Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Eric Hörst's Maximum Climbing: A Review

I should begin my review of this important new book by reminding readers that Eric Hörst has been one of the relatively unsung yet valuable presences in American rock-climbing for the past three decades. I first remember encountering him in photos and articles about the New River Gorge, where he really helped push forward the American sport-climbing revolution. At the same time, he was developing an extensive knowledge about the theory and practice of training for climbing and as far as I can tell remains the most reliable source on the subject outside of Europe. I have stated elsewhere that his book Training for Climbing is the best recent single volume I have seen on understanding how the physiology of climbing functions. His website and many books are a veritable fount of suggestions and ideas for improving your climbing. Based on number and quality of publications alone he is probably the most significant author currently writing on climbing training and performance in the English-speaking world.

Eric kindly sent me a copy of his latest book, Maximum Climbing, to review for this blog, advising me to spend some time reading and digesting it, advice that was very helpful. For this is a very rich book, indeed, perhaps the first book I have read on climbing performance that will really require the reader to sit down and thoughtfully consider and analyze not just practice of climbing but his or her own self in relation to it. In other words, to fully grasp and apply the ideas that Eric is putting forth is going to require some serious thought.

As anyone familiar with my views on climbing training might be aware, I deeply believe that physical strengths, while crucial to climbing success, are of minimal importance compared to mental strengths. The first book in English to really explore this was Performance Rock Climbing by Goddard and Neumann, published in 1993. While I am not a professional in the field of sports psychology, my impression is that the state of research has moved on considerably from then. Certainly that era of the mid-90s was one when sport-climbing was about to truly take off and it seems likely that there is a lot to digest from the achievements of climbers like Dave Graham, Chris Sharma, etc. One of the most important of these fields of study is that of mental attitudes in climbing. While many will insist that climbers are much stronger physically now, it is hard to conceive of too many modern V15 boulderers able to match John Gill's feats of strength in the 60s or even Frederic Nicole in the 90s. Most climbers today operating at the elite level have found that type of pure strength is simply not necessary for climbing at extraordinary grades of difficulty.

So what is the factor that aids such amazing climbers as Adam Ondra, a teenager who has confessed to not being able to do a one-arm pullup and can routinely onsight 5.14b? Clearly Adam is in superb physical shape but more so than that he is in extraordinary mental shape. Consider what it takes to remember the hundreds of crucial sequences and holds on the sparsely bolted multi-pitch 5.14s he has climbed, let alone control the fear of potential 50+ foot falls. Which brings us to Eric's book. Now from the outset, I am going to quibble a wee bit with the use of brain and mind as concepts, as there is a paradox lurking regarding brain and mind interaction. That is, how can the brain understand itself? If there is such a thing as mind, how does the mind interact with the brain, direct the brain, etc? But if we set aside for a moment that philosophical consideration, however important, there is a great deal to be said for exploring the best ways in which to improve our mental approaches to climbing.
Maximum climbing, for Hörst, involves not just improvement in terms of grades of difficulty but also in a less-measurable quality of experience, that the climber should not just climb better but be a better climber in all aspects of the sport. While my more cynical self detects classic American self-help optimism in this approach, my realistic self says there is merit in a holistic sense of wellness and excellence in practicing climbing. It feels better to climb well. The goal being clear, then, how do we achieve it?

The first step is to understand what’s going on upstairs so to speak and Hörst’s survey of the anatomy and functions of the brain is specific and thorough. The reason this is important is because of the relationship between body and brain that is at the heart of climbing well. When we climb we enter a complex network of connections between perception, reaction to stimuli, memory, and reason, connections that we want to at least have some concept of. In other words, we learn as we climb but understanding what we learn and how we learn is vitally important to learning well. The specificity of Hörst’s book is also helpful as it steers the reader towards practical, empirically founded concepts that have a more objective existence. One of the most frustrating aspects of the history of mental training for sports like climbing is the tendency towards pseudo-mystical statements like “be at one with the rock.” It’s frustrating because realistically, this doesn’t actually mean anything objectively and hence is of limited use in actually thinking clearly about climbing. Implicit claims about spiritual profundity or ethical conduct and character often lurk in this kind of language and I am glad to see Hörst dispense with them.
The next step is to consider the various challenges that beset the climbing mind and these are many, mostly summarized under the heading of fear but also the less threatening topics of awareness, analysis, and memory. Here again Hörst is excellent with copious discussions of dealing with the various and legitimate fears that disrupt effective climbing. Some of this will be familiar to readers of his earlier books and articles but nowhere else has he written with such focus or so extensively on the subject. Any climber serious about exploring ways in which he or she can maximize clear thinking about climbing will find something of use in the book. Promoting clarity and focus and relaxed awareness is really at the heart of the matter

If I have any issues with the book, they come in two general categories. The first is the sheer copiousness of the material. It comes thick and fast and while none of it is fluff and all of it very well and clearly written, the reader may feel overwhelmed at times sorting everything out. Hörst even pokes fun at his own style, saying, “You might be thinking that Eric’s kind of intense…” While I agree it is better to be intense than to be lazy, being guilty of it myself, I would urge readers to be patient with the book and take from it what feels right at the time, not trying to understand and assimilate all of it at once. The other issue is the need for a greater consideration of the effect of concepts and language on climbing. In other words, how do prescribed ideas and conceptions of the sport undermine or promote actual movement and success? I have written elsewhere in my blog about the ways in which ideas are framed or circumscribed in the sport that can have a seriously limiting effect, the most recent being the gymnastics-oriented paradigm of 60s and 70s bouldering, a style which frowned on heel-hooking or other moves which displayed a “jungle gymastics” according to John Gill. To me part of mental training should include a deeper awareness of the mediated nature of climbing discourse and experience, and to understand the ways in which how we talk about climbing can blind us to what is actually going on or what we could be doing.

If anything is clear from the book it is that Eric Hörst really wants all of us to climb better, not just harder, to understand what’s going on in the miracle we call our bodies and bring out our best in the even greater miracle of belief, action and thought that is life. As I think of the best times I have had climbing, I am always struck by the intense awareness of a sense of well-being, of rightness of purpose, of a blend of physical and mental power brought out in a way no other activity can mirror. And while I was sure at the time, that I had truly dug as deep as I could, all I learned was that, well there was so much more to learn. This book is a guide to that process of self-exploration and well worth your time and money.


Anonymous said...


You've pondered several times why it is that John Gill was able to climb only around V9 - despite his feats of strengths - while modern climbers operate at much higher levels without the feats of strength.

While I suppose that mental strength could be the reason, I see no reason that it might be anything other than finger strength and approach.

I would love to see extensive finger strength testing amongst the world's top climbers. Such a thing is nebulous and would be tricky to test, but I would guess that you would see an extremely high correlation between pure finger strength and difficulty-attained.

Now, there are other things involved: movement skills, other physical traits (body size, flexibility, core strength, pull power, etc), and mental abilities involved, but I am of the opinion that the primary reason that modern boulderers could not perform the feats of strength is simply that they are relatively unimportant.

Semi-relevant tangent:
It reminds me of several years ago when Kevin Durant, now an NBA star, was receiving all sorts of flak because he failed to bench press 185 pounds before the NBA draft. Lots of analysts were using that to question whether he would succeed in the NBA - despite the fact that he had succeeded at a high level in college. Of course, he has succeeded, which suggests that the amount you can bench press is not all that integral to your success as a basketball player.
Now, I suppose that there is no resolving this until we have the aforementioned study, which won't happen. However, I will pose you this query: do you really think that a 16-year old Dave Graham was better mentally / technically than the boulderers who worked on feats of strength in the 60s/70s?

Or could it be that those feats of strength don't help all that much, and he simply had genetically stronger fingers that he subsequently trained more effectively, had better shoes, and was acculturated to try a problem hundreds of times (something that was more uncommon 30-40 years ago due to style and lack of crashpads)?


Peter Beal said...

This is a great comment and I will address it for sure. Nutshell response--yes finger strength matters, a lot. I agree that the types of gymnastic feats that we saw in the 60s from Gill and others were not really relevant. But finger strength is not the only thing. I would say that Dave, to take that example showed himself from very early on to be incredibly technically adept. Many have observed this before. However your excellent comment deserves more thought. Great stuff, I wish I had responses like this all the time!