How one climber bumped her redpoint grade three letters in one weekend
I’d always been a trad climber, and as someone whose daydreams were filled with endless pitches and remote objectives, the idea of monomaniacally attacking the same route over and over again never quite made sense to me. And yet, last September, I found myself screaming between two-finger pockets on dead-vertical limestone below a stick-clipped bolt, two professional guides shouting encouragement from the other end of the rope.
Plenty of my climbing partners, mostly stiff-upper-lip tradsters, would have laughed, but I was above embarrassment: my hardest-ever clean lead up to that point was a 5.10b. This was an 11a, and I was going for a send on the second day of trying.
Last fall, my editor delivered an invitation from Exum guides Zahan Billimoria, and Ben Hoiness. They were test-driving a new three-day sport climbing clinic in Sinks Canyon, an oasis of warm, south-facing limestone above the Wyoming snow. How could I say no?
There was one problem: when Zahan asked me my redpoint grade to gauge my ability, I had to shrug. All I could offer was my onsight grade, a measly 5.10b. Between my bolt-free beginnings, my short attention span, and a nagging fear of failure, I’d never let myself hang out at a single route long enough to redpoint anything. And for the first six years of his climbing career, neither had Ben.
The Case for Redpointing
Ben started sport climbing at age 14. By age 17, “projecting” simply meant going out climbing with friends his own age. It didn’t take long for him to plateau at 5.12. Then, in his early 20s, he started climbing with pros like Ally Rainey and James Woods. They showed him how to rest and really dial in the beta between attempts.
“I saw how much it really takes and how much care goes into each attempt,” Ben recalls. After roughly a year projecting more strategically, he sent his first 5.13.
“You can train your face off, but that will only do so much for your climbing,” said Ben. “Redpointing is really the only way to get better at climbing outdoors. It makes you stronger. It helps you read the rock better and notice little idiosyncrasies in every little part of the route, whether it’s a sport climb or a trad climb.”
Case in point: When Ben’s redpointing grade jumped to 5.13, he started leading 5.12 trad shortly after.
I told him I was psyched for him, but I knew there was no way in hell my results would be similar. It had taken me the good part of a year to get from leading 5.10a to 5.10b. Plus, I was still feeling a little awkward about being guided around.
On day one of the clinic, for example, Zahan approached me with a stick clip. I told him that despite the high first bolt I could hang my own draws.
“This is sport climbing,” Zahan teased. “If it’s dangerous, you’re doing it wrong.” Lesson number one.
Sport climbing is supposed to be Type I Fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s painless. After the first day, my fingertips were shredded. A badge of honor, I thought, showing them off.
“You should take it easy,” Zahan said gently. “You need your skin to last.” Humbled yet again. That night by the fire, he passed around a tin of climber’s balm with the guidebook.
Baby’s First Project
The next day Ben picked out Harvest Moon (5.11a), to be my real first project. I thought I’d make short work of the one-move wonder, but I fell at the crux repeatedly and punted above. Zahan yelled up beta, and I bristled. By the time I lowered, I was breathless and frustrated. I pulled the rope, chalked up, and started staring down the sequence again. Ben shook his head.
“You should rest,” he said brightly. “Take 30 or 40 minutes.” 30 or 40 minutes?! I gulped. Feeling guilty about wasting time when there was plenty of climbing to be had, I asked the guys if they wanted to get on something while we waited. It turned out to be the best thing I could have asked.
When Ben tied in below a 5.13a, a spiny black line called The Urchin, I prepared myself to be impressed.
I was, but not for the reasons I expected. Ben did a move. Hung. Fell. Hung. Pulled on a draw. Hung some more. When he got to the ground, he wasn’t frustrated at all. I realized that for him, this was just part of the process.
Zahan tied in next.
“Give me the spray-down!” he said, starting up while Ben pointed out holds in the black murk of the rock. Again I was shocked; I had always thought getting beta either cheapened the experience or undermined the route literacy learning curve. When I asked, Zahan said the opposite was true. Lesson number three.
Walking down to camp, stewing over another failed attempt on Harvest Moon, I passed two more guides on their day off, projecting on the dripping, mossy underbelly of Killer Cave.
“Look at this! We have a 20-foot stick clip!” they shouted ecstatically, waving the thing around to show me. It wobbled backward in the breeze. “We can clip the fourth bolt!”
Something clicked. I realized that Zahan, Ben, and even these guys with the obscenely overcompensatory stick were good at sport climbing–staying relaxed and feeling safe was allowing them to push their limits in a way I had never been able to before.
I was bad at sport climbing, and the only thing standing in my way was my ego. Ben and Zahan were pros at giving tips, creating a supportive environment, and, as it turns out, breaking down my pride without breaking me. It was time to drop the swagger and start taking their advice to heart. That night, I drew a beta-annotated topo of the route and studied it before I went to bed. I also snuck the climber’s balm into my tent and reapplied every time I woke up to roll over.
The next morning, I let Zahan hang the draws and clip the first one. I found I didn’t really miss the ground-fall potential after all.
I breathed into the start sequence, sagging into the holds the way Zahan suggested, keeping my grip light, lingering on the good holds, shaking out until the pump rewound to zero. I went into the crux strong, stuck the pocket, and sent.
When I got to the ground, everything had changed. I’d never climbed something "impossible" before. Suddenly I was looking at routes I never would have considered. I tried another 5.11a and sent on the second attempt. When Ben pointed to a climb called Right About Now and told me it was a 5.11d, I didn’t feel immediately nauseous. Instead, I gave it a try. I fell at every bolt, but it was okay, just part of the process.
Now, six months later, I’m projecting 5.12a sport routes and climbing trad a full grade harder.
There’s plenty to admire about climbing as many routes as possible without looking back. But the harder you climb, well you know what they say, the more you can climb. And while there’s an allure in going far and wide in search of new routes, there’s also something to be said about spending the time to discover the complexities of a small stretch of rock. There’s magic in getting intimately familiar with your impossible and rendering it effortless.
5 Tips for Better Redpointing
1) Get good at falling. The less afraid you are of falling, the more relaxed you’ll be and the better you’ll perform. Regularly practice falling at the gym, starting with a couple of inches and working up to a 10-foot whipper. You can do this outside, too, but make sure you’re working with a solid bolt without any risk of cratering into the ground, a ledge, or any other feature. To eliminate risk, reduce nerves, and maximize performance, swallow your pride and just use the stick clip.
2) Welcome the beta. This isn’t onsighting. Accepting beta from friends, onlookers, and your predecessors is a great way to expand your vision of the route and get a new perspective. When you’ve got the beta, try it several times on toprope to make sure your body knows it by heart. Then write it all down.
3) Pace yourself. This means babying your fingers and making sure you don’t trash them on the first day of a long climbing trip. It also means conserving your energy over the course of a day. Instead of beating your head against a climb, take at least a half hour between attempts to relax and reset before you leave the ground. On route, take every opportunity to rest on good holds, shaking out with each arm until the pump dies down completely before moving on.
4) Stay calm. Relax your grip. With every move, let your body hang and remember to breathe, especially through the crux. Taking sharp shallow breaths will leave you in a wigged-out tunnel vision that impedes your ability to notice holds and read sequences. Instead, let go of your expectations and anxieties and remember to have fun.
5) Don’t get discouraged. The more you fall, the more you’re learning. Every time you fight up a route, you’re getting to know the line–and the way your body moves up it–a little bit better. At the end of the day, the send isn’t what makes you a better climber; the struggle is.
Learn more about Exum's Sport Climbing Seminar here.