Tactical On-Route Climbing Decisions (B) HANDLING “EMERGENCIES” EFFECTIVELY
Whether you’re onsighting or redpointing, one of the greatest tactics a climber can possess is the wherewithal to dump all preconceived plans and notions about beta in response to an “emergency situation.” I put this in quotes because in terms of sport climbing, we’re much more rarely confronted with a genuine emergency (meaning a life-threatening situation or one with major injury potential) than certain other styles of climbing. However, we do have to deal with realizing that our rehearsed sequence beta (on redpoints) or clipping stances or ideas about how to climb a section of a route (for onsights) are not going to work in the moment when we need to execute. Having the ability to switch into combat mode, moving into the great unknown with everything you have, can be the difference between success and failure.
In other words, when sh#$ gets tough, are you going to say “take,” or are you going to fight it out until the bitter end?
Part of this tactical ability obviously involves the mental training component (topic of the next series here), so I won’t discuss that too deeply at the moment. But you do need to have the mentality that you will fight for it, no matter what – that taking isn’t an option (unless you really are going to get hurt, of course). You have to cultivate this attitude – maybe not for every route you try, since some burns will be sussing out future projects if you like redpointing. But at a certain point in the redpoint process, you have to start pushing this hard. Pushing hard to the point of falling/failure before you’re ready to actually send can help prepare your entire being, both physically and mentally, for the amount of effort you’ll have to put out when you actually ARE sending.
Beyond this, it can be invaluable to possess the knowledge of your own personal strengths that can help you get through difficult situations when what you’ve planned or thought you would do is suddenly impossible. An example of this for me is that when the going gets tough, if I can match my hands, or even match a hand on a hand, or grab an intermediate or even just dab my fingers on the wall where I wish there were a handhold for that hand, this can be the difference between sending and failing. Fingers are my strength; pulling big moves, especially when I’m tired, is not a strength. So when I hit that “I can’t do this move the right way!” point of almost failing, my automatic, trained response is to seek out some way to find another hold that will shorten the move. I will, of course, also look for any way to get a shake, however brief, to try to recoup some big-pull power. And as a last resort (often after matching and shaking), I will fling my hand wildly at the next hold with everything I got – because if I do happen to connect, I might be able to hang it.
This all happens in a fraction of a second or a couple seconds, depending on the situation – so it’s imperative (if you want to succeed more often in sticky situations) to be aware of what your individual strengths are and to drill yourself to virtually automatically take advantage of them when presented with such difficulties instead of giving up and saying take. You don’t get style points, so even if the send doesn’t happen how you anticipated, it still counts, and you should be proud of your ability to change it up on the fly and improvise when needed.
At other times, if I have the strength left, I will down-climb the entire section (sometimes three or four bolts’ worth) I just climbed to get back to a hold that I can shake on, to try to regroup and reassess how I should approach the next section. I think being able to down climb is a huge advantage; it’s well worth spending some time developing this skill, and it can also help you learn how to memorize climbing sequences more quickly.
Other climbers’ immediate tactical reactions to such situations are, of course, different from mine, because we all have different strength and weaknesses. This is an area where being aware of and honest about what works best for you and what you’re best at can help inform your decisions and enable you to succeed in sticky situations. You should ALWAYS and unapologetically draw uoon your strengths when you’re trying to send, no matter how different your tactical decision to get your through the toughness might differ from the standard approach. The takeaway for training purposes if you do differentiate wildly from the normal way is, of course, very valuable – exposing a weakness shows you something can work on.
Finally, for clipping – if it’s safe to fall (clean fall/nothing to hit/trusted belayer) and you find that you can’t make the next clip, having the mental capability to intelligently and quickly make the decision to skip the clip or clip it when you’re almost past it can make the difference between sending and failing, too. Of course, if it’s not safe to skip, you shouldn’t do it; climbing isn’t worth risking your life and limb (if you don’t agree with that, then at least consider how you’ll impact your partner’s day if you blow it and deck or hurt yourself). But if you can’t clip and it’s safe to go on, it’s good to go for it instead of obsessing about the clip and falling because of that.
This multipart series of blogs and articles starts here, in case you have to catch up – you’ll also find a full table of contents, complete with links, in that entry. My designation of each area as “easy,” “medium” or “hard” is purely subjective. I’ve arrived at the designations from my personal experience garnered from 20+ years of climbing along with observations I’ve made as a climbing coach/certified personal trainer. You may find some of the areas harder or easier to change. You also might not agree with me or my take on things. That’s fine – feel free to take it or leave it as you wish! Also, remember that the information I provide here is purely offered as advice and that no exercises or training program should be undertaken without receiving medical clearance from a healthcare professional.
One other caveat: As will be true for all of the entries and articles in this series, if you’ve already mastered or maxed out the topic at hand to the best of your ability level, you’ll reap far fewer benefits or none at all from my suggestions – good for you that you figured it out, but sorry I couldn’t help you out more. Happy climbing and training!