If there is a first principle of climbing training it must be this: the best training for climbing is climbing. However, most of us are restricted from climbing as much as we would like by the three curses of work, lack of money and our climate. If we want to improve, it is necessary to train between climbing trips.
An aside on work: Sadly, few of us derive any useful training effect from carrying out our chosen career. The best that could be said for most 21st century work is that its sedentary nature prepares you for the long hours driving to the crag.
It is but half a century ago that work had a positive effect on the development of climbing, when the arrival of a cohort of climbers who worked as plumbers and fitters in the week, led to a surge in the capacity of climbers to tackle very strenuous climbs and put up the first UK Extremes. However, those days seem long past, and I will restrict this treatise to techniques useful to today’s desk bound majority.
Types of training:
1. The gym
Techniques for training in the gym are well documented, and I refer you to the extensive literature on the subject. Gym training will increase muscle strength- especially upper body strength. A gym however does not train for the challenge of verticality or exposure, and as will be seen below, discourages a more important training approach.
2. The climbing wall
Training on a climbing wall is a little closer to the rigours of climbing on rock, as it involves climbing on a distant relative of a rock cliff- a steep wall covered in composite holds. Beginners can get used to some of the kit, wearing rock shoes and a harness and practice belaying, and being belayed. Climbing walls do however tend to give beginners a false picture of rock climbing, as indoor walls are almost exclusively vertical or over-hanging, and many spend as much time traversing as ascending. A further difference is that on a wall, climbers learn to restrict their choice-climbing only on holds of a specified colour and avoiding other available options. Holds tend to be big, but far apart, whereas on a cliff there are often a number of potential holds and an important part of the challenge is creating the combination that works best.
Climbers who begin their career on a climbing wall and climb there for many months, often find the transfer to rock intimidating. Climbers who begin on rock, or who are at least familiar with rock, can improve key skills and increase strength, as well as get some entertainment, before retiring to the pub (see below).
3. The pub
The pub is the time tested training ground for the majority of our great climbing heroes. A pub environment more closely resembles a rock face and better provides the skills needed to surmount it than any other option in the climber’s armoury. The importance of training in the pub, both to an individual climber and to climbing history, is so enormous that I will merely be able to skim the surface of its contribution to our sport:
Team work is a key to the climbing experience. The bond between the climber and the belayer is integral to the climber’s experience and safety. The call and counter call “What will you have?” “Mine’s a pint”, so reminiscent of the crag-side “Climb when ready”, “climbing!”
Where else can such team work be built, and developed to its highest pitch, other than in the pub?
A vital component of improving one’s climbing is the ability to focus on the task at hand. Clearly, time spent in a pub is a focussed activity, with the consumption of alcoholic beverages steadily increasing the importance of focussing on staying vertical and resisting the pull of gravity.
Here I can do no better than quote the immortal words of Totter from the Golden Age of Climbing:
“What hoary hero, tent bound in a storm in the death zone, or gripped on an HVS far above dubious protection, hasn’t called upon the determination learned when crawling home to a distant tent after an especially hard night at the local tavern?”
Where better to master this essential skill than in the pub whilst consuming a dozen pints of local ale? The training effect derives from not only remaining standing, but, and at the same time, holding your beer upright without spilling a drop!
A brief digression on good form in the pub
I speak of course of the golden age of drinking- before the cheap six-pack, before nights spent sitting around a pub table drinking anything from orange juice to bottled lager. Drinking must take place standing, with the pint glass held aloft at all times. It is this serious approach to drinking that maximises the training effect. I do not recommend over-training, however, and the diligent will note the British Mountaineering Council recommendation of no more than 12 pints per night until strength is built up. Let us not forget that standing all night in the pub to drink was once not just the preserve of climbers, but of all sporting types.
And here we arrive at the crux. Competent climbing relies on good footwork. This skill is by far the most critical in climbing. Staying upright, weight over the feet, is the key to competent technique. It is no exaggeration that most learners, perhaps even most climbers, too often use their arms to pull where their feet should be bearing most of their weight. Whereas both the gym and the climbing wall encourage the novice to focus on his/her arms, a hard nights training at the pub reminds us of the vital importance of remaining above our feet.
All those fancy heel hooks, and one finger pull ups are rarely of use on rock. Up to HVS (5.9), most rock climbing takes place at less than vertical- and here the key is to stay balanced above your feet.
Now, where better than a pub can one practice standing upright for hours, calf muscles straining, whilst retaining an insouciant, even social mien? It is this sang-froid that marks the competent crags(wo)men. Far more, and far better, training has been carried out in the pub, by committed British climbers, than anywhere else.
The psychology of pub based training
There can be little doubt that the psychological effect of climbers discussing their day, and their plans, is a key part of the value of the pub’s training effect. Imagine the thrill as you listen to Totter’s description of his ascent of the Grande Fromage at Camembert- the extreme verticality -verging on the steep, the infamous dropped piton, Crabtree’s head wound, the missing hold…. Where else have so many tall tales been told, and where else so many bold plans concocted?
To sum up: gym training is counter-productive, as it discourages drinking. Climbing walls are of some limited value, as they are frequently followed by a visit to the local. However, any serious climber will ignore these time consuming distractions and head straight for the pub.
I will leave that great hero Dave Spart the last word.
“I was putting up Hammering Head, my first E1, on Horrendous Fawr and was finding it hard to place any gear. This meant I was standing on small holds for several hours, and my calves were throbbing nearly as badly as my head. If it hadn’t been for the calf strength developed through many years spent standing in a crowded pub, as well as the focus of holding my beer steadily through many long nights, I don’t think I would have had the stamina to stay on my feet for so long”.
I must finish now and return to my own training regime: What? £4.90! Each? Damned prices nowadays.
Editor’s Note: Simon Waters is an old school climber with years of experience and stories. His adventures, perspectives, and wisdom can be found on his website writesimon.