The best way to get better at climbing? Adopt your anti-style

This article originally appeared in Escalation magazine printed in 2019.

1. We prioritize comfort

We all have a certain style of climbing towards which we gravitate. More often than not, it’s simply because it’s the style we’re best at. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s not the easy (or comfortable) sends that make us grow as climbers; it is the anti-style, laborious and laborious who do it. Changing focus can have a huge impact on the quality of our ascent and, moreover, our enjoyment of climbing! I have experienced this myself more than once in my own climbing career.

I mostly focused on vertical projects, remaining downright scared of climbing caves as I knew I would have to drop my level a few grades to have a chance of being sent.

When I first started climbing, I was drawn to technical, vertical routes with very poor grips and demanding footwork. As I progressed, I realized that if I wanted to keep testing myself and improving, I also needed to learn how to climb overhanging routes. I was afraid to climb caves until finally, after years of avoiding them, I started loving them. As my skill pendulum swung towards steep climbing, I began to lose my tenacity for edges, small crimps, and vertical routes. It’s a weird feeling to see your once obvious strength turn into weakness. So this fall, I felt the need to go back to my roots and perfect my gnarly slab game. My first ascent in the Fins, Idaho was just that…El Toro Resbaloso (5.14c) represented a throwback to how I first learned to climb, and a change in style that my climbing desperately needed.

You need to be patient with yourself as you work to improve on a “strange” style.

Jonathan Siegrist returns to his “roots” on his original and favorite style of fine and technical face climbing on his new route El Toro Resbaloso (5.14c), Ends, Idaho. While Siegrist cut his teeth on this type of climbing, he later turned to cave routes and is now heading back to the green. (Photo: Nate Liles)

As I mentioned above, technical vertical routes were the types of climbs I was initially drawn to. I attribute this in large part to my years of bouldering training on Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder, Colorado, where even the “easiest” problems are characterized by razor-blade crimpers, tiny pebbles and stained feet. My crimp strength and ability to use my feet was generally quite good. However, my propensity for vertically had me intimidated by anything overhanging, even from a distance, and some gripping positions, like the pinch, felt nearly impossible. And so I focused mostly on vertical projects, staying downright scared of climbing caves because I knew I would have to drop my level a few grades to have a chance of being sent. Eventually, however, I realized that I would have to put my ego aside if I wanted to progress – after all, most difficult roads around the world are steep. If I wanted to continue to improve as a climber, I would have to get used to the slopes.

‘It was the best climbing trip of my life’: Jonathan Siegrist crushes his anti-style in Spain

The first hard road I really put my all into was Tommy Caldwell’s Front Range, Colorado test piece. vogue (5.14b) at the industrial wall south of Boulder. Given my progress and what I had already accomplished (around 2008), this ascent was an obvious next step. The stiff, compression-style climbing felt then foreign and difficult. It took me months to adapt, and even when I finally made it, it was a struggle. I remember screaming so loud at the send that my throat was hoarse the next day. I had rarely had to manifest this kind of primal test on a vertical edge route.

2. How to improve your anti-style? Be patient.

The process of improving your anti-style is usually slow. For many years I felt like I had a serious handicap when I climbed outside of my comfort zone. The more time I spent on terrain I was not comfortable with, the more my body adapted. I also found that my mental abilities also adjusted – over time I was more willing to get into it, largely because as you get better at something it becomes so much more fun!

With that in mind, you need to be patient with yourself as you strive to improve on an “alien” style. It may even take a year or two to really change your climbing strengths. Realize that no matter who you are or how strong you are, you can’t be great at all styles at the same time. Rock climbing is a diverse sport, with many different factors that can affect your ability. So it makes sense to lower your expectations when riding outside your wheelhouse.

siegrist on El Toro Resbaloso (5.14c). The road is so empty and thin, Siegrist says, that if a wedge was missing, she probably wouldn’t go.Nate Liles

I can personally speak to the usefulness of this approach – by lowering my expectations of what I “should” be able to do on an overhanging rock, I was able to turn these types of climbs from a weakness into a strength. . At the end of the day, giant love (5.15b) was the highlight of my transition. This route is steep and generally very physical. The holds aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just far apart and the movement is powerful and demanding. It’s not exactly what I imagine to be my best style, but after years of slowly changing my preferences, something like giant love has become possible.

3. When your anti-style becomes your style: go back to your roots

Unfortunately, as I climbed more and more caves and spanish resistance routes, I lost my edge (no pun intended) on the green. Despite this, I kept telling friends that vertical routes were my jam, but when I sometimes came back to them, I felt confused and out of place. This brings us back to El Toro Resbalosowhich was exactly the dead vertical style I desperately needed to revisit.

Why You Should Embrace Your “Anti-Style”

As I returned to Fins, Idaho earlier this fall, I could feel how rusty my slab game was. If I wanted to have a chance in my vertical mega-project, I would have to get back on my feet (again, no pun intended). My good friend Tom Smart had run away El Toro Resbaloso in 2015, and this season he gave me the project, because he was knee-deep in another. The Bull is a green climber’s dream, one of those routes where if a single hold were missing, it would be impassable. The crux is cerebral and challenging in a way you’d only experience on a bomber, dead vertical limestone. It involves very high feet on tiny textured bumps or smears, impossibly small edges for your fingertips, and huge swaths of totally blank wall in between. It wasn’t easy going back to this tenuous style, but I know deep down that it was exactly what I needed! “Slab Jonathan” from 2008 would have been proud!

There are myriad reasons why certain styles simply feel better or worse for each of us. Some of these reasons are complex and deeply mental, while others relate to our physical abilities. For obvious reasons, fingers can often be a weak link in any style. If you feel like weak fingers are holding you back, you’ll probably make tremendous progress if you train to strengthen your fingers. My journey 6 weeks for stronger fingers is a great option for laying the groundwork in this area. Ultimately, though, climbing a wide variety of terrain is one of the best ways to improve your overall climbing ability. I cannot stress enough the importance of embracing all kinds of rock types, climbing styles and challenges! This is how we grow and improve as climbers.

I took this class and my fingers got stronger

Virginia F. Goins