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.

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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.

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In Case You Needed More Reasons to Train

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It’s February 26, about 73.33% through winter. Not that I’m counting. It’s partly the snow, the cold, the hurricane-force winds that blow out of every gap in the ridges of Colorado’s Front Range that have limited my days climbing out of doors to 4 since early January. It’s also my ever decreasing tolerance for adverse conditions while climbing. I rationalize that I’m saving up my suffer tickets for when it really counts, like coming down a mountain at 3am, but the reality is more that I’m just getting old and suffering doesn’t thrill me like it used to.

Like many climbers, I wile away the “dark age” (i.e. winter) by training. My goal in the last few weeks has been strength training, so actual climbing has taken a back seat to hangboarding and lifting weights. Recently, I did a hangboard workout when my parents were visiting. They are already hyper-aware of my obsessive behaviors about climbing, and their reaction to seeing me strap 25 lbs. around my waist and repeatedly hang from half-pad edges fixed to the main brace of my house revealed the depth of the absurdity that training for climbing really is. Climbing, to the vast majority of the human population, is already ridiculous. Training, especially on hangboards, is everything hard and stupid about climbing without any of the thrill or fun.

So why do we do it? Why do we punish ourselves, endure hours of mundane repetition, and risk injury just to make our fingers just a bit stronger? The short answer is that it’s just that: a really effective way of making our fingers – and the rest of our bodies – stronger. And, while strength isn’t the only factor in climbing well, it certainly is a big part of becoming a better climber. But the drive to be a better climber is broadly even more questionable.

In the last few weeks, a thread emerged on Mountain Project entitled “Why climb harder?” Punctuating the typical profane witticism that only Internet forums can conjure were a variety of responses and reflections about the value of climbing harder. Several zeroed in on why one would endure discomfort (i.e. training, suffering, risk to life and limb) for the sake of performing at a higher level an activity that under the most gratuitous constructions only provides a highly subjective satisfaction. In other words, if I’m the only one who gets anything out of my climbing better, why should I bother doing anything other than maximize my fun?

So then, on a philosophical level, why hangboard (or, simply substitute any other activity that aims to improve climbing – or any other performance for that matter – that is likewise not fun and/or comfortable, which, for lack of a better term, I’ll refer to as “training” from here on out)?

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My friend Steve, climbing harder than most folks.

An easy answer is to say that if I hangboard and you don’t (or if I just hangboard more than you) I am more likely to climb better than you. Performing at a higher level leads me to believe I am in some way better than you, thus stimulating an anachronistic conclusion that I’m more likely to survive an attack/get laid and pass on my genes to future generations. I think we can all agree that in civil society climbing supports neither and probably works in the other direction. Thus, in our more rationale moments, we can (hopefully) see that climbing cannot be strictly ego driven.

There are a lot of other reasons to train, to be uncomfortable, to get better. Most of these are mentioned in the thread. Just go read it, if you’re, say, stuck in an airport terminal as I currently am. To summarize, folks argue for gymnastic growth, surpassing of limits, developing a warrior mentality, greater access to more classics, and the safety of climbing on steeper routes.

I think there’s more to it, and I’d rather explicate my obtuse philosophy on “training” here, lest my wisdom be trumped by the next poster, probably along the lines of someone named BetterThan YoMama writing “^^^^^^ -10×4.058 Your just climing harder cuz youve got to make up for not being able to satisfy woman..”

Which at some point may have been true.

My lady loves tips playbacks!

My lady loves tips laybacks!

Trump avoided, the first reason I think we ought to be willing to be uncomfortable to climb more difficult routes is for the sake of novelty. Let’s say you start running three miles, three times a week. At first, if you’re never run before, you’ll be tired and bit sore and probably lose some weight. After a few weeks, those runs will start feeling easy. Your legs will be a bit stronger, and you’ll compensate for the added activity by eating a hair more. Eventually, your body will stabilize and return right back where you started. Our psyches work the same way. What we perceive as difficult at first will at some point become normal. Invariably, without new stimulus, we find routine and comfort. We stagnate, gain weight, become complacent. Novelty is, by definition, the only way to short circuit the homeostatic matrix of the mundane. By actively seeking novelty in our climbing, our bodies and minds learn to adapt, to continually grow. We force our muscle fibers, neurons, and paradigms to be as dynamic as the universe is in which we exist.

The pursuit of an aesthetic is another reason to be uncomfortable. I think if each of us ponders it enough, we all have some kind of ideal rock climb, an imaginary line that embodies the qualities we love about climbing. Mine is a long route, requiring a full day at least, in the mountains, that is mostly steep, clean, and hard crack climbing but with a few face sections (and, since we’re working in ideals, has comfortable ledges, bomber anchors – bolts are welcome – and a casual walk off). Part of my aesthetic is a route that is challenging enough that I might fall off it, which is clearly a bias toward difficulty. Nevertheless, to climb another route that more closely resembles an ideal, any climber will have to be open to a novel experience, one that has a higher likelihood of discomfort and challenge. Therefore, at some point, we’ll all have to do something that isn’t fun, whether it’s for strength for smaller holds or endurance for greater fatigue or risk, to be able to climb a route that’s closer to perfection.

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The East Face of Snowpatch Spire, holding several lines that approach my ideal.

There is one last reason to train to climb better. I’ve been writing this piece over a few days, and in that time I’ve done the last hangboard workout in this phase of my training. Not only am I obsessive enough to do these silly things, but I’m also obsessive enough to record each workout. As I look back through my record, it’s clear that my fingers have in fact gotten stronger. I’ve been focused on working toward this goal – finger strength, and now my mind wanders to the next step, which will be a road trip around the desert of Utah and Nevada in March, and I can’t help but feel excited at the possibilities. Working on specific things to improve our performance promises new opportunity. Climbing, regardless of how difficult, will feel different now. This is the last and best reason to “train”: the promise. Whether we actually send isn’t the point, but just feeling the excitement of the opportunity, the newest in our once familiar minds and bodies, is worth effort and discomfort.

That’s my pitch for training. It offers novelty and the pursuit of some kind of ideal, but really, working to get better promises a new opportunity. So figure out what you want to work on: finger strength, fear of falling, all-day endurance, footwork on slabs, whatever, just work on it. Get better at it, then dream about what’s next. The dark age will end; the snow will melt, and the wind will cease (at least for a few minutes, hopefully). When it does, we’ll all be just a bit more motivated, which is pretty fun.