By Neil Gresham
Performance Trad Climbing – Extracts from interviews with three leading exponents: Glenda Huxter, Jack Geldard & James McHaffie.
Image: Angus Kille on sighting Very Big Springs (E7 6b) Ailladie, Burren, Ireland. © Ray Wood/DMM Wales.
Trad climbing is all about coping with the stresses of running it out into unknown territory. A skilled trad climber must be capable of making an accurate risk assessment as they make progress up the route and be able to distinguish between the point to go for it and the point to back off. Whilst the essence of a trad climbing experience is the same for everyone, regardless of the grade they climb, some undoubtedly show a greater ability to cope with higher levels of pressure than others.
What follows is a selection of edited highlights from previous interviews that I have conducted with three high level exponents from the UK. The objective of the interviews was to find out to what extent they feel that natural talent has helped their progress, or whether they have had to work hard to develop their skills.
North Wales based Glenda Huxter has unquestionably pushed the standards of trad onsighting for British women, with two E7's and countless E6s behind her. James McHaffie. James, or ‘Caff’ as he is also known, has on-sighted over a hundred routes at E6 and above in the UK, including around thirty E7s. He has also climbed several E8s ground-up and is surely a contender for one of the best climbers in the country. Jack Geldard has also onsighted many E6s, a few E7s and climbed E8 ground-up. Between these three there is a wealth of experience to draw from, and their responses prove that we can all raise our game by adopting a more applied and analytical approach.
Are you naturally bold or have you made a conscious effort to nurture boldness? What advice do you have for people who don't believe they can be bold enough to climb in the middle or upper E grades?
GLENDER: It’s more a case of being highly motivated beforehand. I won’t go on a hard route unless I know I feel ready to give what ever it takes to get up it. I can be incredibly determined but it has to be the right day. I always reassure myself of my ability and say that it’s not the route looking hard it’s me feeling scared. I’ve years of experience behind me and I trust my judgment. The other thing I’m aware of is that stress from every day life really disrupts my climbing and I try to avoid going for something really hard or dangerous if work is too hectic.
JACK: I wouldn't consider myself a bold climber and I certainly lack confidence much of the time. Knowing your limits and working within them is the key to bold climbing. I always think this: To hurt yourself you have to fall off and either rip your gear or have no gear. So there are two stages here – falling off, and having no protection. Many people concentrate on how well protected a route is and forget all about how likely a fall is. I concentrate on both – if you don't fall then you won't get hurt even if there is no gear! In addition, it’s important to remember that just because some E5's don't have any gear doesn't mean that all E5's don't have any gear. When breaking in to a grade it is best to choose routes with reasonable protection and it's even more important to choose routes that are well travelled. Clean, well travelled routes feel much easier than dirty, vegetated esoteric routes and the grade is much more likely to be correct, which will hopefully mean you won't have an epic.
CAFF: The middle to upper E grades are often better protected and generally safer than easier routes. They are usually steeper and smoother so there is less to hit if you fall, and you can usually choose a climb to suit your style if you’re pushing it. More importantly though, you must be reasonably experienced to be climbing at this level and therefore should have the judgement and skills to make a ‘safe’ ascent, even if falls are involved. If there are some classic routes that you’re keen for go for, tell your belayer you’re 'just going to have a little look' and impress them by giving it 110%. Getting excited and taking control of your breathing before and during the ascent are really conducive to climbing well.
How important is a warm-up – both from a physical and a mental perspective?
JACK: From a physiological point of view it is always a good idea to get a 'primary pump' on an easier route first. However, this can be pretty difficult to do when trad climbing. In this situation, if it's possible, I sometimes climb up the first 5 metres of my intended route and arrange gear, then down-climb to the floor. Otherwise – I just get on with it and get a flash pump! As for getting psyched out – it's very easy to do, but remember, you must want to do the route or you wouldn't have walked to the bottom of it. It is vital to weigh up the risks, and have what John Redhead calls an 'Authentic Desire' – this is to really want to do the route for yourself and to be ready for the 'fight'. Neil Dickson said to me last week “When I was pushing my grade above E5 I just accepted the fact that I would take massive falls. So now I just consider that to be normal and it doesn't scare me at all.” I haven't quite got that far yet, but accepting that routes will be protected by micro wires, that you might face a long fall, that you will get pumped and you will have to 'go for it', are the main stepping stones to the correct mental approach to harder routes. Personally my tactic for onsighting an E7 is to get very 'trad fit' through going climbing a lot, then climb some routes that are nearby to my intended route (at about E5/6) to get a feel for the rock. Then I rest for a few days and just 'go for it' – basic, but it works for me!
Regarding training, the traditional philosophy of 'just climbing' is perhaps ok up to E4/E5 but after that, surely only the most talented can get away with this approach? Is a structure necessary or does this conflict with the traditional spirit?
GLENDER: I don’t train systematically, but during the winter, if I go for more than a few days without using the wall then I’m distraught! - as much because I enjoy it than the worry of losing fitness. In the climbing season I tend to go more on how I feel with regards to the routes I want to do. I climb on the crag as much as possible until I feel ready to try something hard. At this point I rest for a bit before trying the route.
JACK: When I started climbing I had terrible technique, but was skinny and had quite strong arms. Instead of climbing hundreds of routes within my grade, I built a campus board and dangled around on it for hours on end. I'm still benefiting from those early strength gains even now, but it took ten years for my technique, mental strength and general climbing ability to catch up. I'm much weaker now than when I was 17, but I can climb routes I couldn't touch back then. If I had my time again, I'd be out on the crag, not up in the attic.
CAFF: Training fits into trad in that you’ve got to be fit and reasonably strong to get up the better protected harder trad routes. If you’re unfit you need to climb fast and be super confident!
Do you have any areas of weakness in your climbing and if so how do you address them?
GLENDER: For me it’s bouldering. I’m not very powerful although I can hang around on vertical or slightly overhanging rock for ages! Some of the routes I’ve been doing recently have been steeper than I’m used to which has exposed this. Climbing at the crag keeps me fit so I made more of an effort with bouldering at the wall last winter. My other weakness is the inability to read moves quickly, which is probably why I’ve developed good endurance. It sometimes takes me a while to work out the best sequence, but I know this is more to do with the stress of the situation than a lack of technique. It’s more a question of confidence. For me, my head is still the ultimate weakness as it is for 90% of climbers.
Is it necessary to be good at sport climbing and bouldering in order to fulfil your potential in trad climbing?
GLENDER: I sport climb in the winter but I’ve no patience for working routes. As well as helping me physically, it also helps me get my head together for falling. Bold routes can make me stiff in my climbing and sport routes help me relax about the idea of falling off when it’s safe to do so. This helps me greatly for safer trad routes.
CAFF: Sport climbing translates brilliantly to trad and I’d bet most people who make it up steep E6/7s onsight have also onsighted F7c/+. Bouldering can be great for helping to read cruxes on routes but not as useful as sport climbing fitness. On E7s such as the Bells you can get away with only climbing F7a+ and being bold. Nic Sellars has shown brilliantly that sport climbing fitness can make you a ‘trad wad’.
JACK: Many climbers talk of being 'trad fit' and 'sport fit', which relates to the length of time you hang around on trad routes (usually about 45 minutes) compared to the relative race of a sport climb (say, 10 minutes). Obviously there is a cross over between the two, but climbing styles are very specific and not surprisingly, one of the best ways of training for trad routes is doing trad routes. Bouldering has many negative impacts on trad onsighting in my opinion, especially the modern, super steep boulder problems and indoor bouldering. These are great fun but they aren't going to help you on Masters Wall on Cloggy. Most hard trad climbs are just off vertical and on tiny crimps with smeary footholds. Bouldering on this sort of terrain can definitely help with technique by building up your repertoire of moves, and testing the limits of friction – but it can have a distinctly adverse affect too – encouraging you to go for moves when you're not sure of success. Bold trad routes require a steady approach with lots of little up and down shuffles, until you're sure of your sequence. Also with bouldering becoming more popular and websites and magazines giving more sequence information, the skill of reading the rock is becoming less important. You won't find any tick marks or on-line beta for Shaft of a Dead Man!
The Brits sometimes like to think they are the best nation of trad climbers, but do we have to learn from other nations?
CAFF: It’s blatant that good trad climbers are found all over the world. At this year’s meet, the Belgians showed that climbing F9a and being a well-rounded mountaineer can make you a superb trad climber. I think the Brits can compete with the best at what they’re good at, and I can’t imagine Neil Dixon’s onsight ascent of the Hollow Man being found easy by any climber in the world. Nor would I fancy their chances on the grit arêtes or slabs with death landings that the likes of Pete Robins and Adam Long would run up. The international meets are always a good lark for learning about different climbing areas and cultures. We’re certainly not the best at all the trad stuff but there are elements of it where people in the UK can shine.
Do you have any advice on partnerships? Is it better to climb with people who are better or worse than you?
GLENDER: In general I think it would help me to second more routes. This might sound odd but I’ve always done the leading in my climbing partnerships and there’s a lot to be said for being dragged up harder stuff. It’s good to see how other, more talented climbers cope with situations and to get feedback on how you perform. I’m invariably the one who makes the decisions and takes responsibility, for example when getting out of a sea cliff safely, and whilst that’s obviously a vital part of the learning process, I think you still need to spend time on the other end too.
Any advice for aspiring trad climbers who are city bound and find it impossible to gain regular access to the crag?
GLENDER: The most important thing to emphasise is variety. Obviously you can only do so much with walls as you get used to the holds and get a false sense of how good you are. But you can work on your climbing style and develop that controlled, static way of moving which is essential for trad onsighting. Dynos are out. Think of how you’d climb on a real trad route and try to replicate that.
Finally, do you climb hard all year round or do you consciously take a break from time to time?
JACK: Onsight trad climbing takes a lot of mental energy. I find that when other parts of my life are quiet and stable, that is when I can focus hard on my onsight climbing. If I'm concentrating on other things, I just lose the desire to put myself forward for a fight.