Crag To Summit

It is common now days to hear about “gym to crag” climbing courses to help those who primarily or exclusively climb indoors safely make the transition to climbing outdoors. After all, climbing at its core is an outdoor sport and that is what most indoor climbers aspire to do at some point. Climbing indoors has opened the world of climbing to many more people in places and cultures where it was never quite possible before. It also helps concentrate the acquisition of movement skills and speed up the learning curve. Climbing exclusively outdoors can be a slow process of gradual improvement. After even a few months of regular gym climbing, many folks can with some guidance, easily make the transition to safely climbing easy to moderate routes outdoors.

This same sort of approach can be used in preparing oneself for the goals of reaching lofty summits beyond just the top of the cliff. I think the crags, and even boulders, are a great way to prepare for technical alpine climbs in a similar way to what indoor gyms have to offer outdoor crag climbing. While I’m not talking about the less technical climbs like Everest or Denali, these are more of what could be called “extreme hikes.” For these, less technical, more general strength and particularly aerobic training are the primary tools. For technical alpine climbs you still need all that general strength, aerobic fitness and mental toughness found in more general mountaineering, but also the technical acumen of real rock and ice climbing. If something like the Harvard Route on Mount Huntington, the Cassin Ridge of Denali or the Walker Spur of the Grand Jorrasses (to name a few) are more your cup of tea than the cocktail party cache of Everest, then developing real technical movement skills are paramount.

With few exceptions, most of the classic technical alpine routes do not require extremely high degrees of technical proficiency, they rarely exceed 5.9 or 10, but they do require the ability to climb this sort of terrain efficiently and in a much different environment than what most are used to. You’re often very exposed, way off the ground and may be carrying much more weight than at the crags. You may even have less gear to protect yourself and build anchors with. How does one prepare for this sort of experience without just spending a lot of time on actual alpine routes? I like to go crag climbing and do so frequently.

The more you can get out and climb in a variety of areas the more you develop more memory imprints of how to read different types of cruxes, solve the movement riddle offered by them and do so with minimal energy and time. So, getting out a lot and to as many different types of areas really helps with this. You’re getting your brain to stay open to new possibilities of how to move efficiently. Volume really helps here: the more you climb the more memories you must draw from and use when you face a novel section of climbing on a route up in the mountains that may lack in the tell-tale chalk marks of where the hidden holds are. Obviously, on-sight climbing is real gold here. However, there is still a lot of value in performance-oriented climbing and projecting.
Pushing yourself to your absolute limit is the best way to both improve your movement patterns, strength and arguably your will power and mental toughness. Safe, project level sport climbing is a great way to push your limits and increase your climbing level wherever it is at. If you can project 5.11 or 12 then it’s safe to say you’ll probably feel quite comfortable with the movement involved on 5.9 or 10 cruxes in the mountains. With that extra buffer in your movement limit, you’ll have reserve mental and physical energy to expend towards the other challenges involved in alpinism: hazard assessment, route finding, minimal anchor building, bivouacs, pack hauling, descents, etc.

I like to think that when I’m up on a mountain I may have 99 problems but the pitch ain’t one. As in, the climbing itself should be the least of my concerns and if I’ve put my work in beforehand, this is usually the case. There is plenty of info on all forms of climbing and I won’t attempt to simplify all the different ideas and methodologies out there in this short essay. What I do want to confer is that I do see a trend of two thing among aspiring alpine climbers: 1) an over emphasis on non-technical/non-sport specific, aerobic biased training and, 2) training what they’re already good at. The latter is common among most sports since it often involves what the person is least comfortable with to begin with. For many alpine climbers, they lack in true performance-oriented climbing ability. I think this has a lot to do with the popularity of ice climbing with many alpine climbers. At its core, ice climbing is very technically simple and involves only fraction of the technical specificity of movement involved in rock climbing. I believe real improvement comes from going to a place where you are vulnerable; that’s where there is gold to be mined. So, you kind of need to find what you suck at to get better at anything. And, as I mentioned above, a lot of alpine climbers, while they don’t “suck” at rock climbing, let’s just say they aren’t exactly stone crushers, either.

All this leads me to my initial point, that the crags are a great way to get better at someday climbing a true alpine test piece. Rock climbing season is here now and a lot of people like it for that in and of itself. I also find it a beautiful time to help me with my own mountain aspirations with a little specially curated focus and intention.

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Our Rock Climbing Guides: Your Partners in Adventure

Vince Anderson | Rock Climbing Guide | Ice Climbing Guide | Skyward Mountaineering

Vince Anderson

An IFMGA certified rock climbing guide with an adventurous spirit and decades of experience. Vince is known for his alpine expertise and has climbed extensively on Colorado’s big peaks.

Steven Van Sickle | Rock Climbing Guide | Ice Climbing Guide | Skyward Mountaineering

Steven Van Sickle

An IFMGA/AMGA certified rock climbing guide specializing in technical alpine routes and big mountain adventures. Steven loves exploring the high peaks of the San Juans and beyond.

Buster Jesik | Rock Climbing Guide | Ice Climbing Guide | Skyward Mountaineering

Buster Jesik

An accomplished climber and certified rock climbing guide, Buster brings knowledge and passion for routes throughout the state, from the Front Range to the Western Slope.

Katie Beringer | Rock Climbing Guide | Ice Climbing Guide | Skyward Mountaineering

Katie Beringer

A passionate rock climber, ice climber, and AMGA certified rock climbing guide, Katie’s enthusiasm is infectious, whether you’re a beginner or pushing your grade.

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