The Great Trad Quest #WomenOutdoors
#WomenOutdoorsweek is here. We've asked real women to help us by telling us what they're doing in their climbing lives. Today we have Rosie Henstock's guide to getting better at trad climbing.
Hi I’m Rosie. I’m 28 years old and have been climbing since the age of 16. I’m a Civil Engineering Designer and hold a normal 9 to 5 office job. I’ve only properly started to think about training and trying to improve over the last 3 years or so. Since then, a whole new world has opened up to me. I’ve become far more conscious and involved in my own climbing progression and it’s been a really fun process which has increased my love of climbing! Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.
So you want to up your trad game, great! But why? Don’t worry; it’s not a trick question! The answer might be that you like the places trad climbing can take you to, or you enjoy the feeling of self-mastery when you overcome that daunting lead. I like to spend time thinking about what it is I love about trad and why I want to get better. I find this invokes high levels of psyche from within and allows me to focus on the joy of learning and improving. A word of caution however, high levels of outward projecting psyche may annoy those around you who are yet to reach the same level!
2. Set Goals
You want to improve, but in what way? Maybe you have a dream route in mind or you want to break into a certain grade. I’m off to the Orco Valley in August - a valley filled with pristine granite splitter cracks and I know I’ll get more out of the trip if I’m able to climb lots of E1/2 cracks. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading guide books and trawling UKC to compile lists of routes I want to do to help prepare me for this. I almost always have an idea of what routes I want to do before I arrive at the crag so I don’t waste any time umming and arghing when I first get there.
Whatever the goal, make it specific! The goal to simply ‘get better’ is not good enough. How will you measure ‘better’? Be S.M.A.R.T and don’t be afraid to go big. You can always set stepping stone goals to help you reach the big one (*cough* El Cap)!
In addition to setting goals, you need to OWN them. Don’t be embarrassed to tell people what you’re working towards. If you don’t own your goals, you won’t go whole heartedly into the challenge. It’s ok to not always achieve your goal because really, it’s what you learn along the way that counts. And hey, you might have set the bar pretty high! People aren’t going to point and laugh at you for not achieving X, Y or Z, and if they do, they’ve got their own issues to deal with.
3. Identify the skills gap
It’s good to have a long hard stare at yourself once in a while and try to figure out if there are any obvious holes in your skill set which could be holding you back. It is sometimes very hard to be objective about yourself, so why not ask a trusted climbing partner for their thoughts? Try not to get offended with their answers and be open to what they have to say. It may be something completely different than you thought. Honesty is what you’re looking for so try to make them feel comfortable enough to ‘give it to ya’! Pick one or two areas to focus on and build it into your training plan. You might find your weaknesses become your biggest strengths, so try to re-assess from time to time.
4. Go climbing lots
Sounds obvious, but go and do as much climbing as possible! If you have a specific goal, try to be specific as possible in your training. There’s not much value in working that 8b boulder problem down the local climbing wall if you are working towards climbing The Frendo Spur! Do everything in your power to get out as much as possible. Cancel that first date with the hot guy from down the road (unless he can belay), rearrange the family camping trip to Snowdonia and have the weather forecast permanently in view at all times. Be as flexible as possible and don’t agree to any prior engagements more than 48 hours in advance! …. Joking aside, I’ve started going to local crags after work to get extra routes in, even if it means getting back at 11pm on a school night! It’s a lot of effort and I’m working up towards being able to absorb more of this whilst the evenings are light.
5. Record, Reflect and Refine
This is a big one! It’s easy to forget or look back over the last few months training with rose tinted specs. You tell yourself you climb four times a week as standard but forget about all the times life got in the way of the plan. So, record everything you do in as much detail as possible. Spend time looking back at what you’ve done and refine your current training plan if you spot any obvious areas for improvement. I have a daily log where I record all the exercise I do, how many hours I spent and even how I feel. The information is invaluable! Sometimes you might have a tough day at the crag where everything feels harder than it should, and you start to feel demoralised. A quick look at the log might reveal that you’ve had a high volume week and next time, you’ll probably avoid the 10 mile fell run the day before you go climbing! Record in whatever way you like, diaries, spreadsheets, posters - go crazy! I have colour coded graphs and bar charts, even formulas looking at all sorts of trends in my training. Maybe that’s a step too far… perhaps I just like to indulge my engineering tendencies.
For trad climbing, I like to follow a pyramid based system to track how I’m doing. To get started, the bottom row of the pyramid should be 8 climbs of a grade you find fairly ok. The next row above should be 4 climbs of the grade harder, the next 2 climbs the grade harder, then the top of the pyramid should in theory be the hardest grade you’ve climbed (or are going to climb). The idea is to work your way up the pyramid, filling it in as you go. Soon it becomes obvious what grades you should be trying to do when you go to the crag. The theory is if you can do 8 Severes, you’ll be able to find 4 HSs you can do, 2 VSs and finally 1 HVS. Once you top out your pyramid, celebrate! Woop, woop! Then you set to work doing 4 more HS so that your bottom line consists of 8 HSs, and so on and so forth.
This is a really good way to focus on pushing forward and not getting stuck at a comfortable grade. When I move up a row and have to start adding to the bottom row (4 grades lower than my max), I like to seek out the ‘good value’ routes at that grade – think big, exposed, or opposite to your ‘usual’ style. Try to get on the Gnar! You want to be out of your comfort zone because in theory, it should be way below your physical capabilities. This way you’ll develop a more robust, rounded style that you might one day have to call upon when that hidden off-width chimney appears out of nowhere half way up a multi-pitch route.
6. Train the brain!
Mental strength is a huge component in trad climbing. It often gets overlooked or dismissed when trying to improve, yet it is often the biggest thing holding people back. There are loads of books and blogs you can read to help improve the mind and the best thing is, you can do it almost anywhere, when your finger skin is worn out and even when it’s raining! My personal favourite is ‘The Rock Warriors Way’ by Arno Ilgner. I have read it multiple times and will continue to read it from time to time to refresh myself.
7. Question your ethics
Many people have fixed views of how trad should be; often inherited from the people you climb with. ‘The leader never falls’ mentality might be a good rule of thumb, but have you considered it could be holding you back? How about pulling on gear, or better still, aid climbing? Since climbing in the USA and dabbling in aid climbing, I trust my gear placements 100 times more than I ever have done, because you know, I’ve spent a bit of time bounce testing placements. How about practicing a route before leading it or checking out gear placements on abseil? Or have you decided that’s a game reserved for the pros? If you don’t get the opportunity to second routes much harder than your current lead grade, perhaps this is a good way to experience the grades you are looking to move into? I think I need to work on not being too precious about saving routes for the onsight. In my current trad push, I’m aiming to get on well protected routes that there’s a good possibility I might fall off, even though this goes against what I’ve always been taught.
Whatever your current trad ethics are, question them. Make sure you actively choose your ethics for the right reasons and not just because. [Note: I’m not advocating causing damage to rock, setting up a new ‘Whack and dangle’ brigade or purposefully taking lobs onto sketchy gear, just don’t act out other people’s beliefs without questioning them thoroughly first!]
And that is a quick summary of the things I’m focusing on to try and improve my trad climbing. It is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m always looking for more things to consider. I feel like I’m at the very start of a long, long journey and it’s really exciting! Remember: Improving is learning and learning is a never ending quest. Go forth brave traddlings and strive for the ultimate experience!