But usually, a wide range of methods and strategies will work. V16 won’t be as forgiving. Third, climbers operating at these grades have exhaustively developed their general skills. Trying something other than the project may, in fact, cause their specific skills for that project to stagnate or decay.
Overall, it’s a good thing to value determination. But we should be smart about where we invest that determination. I still don’t think there’s a clear line. One thing I’m sure of now is that the climber’s value system is the crux of the puzzle. However, our values are largely socially derived. Climbing media and culture rewards hard sends and ultra-long sieges. This colors those achievements more brightly than we might otherwise intrinsically see them, and affects our internal values.
Perhaps as a culture we could do more to celebrate the everyday efforts of progress and think a little less about applying the elite edge cases to ourselves. If you can set aside social pressure, and your personal values are aligned with pure performance, then maybe it makes sense to spend that much time on one thing. Otherwise, you should think deeply about what you’re actually trying to get out of climbing first.
I recommend the Kydd interview, because it’s a fairly even-keeled assessment of what it takes to dig in for so long. He’s clear about the reasons the project made sense, and since he could only focus on it during one season, he had the rest of the year to progress other areas of his climbing. This is almost the perfect case for such a long project in my view.
- Try to see progression and pure performance as a give-and-take. Focus on whichever one feels the most valuable to you. This might change over time.
- Reward and celebrate your determination regardless of what you’re focused on. You don’t have to send your hardest climb for perseverance to be meaningful.
- The closer you get to your genetic potential, the less it makes sense to focus on progression. You’ll need all the time you have to overcome higher specific demands on each project.
- If you’re mostly interested in progressing at climbing, trying projects all the time might not be the most effective strategy…
- BUT, it’s OK to get sucked into projects for a little while. You might uncover important strategies or improve your self-belief. And you will definitely move yourself towards sending that specific thing!
- If you don’t have a lot of problems to build up towards your project, gyms and boards are useful shims. Just make sure the style and angle of climbing is reasonably relevant.
Finally, given where I am in my climbing, I probably should spend more sessions on things. Maybe the most impressive part of spending 150 sessions on one thing is the opportunity cost of all the other fun experiences that could be had. I’m not totally sure my values align with that, because it’s been so long since I felt what it’s like to spend more than even 10 sessions on something. But I know what I’d be giving up. I know exactly what it feels like to go out and send a bunch of cool climbs.
When we celebrate these noteworthy sieges, that sacrifice seems to be part of what we’re celebrating – and maybe the juice is worth the squeeze. There’s only one way to find out.