The Advantage of Being Weak

Climbing is unique in that it requires a high amount of both strength and skill, working in conjunction. These are 2 polar opposite concepts. Strength is purely physical, and is gained through the process of breaking down and rebuilding muscle tissue. Skill is mostly mental, and must be learned through hours upon hours of practice and instruction. Climbing is an extremely high skill activity because of the enormous amount of variability in movement. In many cases, a change in body position can make a move immeasurably easier. In contrast, pure strength can allow a climber to simply power through a move without the need for proper technique.

This basically creates two distinct methods for completing a move: one which minimizes the necessity of strength by using good technique and clever body positioning, and another which relies entirely on grabbing and pulling really hard, making technique irrelevant. Obviously, everyone climbs somewhere on the spectrum between the two, and specific moves may force one style over the other. Many people are geared more towards one side of the spectrum or the other, but to really reach your full potential as a climber, its necessary to be good at both. It seems reasonable that if having a high amount of either skill or strength will help you complete more difficult moves, then being really good at both will maximize your ability to do hard moves.

The problem is that technique is extremely difficult to improve. It takes tons of practice, and, above all, tremendous patience. We all want to improve and get better at climbing, and training your strength and power is the most straight-forward and tangible path to doing so. Many beginner climbers get caught up with the idea that they just aren’t strong enough to climb well, and they look for training methods to get stronger. While its true that it takes some time for your shoulders, forearms, and fingers to get used to the heavy load that climbing puts on them, jumping on the pull-up bar isn’t usually the answer for beginners. Its usually much more beneficial to slowly learn good movement and let the strength come with time. As the climber progresses, strength training becomes more and more important, but there should always be some emphasis on climbing smart and developing good movement habits.

The thing about technique is that its easiest to learn when you’re forced to use it. When you can do a move by powering through it and ignoring technique, you’re going to do it that way 10 times out of 10. If you’re not strong enough to do it that way, you’re forced to figure out how to finesse your way through the move so that it’s less strength-dependent. This is how technique is learned: by being forced to use it, and the advantage of being weak is that it does just that. Many climbers who depend mostly on strength struggle with technique, because they are rarely forced to practice it. The best climbers are the ones who have very high levels of both strength and skill.

I think this is a super important concept for how people progress in climbing. Training strength/power is attractive because  it offers very tangible progress, and it can be extremely effective at improving your climbing ability in the short term. But technique can’t be ignored. The most successful climbers will be the ones who, towards the beginning of their climbing career, take the time to really learn how to move efficiently and effectively, and then start focusing on the strength element later.

2016 Update: School, Motivation, and Injuries

It has now been about a year and a half since I last posted on this site, so I thought I might be due for an update. The summer of 2014 was absolutely amazing. I finished longstanding projects, pulled off ascents of boulders I had no idea I was capable of, and set my sets on even more difficult climbing goals. Following that summer, I started my freshman year at Colorado School of Mines: a nationally ranked, and notoriously difficult, engineering school in Golden, CO. Over the first semester, I started to lose motivation to keep climbing. I went on a few trips to Joe’s Valley, as well as a week in Hueco, but they all turned into frustration-filled punt fests.

During the spring semester, I started training more to get ready for the alpine season. I had my sights set on the classic 8B+ crimp testpiece in RMNP: Jade. The boulder is a huge, overhanging face, covered with bright green lichen. The problem starts low on the boulder, and revolves around a long horizontal reach to a 1/4 pad gaston off of a terrible, sloping, downpull crimp. It then climbs through 3 more difficult moves, which go at about v10 from the stand start.

The summer had gotten off to a decent start, and I made some progress on Jade. I was able to stick the crux move in isolation but I was never able to get any significant links. I did get the chance to watch Adam Ondra flash the thing (which has gotta be the hardest flash so far in the world, or at least damn close), which was pretty darn cool. I managed to make some progress on several other problems I had in mind, but ultimately, nothing really came together. Before I knew it, the next semester was starting, and I had to head back to school, for the most part, empty-handed. It was frustrating, but I felt ready to start putting in some hard work at the gym to get in fighting shape for the fall/winter season.

Unfortunately, things took a turn, and I ended up injuring my ankle pretty severely while climbing in the gym. I fell from only about 3 feet off the ground, landed on the edge of a pad, and rolled my ankle inward, causing a bad sprain, a small fracture, and good bit of bone contusion. I spent about a month on crutches, relying on my parents (to whom I’m very grateful) to drive me the 30 miles to school for the first couple weeks when I couldn’t drive. Once I could drive again, I started going back to the gym a few days a week to do whatever training I could.

As my foot improved, I was able to climb more and more with a boot. Will Anglin even loaned me his knee pad so I could heel hook.



After weeks of physical therapy, and lots of time on the hangboard and campus board, I’ve finally returned to climbing (with both feet). After about 18 weeks of recovery, I’m SUPER excited to be able to climb again. My ankle is still by no means back to normal, but just being able to walk semi-normally is a huge relief. The semester has just begun, and I have a tough 18 credit-hour semester ahead of me, but I can’t wait to get back outside on some real rocks! I have never felt more motivated to work hard at improving my climbing than I do now, and I hope I can make up for lost time and put to bed some of the projects from the last year or so.

Also, I’m going to try to start to posting some more videos, photos, and maybe some training-related posts as I delve deeper into the ins and outs of climbing training, so stay tuned!

Bouldering in Wolvoland

It’s been a great season in the amazing alpine areas of Colorado. It’s been a lot of fun, but as I start my first year at Colorado School of Mines, it’s time for climbing to take a backseat, at least for the time being…

It’s always extremely rewarding to see progression from one year to the next, and as I look at how far I’ve come in recent years, I look forward to seeing what I can accomplish in the future. But for now, watch and enjoy this new video we’ve been working on this summer.

Also, huge thanks to Michael Bartley for editing this and helping out with the filming. Check out his other recent video right here.

Great War

It’s been quite a while since I’ve put anything on here so I thought I was due for a post. Alpine season has finally started up here in CO, and I’m psyched to get back up to the beautiful high altitude areas like Chaos Canyon and Mt. Evans. Snow is taking its sweet time melting out this year and many problems are still buried. Last season I spent a lot of time obsessing over one problem in particular: The Great War for Civilisation, an ultra-classic 8B/V13 at Lincoln Lake, Mt. Evans. After 8+ days of work on this boulder, the end of the season was looming, and despite my best efforts, I was unable to complete the problem.

Over the off season, this climb sat in the back of my mind and I waited and waited for summer to roll around so I could get back on it. Finally, about a week after my high school graduation, I had an opportunity to go up to Lincoln Lake. I was amazed at how much snow was still there and I came armed with a shovel, hoping to dig out the landing of Great War so that I could try it on my next trip up. Many boulders were totally buried and un-climbable. When I made my way down the talus, I found that not only was the landing to Great War clear, but there were also three stashed pads sitting under it. It felt great to be back on the problem I had fantasized about while sitting through my final weeks of high school, and I quickly did all the moves, but didn’t have the energy to finish it that day.

A few days later I came back on my own, and after warming up and doing a few of the crux moves in isolation, I got ready to go from the beginning. I always have a hard time with the mental game of climbing things that are meaningful to me. I get stuck in my head and can’t relax. I set unrealistic expectations and get frustrated when I don’t meet them. The mental aspect of climbing something at your limit is extremely important and it’s also the hardest thing to control. But not that day. For whatever reason I was able to clear my head, relax, and just climb. I had no expectations or doubts. I set up jerry-rigged filming system using a shoe, a guitar capo, and my phone. I brushed the holds, chalked up, and pulled on for my first go. My mind was completely clear and focused. And before I really knew what was happening, I was pulling over the lip and standing on top of the hardest boulder I’d ever climbed. There’s no greater feeling in world.

Seeing progress as the result of hard work is an incredibly rewarding process, and it’s what I love about climbing. You can sink so much time and effort into a specific goal and then, once you’ve achieved that goal, you celebrate briefly, and move on to the next challenge. There’s always a next step to take and there’s always something out there to challenge you to push your limits that much further. On to the next one!

Anger and Frustration

Is it always deconstructive to get angry or frustrated when climbing? It’s often easy to translate frustrations into negativity, bringing yourself down along with the people around you. But is anger itself inherently bad?

A few days ago I was working on Bushpilot V11 in RMNP. It was my second day on the problem and I spent about two hours falling on the last move, eventually running out of energy and moving on to a different boulder. Each time I fell of that final move, I would come off the wall pretty angry. But after about 30 seconds of being pissed at myself for falling yet again, I would calm down, assess what I did wrong, rest, and gear up for another go. In this case, I don’t think my anger was very deconstructive. It was short-lived frustration. I think it’s just a product of setting up myself for success in my head, then not fulfilling that expectation. It may not have been deconstructive, but it also wasn’t doing me any good.

I’ve also had plenty of experiences where anger has had a very negative impact. When this happens, I lose all confidence and when I pull onto the wall I fully expect to fall and I almost always do. I’ve learned that often times the best thing to do in this situation is to just walk away for a while. Occupy yourself with something else and take a break. What works for me is just taking a walk, or sitting on a boulder looking out at the beautiful Lake Haiyaha of Chaos Canyon, for example. Just do whatever helps you clear your head, then come back to the problem with a better attitude.

So is anger inherently deconstructive when bouldering? I don’t think so, although it often is. Frustration can most definitely bring you down if you let it, but if it’s dealt with in a good way, it’s easily let go. Allow yourself to get a little angry, but don’t dwell in it. Recognize that you need to clear your head before giving your project another go. The ideal would be to not get angry at all, and It’s a perfection that should be striven for, even if it cannot be achieved.

Thumb Catches on Crimps, Beta, and Other Various Thoughts

One thing I’ve found to be beneficial when bouldering outdoors is to be really particular about how you grab each hold. I’ve noticed that it’s sometimes better, it certain situations, to close a crimp by wrapping your thumb around on the hold itself instead of putting it on top of your other fingers (hope that makes sense). On Beyond Life Sit, an ultra-classic V12 in Joe’s Valley, Utah, I had been doing the crux off a right hand crimp side-pull by closing the crimp the normal way (thumb over fingers). After three long sessions of falling on this move it looked like I would be disappointed again when I found a tiny, tiny edge next to the hold that my thumb seemed to fit into perfectly. One attempt after finding the thumb catch, I found myself on top of the boulder. One could argue that it was coincidence and that the thumb catch made no real difference or that it was just a mental thing, but I really think it helped a lot.

So the moral is: well first off, keep an eye out for thumb catches, and second, pay attention to the little things in your climbing and always look for small things you could do differently. Always be on the lookout for some subtle foot or finger placement that might help, because it can often make a huge difference. I can think of so many times that changing something by even just a millimeter has made the difference between being on the ground and being on top of the boulder.

That said, it’s not good to get too obsessed with finding new beta and there’s a point at which you should stop messing with things and just stick to the beta you know. However, it’s also important to recognize when something’s not working and a change is necessary. I know, it sounds contradictory. It’s a tricky thing to know whether you should rest up and give the project yet another go with the exact same beta, or use up precious energy fiddling with new ideas. Knowing when to change your beta and when to just stick to what you know is a tricky skill that I, for one, have far from mastered.

One of the amazing things about bouldering is how the tiniest little nuances have a huge impact. Moving your finger the tiniest bit, or twisting your heel into the wall just a little differently can make all the difference in the world. Knowing exactly what you do with your body on a certain move is really beneficial. It helps dial the beta and create muscle memory for that particular move, as well as help you learn technique that will help with other climbs. Pay attention, but don’t get up in your own head.There’s a time to shut off your brain and just climb, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be aware and learn from both mistakes and successes.

Well, I hope this was helpful or at least entertaining! Thanks for reading!

-Zach Groenwald