Disclaimer: I realize that I am not a professional climber. I don’t even consider myself very strong, just very determined. And yet I know that I can climb things now that I never would have imagined when I first started climbing. So somehow from the time I was struggling on V2s until right now, sending V7s, there has been progress. My muscles and mindset developed from an assortment of experiences over the past two years, but I believe I could have become a better climber sooner, had I but known a couple simple things. And thus comes the inspiration to write a letter to my beginner climber self, or rather, what I wish I had known about climbing when I first started out.
1. Most important, never limit your expectations because of your gender and/or size. There are plenty of super strong AND super short female climbers out there, so spare yourself the excuses. If you need inspiration and there aren’t any strong women in your area (because there weren’t when I started), look online, read blogs or autobiographies. Allow women like Lynn Hill, Alex Puccio, and Jill Sompel, to inspire you from afar. Learn how they got started, what helped them persevere. Watch videos of them climbing. I remember reading Lynn Hill’s autobiography Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World and resolving to never let my height (she’s 5’2”) be a limiting factor in my climbing.
2. See all climbing, regardless of “finishing” or “sending,” as valuable training. There will be days when you struggle really hard and feel like you can’t do anything. Well, it doesn’t really matter in the long run. What matters more is that you keep struggling, keep chugging along, because every single time you try and think you’ve failed, you are actually building more power and endurance. In fact, you are probably getting stronger by NOT sending, because you’re more likely to climb it again and again, instead of finishing and then stopping and watching everyone else climb. Also, not only are you constantly building muscle, you are building precious determination. So if you ever spend an entire day climbing but not sending, don’t feel like it’s a wasted day. There is no such thing. There is always something to gain, something to appreciate.
3. Try hard. This phrase has been shouted at me countless times, and I admit that I tend to find it more than a bit condescending. Try hard?! Of COURSE I’m trying hard!! But it took shattering some of the glass ceilings I didn’t even know I had, in order to realize that I wasn’t trying as hard as I could. I didn’t even know that I could hold on a second longer, and yet somehow I did, and suddenly I had sent. (Surprise!) Trying hard means not holding back on a dyno because you’re nervous about falling. It means pushing through the pump to hit the next hold, even when your strength is completely gone and you’re sure you’ll fall but go for it anyways. It means not stopping after one flapper. Tape it and keep going. As long as you can safely do so, dig deep and pull out your inner beast. It’s there, I promise. Your body is capable of so much more than you realize. Find the balance of pushing yourself while still being compassionate and not pushing your body to injury.
4. If you want to send a v8, go out and work on a v8. You are not going to send a harder grade by constantly sticking to things you can easily flash. I’m not saying that a person should try a v8 on their first day of climbing, but I know that I held myself back from trying anything harder than a v4 for a lot longer than necessary. Why? Because I didn’t want to look silly failing on a hard climb, especially when I was out with a bunch of strong guys who might laugh at me. The moment I decided that I was in charge of what I wanted to climb was the moment I noticed myself progressing. I stopped spending all my time repeating the v3/4s that I knew so well, and started putting serious effort into v5s. Sure, I fell off a whole bunch, I felt weak and silly, but don’t worry about this temporary failure. Depending on your style and height, some v5s will actually feel easier than some v3s. When I had climbed a good handful of v5s, I started working on v6s. Aim high and don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t be climbing. Don’t wait for an invitation. You don’t need permission. A grade is just a number. Don’t be intimidated.
5. Never believe that your height is limiting, except when it is. For most climbs, I have to figure out the “short-person” or “girl” beta. While still following the line of the climb, my beta tends to incorporate unchalked and overlooked intermediate holds. There are plenty of climbs that had a huge dyno that just wasn’t going to happen for me, but then I’d find a crimp, and get a higher foot, and find a way to just stand up to the next move. It can be frustrating at times to see everyone else do a climb one way, while you have to spend extra time adding moves and making the climb harder than it should be. It’s easy to fall into a pity-fest of “Why me?” but honestly, that is not going to help you send. Ahem. Now. To completely contradict this point, there will also be climbs that just do not have intermediates. This is rare, but if you cannot reach a hold, jump for it, or find an intermediate, sometimes it might be necessary to take a deep breath and accept defeat. There are millions of other climbs out there, so don’t let one silly problem get you down.
6. This is something I’ve done research on because I didn’t believe it at first. You probably won’t climb as well during your period. Just accept this and don’t let it become a big deal. Plan around it instead. Or at least don’t beat yourself up when you notice certain symptoms. I have read numerous articles and forums, so I can’t exactly place where I’ve gathered all of this info, but the effects of climbing during your period are: excessive sweating, a fear of heights when any other week that isn’t an issue (no joke), extreme fatigue, lack of strength or ability to “try hard,” dizziness, pumping sooner, getting more frustrated or emotional, crying easily, and more. And that’s besides the obvious, like having such bad cramps that you can’t do much more than curling into a fetal position and groaning. Awful, yeah? It sucks, sure. And maybe you’re a lucky girl who doesn’t have these effects. But if not, maybe take on more of a spotter role during these days, or do a fun easy circuit day, or just find something else fun to do besides climbing (yes, that exists). Be grateful your body is alive and doing what a healthy female body should do, and send your awesome project next week since you’re skin will be so fresh.
7. This is difficult for me to say, since I’m super stubborn, but listen when other people offer climbing advice. Once I figure out how I want to do a climb, I can get fixated on it and refuse to hear about any other beta. I hate to admit it, but my stupidly-tall boyfriend often figures out some really good short-person beta. He can watch me while I’m climbing and catch errors in my technique in a way I never could. Unless you film yourself a lot, you cannot see yourself climbing. As hard as it may be to swallow your pride, ask other people around if they see ways for you to improve. This could be for a specific climb, or overall. Ask someone you like and trust, someone who will tell you honestly yet nicely your strengths and weaknesses in climbing. What they say may not be 100% accurate, but it can’t hurt to hear their perspective. For most other sports, you’ll have easy access to a coach. In climbing, if you want to get better, ask other people for input.
8. Don’t get stuck climbing like a girl (i.e. static on tiny holds with straight arms). If girls are going to progress to climb at the same high level as guys, they need to learn how to climb the same way. By this, I mean practice climbing more powerful, “thuggy” moves. Force yourself to project problems with big moves, a scary dyno (with good spotters and pads of course), and in general do things that take you outside your familiar comfort zone on a regular basis. Don’t put yourself in a box of what you are willing to climb because of your more “girly” style. This habit by females has led to the unfortunate labeling of crimpy small-move problems as “girl climbs” which I resent because (a) I don’t actually like that style of climbing and (b) I don’t want someone to tell me what climbs they think I’ll like based on my gender. If this article was directed at guys, I would tell them the opposite – don’t just depend on being beefy, and learn to climb in a more “girly” way. Neither style is better or worse, but as a climber, it’s important to stay well-rounded. If you will only climb within the tiny confines of your “style,” you’re missing out on an entire world of incredible problems.
9. Last, but not least, something I wish I had known earlier on was to embrace the mental aspect of climbing. No matter how strong you are, your thoughts and attitude are going to be a huge influence on your climbing. If I’m overly frustrated or feeling off, or in a rut because it seems like I’m plateauing, climbing just won’t be fun, and I won’t do it. Don’t fall into a vicious cycle until you quit or get injured. Figure out what’s going on and work on it. Maybe it’s focusing on technique, or resting more between goes instead of furiously sieging, or practicing positive self-talk. Maybe it’s spending an entire day doing as many classic v1-3s as possible just to remind yourself how fun climbing for the sheer pleasure can be. Find the right climbing partners who get you psyched and spot well. Stay hydrated and eat well. Be patient. Finishing a climb at your limit is as much mental as it is physical. It’s a puzzle that needs to be unlocked, and it takes more than a little oomph to get it. If you’re not struggling on a climb, you’re probably not pushing yourself enough.
10. Did I just say last? Oops, just kidding. What I meant to finish with is you are an amazing and multi-faceted human being. You are more than just a climber. I know rock climbing tends to become an obsession, and it’s easy to wrap your entire identity around being a climber, but it’s important to keep perspective. Nobody is better or worse than anyone else because of his or her climbing prowess. You might feel like a major failure when you can’t send your latest project, but you have an entire lifetime of experiences and abilities that have nothing at all to do with the ability to get your body to the top of a rock. Seriously, it’s just a rock.