The Best Things I Ever Learned In Climbing
As a climber of decades, primarily aware of what a given sequence would take anyone, I forget about gender differences—until they get me.
This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 231 (January 2016).
Men climbers are stronger; women have less upper-body strength but better footwork. That old chestnut becomes less true as climbers improve. Among good climbers, the women are all strong, and the men have good footwork, too.
Still, especially among the broad base of the climbing community, differences apply. As a climber of decades, primarily aware of what a given sequence would take anyone, I forget about gender differences—until they get me.
I always struggle on Easy Skankin,’ “the best 12b at Rifle.” My spouse climbs at a similar level but is a better boulderer (my forte is hanging on and figuring out moves) and has a few more inches of reach. He can usually do this climb no matter what shape he’s in, while I can rarely stretch to the crux gaston.
I don’t usually think about reach: At 5’7” I’m hardly petite, but one day Heather Ardley, who is 5’5,” showed me her way, an extra footstep to walk up the (so-called) ramp on Easy Skankin.’ It worked, and I did the move.
Tips I’ve gleaned from female climbing partners and from experience include:
1. CLIMB WITH WOMEN WHEN YOU CAN. “I don’t try to imitate [male friends’] climbing style, as I’m usually shorter and weaker than they are,” says recent Rock and Ice intern, Liz Haas. “I know I’ll have to find my own way … I learn more about body positioning from watching a woman.”
For anyone on the small side of the spectrum, remember the advice of the great climber Lynn Hill (5’1”): Always look for the intermediates. Examine anything for use as a crimp, a sidepull, an undercling.
The most common coping technique for a long reach is to use flexibility. On an Ask Me Anything interview on reddit.com, Lynn said, “You have to be flexible in order to bring your feet up high. One foot at a time, usually.” She uses high feet or intermediates “as a way to reposition myself so I can make small adjustments, and I break the long move into two or three moves.” Just one hand position on a small undercling can suddenly give you an arm’s length.
2. GRAB AND ACTIVELY PULL WITH YOUR FEET. (See Eight Ways to Improve Your Footwork.) Women have traditionally tried to paste our feet carefully and smoothly, often high to leverage our flexibility, and simply make them stick. Instead, use your feet actively: to pull your weight in and shift your mass over your feet. That position holds you in to reach higher and use handholds better.
Another great precept that particularly benefits smaller climbers (as well as anyone making a long reach) is to use the outside edges of your shoes. Stand on a hold with the outer rather than inner edge of your shoe closest to the wall, and turn your hip inward, into the rock. Standing on an outside edge and twisting in gains you an inch or so of reach. Exceptions are when you can frog, or footmantel, onto a big hold, or heel hook. But use the outside edge continually, habitually.
The mechanics of the outside edge, aka back step, are easy to remember: same side. If you are reaching high with your right hand, use the rightfoot outside edge. Left hand, left outside edge.
3. LEARN TO DROP KNEE. This move is a deeper version of the outside-edge. When you twist your hip in, bend or point the knee on that side downward and dig in and hang on with the foot. The opposite knee bends upward. The motion locks you into the wall, weighting the feet and again allowing you to use handholds better. My friend Lizz Grenard showed me a super-deep drop knee to get past a fierce move at the start of The Beast (5.13a), also at Rifle. (Come to think of it, only a tiny crimp another woman told me about let me do the low-percentage dyno crux with any consistency.)
4. HANG ON STRAIGHT ARMS. It’s less strenuous to hang on your bones than the taut muscles of a bent arm. If your arm is bending, try to twist your torso and lean out, or drop your hips and sag down.
5. ON HARD MOVES, KEEP AT IT. Like many women, at least early on, I tended to give up quickly on routes and boulder problems that would take me more than a few falls. Too hard, I’d think. Move on.
“I can’t imagine ever being able to do these moves in control,” I told my friend Spider Mckenzie as I hung on an early sport route at Buoux, France.
“And they aren’t even the crux.”
I thought it was hopeless, but Spider countered with great advice. “Each time you fall, you’re at the end of your strength. So you’re tired. First time up, you’re always sloppy and inefficient. Next time will be completely different.”
And it was. When you are on the right side of that fine line between falling and not falling, you can’t believe how much better something can feel. I still have to remind myself of that lesson, and the result for anyone is one of the most magical things in climbing.
Alison Osius is Rock and Ice’s executive editor and a former national competition champion.
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