A very perceptive comment was left on my recent piece about Eric Hörst's new book on mental training. In it the poster wrote of the role that finger strength plays in hard climbing today, wondering if perhaps today's climbers simply have stronger fingers than those of the past:
"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."
Phil Watts, back in the 90s, did such a test and found a clear correlation between climbing level and finger strength, as measured in force exerted versus weight. However my memory of the results was that the correlation was not absolute, that the best climbers did not necessarily have the highest strength. Unfortunately we cannot go back in time and test the fingers of John Gill or Pat Ament or John Bachar or Ron Kauk. We can see film and read descriptions of their training however and it's clear that Gill could do very hard finger exercises, including one-arms off an edge. Ament has described doing finger-tip pulls at an inhuman pace. Similar training descriptions exist for later climbers as well. I would submit that very few top climbers today could match these kinds of training routines
It is also the case that earlier climbers worked on skills and strengths that contemporary climbers don't. Gill's one-armed levers, Ament's handstands, even the Bachar Ladder, all have more or less fallen from favor. This is primarily because they don't matter in climbing.
"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)?"
Regarding the Dave Graham question, I would argue that absolutely yes that was the case. While it is true that amazing finger strength eases technique, the sheer quantity, diversity, and difficulty of the routes and problems he achieved very quickly in his teens points to something beyond finger strength. He actually rarely needed to try things hundreds of times, more like once or a few times. Mentally, he has often been described as very acute, often to the point of obsessed, dialing in moves on problems with great speed and focus.
The other points are also valid. Shoes are far better designed than they were in the 60s and 70s, even discounting sticky rubber. Crashpads effectively redefined bouldering in the mid-90s and of course climbing gyms transformed the practice of both roped and unroped climbing forever. But I would propose all these innovations indicate a changed mental approach, a new set of values. These values focused on the achievement of pure difficulty as a worthwhile end, something that earlier climbers were always ambivalent about, even Holloway. Style and ethics were always there somewhere, whether frowning on toprope inspection of boulder problems or falling "excessively" to solve a move, talking of a route being "beyond" someone's ability, downplaying one's achievements and abilities,the list goes on and on. I started climbing in this era and know because I experienced all of it. In the end it was, for many climbers, a huge drag on their abilities.
The climbers of the past were certainly carrying the burdens of lower grade technology and the unknown. But I would propose that the main burden was a deliberate refusal to embrace attitudes, technology and training that promoted pure difficulty. Crashpads for example, are a great example. Cloth and resilient foam existed in the 60s and 70s, even earlier. Stories are told of makeshift pads being produced in the 80s and early 90s. Talk about a no-brainer for making bouldering safer on short steep problems where topropes wouldn't work, the kind of places where the hardest moves are likely to be found. Yet for whatever reason, even though pads were used in gymnastics, like chalk, they weren't widely adopted until very late in the 90s.
Decent bolts existed way back in time. Suppose someone said in 1975, I am going to place bolts on a really steep wall in Rifle and work the moves and see what happens? Nobody did of course. It would have been seen as cheating or something similar, even though no other technology would have been suitable for such a place. The paradigm was crack and slab-oriented, meaning the Phoenix or Perilous Journey were your choices. So places like Smith Rock or Rifle lay untouched for decades.
Even the idea of a climbing gym is technologically incredibly easy. If I had, as a teenager, a little wall like the one in my own house that I have now, I could well have been climbing 5.14 in 1980, not 5.11. But "real" climbing meant outside on real rock so that climbers were constrained by rock-type, weather, dark of night, and available free time. "Crack machines" or traverses on vertical building walls were absurdly primitive compared to the potential of even a simple 45 degree-overhung wooden wall for building stamina and power.
In essence I would argue that the great free climbers before 1995 were certainly very strong but that something radically changed in the mentality about the sport, that the seriousness about style or the previous perceptions of the importance of climbing, its profundity began to disappear. Things of value were certainly lost, no question, but there was a perceivable gain in clarity about what constituted real difficulty and how to solve it. Occasionally you will see climbers arguing that, for example, having quickdraws preplaced is not a redpoint or that too many pads invalidates an ascent of a problem. These debates have an old-fashioned air to them, like speculating on how hard Gill would have climbed if he had sticky rubber. What really counts is the group approach to the challenge of moving up hard rock. Great figures of the past were not willing, for whatever reason, to take simple and very effective means to prepare for these challenges and overcome them. Finger strength was not the primary reason for the acceleration of the diffusion of high-end climbing.
I wold love to hear from climbers of all generations about this question.