Why some people will climb 9a and some won’t

I recently read a post by Tom Randall praising Kranko the Klown for his motivation and psyche, which probably helped him climb a “trickyish route of unspecified difficulty which may or may not be hard for other people…”. Said trickyish route does indeed look quite tricky, and let’s be honest, most of us are always going to be too shit to climb even the easiest of tricky routes. But why are some of us shit probably not reaching our potential? This is clearly the 21st most pressing question in British climbing, and as a man who has experienced varying degrees of shitness falling-distinctly-short-of-his-potential over the last year, I’m going to answer it.

To be brief, Randall is right, its all about motivation. Some of us just care more than others, are more psyched, think more about all things climbing-related, give more of themselves and just get really freakin’ obsessed. I’m pretty sure this is ‘the secret’. Now, if you don’t have ‘the drive’, its probably hard to imagine just how much it helps. I reckon I had a decent amount of it last year before I won the dumbfuckery award in Norway, and now, to all intents and purposes, it’s gone.

This does suck, but at least I get to assess how useful ‘the drive’ is: quite, really. First, remember the last time you had a brilliant session, when you were psyched, you turned up with a plan; everything was going well, you put everything into each go, just to complete that next set (i.e. you really cared); and you were extremely analytical of the intensity, your technique, your tiredness, and so on. But you don’t wildly thrash yourself, it’s focused, calculated and pragmatic. Imagine it was like this every session, even when everything doesn’t go well and you don’t feel like you imagine Megos does.

Sounds like a lot of effort to me at the moment. But if you have ‘the drive’ it just isn’t. It’s not conscious, it’s not forced, giving up is never an option because it doesn’t occur to you to do so, and it’s consistent. You do it all because you really fucking want to, not because you feel like you should, or because you expect yourself to.

So I guess now the 22nd most pressing question in British climbing is ‘how do I get me some ‘drive’!? Ask me in a year and I hope I have an answer!

The Grafter

I’ve had a bit of a dilemma up until recently: how high to aim? How on earth do you set goals and get motivated when you have no idea whether you’ll even be able to climb properly again? How do you commit so much of yourself to something that you can’t fully believe in? Sure, there’s hope, though it sometimes feels like a distant, unlikely thing. At times, fairly often recently actually, its been nigh on impossible to summon up much motivation to do much other than the bare minimum because it just feels like there’s no point and no hope at getting anywhere near back where I was. Obviously, that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Hats off to the surgeon for coming up with this!

Hats off to the surgeon for coming up with this!

The injuries to my wrist and heel especially were pretty bad. The surgeon in Norway said that the heel might not be operable, and best case scenario was that it was operable but it would be damage control; worst case scenario was that he operates on it, but its so painful a few years down the line that it would need to amputated. I never spoke to the surgeon who did my wrist, but they were never very worried about that.

It’s still early days post op, so I can’t really tell how its all going to work out, but I think (hope) that I can rule out worst case scenario at least. My physio and consultant are both extremely happy with how my range of movement and strength of my wrist and heel are improving actually. The bones have healed in a pretty good position, the sub-talar joint is in surprisingly good condition, and hopefully the metal work will not be a problem in future. So, I think I have actually been extremely lucky given the severity of the injury.

wrist1 wrist2

So, in short, I don’t know how things will pan out with climbing. But that’s not a reason to give up; its precisely the opposite. I can’t really set tangible goals, so the goal is to be satisfied. However things work out, I am going to look back knowing that I did everything possible to give myself the best chance. If I’m going to have any chance of getting back to climbing, and I think that’s what my surgeon and physio have given me, then I’m going to have to fucking earn it. And if I can get back to climbing, then I’m going to be ready, I’m going to work with what I’ve got.

First Steps

It’s been 10 weeks now since the accident in Flatanger, and now I feel like I’m getting more control over the process of recovery. Before a few weeks ago, there wasn’t much I could do apart from crutch round the block, lie down, and move my foot about a bit. However, with a lot of help from a great physio and my parents I’ve got a plan with a timescale and goals, which has given me a whole lot of motivation to get back to fighting form, and to take control of the process. It is a process though, and to take short cuts would be detrimental in the long run. I’ve been asked a few times when I’ll be getting back into climbing, and the answer is a frustrating one; I could go climbing now, and there’s loads of climbing related stuff I could be doing, however, if I did that then I would plateau pretty fast.

Rehab’s kind of like training – its progressive and measurable. but at the minute it requires more than a little rest – 1 day on 3 days off is my current regime other than daily exercises for my foot and wrist, but I do them lying down so it hardly counts. As soon as I got the cast off my wrist I was in the pool smashing in some laps. Normally just a few at a time though, and not for long.  Plus, now I have a moon boot I can weight bare on my foot so I can sort of walk; at first with two crutches, then with one, and now without any occasionally. I can even get down the stairs in my house whilst retaining some dignity.

If nothing else, this injury has given me the opportunity (or will) to work on things that I would otherwise ignore. I’ve always felt like my shoulders were an injury waiting to happen, so I might as well sort them out before I start climbing too much, then I can focus on climbing related weaknesses instead of trying to get my strengths back to being strong straight away. I’m hoping that by doing this I’ll continue to improve more in the long run,

It’s hard to say at this stage whether I’ll be able to get back to form, or how long that will take, because I just don’t know how strong my wrist will get, and how much my foot might hinder me. Therefore, its pretty hard to set goals that I know are SMART. I’ll be over the moon if I can get back to where I was in a years time, but at the moment I’m just taking what I’ve got each day and each week, and working with that. For now, I know that I need to get back to a normal level of fitness, let myself heal, and try and get as much range of movement and strength in my wrist and foot as possible, so that’s what I’m focussing on. Once they’re as good as I think they need to be (and once I have the energy) then I will move on to climbing related stuff.

Onwards and then upwards!

In other news, my friend Sam Tolhurst has been working hard recently to develop a new climbing brand called Monkey Fist. At the moment the main product is a skin care balm which is vegan friendly and all natural, and that should be available in the next couple weeks from the website and from various shops/walls. Monkey Fist have also committed to donating at least 10% of their profits to CAC.  Give the website a look and keep an eye out for it: http://www.mnkyfst.com/page2.html


In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on the Endurance to attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent. Years later he returned, having failed to achieve that goal. However, he writes that he and his crew returned rich in memories, having “suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet grasped at glory. Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole.” I’m not so full of conceit that I consider my experience equal to his, but I think that the quote pretty well describes the run up to the trip, and especially the time since then.

About a year ago now I started to make travel and training plans for a trip to Flatanger, Norway. I’d heard great things about the place and the climbing, so I went for it. I found out everything I possibly could, I even contacted a certain strong Czech climber for some knowledge. Over the course of 10 months I dreamt about all the routes I’d heard about; devoured every video, picture and blog I could find; became obsessed to the exclusion of all other climbs. I just didn’t care about other climbs or other places. I think I went outside a handful of times over the winter, and it always felt like a waste of time; a trip to Margalef at Easter was an absolute disaster, cut short because I didn’t want to be there.

The trip came round surprisingly fast, but I’d prepared as well as I knew how, and I had my list. 10 routes from 8c-9a (plus everything else), all of which looked amazing, some looked like they would suit me more than others, and I was more motivated for some for various reasons. I knew I was probably fit enough to climb one of the 8c+’s, which was the main goal, but I didn’t know if I was strong enough or good enough.

Gavin, a good friend of mine, said it was like how Ceuse was 20 years ago, and that was enough to convince me. This doesn’t come close. The scenery is better: it’ll make you stand there, deep in thought, feeling at one with nature whist you probably just look like a gormless idiot. But it’s OK. Everyone else is doing the same thing. The rock is better, by far the best I’ve ever climbed on. It makes holds which are just a pleasure to use, world class boulder problems, and the routes follow proper lines. Norway is a bit more expensive, and there’s not hundreds of routes at every grade, and the weather can be a bit fickle, but you’ll come down off every single route, successful or not, with a smile on your face.

As soon I arrived I knew I wanted to do everything. On the first day I tried Eye of Odin and it didn’t go all that well. Gavin has admitted to me since then that, based on that first day, he thought that I might not do it. I expected that though, what I didn’t expect was for it to come together as fast as it did. 5 sessions later, after falling off the last move of the last boulder problem, I clipped the chain with a big grin on my face. This was made all the more rewarding because I was belayed by Gavin, who has been like a mentor, as well as a good friend, since I started climbing.

Filming: Matt Hardy and James France; Edit: Matt Hardy

After quickly doing Muy Verdes with a bit of encouragement from Mikey, which is probably more like bottom end 8c if you don’t onsight it, a couple routes seemed like the next obvious choices. Either Nordic Flower, which Alan was trying and basically repeating every day, or Little Badder, Seb Bouin’s monster 9a. I thought Nordic Flower looked like it was worth a flash attempt up to the first belay so I decided to leave that for a day of good conditions and try Little Badder. They share the same 25m ~8b to start but it’s possible to jumar past this section and start directly on the 9a bit.

It was going quite well considering the conditions and the 9a-ness of the route. I thought that I was closeish to doing it in a couple sections, so with 5 weeks to go and conditions improving, maybe I would have a chance.

On around my fifth session on it, I jumared up the 10m or so of fixed static rope, clipped in direct, sent down the jumar and gri-gri, unclipped, then started to climb. Three moves later I looked down to do a foot swap on the lip of the small roof I’d just climbed round. ‘Oh, shit’, was all I said as I saw my rope going straight down to Alan. No chance to down climb. Jump off? No. Jump and try and catch the static line? Unlikely. Move.

‘Go on, you know you can do it’, were the words I heard from Alan, and were the words I needed to hear.

Foot swap. Shit, my left foot’s not on right. Can’t adjust. My left arm is getting pumped already. ‘No…’, as my right hand came just short of the next hold, a good hold. A move I’d never fallen on since deciding on the sequence.

‘I’m alright’, were my first words after I rolled onto my back. I’ve got away with this, somehow. Then I saw my wrist. Blueish and black, about three times as big as it should be and S-shaped. No… What about all the routes I haven’t done yet!? Odd, how annoyed I was that I wouldn’t be able to even try them. Briefly, that was my main concern.

Photo: Matt Hardy

Photo: Matt Hardy

I saw another climber, Silvio Reffo, walk over. ‘Good effort on Muy Verdes’ I said, having seen him do it, despite wet holds at the crux, just before I started jumaring. He was somewhat bemused. ‘Take my shoes off, please’. The left one feels a bit tighter than usual, and it feels like I’ve pulled a muscle in my groin, and maybe my achilles too. 

Over the next hour I experienced first hand the very best of the climbing community. I was unconscious for the second. Alan, having broken my fall onto the steep slope, probably saving me from permanent injury and a long slide to the bottom, supported my body to keep me flat for two hours. A few days later he told me he couldn’t feel his legs for a while after. Matt and James, who were there to film Alan (and make us all laugh after failing miserably on something. James gave me a particularly good pep talk for the Eye – ‘make it your bitch’), called the emergency services and ran down to meet them. I remember Matt legging it back up the slope with the stretcher before practically collapsing himself. Silvio’s partner, who is medically trained, checked my blood circulation and gave me some painkillers. Another man, who didn’t say a word, just looked me in the eye, and I knew that he would do everything he could to help. And he bloody well did. I’m sorry that I can’t remember everything that everyone did to help me, and that I don’t even know who many of you are, but if you are one of those people and you happen to be reading this, then please get in contact because I would like to thank you.

Photo: Matt Hardy

Photo: Matt Hardy

I woke up in Trondheim hospital late that evening. I later found out that I had a fracture dislocation in my wrist, three fractures in my pelvis, which was fortunately stable but extremely painful, and a shattered heel. They said the latter was ‘in little bits’, and, having seen the x-ray now, I can confirm that they didn’t exaggerate. The wrist and the heel needed an operation, but they weren’t confident they could do much about the heel, and that they needed to wait two weeks for the swelling to go down before they could operate. I couldn’t fly home either – it turned out that my insurance wouldn’t cover repatriation costs, but I couldn’t have flown in any case, even in an air ambulance.

Three weeks later I was on my way home with my Mum, who had flown out to help me back. It seemed like the operation had gone quite well, but because of the language barrier I couldn’t really be certain. I knew that I wouldn’t be walking for a few months though.

Now, almost 2 months since the accident, I feel like I’m past the regret, the what-ifs, anger and depression, and I’m making good progress by doing A LOT of physio. My pelvis is healed, lots of stitches and a pin have been taken out, and I found out that the operation had gone extremely well. There’s still a lot of work to be done, first to get my foot back to a normal shape with a normal range of motion, then to start walking again and building back some some of the muscle which has wasted away. Climbing properly again seems a long way off, but I will climb again – there’s plenty routes still on the list.

The Psychology of Suffering

I recently attended a webinar presented by Carrie Cheadle, an expert in mental skills training, on the psychology of suffering for endurance athletes. Basically, when all else is equal, its your ability to dig in and keep going, despite feeling like you’ve been hit by a train, which determines who comes out on top, and is often what separates the great from the good. That’s pretty obvious, I know, but its a weak link for a lot of people and effects training as well as performance, so its important to understand it in order to improve it.

Pain is pretty subjective, everyone handles it differently and some people seem to be able to handle suffering better than others. Now, there is a genetic aspect (apparently), so maybe your maximum ‘suffering tolerance’ potential is less than others’, but you might not have reached that yet. It can affect your ability to reach your goals in quite a few ways, and sometimes its hard to tell if it has had an effect on your performance, for example, have you have fallen off a route and wondered whether you actually gave it your all? So what if climbing is a very skill intensive sport and you fell because you got it wrong, you still could have tried harder.

There are a number of reasons pain might affect how hard you try. Firstly, you might actually just be in a lot of pain and can’t actually go on any harder. This is often not the case, even if it feels like it is, because you might be so tired that it might not even occur to you that you have more to give – someone shouting at you to give it beans can solve this. Secondly, the expectation of pain (or failure) is a real limitation for a lot of people. This often comes through previous association with pain in a similar situation, whether that be a grade or style of climb or the same climb – if you expect it to hurt then as soon as it does start hurting you’ll focus in on the pain and make it seem worse than it is, so you’ll give up or fail sooner. Finally, the fear of pain (or failure) can stop you from giving your all. This could be reluctance to leave as rest, or do a certain session, or one of times where you mess up a sequence at the start of an onsight and get pumped earlier than you hoped so give up because you think there’s no chance anymore.

Luckily, there are ways to improve your pain and suffering tolerance. So first, if you want to get better and want your performance to reflect your physical ability, then you’re going to have to accept the pain. Embrace it, enjoy it, revel in it. This involves changing the way you view pain; its not bad most of the time, its good and its productive. To get better at this, having some kind of pre-climb prep or ritual can prepare for the ordeal ahead, or you can immerse yourself in the suffering and see just how far you can go by sticking a bit extra on the end of your last interval. Just to see how much you can take.

Secondly, you have to relax; your suffering tolerance is affected by your physical and mental state, so if you can relax then you’ll find the pain isn’t so bad. Dave Macleod wrote a related blog about how your facial expression can effect performance.

Thirdly, focus on something, whether that be the pain or something to keep your mind off the pain. Focusing on the pain is a funny one, I think this could help you gauge just how bad it is, and it can be quite satisfying to know you’re trying really hard, harder than the other person your training with, for example. There are a few ways to disassociate yourself from the pain, some people use music, you can focus on the moves, grabbing holds correctly, repeating a mantra, counting moves, and pretty much anything else to keep your mind busy. This can also help to keep nerves at bay on an onsight or redpoint because it stops you thinking about success or failure. Another way to keep your mind busy and be better at suffering is to set an end point for that pain. Break it down and set checkpoints along the way to make the overall task seem less daunting. This could be rests on a route or each individual interval in a monster circuit session. You have to be cautious with this on onsights if you’re not sure how good a rest is going to be, because if you get to a checkpoint and its not very restful then you might panic or give up immediately, so its important to have a plan B. Related to this are moments on a climb or in a session which can make or break you. If you handle these well then you will get a confidence boost that could take you to the end. These are points where you might expect it to be hardest or where you didn’t expect it to be hard and it is. You can prepare in advance for this to shorten your reaction time and make it a more positive reaction.

Finally, setting a goal is really important. These can provide a LOT of motivation and give you a good reason to suffer. Be honest with yourself, first about how achievable the goal is otherwise you may end up disheartened or intimidated, and second so you don’t have any secret goals which can lead to disappointment. They can be outcome goals, e.g. doing a certain route or grade, though this can often stack the pressure on which can be a good or a bad thing. Process goals, which you set within the climb, can be very effective and can have a secondary effect of making you climb better i.e. your goal is not to do the climb, but to climb it well or to improve at a certain technique.

If you think you’re not that good at suffering but have the will to improve, then try out a few of these things and hopefully they’ll help you eek a bit more out of each session and each attempt. If you think you’re good at suffering then read Fergus Flemming’s ‘Tales of Endurance’ or Shackletons South for some perspective – I bet your circuit session wasn’t as hard as living in the Antarctic for 2 years, subsisting on seal meat, toe nails and leather before rowing a few hundred miles across the Pacific and crossing South Georgia on foot. Then pull your finger out.

It’s Time

It’s time to suffer, starve and triumph; to grovel down yet grasp at glory.

Master Plan

Master Plan

Because I am that weak.

Difficulty: A Matter of Perspective?

The concept of difficulty in climbing is not easy to fully comprehend, and even harder to quantify. It is as elusive as it is prolific among our thoughts and forms the impossible justification of many climbers’ motivations, and yet clearly it is there, defining the nature of the sport. ‘Difficulty’ is a somewhat vague term which is almost contradictory; it encompasses the amount of physical, technical, and mental effort and proficiency required to achieve something, and yet it is entirely subjective and can not be shared. I want to try and discuss the idea and the extent to which perceptions of difficulty can influence progression, how those perceptions originate, and their pervasiveness at the local and national scales. This is very much exploratory for me, and I’d be really interested to hear some of your thoughts on the subject, so please comment.

Absolute difficulty can broadly be described as the amount of effort required to do something, or the amount of energy required. This is problematic for climbing because it doesn’t account for efficiency or relative ability. If it was purely based on energy required then, in order to climb the ‘most difficult’ thing, you’d have to do it least efficient way; this is clearly not the case, and explains why bouldering in particular is so hard to explain to non-climbers. Also, a relatively better climber will be able to climb a certain problem with less perceived effort than a relatively worse climber, so it will seem less difficult to the former, but that doesn’t change the absolute difficulty of the problem.

Therefore, difficulty is deeply personal and very subjective, and as I said earlier, it can’t be shared. The difficulty, and the effort required, to do any given thing is determined by your personal ability, moreover, the perceived difficulty of that task is also determined by personal ability in addition to your personal definition of what constitutes ‘difficult’. Or, in other words, the scale of difficulty that you use. For example, some people will try problems that they can barely pull onto and regard it as completely impossible, or way to difficult, whereas others view it as something which just requires more effort. The same applies in training: for one person a session could have required a lot of effort and feel extremely difficult, but for another person of the same ability, so the session had the same absolute difficulty, the session was not as high up their own personal ‘difficulty scale’. These perceptions of difficulty can’t be shared because its not measurable and because no two people will have their scales of difficulty calibrated equally, so there will always be a degree of misinterpretation.

So are perceptions of difficulty likely to influence progression? It would be reasonable to assume that those who perceive the difficulty of something to be less would have the potential to train harder and so could improve more, provided the training is appropriate. That would imply that there is an optimum perception of difficulty which is perfectly aligned with your bodies needs – you will train at an intensity high enough to stimulate improvement but not so high that you injure yourself. In reality, this is unlikely to occur, and I’d be tempted to say that most people probably perceive the difficulty to be higher than it is, or they don’t fully understand the difficulty required to stimulate improvement – which is, of course, specific to each person.

I would argue that these perceptions are not inherent at birth but evolve over time as a result of your experiences through childhood, especially, and as a reflection of other peoples’ perceptions. At an individual level a myriad of factors likely contribute to your perceptions of difficulty: prior involvement in sport and the degree to which it was pursued, coaching at a young age, work ethic of immediate family and friends, education and schooling, who you climb with, and development of the sport at national and international scales. I would be hard pressed to evaluate the relative importance of each of these, but one which I want to go into a bit is the level of development of the sport at national and international scales, and resulting national perceptions of difficulty.

The development of a sport, or more importantly, the current limits and records set in that sport, play a considerable role in defining perceptions of difficulty as they have a significant psychological influence on individuals. As a sport evolves the limits are pushed, but the improvements are incremental, until eventually the old limit is commonplace. This is particularly evident in climbing, which, being a relatively undeveloped sport, has seen its limits raised dramatically over the past few decades – It’s not that long ago that 8c was the cutting edge, and now its not even very hard.

However, changing perceptions of difficulty do not seem to have occurred equally everywhere as climbing has progressed. In fact, perceptions at a national scale seem to be influenced much more by relative improvements of that country, rather than by the development of the sport itself, although that does have an influence. This has been apparent over time; as British climbers led the improvement of the sport in the 80’s and 90’s the perceptions of difficulty at a national level rose with it, then as other countries have experienced another wave of improvement culminating in ascents of 9b+ routes and 8C+ boulder problems, the perceptions of difficulty for the countries experiencing  the developments have risen with it. For example, in Spain, climbing anything less than 9a is not newsworthy, and even the magic grade is losing its aura, unless you’re very young or new to climbing. The likes of Daniel Woods and James Webb have begun to redefine bouldering, where 8B is only newsworthy if its flashed. Other countries might be fully aware of these developments, but their perceptions as a whole seem to remain calibrated against the current limits of that area.

Clearly then, perceptions can be changed, all that is required is the experience of progression as well as awareness. Personally, I’m excited about the future of climbing in Britain, I think that a wave of improvement is approaching, and that will influence perceptions of difficulty. It might not be significant at a global level, but it will be a step in the right direction.


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