Getting the Most Out of the Least: Pareto’s Principle in Rock Climbing

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It’s a tough case to make that rock climbing isn’t merging into the mainstream. What with the Dawn Wall on every major news outlet and an estimated 4000 new waivers signed at gyms each day, climbing is on the verge of blowing up. This growth has a lot of side effects: even more gyms to get even more crowded, the correspondent if diffused crowding at most major climbing areas (at least ones with “gorge” in the name, or various other references to major drainage systems: creek, valley, canyon, etc), climbing companies becoming publicly traded and in general starting to act like big businesses, and climbing superstars acting more like superstars than climbers. Another result is that there’s actually a population of climbers worth marketing to, and one of the most powerful ways to capture the market’s attention is through self-improvement. Just look at the most recent cover of Climbing.

Climbing_Cover

Thus, just as we can learn 37 revolutionary ways to lose 10 lbs. as we stand in line at the grocery store, a given perusal of any climbing media reveals just as many ways to be a better rock climber. Eventually, at least to me, it starts becoming noise, and the result is often that one simply dabbles through lots of different strategies for improvement or just ignores them all together.

But I think, at some level, we all want to get better. It just feels good to do something well, so doing it better will, logically, feel better. It many ways, it comes down to focus and commitment. Which makes the noise of self-improvement even more challenging.

Enter Vilfredo Pareto, a late 19th Century economist, who noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. As it turns out, this ratio, now known as Pareto’s Principle or the 80-20 Rule, plays out in all kinds of ways: in economics, math, ecology, cellular metabolism, criminology, and other arenas. It can be (over) simplified by saying that, generally speaking, 80% of the results of any given endeavor are created by 20% of the effort. The trick is to know what 20% is doing the work.

Tim Ferris applies this concept in his books The Four Hour Work Week and The Four Hour Body. While I’m not advocating for reading these books (I haven’t done more than flip through them), the idea is intriguing. How do we get the most out of our efforts in life? As a climber, I’m constantly trying to maximize the effort I put into climbing. Over my career, and especially recently, I’ve pondered what those things are; what is the 20% of efforts in climbing that yield the greatest results?

Below I’ve listed my (completely anecdotal, unscientific, 100% subjective) big-bang-for-your-buck efforts. For me, these are that 20%, the low-hanging fruit. Before I get into them, however, I want to say one thing: This is the least to improve performance. This is not how to maximize performance, to become the best climber possible. For true maximization, the devil is in the next 80% of effort, using all of it as effectively as possible. The complement of the 80-20 Rule is the Law of Diminishing Returns, yet we can only know the asymptote of our climbing potential by obsessively trying to bump into it.

But that’s not for everyone, which is great because it means most folks are well balanced and not obsessed. And for most folks, here’s where I think you should put your effort:

This is fairly obvious but worth mentioning first, but don’t die. Double check the basics and generally be somewhat conservative. If you die, you will not improve.

Likewise, don’t get injured. What this really means is that you should put effort into injury prevention. Get strong shoulders, work on your antagonist muscles, avoid climbing more than two, maybe three days in a row but also climb consistently (as in, don’t climb as hard as you can one day a month and then eat Cheetos and play video games the rest of the time), and when you do tweak or blow something up, actually put serious, disciplined effort into healing.

Hangboard. Physiologically, your fingers are almost always the weakest link and are almost certainly your limiting variable. Get them stronger, and the rest of climbing becomes easier. It is actually that simple. There are plenty of ideas for how to hangboard out there. It’s not rocket science, but it does take know-how and skill. I use the Rock Climber’s Training Manual protocol because it’s simple to do and reliably effective. The RCTM, as well as lots of other training sources, gets into much detail about long-term periodization training. This stuff is great, but it requires a lot more commitment of focus and time, and it varies significantly depending on what kind of climbing you want to do. But, as long as you want to climb things that involve grabbing holds, improved finger strength will be an asset. A commitment to each year doing two to three hangboard “seasons” (i.e. 6-10 workouts every three days with minimal actual climbing in that time) will produce results.

It’s important to explore a diversity of climbing, but having projects that are challenging and require long-term effort is important to improve. There are many dimension of what make hard climbing hard, and so the process of exploration, learning, rehearsal, and performance is very effective to break into a new level. These don’t need to be mega projects, but routes or problems that take more than a few tries, more than a few days, to send are great learning experiences.

Way over my head attempting Swing Line (13d).

Way over my head attempting Swing Line (13d).

Be honest with yourself about your psychological weakness. The first step is admitting you have a problem. And yes, you have a problem. These usually involve some combination of:

fear of falling, fear of failure, tunnel vision, attachment to a specific outcome, impatience, lack of focus or awareness, poor breathing or eye control, poor technique, being unable to shift your climbing “gears,” “thinking down,” and problematic motivations to climb

There are lots of ways to work on these things, but no matter how strong your fingers are, you can’t out-climb your brain.

And finally, choose depth over breadth. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be a well rounded climber. Often one discipline can support learning in another (like bouldering to trad climbing). But the idea here is to dedicate yourself to a goal. Don’t just take one afternoon in the gym to practice falling; make a campaign over weeks, months, even years to get comfortable falling. One hangboard workout won’t do anything but make your fingers sore, but seven workouts will make them feel like steel hooks. The idea is to commit to a direction, a process, and stick with it for long enough that the novelty wears off, you experience frustration, and then persevere into a new level of opportunity.

So there you are, some 100% money-back guaranteed (since reading this is free) advice on improving climbing performance. I spent years just trying to rock climb as best I could, dedicated to the old adage that the best training for rock climbing is rock climbing. I can’t help but wonder at the potential I simply missed out on in all those years of just climbing. Sure, I was doing some things right, but what would my learning curve look like if I’d just been a bit more effective in where I put my effort ten years ago? The reality is that all of the strategies I’ve outlined above are pretty easy to do, and most are totally free. So, few costs but plenty of benefit: Now you’ve got no excuse. Which reminds me of my last kernel of advice: Stop making excuses. Yes, climbing is hard. Enumerating why it’s harder for you is wasted effort. If you want to climb it, figure out how to climb it.

Winning Streak

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Bear with me for a second-

It’s been a good season, but now, as the daylight gets scarce and the rock doesn’t warm up so much, I’m feeling kind of worked, run down, and unmotivated. Which is kind of ironic, because, yeah, it’s been a good season, my best few months of climbing ever, in fact.

This isn’t meant to be a spray down. As tempting as it is to go down the list of routes I’ve sent this fall, I’m not doing it (unless asked, at which point, I’ll give you move-by-move beta on each one and enumerate with excruciating detail how I trained to accomplish them). And honestly, even with accomplishing lifetime goals, the point isn’t how rad it was. Really, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had so many days with good people who helped me climb with everything I’ve got. Add to that the last month I spent with my wife traveling and climbing in Patagonia, life has seemed a bit surreal recently.

Frey

Especially in the dark demotivation of winter, it’s helpful to take a moment to look back and feel proud and show appreciation because winning streaks don’t come all the time and who knows how many seasons of training, getting stronger, and climbing harder we get before life throws greater concerns in the way or our connective tissue throws its hands up and walks out of the room. After I sent China Doll, my buddy Alex said, “Enjoy this, because it’s last time you’ll climb a new number.” While one of the beauties of climbing is that there’s always a new challenge, a next level, we all know somewhere out there, we’ll cross the ultimate peak and begin the descent. And for that reason, we celebrate each summit along the way.

The thing is, all this hard rock climbing and personal summits means a lot to me, but it’s pretty insignificant. Anyone who’s heard me rant about climbing has probably heard me say, “Rock climbing is great, but we’re not curing cancer.” I’ve probably even written here before. I still believe that, despite how much I care and invest in my own climbing. Which is why the thing I’m most appreciative of right now is my other project, HMI Gap.

My wife and I started working on the concept for this program years ago, and this fall the High Mountain Institute hired us to actually make it happen. We wrote our dream job description, and HMI hired us to do it. I won’t go into too much detail about the program here because there is plenty more information on the website: HMI Gap. In short, the program is a 12-week course for high school graduates in climbing, wilderness, and conservation. Students will climb and explore the American West, mainly around Moab, and central Patagonia (hence, the recent month I spent there).

Here’s how I see. I love climbing and the climbing community, yet I have no pretense that I will somehow make some grand contribution to that world through my own climbing. But I think HMI Gap could be a great contribution. Climbing has been the lens and vehicle through which I’ve learned about the world and who I am, and now I hope to share that experience with other young people, which is definitely an opportunity worthy of a lot of grace and appreciation. So there you go. Now that I got that out of the way, here’s a sweet climbing video about HMI Gap.

Priceless

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Let’s run the numbers.

Replacing the key crux stopper, 4 times: $36

3 ropes beaten to worthless fuzz: $450

Gas to drive from my home to the trailhead (I’m guessing at least 20 times): $150

Visits to my physical therapist to undo the damage of repeatedly thrashing myself on the powerful fingerlock crux: $640

6 months of gym membership strictly to train for one route: $480

And then there are the costs beyond the financial:

  • the hours spent beating my head against the wall trying to find a way to fit my fat fingers deep enough into the crack to make upward progress
  • the sleepless nights, discouraged that I wasn’t good enough and then, when it seemed in reach, fretting about a perfect execution of the moves
  • the meals and massages I offered to my wife for not climbing where she wanted and instead belaying me, again, and again (and again)
  • the shreds of skin and drops of blood
  • all the other routes I could have climbed instead of falling off the same one over and over again

The calculus of a rock climbing obsession is tough to equalize. We give up all kinds of things for what amounts to little more than monkeying around, silly games on a high-stakes playing field. We ask a lot of our partners, both in climbing and in other aspects of life. They sit silently tethered to the end of our rope while we swing around hoping to sketch together a series of usable holds, or patiently rewarm dinner when we come home late and dejected from not making “progress” and swallow the worry that our tardiness was an omen of something worse than failing to stick the crux moves.

But our obsession also reflects our commitment to a goal, an ideal. We strip everything down, chisel our life to a precise myopia. The minutia, finding just the right position for a foot jammed in the crack or combination of crystals on which to hang the skin of our fingers to generate upward movement, becomes the lever to lift our spirit. And if we focus, obsess, fret, and dream about that one thing, we might get lucky enough for it, for a fleeting moment, to be our universe, when the next breath, making one move higher, becomes all that is.

That moment, when we let that beast of obsession out in a long guttural scream and look down to see that we just did what we thought we’d never be able to do, is, you know, priceless.

Entering the crux of China Doll (5.14a). Photo by Noah Gostout

Entering the crux of China Doll (5.14a). Photo by Noah Gostout

Another Gear Review on the Mountain Blog

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Working hard over on top of the Chief in Squamish.

Working hard over on top of the Chief in Squamish.

Life’s been busy recently, busy with some cool climbing trips and projects and busy with work. I’ll hopefully have a story to tell about some of that soon enough. In the meantime, I did recently published another review, this one of Black Diamond’s B.D.V. Hoody that I put through the ringer in Squamish at the end of the summer.

Read the review here.

Mountain Hardwear Hyaction Jacket Review

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My review of the Hyaction Jacket by Mountain Hardwear was just published on the Mountain Blog. It’s a great shell for technical adventures, so if you’re in the market, check it out.

 

The Hyaction Jacket

Retrospective: My First Trip to Yosemite

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In 2006, I made for first pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley. I had big dreams and was pretty humbled. I wrote about my trials and tribulations in the 2006 edition of the Colorado College Alpine Journal. You can find it in the link below, on page 33, called “Face Down in the Ditch with a Slice of Humble Pie.” There are also lots of other great stories in the edition (and the even more excellent recent editions).

Today, I leave for yet another trip to Yosemite, this time with even bigger goals. I’m sure it’ll also be a good learning experience.

CCAJ2006

http://issuu.com/erikrieger/docs/alpine2006final

Trad Climbing: The Finer Points

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Mountain Project just released its “School of Rock” pages, an entire section of the website dedicated to instructional content to learn to climb. It’s hard to make an argument that this is any different than Freedom of the Hills and Learning to Rock Climb, only in an electronic form. Maybe that’s better, as it is more accessible to more folks, especially ambitious but moronic teenagers (i.e. ones like me at fourteen). As tempting as it is to use my time to critique, on both technical and philosophical levels, the problems with this pseudo-democratic, erroneously constructivist attempt at distributing discrete knowledge, I’m not going to. I’ll just say, buyer beware (it’s free).

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There’s a section on traditional climbing, which is, disappointingly, not very funny, even in an ironic way. Admittedly, I haven’t scoured the whole section, so maybe there are some gems in there somewhere. I also can’t vouch for accuracy and exact content, but I would bet my #7 stopper (which is my lucky one, for reference) that it isn’t a whole lot different than the other tomes of climbing’s technical skills. I’ve come to believe that all of these instructional manuals are missing some important aspects of being a successful traditional rock climber, and I’m here today to give them to you: the finer points of traditional rock climbing.

Note: Some of these may not be specific to trad climbing and could be applied to various other forms of our sport.

  • Use your partner’s name with commands, like “Belay off, Hans.” Unless you’re alone on a wall in an unexplored region of Baffin Island, there’s a very good chance someone else will be climbing nearby. Hearing their name also helps wake up your partner as they nod off from low blood sugar.
  • Don’t say “I’m off” when you fall. Say “falling” or nothing at all. Usually, your belay knows what’s happening. 150 feet up a windy, hard-to-see pitch, “I’m off” could get confusing and even catastrophic.
  • Place bomber gear, and as best you can, place gear that your partner can get out, you tiny-handed people.
  • Everyone hears about extending slings on pieces to minimize rope drag, which is a good idea, but the seasoned trad climber eyes a pitch from the belay and plans ahead for the parts that will need slings. Generally, it’s mentally easier to sling pro long at the bottom of a pitch (hard moves above ledges aside), when we’re fresh and confident, than at the top. A rope that innocently runs over a small rooflet down low can become a Titanic of drag at the top.
  • Always place the best piece you can at the moment. Not placing a bomber piece here just in case you might need that piece there is a risky gamble at best. When in doubt, place the bigger piece.*
  • * This is, of course, assuming you don’t certainly know you need that given piece up higher. In that case, place the best you can get otherwise, then keep your wits about you until you get the good one in.
  • Almost all the time, do the shorter rappel. Also, knots in the end are a great idea, but it can be even better to clip the ends of the rope(s) to your harness rather than throw them down to get them stuck in a crack.
  • If the route is long enough, you’re going to have to pee. The best time to do so is when your partner is off belay after leading the next pitch. If you can, pee down the wall, preferably not on the power pitches, where the sun will dry it off quickly. Peeing on people below you is sometimes unavoidable, which leads me to –
  • Get over yourself and let faster parties pass. Sure, it’s cold and you’re already on track to get benighted; these are minor penalties for being slow. It’s unlikely that those will change much if you let the party blasting up the route behind you go by. Just humbly smile, and let their prowess be an inspiration to not get benighted the next time. If you’re going to bail and there’s a party close behind, let them climb through, then bail. Just like on trails, uphill travel gets the right-of-way.
  • Things like puffy jackets, extra water, real food (instead of bars and gels), a lightweight tarp big enough to wrap around your legs, and gloves can make a long day up a hard route way more fun. And if the route is steep and clean enough, hauling the bag instead of climbing with it can further increase the fun quotient.
  • Climbing in a team three on big routes can also be super fun. There are several strategies to minimize the extra time involved with three climbers, making the added social atmosphere totally worth it.
  • Get good at placing passive pro. When placed well, they’re stronger than cams, but they are a little more nuanced. Placing them efficiently will help you send.
  • Put yourself in situations in which you can practice falling on gear. Climbing manufacturing isn’t a multi-billion dollar industry to make shiny training weight. Those widgets work! Start small and conservatively, but place good gear (back it up if you must) and fall on it. At some point, trying to redpoint challenging trad climbs will probably be part of the progression.
  • There’s a fine line between running it out to move quickly and placing enough gear to climb confidently. If you’re gripped, you won’t climb well.
  • And finally, for God’s sake, double check the basics – harness, knot, and belay – before you leave the ground. I’ve seen too many folks get fixated on making sure they have 17 hand-sized cams organized perfectly on their gear loops but neglect to check the buckle. Don’t lose sight of the most important parts of the system.

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