Seneca rocks, Franklin gorge and Earth Treks Crystal City

July 2017
The month of June was a mixed bag of beans for me as far as climbing is concerned. I logged good training hours in the gym and has a good indoor bouldering spree. I bouldered more than I did routes, but did well to stick to the planned training schedule.

Then came the urge to climb outside and I responded. I went to my friends place and crashed for a week as he is just a couple of hours from Seneca. Boom! Out went training and regular sessions. I did climb at Earth Treks Crystal City and found that I onsighted much harder grades there (V7/5.12) than I do in my home gym. I also hand-dogged my way up a 5.13b (almost clip to clip). But I realized that none of the moves were really harder than a V6/7 on the route and with enough power endurance (PE) training I could readpoint routes of similar nature. That was an encouraging discovery.

While I float these grades around, I am perfectly aware that the Fish hook arete climb on Mt. Russell, which is less than a month away now, is going to kick my butt despite being classified as a moderate at 5.9. But hey, it's alpine you see! You know throwing around the word alpine here and there in a blog post makes it sound badass, doesn't it? Ok, coming back to the blog post now ...

Other thing about Earth Treks experience - fantastic route setting. The grades out there were consistent across heights and styles. My wife, who has major reach issues, still could stay strong and send routes that she could due to technique and strength without her reach being a barrier.

Other than climbing at Earth Treks, I plugged some gear at Seneca during this trip and also clipped some bolts at Franklin gorge. Seneca was encouraging, but an eye opener that overall body strength is so much more important on those multi-pitches than those single pitch crux-fest. I was probably tired from the 13-hour drive the previous day and less sleep. In any case, I could onsight a good 5.8 trad line, going off route and finishing some stout 5.10a moves on the adjacent route! It was heady and the blue Metolious #1 came in handy in the thin crack. Also, the slick limestone of Franklin taught me to persevere and focus more on mid-route rest and recovery before going for the chains.

However, the short time on the rocks (due to Fire at Seneca and rains) did not really help us with our outdoor mileage goals. Well, in any case it was a good experience to climb at Seneca and Franklin.

Most important training principle: Simplicity

June 2017
I followed a very typical climbing curve so far. That is, if I were one of the statistic from a sample population of climbers, I will live on the regression line and not be an outlier.

Like any typical climber, I progressed rapidly at first, then plateaued for a small time, then progressed with some harder climbing efforts, got injured, plateaued and stayed on the plateau for long. Then I started paying attention to my climbing methods, dabbling in some self-made training regimen, taking a critical view of my nutrition and rest periods. And again saw marginal improvements, which is still steadily increasing. All these phases have taken around 4 years, with 3 years climbing and a year of time off in between.

Like any climber who wants to improve, I have been reading a lot of training material, listening to podcasts, buying books and reading blogs. Here are a few important things that I have learnt.

  • Keep it simple and realistic
  • Showing up every single time and doing something is more important
  • Stick with a plan long enough for it to make some impact 
  • Listen to your body - pay close attention to nutrition, sleep and rest
  • Periodization & Progression works - Non-linear periodization is better than linear periodization
  • Whatever you do - For climbing, you always train three sport-specific things - Strength, Power, Power Endurance. These three are built on a solid basis of good basic fitness and general strength
Let's look at these things in a bit of detail.

Keep it simple - If it's complex you probably will not stick with it. Keep it simple and realistic. 

Show up - Consistency is they key. Immediate muscular adaptations that happen after a training session is short lived. For consistent and longer term adaptations, give any activity / exercise a minimum of 10-12 sessions over a period of 12-15 week cycles for it to be effective. Be regular, stick with it and give it some time to have an effect. 

Sleep well - After a heavy session, get at least 8-10 hours of sleep. Even on rest days, try and get in at least 8 hours of sleep. Most of the recovery and supercompensation happens in sleep, give yourself a best shot at it.

Have a balanced diet - Don't run away from good fats. Don't avoid carbs. For high intensity activity like climbing, carbs help you to fuel your sessions. Well, there have been fine example of Ketogenic diets doing wonders for some climbers, for eg. Dave McLeod. But it is a very strict and demanding diet and most people will fail at following it. A balanced 45/35/30 diet of carb/fat/protein will work well for most.

Rest - Rest for at atleast 24-48 hours between intense sessions including heavy weights, limit bouldering or strenuous power endurance sessions. Aim for a minimum of three days of climbing for strength, power and power endurance in a week. If possible, try and squeeze in a fourth day if your body permits. Climbing / training when tired and below par does more harm than good. I need to try and follow this more. However, it's important to note that maximal performance is not the goal of training. Training will result in a bit of fatigue and soreness. One must be able to differentiate between healthy soreness and unhealthy fatigue. When you feel the latter, stop, don't climb / train. In general, I take it easy (read half the regular volume every four weeks).

Training strength - Train general upper body strength by doing weighted pull ups and dips. No more than 5 reps at 85% of maximum capacity in a set for 3-4 sets. You can add dumbbell rows, I don't do it. For lower body, you can do squats only if absolutely required. I don't do it, except for when I am training specifically for a long alpine objective. I would also consider adding lock off strength training in my regimen. These are intense and short sessions that I would add after a redpoint session. In the rest periods between strength sessions, I do hanging leg raises as a part of my core strength routine. You can also add ab rollers or windshield wipers. In general, I like to do no more than 3/4 exercises in 30-45 minutes for general body strength sessions. 

Training finger strength - I like to do two fingerboard sessions - 1) Repeaters protocol including 7 sec on 3 secs off for 6 reps in a 1 minute. Do 2 sets each for 4/5 different hold/grips, and 2) Max weight protocol, which calls for 12 seconds hang followed by 3 minute rest for five sets each on two to three different holds/grips. Overall hangboard session lasts for around 50 minutes. I get a good session on Sunday, but accommodating a good fingerboard session after climbing is usually difficult for me on Wednesday. However, I try.

Training power - I am a big advocate of limit bouldering for training power. Go and bouder hard. Focus on hardest possible moves, not volume. Train for specific weaknesses, small crimps, dynamic moves and/or deadpoint moves. Can also incorporate campus board routines, but watch out for pesky injuries if you decide to do campusing. Instead dynos on big holds or maxi pull rungs is better.

Training power endurance - Route intervals mid intensity involves 4x4 (120/130 moves per set) on lead, while higher intensities involve 4x2 (60/70 moves per set) on lead. Do this once a week. I also add second power endurance session in the form of linked bouldering circuits, with 4x4x4 (50 moves per set) for high volume sessions and 4x4x2 (25 moves per set) for love volume high intensity circuits. 

In general, I like to incorporate a high level of specificity and keeping away boredom. Hence my preferred training volume is split in 30% of training (non-climbing time) and 70% climbing (climbing time).

This is what has been in effect for the past 4 months, with one months of injury-forced rest in between. Injury was not climbing centric and no way caused by the training. The training has helped me achieve my personal bests after nearly a couple of years plateau (read that is a few 5.12s and V7s).

Putting it down matters as much as sending

May 2017
I always loved to write, be it on sticky notes or the last page of your notebook, I always loved it. Then I started blogging. Initially, I wrote about things, things that affected me, inspired me, disheartened me -- all that was external to me. Then I started about myself, my thoughts, my process, my failures and accomplishments. I enjoyed this subtle transitions in my writing. This was well before I started to climb.

Then climbing came to me in 2013. Well, it came earlier than that, but I really never climbed in a focussed and committed way till 2013. Like every new climber, the quick initial progression from V1 to V4 made me feel great. I blogged about grades and climbing process and the routes I sent. The suddenly the strange feeling of 'tooting your own horns' came to me that said stop blogging/bragging about your accomplishments.

I don't know why it came or what triggered that feeling, but it came for sure and hit me hard. I deleted a lot of my old climbing posts and the subsequent posts that I wrote gave more of an objective description of my outings, climbs. Everything was mostly from a third person point of view. It started sounding more like a report rather than an experience. An objective viewpoint, rather than my own subjective one. And then I wondered why the process of writing was no longer fun. I lost faith in the process of writing. And eventually stopped writing about my climbs. I merely posted a few photos, but that did not help me relive the experience or process.

Anyway, climbing always remained close, but had to take a year off in 2015/16 to manage professional commitments. Even then I tried to train whenever I could. It was an honest, but poor effort. Then, things changed and I had access to climbing once again.

In March this year, it was 6 months that I had come back to climbing (Since October 2016) and I was starting to immerse myself in climbing again, with more zeal if anything. The break was surely good. In these 6 months, I took my first lead fall on gear (trad climb), I onsighted my first 5.9 trad.  I was charting down my training regimen and my schedules. It was fun and inspiring. Although I realize now that the training plan is an ever evolving sheet and I have to modify it as I grow. But the point is that getting back for surely great.

Then I had my first major finger injury where I crushed my pinky under a loaded barbell and could literally see my tendon sheath severed. The extensor tendon was hurt bad. I learnt the process of being patient and recovering. Eating well. I still visited the gym to remain stoked. I learn restraint and not climbing on my injured finger. I ran a lot and did some core exercises, but nothing that even remotely required my hands. My return to climbing lasted 4 months before I had to stop climbing for a couple of months due to finger injury.

But like everything else, the injury phase passed and I started climbing again. It's been four weeks now. I am training religiously. I haven't had the chance to go out, but indoors I sent my first V7 and am very close almost sending my first 5.12b (7b) route.

Well, I know many will say its plastic, but, that's where the prologue of this post comes into play. I should start being subjective about my sport, about my passions and my skills and my accomplishments. I should believe in them and describe the process. Because when describing the process, I am not just putting down what I managed to do, but I also rethink and relive the process. It's helps me understand the subtleties of the process and helps me appreciate the finer moments.

And above everything else, it teaches me a lot about myself. And I believe that it may teach or at least inspire someone else to apply it to their own processes. The send on any route, lasts for 4/5 minutes. Considering that average route is around 40-50 moves long, with a couple of rest stances where you can shake out for 20/30 seconds and at an average rate of around 5-6 second per move -- all totaling to around 250 seconds. Yeah, so besides the math, the average redpoint send lasts for 4/5 minutes, but the process lasts much longer if you are conscious.

Consciousness is the key here. The process can be reduced to mere neuromuscular coordination without any conscious learning if you focus on mechanical movements and sequences. But if you are conscious the very process can be a rich and rewarding experience where you know the exact angle of your heel hook and at what moment to engage your core and when to breathe.

I am beginning to learn this and enjoy this. I want to be a good climber, a better one. To the level of what? Well, I wouldn't mind 5.15s and V12s. But for now, I lay my aims on being able to redpoint 5.13 grades in sport. Which means, I need to be solid at V8 (and be able to pull off V9 after some work) and pretty comfortable with 5.12s in sport. When I say solid, I mean I should be able to do it in a few tries, almost on all styles. Which would directly translate to being competent 5.11 trad leader (including cracks, at which I currently suck) and being able to send mega classics like Casual Route or Beckey Chouinard without any epics.

I am taking a big leap and putting it down. Because I need to be more subjective about it and be conscious about it to be able to ingrain that  process in my routine -- training, sleeping, diet and the actual climbing sessions. I truly believe that writing helps and putting in down on paper or blog or anything will help me realize it. It matters as much as sending.

Serendipitous climbing experience at T-Wall

March 2017
I am an aspiring trad climber for long now. I do not get to do a lot of real rock climbing being in Florida; and hence trad climbing as a discipline, which is honed after a lot of vertical mileage, has always been an elusive skill for a guy like me used to plastic pumping indoors. I should say that this is even more true in the niche of crack climbing.

Cake Walk 5.10a

I have done a few 5.8 trad climbs at Lost Wall, where I could avoid the crack and use features on the face. I have done a couple of long alpine routes in the High Sierras, which were more of ridge climbs rather than 'real cracks'. I had never yet attempted a 5.9 trad climb, leave alone crack climbs. And unless I really did a few decent cracks, calling myself a trad climber seemed a far fetched epithet.

Well, this trip to T-Wall changed it a bit, except for the fact that I still don't hesitate to consider myself a gumbie, or a beginner at the best in terms of crack climbing. I simply need to have more mileage on dihedrals and splitters before I can consider myself a competent crack climber.

Coming back to the T-Wall trip, I was happy to onsight a couple of stiff classics and even attempt a 5.10a finger crack.

Nappy 5.7

Golden Locks 5.9

Golden Locks 5.9

Besides Nappy (a good consistent dihedral crack at 5.7) and Blind Date (an ok 5.7 crack) as warm up climbs, I managed to onsight some higher grades on Razor Worm (5.8+) and Golden Locks (5.9). Razor worm came to me easy, but Golden Locks was really stiff and the fact that I could onsight it, no matter the Elvis legs, really helped my confidence.

I also went out of my comfort zone to lead Cake Walk,  a 5.10a finger crack, albeit with a couple of falls at the crux and near the chains. This was also the first time I took a fall on gear and that too on a #0 Metolius TCU that I managed to sink and clip seconds before my foot popped at the crux. It was a small fall, would have been more like a take if it were not for unanticipated foot slip. In any case, I am glad that it did not freak me out!

My training regimen for alpine climbing - Part 1

February 2017
I have always been an active outdoor person since I was a child. Besides active sports, I have been an avid hiker and have logged many miles with relatively heavy backpacks (30+ pounds) through all these years, irrespective of my body weights.

Please understand that carrying inordinate amount of weight on your backpack (more than 20% of your body weight) over an extended period of time isn't always the best thing to do. I realized it the hard way with a bothersome knee in my twenties, however, all was not lost and I could recover and repair the damage done by taking necessary corrective measures.

Anyway, so the purpose of this background information is to establish the fact that I have always had a solid aerobic base for long hours of moderate intensity hikes. However, those ascents were not fast by any means. But, those hours definitely helped me have a solid foundation for what it takes to do bigger peaks in light and fast manner, or at least pave the way for it.

I have never been someone who believed in systematic training and always lived by train by climbing and hiking, rather than spending those long hours in the gym or on a treadmill. However, in 2014 I came across this book, Training for the new Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston and it completely changed my perspective towards systematic and meticulous training. The fact that I was going to be a part of a ~6000m peak on a Himalayan expedition also helped me to stay motivated and train in a disciplined manner.

I also did my basic mountaineering course in Manali, which involved spending 4-weeks in the mountains at altitudes of between 7,000 to 15,000 feet, including daily drills of rigorous physical training, exercises and basic rock and snow climbing. While not on the cutting edge of the technical spectrum, the simple act of performing physical activity day in and day out for 6+ hours every day on an average for four weeks straight really upped my mountain fitness.

This was on the back of nearly 6 months of strict adherence of the plan that Steve and Scott have recommended in their book. The combined effect of these two was nothing unexpected. I was in the best shape and more than able to easily summit the 5980m peak (19,600 feet approximately) with a lot of gas still left in the tank. I was well acclimatized and in good shape.

Now, back to the flat lands, I do not have the luxury of spending any amount of time in the mountains. But, I can still follow the training regimen in the book and over the last 3 years of trial and error I have now constructed a plan for me and my partner, who also happens to be my wife.

This plan is not purely for mountaineering training, but rather a mix of alpine training + rock climbing training and also includes some time on fingerboard. At the time of writing this, I can onsight up to 5.10d/.11a sport routes on rock (redpoint up to .12a) and 5.9 on traditional climbs. My wife has an onsight sport climbing grade of around 5.10a/b (redpoint up to .11b). Bouldering wise, I am at V4/5 onsight grade (sends up to V7) and she is at V3/4 (send up to V6). This is to establish that we are decent climbers (read intermediate with relatively decent aerobic base). We also have completed a few Grade III and IV routes in the High Sierras without much difficulties.

Now, three years after my Himalayan expedition, it's been a long gap and months of systematic training has been few and far, due to family, work and other issues that an immigrant faces in the United States. Given this situation now, I was not sure about my aerobic base. However, do note that we get to do a lot of gym climbing, but being in the flat lands of Florida, not much leg work.

Hence, I tried a few of the Alpine combine tests prescribed in the book, especially focusing on the elevation gain part. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could do 3038 feet (926 m) of elevation gain within 1 hour at body weight and 1000 feet elevation gain with 25 lbs backpack in 21 minutes. I did both these test not in my mountaineering both though, both these cases were done in my regular running shoes. However, the timings on both these test underscored the fact that aerobic base definitely has a solid foundation and the legs definitely are in decent shape - not great factoring in that I used my running shoes, and did not factor in altitude, uneven terrain, cold and wind resistance - to support my aerobic fitness. However, even as I trudged along, I felt that it is my legs that are probably the weak link as compared to my cardio base. For my wife, who managed 2800 feet in 1 hour at body weight, it was the other way round.

For the weighted 1000 feet test, I used the box step method, while for the 3038 feet ascent at body weight, I used a grade 15 incline on treadmill and cover 3.9 miles in an hour. I do understand that training at sea-levels in Florida is nothing like the real-world mountain terrain and conditions out there, but having experienced that as well, I feel that we are doing above average for a pair of Floridian with full-time jobs and limited access to mountains. I believe, this understanding and realistic evaluation of our abilities is important to understand the kind of training loads that one should impose on their bodies. Overtraining or undertraining will simply yield no benefits.

Given this base, we will be ramping up our training regimen with a more systematic approach to be better climber - fast technically proficient and with enough mental and physical reserves - to complete our alpine endeavors. I have taken a few liberties to modify and adapt our training schedules to train multiple parameters such as endurance, upper and lower body strength as well as muscular endurance in addition to finger strength workouts. The result is 18 hours per week of training schedule, with ~10 hours over the weekends and 8 over the weekdays after work.

It's not going to be easy and we will definitely miss some sessions due to fatigue, lack of recovery or other commitments, but overall the goal will be to stick to the plan and do no less than 15 hours of training every week. I guess, sticking to this volume will definitely yield the desired results and provide with adequate safety cushion to perform out there in the mountains.

In the next part, I will detail the activities that I use as a part of my training regimen, how much rest I prefer and can manage after each activity and the sequence in which I do these. Again, the next part detailing the individual activities of my regimen are built on the base information given in this post and cannot be viewed in isolation.