How strong for technical alpine routes?

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  • #9484

    I’m looking for a benchmark for target onsight and redpoint grades relative to a given grade of climbing on a mid-elevation (<=4000m/14000ft) goal route. How strong must one be at the crag to confidently onsight at 12,000ft on an alpine route where falling is not an option?

    I’ve read New Alpinism, and while I don’t have the quote verbatim, there’s something to the effect of how cragging M9 isn’t going to be very useful training since the goal route isn’t going to have anything that hard. But what if it does?

    For example, if you can barely eek out 5.13c while cragging at low elevation, I’m guessing “The Honeymoon Is Over” won’t happen either. Likely you should be climbing into the 5.14 range for this to be a realistic possibility given the approach, elevation, length of technical climbing, and difficulty. Similarly, if you want to climb a route with sustained WI4+, I imagine a cragging resume should include plenty of WI5+ and some WI6.

    So, what’s the conversion? How strong should I be cragging if I want to climb a route with difficulties up to WI5 M5? Based on my prior experience, I’m thinking solidly onsighting M6 and redpointing M7 or M8 should do it?

    Relatedly, how does this incorporate into a long periodized training plan (20 weeks or so)? It seems like the hard climbing should be happening from weeks 8 to 14 or so, with the remaining 4 to 5 weeks at the end left for transitioning to local muscular endurance (commonly called power endurance in the rock climbing literature). Does that sound about right?

Posted In: Alpinism

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    Anonymous on #9497

    I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a “conversion”. Redpointing, in particular, is irrelevant since most technical alpine climbing will be onsight. And if your goal route is slabby M5 with no gear, that’s going to be a lot different than bolted M7. Addressing just physical capacities is only part of the puzzle.

    I’m a big proponent of using sport climbing (including M-climbing) to develop technical skills, but on its own, it won’t be enough.

    I’d recommend approaching it from the opposite direction. Put together a list of easier alpine routes that are similar in nature to your goal route and progressively tick them off.

    Anonymous on #9503

    I second Scott’s suggestion. Comparing cragging grades to on sight leads on alpine routes can be misleading. There are so many more factors at play on longer alpine routes than mere technical proficiency. As I pointed out in the recent strength series of articles: No one know how strong you need to be to perform well in endurance sports. We know there is some correlation but the relation ship is not clear. This is a direct analog to your situation. We know there is a correlation between cragging and alpine. If you can climb M5 on a top rope at a crag then you ill certainly not be able to lead on an alpine route. That’s obvious but the correlation does not extend to the way you are hoping to use it.


    ddb on #9524

    Thanks both for your replies. Perhaps I’ve been a bit too prescriptive. I know this question is complex (and I’ve read the recent series of articles on strength), but that’s why I think it’s worth asking.

    I tend to think of the necessary skills on an alpine route (as far as the climbing is concerned) as physical fitness, movement skills (climbing technique), technical skills (rope work, placing gear, etc.), and mental stamina/head game. I know success depends on the whole package, as implied by the idea that M5 with no pro is different from bolted M7. I also want to avoid a false dichotomy. There is a middle ground between sport bolted M-climbing on the steeps and runout, high consequence, big alpine routes. This could be gear protected M-climbing with consequence, but without the commitment of a huge approach, a bunch of less technical terrain before/after, a bivy, complex descent, etc.

    This leads me to two thoughts:

    1) For this sort of thing to be an “endurance sport,” it must first be an endurance activity, which implies to me that there should be no question about whether you can actually do the move, but rather how many times you can do the move. In that case, it seems the answer is that the point at which you’re ready for a committing route is the point at which the movement is so facile that it is purely endurance. However, this likely precludes a lot of difficult climbs that are closer to the margins, where it’s a bit more of a fight and not necessarily given that the move will definitely go.

    2) I might just be looking for a personal benchmark or confidence heuristic. For example, Scott Semple, before you headed up DTCB with Raphael Slawinski, how hard were you climbing? How did you know you were ready for that endeavor? Or, how hard were Steve House and Marko Prezlj climbing to feel confident heading up the West Face of Cayesh? Surely these things are closer to the limit and with smaller margins than pure endurance, so how do you decide what the margin is? (Please correct me if I’m wrong–it’s certainly possible these really were simply endurance exercises and the skill of the climbers is far beyond what I’m giving them credit for.) To be clear, I certainly see the value in working up on easier routes, but I’m also trying to set some concrete goals on the movement and fitness side of things (without neglecting the mental game and technical skills as appropriate).

    Anonymous on #9526

    I realize I was making a obvious and even silly comparison in my post and I did it to make the point that I think you are asking an unanswerable question.

    Having climbed with both; I think Steve and Scott would agree with me on this and it has certainly been my experience: It is hugely individual because it is hugely dependent on the mental part of the equation which we don’t have hard metrics to measure nor solid methods to train. Both of which are what allow us to spend so much time and ink on the physical prep side and so little on the mental. We know that mental can count for more than physical, especially out near the limit (Alex Honold).

    Thus my admonition to sneak up on the boundary from below. Testing your personal waters as you go. As you say, the basket of skills and strengths needed in the alpine realm is vast but also deep. You need to to be very good at a lot of things and the relative importance of those things is going to change from climb to climb and even pitch to pitch. Your focus on grades (while central) is an oversimplification in my estimation that does not weight heavily enough these other factors. Maybe Scott will relate more about his first attempt on Howes of Cards.

    I’ll suggest Steve chime in here as well but he’s guiding this week so it will take a while.

    ddb on #9530

    I’ll admit I’m focused on the grades in large part to have something tangible to anchor the conversation–I certainly agree it’s an oversimplification. I’ve spent many years climbing and have used cragging as a way to develop fitness and movement skills and used progressively more challenging and committing routes to “sneak up on the boundary.” I’m concerned that I’m not so much “sneaking up” on the boundary at this point as trying to see the boundary from 1,000 yards off due to lack of confidence.

    I am a strong enough climber at this point that I have few “equal” partners. There are some people I can climb with who are as strong or stronger, but most of them are stronger on boulders and sport climbs and have little interest in placing gear, let alone alpinism. This throws into even greater relief the mental component. However, because I have so few partners with strong climbing movement as well as strong head game, this leaves few options for discussing with folks who “get it,” hence my post here.

    As always, I’ve got my eye on bigger, more committing, more challening goals, leaving the question of “Am I strong enough?” looming large in my mind. I know that ultimatley this is a highly personal, individualized answer, but I also think there’s value in hearing other’s thought process, understanding their risk tolerance, what their acceptable margin looks like, etc. On cutting edge alpine routes, how close are the first ascentionists to their perceived limit? Up to this point, I think I’ve made fairly conservative decisions, but I wonder if a lack of confidence is allowing me to hold myself back.

    So, to put it bluntly: where does one draw the line? How close do you push it on bold, difficult climbing in the alpine when the route is more than simple endurance?

    I look forward to Steve and Scott’s (and others’) responses if they’re willing to share.

    Anonymous on #9531

    Eeesh. DTCB was in a previous life… I had to use Google to find out when we climbed those routes. Howse of Cards was in 2002, and DTCB was in 2006.

    After Howse of Cards, there was a lively email debate about this same topic. (Hopefully someone still has the thread saved somewhere.) At that time, I was a young know-it-all staunchly on the technical side of the argument. Now I’m middle-aged and in the middle.

    I don’t know exactly what level I was climbing at when we did DTCB, but in that same period, I had redpointed M10, flashed M9, and onsighted a bunch of M8s.

    It wasn’t enough.

    I backed off the crux of DTCB and Raphael sent it. I didn’t have the climbing fitness to pound pins at that difficulty. I was melting off my tools, looking at a slab fall. (Spoiler: The grade of M7 is a typical Slawinski sandbag that he doesn’t know is a sandbag.) We had no way of knowing if we were prepared; we hadn’t been up there before and most of the pitches are hidden from view from the ground. It just unfolded as we got higher.

    It’s impossible to say what type of technical level you need to achieve before you’re ready for your alpine goals. I know a 5.14 climber that melts when the bolts disappear. I know alpine climbers that climb the same level with any gear (from crappy to bolts). Both are examples of lop-sided development.

    If my sons were going into the alpine, what would ease my mind more? A high technical ability? Or a lot of good judgment gained from less committing routes with higher consequences?

    To really perform, I would encourage them to develop both. But they’re less likely to get hurt with more of the latter.

    ddb on #9543

    Thanks for that. Wasn’t trying to dig deep into a past life or anything; frankly, DTCB showed up first on a Google search and it seemed a hard enough FA to be representative to ask the question.

    I’m not sure what to make of redpointing M10 but backing off M7. On the one hand it’d be easy to say this proves the point, but on balance, there was real consequence and pins to hammer. I have to imagine head game had something to do with backing off. (To be clear, I’m applying no judgment here and certainly not second-guessing.)

    You raise a good point about experience and subsequent judgment gained. This certainly counts for a lot and ultimately coming home safe is still a victory. I’ve bailed on my share of routes due to unacceptable consequences and I credit my reasonably safe track record to this fact (at least thus far). I suppose it’s just another case where I’ll just know I’m ready for the next step when I’m ready to take it and won’t know until then.

    And I’ll also be taking any beta from Raphael with a bigger grain of salt now 😉

    Anonymous on #9556

    Some finer points:

    * When redpointing well-bolted routes, no margin of safety is required. We can push right to our limit and find out where it is;
    * When onsighting run-out hard-M8-later-graded-as-M7 with bad fall consequences, a margin of safety is required. For me, the margin of safety wasn’t big enough, so I backed off. For Raphael, a better climber, he had margin to spare and sent the crux in style.

    On Raphael:

    * Raphael would be loath to over-grade a route. He wants them to earn their numbers, so he errs on the conservative side;
    * I think he also underestimates just how brilliant a climber he is, so I think it’s fair to say he underestimates his skill;
    * It’s the Canadian Rockies. He has a tradition to uphold!
    * Lastly, you can trust Raph’s beta; he’s not going to knowingly put anyone in harm’s way.

    ddb on #9562

    Now we are back to the heart of it. Was his margin larger owing to technical skill and/or strength? I imagine it was a larger margin owing to greater experience and a cooler head from many similar climbs?

    I don’t mean to imply Raphael would knowingly put anyone in harm’s way. In some of my climbing circles we have a term called the “butterbag.” It’s basically an accidental sandbag because you either think the person you’re talking to is stronger than they are or you just don’t realize how strong you are. Sounds like your second bullet could meet the definition.

    Anonymous on #9567

    And back to the original answer:

    There is no formula. The idea “if you can climb X at the crag, you can climb Y in the mountains” is simplistic and unsolvable.

    You need to figure out what works for you.

    ddb on #9568

    How about a converse approach then? What’s your proudest route/line/send? How did it happen? What had you done to prepare? Why were you successful? What things contributed to your success? Did you expect it to happen? Did you have a small margin and but the confidence to just go for it? Did you have a huge margin and it was just the foregone conclusion from all your preparation?

    I get that I need to figure out what works for me, and I’ve got plenty of ideas there. How did you figure out what works for you? Relatedly, what does work for you?

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