There is no doubt that training is required to reach your true potential as a rock climber. But we are quicly forgetting that there is more to rock climbing than pulling hard on stick screwed above the doorframe.

In April 2021 I made the 5th ascent of Final Round on Ilam rock in Dovedale, Tom Randals direct start and direct finish to the classic limestone trad route ‘Eye Of The Tiger’. The excellent start and finish, are both great bits of climbing, and combined with the truly three star EOTT, this straight up version is probably one of the best trad routes of its grade in the country. Grade, originally given HXS, it’s probably E8 (and 8a/+), but only because the gear is pretty good, which only makes it even better (not a spicy death route). round 4

Photo - Keith Sharples - screen grab from film.

Back in 2006 I made on onsight of EOTT (though there was a jammed wire insitu) but was aware that the route scuttled off rightwards at the top avoiding an obvious blank section. I abbed this section, impressed by the quality of the rock. And there were a few holds. From a thin break make a long reach to a pocket with the left hand, a really good pocket. Well, a mono, but a really good one, like they don’t get any better; a real sinker but sideways so that you lay away rightwards. Feet up and then a long reach for a thin break above with a few hidden crimps. It’s a ‘long reach’, but this only actually works for people of perhaps 5foot10, or 178cm in new money, or perhaps 5foot6 with a major ape index, which is about what I am, without the ape index. Basically, I could get stood up, and stretching like an elastic band, remained about 5 inches short. Frustratingly I just couldn’t see a way around it; absolutely nothing higher to stand on, no way to jump, no other hand options. It was probably possible, surely, but I couldn’t figure it, or maybe I didn’t try hard enough, frustrated at having been stopped by a move that was actually factually reachy, as opposed to just using reachy as an excuse when not being strong enough, which maybe I wasn’t strong enough anyway. So I quickly lost interest because; a/it seemed likely that even if I did figure some method, I’d probably fall off there anyway after having done all the bottom bit, repeatedly. And b/even if I did manage it, future taller ascensionists would only comment on how it was a nice addition but didn’t really add difficulty, which shouldn’t matter because climbing is all about the personal challenge, but I knew in reality would really annoy me!

15 years later I ended up back at Ilam Rock by myself to look at ‘Final Round’. No idea how the route entered my head, it just arrived, desperate to use awesome dry weather and sick of The Tor. After a fairly scary roped solo of a chossy Severe round the back I dropped in down the wall, only to be instantly reminded of where I’d left off; ‘Oh no, its that bloody move again’, I’d totally forgotten about it! Straight away I could feel my day wasting away. Of course, I checked to see if I’d grown 5 inches, or gained awesome mono strength, or missed an obvious foothold, but of course I wasn’t any stronger, taller, or less blind. Pulling onto the holds from the abb rope I could tell the move had not got easier. So what next? Well, lets sit and think about it, go through the move and explore the options. The mono is good. What about 2 fingers, or back 2, will they fit, any tiny footholds, intermediate hand holds, ways to jump…what am I missing? OK, it’s impossible, for me anyway. Anything else? Mono with the right hand doesn’t work as it goes in the wrong way. Though let’s check, and, actually there is a bit of an edge by the mono I can pull down on. Oh, that’s interesting… good enough to get my feet up to the break, and then I can reach out left, and with a long reach into blank rock, but wow, a small side-pull. That’s handy, not very good, but good enough. And even more lucky, there’s a small foothold for the left foot, and then with a bit of a slap…I’ve done it!

randal final round

Tom Randal on his ascent of Final Round, demonstrating the mono-reach move (photo credits: Peter Kneen / CrimpingtonBear Photography)

This little moment of clarity was amazing. Funny how some things excite some people! But suddenly the route was ‘on’, having not even seen the bottom bit. I couldn’t stop smiling, at how I’d figured out this desperate section, but also feeling a tad bemused by the fact that I’d completely missed this before. Why? What changed?

Dave Graham once said; ‘I’m climbing harder than I’ve ever climbed, but I’m not stronger, I’m just wiser’! As I get older, I can relate more and more to that, with step changes to my technique leading to noticeable gains. Of course, we aren’t talking massive leaps, but they all add up. I use my knees and elbows loads now as extra contact points, Lynn Hill calls it ‘baring’, where the extra point gives stability. And I made a conscious decision to use the tiny foothold in the right place as opposed to the big hold in the wrong place, even if those places are only an inch or two apart, because my shoes are good enough to stand on the tiny hold. And I can see more of all the options, even if a hold says ‘hello there, I’m a hold for your left hand’, I’ll double check, as we all get our left and right mixed up every now and again.

I find myself thinking more and more about this kind of stuff, which coincides with a general trend towards training, and the assumption that getting better at rock climbing is achieved entirely by spending more time hanging on a stick, the thinner the better, ideally with some lumps of iron attached to your harness. I see more and more people who want physical assessments, training plans, and training advice in their quest to improve, when clearly its technique or mental strength that is holding them back. In fact there is a monumental shift now away from technique, probably driven by SM, where we associate all those incredible feats of strength with overall performance.

If we tested 30 premiership league strikers we’d probably get a decent idea of what fitness and strength is required to be at the top of their game. We’d also be easily capable of finding super fit members of the public who were up to the job, but not for one minute would we assume they were a top lever player, or could ever be a top level player, because that involves incredible skill, determination and years of experience. It seems in climbing we’ve forgotten that, and videos of pull-ups with an extra 50kg or a one-armer on a 5mm edge blow us away and leave us thinking ‘that guy is such an awesome climber’.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m super impressed by the feats of strength. And there is no doubt, to climb super hard on rock does demand a pretty damn good level of strength and ability to dangle from a well fashioned bit of wood. But as I get older, and spend a fair bit of time coaching ‘older’ climbers, I’m more aware than ever that these guys are desperately scratching away at their gradually decreasing physical strengths, paying exponentially more time to this, and not working with their movement and mind. Ironically these areas can often be improved, but are ignored and end up sliding down hill…leading to a spiralling need to train harder to climb better….

Take a look at where you are, where you want to be, where you were before, and what you were doing then. In many cases you’ll see ‘I’m way stronger now than I used to be, but just can’t seem to climb as hard’. How are you stronger? On a beastmaker 2000 middle rung? Or a max pull-up? How come you could easily run laps on ‘Sardine’* 20 years ago but now it feels desperate, and you were so much weaker then too…. What were you doing then? Climbing 3 times a week, 10 routes a day, weekends in Wales, traversing at Broomgroove wall…. And now, 3 finger board sessions a week. But they DO feel REALLY hard…surely I should be able to pull on anything….  (*Sardine is a well polished 7b+ at Raventor).

21.4.10kg small

Ironically, to really complicate everything, after 3 months of lockdown fingerboard work this year and feeling like I’d kind of plateaued, I packed in. Actually, I stopped as this coincided with the amazing weather we had around Easter. I didn’t touch a bit of wood for months, climbed almost entirely outside, and mainly on trad; relatively easy shuffling by comparison. And then forced indoors by rain, I immediately smashed my PB fingerboard scores. So this goes to show, and completely proves that not only do you get better at climbing by going climbing, but you also get stronger too!! [Note, n=1, and this was probably a fluke, and also I didn’t mention that my pull strength was pathetic…]

For personalised training plans and training advice contact….. well, obviously not me, but there are plenty of dudes out there that can make you look great on instagram..... and no doubt will make you climb harder too.