Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Then and Now

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.


Rajiv Ayyangar said...

I have heard a similar argument from a longtime climber and professor at Princeton (who taught a course on the history of climbing in America). He pointed out that at one point, European practices of hang-dogging the route to work it accelerated their skill and climbing strength beyond what the Americans could achieve, held back by quaint ideas regarding style and ethics.

A prime example of this is Alan Watts' ascent of a Smith classic (Watts' Tots? I don't remember) where he unclipped the draws from the rock, clipped them to his belt, then re-clipped them to the rock in order to do a proper redpoint.

While this seems silly to most modern sport climbers, there are still cliques where these sentiments continue. No more than a year ago I climbed my first 12a - a 3-bolt bouldery route at Rumney, and my friend and I cleaned the route each go to get a proper redpoint. I suppose it was the group of people we were climbing around who led us to care about such things.

Modern consensus on style and ethics does seem to have found some clarity. Sport climbing is about doing difficult climbing on rock in a safe manner. You don't have to solo to the first bolt (another quaint concept that seemed ingrained in my head until recently). Trad will always maintain the element of boldness and placing gear as you go, in addition to pure difficulty.

I don't know what the future of trad will be, but I suspect as sport climbing equipment gets better, there may be fixed lines (like top-rope, but modified to accommodate overhangs) that remove the aspect of clipping bolts and allow the climber to focus on pure difficulty. It seems like a logical progression - distilling Sport Climbing to it's essence, which is all about climbing on rock. However I can already see that I'd feel a sense of loss - no more whippers, no more heart palpitations as you clip while pumping out, no more creative rope-work to clip-up on a project. Once you work to overcome a technical obstacle and turn it into part of a process you enjoy, it's hard to discard that aspect of the sport. I imagine it was the same with the early climbers and ground-up ascents, no rapp-bolting, and proper redpointing.

gian said...

i'm mostly with the bottom line of this post, my personal experience conforms much of it.

It is hard to see great talents come out of "old-school" communities, while some gym have a constant production of impressively strong beginners, especially in bouldering.

what is more interesting in my eyes is that, at least in europe, many of the old-school dogma are surviving.
Some of them (like "not trying something beyond your level" or "not taking too many falls") are extremely appealing for a beginner : it is hard to admit that you suck hard and you feel an unjustified fear of falling, for insance.
So what happens is that some associations and climbing clubs are the vehicles of a "neo-conservative" movement, that keeps the "nice for the beginner" dogma and throws away the unpleasant ones (e.g. no bolts or not too many).
Some dogmas (eg no chalk, no thickmarks, no preplaced draws, no "too careful" inspection of a route before an onsight, not too much training) are kept not because they are particularly nice towards the beginners, but because they offer a mena to differentiate further from stronger climbers and implicitely accuse the of cheating.

I'd even say that in some areas the "neocon" climbers are a consistent majority.

what would climbing performance standards be like without this cultural diversity, i.e. if everyone was taking the most direct path towards performance, only being limited by their inner talents and energy?

Anonymous said...

"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."

BITD a very famous old-school tradclimber who fought hard against sport climbing used to tell his ideologically-aligned proteges not to attempt routes that might be too hard for them, the reason being, "you have more to lose by trying the route and failing than you have to gain by succeeding." In other words, it's a way bigger deal if you don't do it than if you do. Part of that attitude was ego preservation, but really it was all about maintaining divisiveness within the sport as a means of preserving a bad-faith, intellectually dishonest, ideological crusade against the new tactics.

dom said...

The major breakthroughs in climbing have come as a result of a change in the style. For example Gullich invented the campus board and succeeded on his project action direct. Certain tradtionional climbing areas Czech sandstone, UK, etc that have strict ethics are being held back by their restrictions.

I remember doing a sketchy 'trad' route in the uk, where I climbed it solo with one pad, but my friend eschewed the pad to place a cam in a break above the crux. We had to chose one or the other, you cant claim the e-grade using both the pad and the cam.

For an interesting read on finger strength, check out Dave MacLeods masters thesis. He measured grip strength of climbers and non-climbers alike, and found interestingly that there was no discernible difference in their grip strength.

wyclimber said...

This is another one of the same old arguments. It has to do with vision and belief. Its not that the old training and crushing legends couldn't climb problems like Jade or Suspension of Disbelief. Its more like they weren't even looking for problems like this. They did not possess the vision to comprehend climbing problems like this.

DG knew what he was looking for, and up in RMNP he found it. He had more modern tools and the desire to push standards. Not that the old guard weren't trying to push as well but they didn't have as much to build on, a road map if you will. Each successive generation learns from the previous generation and builds upon it.

It hasn't happened in a bubble either. I have watched in our own local boulder field over the past two decades, and watched it mirror what has happened in more publicized areas. Standards inevitably rise and our vision grows and adapts along with it.

A modern example of this may be Chris Shultes Whats Left of... problem. It sat right next to well traveled problems but there was never the vision to try it. WLOTBOMH has now had several ascents, some of which went quick and relatively easy. Once the way was shown, the masses had a yardstick to measure themselves by, and something to train for.

As some have mentioned about sport climbing, we used to remove the draws after each attempt, so we could clip them anew on each successive try to maintain the purity of the ascent. How much hooey was that. What a frickin waste of time! Now we have stick clips and are OK with starting with the rope through the second bolt, and all subsequent draws hanging. We have distilled it down to what is really important - the climbing, and thrown our egos and other hangups aside.

Thank goodness for that. I feel sorry for people still stuck in the past, hung up on things that just don't really matter.

Oh and the grip strength thing is a total farce. It measures how tightly you can grip an object. How does this relate to climbing? Surely not open handed slopers and it misses the boat on crimping as well. Forearm endurance strength for route climbing has very little to do with this either, so what was the point?

Unknown said...

Concerning the grip strength argument... it isn't how hard we can squeeze that's important to climbing, but how resistant our fingers are to opening up when weighted (or, I believe that to be more important, anyhow).

Once upon a time I was strictly a traddie. I read about and adhered to the ethics of my choosing based on the ethics of my heroes, even though my "new" ethics were ridiculously old school. I was a Red River local, yet refused to clip bolts, refused to acknowledge a redpoint if the draws were hung, and insisted on cleaning roof cracks after every attempt. I believed that gym climbing was pointless because it couldn't help my crack climbing. Silly. It took me 10 years of that to climb one 5.13.

NOW... flashback... before my old school ethics took hold, I learned to climb in a gym. I climbed 12a (sport) within 6 months of being a total beginner. The same day I did my first 12a, I also led my first trad route. I didn't climb sport again for 12 years.

NOW... flash forward... after a nearly 4 year absence from climbing, and approaching 32, I began training to be a sport climber. In a gym. Reading training books. In a year I had done 5.13. Now, 3 years after taking up sport climbing, I've done 30some 5.13's and 5.14 looks like a real possibility.

My point is, the development of gyms, specified training for climbing, and just the ability of young kids to believe that 5.14 is possible, has far more to do with the diffusion of the high end of climbing than finger strength. Finger strength is simply a byproduct of gyms, training, and belief.

Anonymous said...

With regard to your questions about climbing physiology and finger strength, I've found this article enlightening:

Phillip B.Watts. Physiology of Difficult Rock Climbing. European Journal of Applied Physiology. Volume 91, Number 4. April, 2004. http://www.springerlink.com/content/5kkg52qx99xptu3v/

Watt's main conclusion, like Odub points out, is that difficult rock climbing is an isometric activity (i.e. holding a position---resisting having your hand come open), and that elite climbing requires little cardiovascular fitness or peak output (i.e., V02 Max), but a large ability to cope with lactic load. In lamen's terms, I reckon this is why climbers' forearms aren't huge, but they are covered with a thick network of efficient veins, which are tasked with transporting lactic acid away from muscle tissue (and delivering blood on demand to facilitate isometric "strength").

Watts provides some training guidelines based on his research, which mostly involves (to exhaustion) intervals separated by active recovery periods.

Of course, one must be careful playing around in the academic literature, or you'll find truths you'd maybe rather not know, such as the fact that climbing chalk /reduces/ the coefficient of static friction: