donderdag 2 juni 2016

Full circle

Five years ago I embarked on my first ever bouldering trip. Seeking for a form of climbing and being out that I could share with Michelle (vertigo has such a firm grip on her that even belaying petrifies her) I acquired a crashpad and a bouldering topo of the Eifel. So on March 8 2011 I drove us to the basalt blocks of Glees, determined to show the love of my life the magical beauty of climbing rocks. And boy, did I do a good job to put her off...

Happy as a kid I rushed up the hill towards the blocks, as if they might vanish into thin air any moment. I quickly climbed the first 5A I saw, then a 5B, then a 6A. After making quick work of another 6A and a 6A+, I figured that - having been a boulderer for about an hour now - I had grown enough to try something harder. That's when I saw 'Die Eisheiligen'. It was (is) so aesthetically pleasing that it had an immediate irresistible pull. I had no feeling (or respect...) for bouldering grades and jumped on it, imagining I had the arms of Chris Sharma, the fingers of Adam Ondra, the balls of Alex Honold and the grace of Akiyo Noguchi. At 6C+ it was way above my league though and I never got far off the ground. Nevertheless the sloping rock at the landing and a poorly placed crash pad were enough to break my leg in a fall...
Sander vs. 'Die Eisheiligen'...
What was supposed to become an awesome first bouldering trip for the both of us turned into a straight disaster, with Michelle having to help me complete the half hour slippery downhill walk to the car on one leg carrying a heavy crashpad, with her having to drive us home with me moaning in pain at every bumb in the road and still having to convince me that this wasn't good and I had to see a doctor, with her having to deal with the fact I absolutely refused to go to a German hospital and eventually leaving me no choice but to visit the hospital in Enschede when we finally arrived after a long drive, with her waiting there for hours and ultimately bringing me home close to midnight with my leg in a cast. My God, what a hideously Homerical  sentence to describe the horror I put Michelle through on her first climbing experience. Somehow though, five years later, she still supports my climbing and comes with me every once in a while when I go bouldering. What a lovely wife I have.

You may understand that ever since that day I felt I have a bone to pick with Die Eisheiligen. A year after the fall, in spring 2012, my mental scars had healed enough to face it again. And so I drove to Glees, only to arrive in a rain shower and find Die Eisheiligen with a soaking wet top. I haven't even touched it and climbed other, dryer boulders instead. After that, I somehow never made it to Glees anymore. I discovered the bouldering in Ruhrtal instead. With the appeal of being quite a bit closer to home it kept me satisfied throughout 2013 and the first half of 2014. After that my interested shifted towards roped climbing and I barely bouldered at all. Glees and Die Eisheiligen drifted to a desolate part of my memory, but never faded entirely.

Fast forward to May 25, 2016: I'm in my car, dogs and crashpad in the boot, driving to Glees. It's overcast and surprisingly cold for the time of the year. Good for bouldering. It has rained a lot the past week though. Bad for bouldering. I'm not really sure what to expect, but the image of a wet Eisheiligen from 2012 haunts me. Third time's a charm, right?

The forest is much darker and denser than I remember. This shouldn't be a surprise, it's Germany after all. It is also bad news though: the basalt blocks are all in the shade and well sheltered by copious blankets of freshly green spring leafs. A dry breeze has no chance of penetrating here and even if the sun were shining, the rays would never reach the boulders. Note to self: Glees is a winter destination. But now that I'm here anyway I'd better make the most of it. I drop my stuff below a good and dry looking 6A ('Brian Gedächtnis Weg') to warm up. It has big holds, big moves and it's high: all qualities I enjoy in a boulder problem. I've barely left the ground when my foot slips off. Standing on my crashpad again I contemplate what this means: no friction today. Maybe 'high' isn't an enjoyable quality after all today. A second attempt quickly lands me on top of the boulder though. So climbing is possible in these conditions. Buck up, Sander! Humidity is just a lame excuse for a losers' attitude.
Getting used to the conditions on 'Brian Gedächtnis Weg'
I want to know whether Eisheiligen is dry enough today. I've waited long enough for this. It should be only 50 meters away, but the view is consumed by the forest. Time to pack my stuff again and head over there. But when the jungle opens up a bit and I get a first glimps of Die Eisheiligen, Vienna sounds the alarm: the rather tiny base around the block is already occupied by a happy German couple with two dogs and a baby. One of the dogs appears to be half Husky, half Aussie, which is pretty much a guarantee for a strong personality that will collide head on with the attitude of my Aussies. Since I'd rather not find out - especially with a baby in the middle - I retreat. I muster all the patience I can find and tell myself I'll have another chance later today. Plan B: walk to 'Es'. Es is THE boulder in Glees - an absolute Eifel classic - and situated in a more open location, which considerably raises the odds of it being dry. At the grade of 7B/7B+ (it favors the tall) it should be quite a challenge, but possible.

Walking up on Es, the holds look good and the boulder doesn't appear to be very hard at all. I get a firm reality check though when my 'flash attempt' fails at the very first move. The required span is massive, the footholds are slippery and somehow the holds feel quite a bit smaller than they look. The standing start (called 'Esther', graded 6C+) goes down quickly, but the top slopers are damp and lack friction. However scary, it goes though! But the bottom half troubles me. Just when the thought of going back to Die Eisheiligen creeps in (imagine not climbing Die Eisheiligen as a result of spending all my energy on not climbing Es!), the magic of bouldering happens: something clicks and I unexpectedly climb Es from the first move in. Baffled I try to repeat the moves and all of the sudden they feel rather easy.
'Es' quickly coming together
All that remains is doing the first move and repeat what I just did. From feeling impossible to within grasps in just minutes! But the first move turns out to be hard. When I finally do it, my foot slips one move later and I'm off. New attempts all fail. Is this signalling the imminent end of the day or just specific fatigue for this move? I contemplate the implications of both for a while and conclude that either way a break is needed. If my energy for the day is running out though, continuing on Es might cost me Die Eisheiligen. In the case of specific fatigue, a quick ascent of Die Eisheiligen and some walking around might be the perfect break. But if it takes more energy, it deminishes my chances of climbing Es dramatically. Conundrum... Setting ego and grade chasing aside, Die Eisheiligen is what I really desire to climb. Third time's a charm, remember?

And so it is that I walk back to Die Eisheiligen, set up the camera and carefully place the crashpad on the slanting rock that broke my ankle five years ago. As soon as my feet leave the ground I am surprised how powerful this boulder problem feels. I really had no chance five years ago. When I reach for the small crimper below the top, it is smaller than expected. I'll have to work my way up on it and slap for the top that looks uncannily sloping. For an instant I look down. Big mistake. It turns out that due to the overhang of the block I'm not above my pad anymore. Fear of falling cripples me and I climb down to jump on my pad. I repeat this entire process twice before I realize I'll have to move the pad to protect the top. Grudgingly I drag the pad further from the base of the block. The slanted rock grins at me sadistically. This time I know that if I fall, I won't do it there though. So I set off again, climb up to the crimp and slap for the top. It is sloping indeed and very slippery. Knowing I have the pad right where it needs to be now I match the other hand and top out. It's done.

When I go back to Es later, I quickly climb it as well. Finally I can leave Glees and Die Eisheiligen in peace. I've had my revenge. It tastes sweet, so very sweet!

vrijdag 20 mei 2016

In the meantime, part 2: rock

After the geeky ramblings on training from my previous post, here's the more interesting part: outdoor fun! As explained, I want to focus more on volume and fun, without getting lost in ego-fed superhard projects and hardly getting any climbing done. So no grade chasing, no tunnelvision on superprojects, but just climbing whatever comes across my path. As Teuto happens to come across my path regularly, being the only crag within an hour driving1, this resolution resulted in me bouldering quite a lot in Teuto in the past months. And I can honestly say I've been enjoying it more than I expected to do: it's a lovely forest to be and to walk in with the dogs and off the beaten tracks there is a surprisingly large amount of good and hard bouldering. Sometimes the problems require a bit of a definition to be of interest, but despite my dislike of defined - contrived - boulder problems they never felt unnatural. All fun and games, so who really cares?
Topping out Alpha Centauri, the best ascent of the year so far! Video below...
A 'good' thing about the bouldering in Teuto is that there isn't a guide book or any community kept list of problems. Most lines in the forest have once been climbed, but it's often hard to find out by who and what name or grade has been attached to it. Usually I get my info through Matt, who has the Teuto woods as his backyard and has a great climbing network via his business. Sometimes the grades are soft, sometimes silly hard. They are absolutely meaningless, which is great: it shifts the focus automatically to climbing lines instead of grades. And it's humbling and motivating in a peculiar way to get completely shut down by a boulder someone else perceived as 7A.

iPhone video of a few boulders I climbed in Teuto. The first - Boone low - I have been trying on and of for more than a year and it always eluded me. 
Not this time. Progress?

So bouldering in Teuto fits my present goals pretty well and I've been doing it for quite a few afternoons this spring. Nevertheless I do like some variaty (and climbing routes instead of boulders...), so getting to other crags is always on my wish list. So far I've only managed to do this twice this year, but both times were productive and fun! The first visit was with Matt to the limestone cliffs in Ith, where I climbed the first routes of the year and managed to make quick work of 'Neues aus der Anstalt', a 7b+/7c at Kannstein with a powerful undercling crux and a short bit of power endurance climbing following it. Although both Matt and I felt it was easy for the grade, it feels good to be able to grab a quick ascent in the upper half of the 7th grade.

The other visit - with Matt again - was triggered by a video Matt stumbled upon of German strongman Stefan Hochbaum climbing an amazing looking highball in the woods surrounding Bielefeld (technically still the Teutoburger Wald). Matt used his network to uncover the location of the block and a few days later we went, with two brobdingnagianly big Moon Saturn crashpads stuffed in our car. I fell in love with the boulder immediately upon seeing the video, but walking up to 'Alpha Centauri' in real was even more awesome. It was high though, impressively high. I don't consider myself a big risk taker, I am deterred by the idea of not climbing for months while recovering from a serious injury. At the same time, I do appreciate the appeal of a beautiful, high boulder problem. So we set up a toprope first to practice the top of the boulder. Falling from the top was not really an option, so we made sure we had it dialed in perfectly. Nevertheless, when we removed the rope I felt anxious. The first part of the boulder is a steep and athletic and well protected by a good landing. Halfway it switches to a lightly overhanging arrete, which is hard to downclimb. A big move marks the transition to the arrete and is a psychological point of no return. Above it, you are high enough to not want to risk a fall and the only way is up, to even higher ground. I climbed the first part being very aware of this point of no return, but felt strong. A brief moment of hesitation paused me before the big move, but I flipped the switch and committed to it. I floated up, never once looking down to the ground. Within moments I was standing on the top. It felt absolutely amazing. Minutes later Matt followed. How hard it was? I honestly don't know. The first ascentionist gave it 7B, in the video Matt found 7B+ was proposed. When I climbed it, it felt much easier. But who really cares? Alpha Centauri was the best thing I've climbed in a while and topping out felt like a victory, extremely rewarding and exciting. An additional special touch: after climbing my first 7th grade boulder problem four years ago, this was exactly number 100.

Video of Matt and me climbing Alpha Centauri.

The route climbing season has only just started and I hope to get some more routes done. Nevertheless I'll probably go out bouldering a lot more. No complaints, I'm absolutely loving it again!


1: The only exception is Isterberg, which is hardly ever dry enough to climb. When it is, there are a few very hard boulders left to do, which will probably resemble the type of project I try to avoid right now.

donderdag 12 mei 2016

In the meantime, part 1: training

In a previous post I made the promise to fix some flaws in my training routine and to focus more on volume and fun outdoors. Whether that was a pledge to you or myself I'm not really sure, but either way I somehow felt obliged to keep it. And so I've been doing! There's enough to write about to fill several posts, but I'll try to keep it down to two.
Focussing on fun outdoors!
Let's start with the training and leave the outdoor fun for last. Most importantly, I abandoned the quite strictly linear training programme based on the Rock Climbers Training Manual by the Anderson brothers. I've been following it for more than a year now and came to realize that for me it has a few flaws. Three, to be precise. Firstly, the very predictable performance peaks that a linear periodized schedule produces may be very desirable for competition climbers or for training towards a big climbing holiday, it is far less ideal for the recreational outdoor climber that wants to get out whenever time and the weather allow, i.e. me. High peaks come with big troughs and when peaks coincide with bad weather or limited time that's rather frustrating. It is uncanny how much rain fell during my performance peaks.


Secondly, some phases of the programme have a strict planning that favors training over outdoor climbing. I want to be flexible enough to go out whenever I can, which doesn't happen nearly as often as I'd like to. A training schedule shouldn't be another limiting factor to outdoor time when having a job and grown up responsibilities already are. Thirdly, I felt the training programma neglected maintenance of the performance aspects trained during other phases. For example, it provides little maintenance of strength during the power and power endurance phase. Most of the gains made during a strength fase evaporated during the rest of a training cycle.

So I started reading a lot again and set out to design a schedule that is less linearly periodized, includes more maintenance and always offers the flexibility to go out. I opted for a combination of classical and non-linear periodization (no periodization at all will result in plateau for sure: been there, done that) that cycles rather quickly between a focus on strength, power, power endurance and endurance while maintaining the other aspects. I'll have to stick a bit longer with it to tell whether it's an improvement or not, so I'll leave the description of the schedule for a future blog post. What I can say already, is that I can handle a bigger training volume in the new schedule.
Slowly all T-nuts on my homeboard are getting filled with climbing holds. The latest additions: Core mini jugs (grey) and Core Font micro jugs (dark green).
I also fixed a major flaw of my homeboard. So far, I've only invested in small holds to set hard boulders. Although it allowed me to do relatively short power endurance circuits (~20 move circuits in the 7b-7c route range were the easiest thing I could set), there was absolutely no way at all to train endurance in the aerobic energy system. So I asked my friend Matt from Flow Climbing Equipment to set me up with a new set of climbing holds and he did a great job again. There are 36 'mini' and 'micro' jugs from Core Climbing on my home board now (they really don't do those names justice, they're massive) and I started training on them. Although I aim for exercises around the aerobic threshold, I quickly noticed gains in power endurance as well. It's a bit unexpected (and may imply that the intensity of the exercise is actualy too high), but I'm not complaining.
Core Font micro jugs: extremely positive 2-pad jugs 
Surprisingly (and rather unexpectedly), the jugs provided a new challenge: skin management. Having climbed mainly on small 1-pad (and occasionally 2-pad) holds, my callusses are getting beaten up completely by the bigger holds. They get irritated, deep red and feel like they are about to turn into blisters or even flappers quickly. After a few sessions I figured out that if I climb on them at the end of a session (having well warmed up skin), not longer than 15 minutes and sand down my callusses agressively, I can train on them without getting debilitating skin injuries. It's enough to get quite a lot of moves done (about 200). Let's see if I can increase the volume as my skin slowly adapts to the torture I put it through...


A final fix in my training addresses my flexibility. I've always known that I don't have an impressively flexible body and that with my build genetics aren't exactly in my favor on this. The biggest mistake (the one I've been making for years) is to embrace this as an excuse, accept the weakness as it is and focus on strengths instead. Weaknesses provide the biggest potential for improvement and can be conquered with relatively little investment. So after getting shut down by a high foot placement on an otherwise easy boulder on the competition I joined in Februari, I finally decided to attack my flexibility weakness. At the end of every training I take between 10 and 15 minutes for stretching exercises, primarily for the hamstrings and hips. I'm getting noticably better at using high feet already and will try to keep stretching a part of my training routine.

Enough about training for now! In the future I'll sit down to write about some details of the training for those interested. First I'll stick with it for a while and see what it brings me! Time to write about my modest outdoor endeavours now, stay tuned!

donderdag 24 maart 2016

Why all climbers should do push ups

All climbers should do push ups. Period. Well, that is my opinion... I have some arguments to back it up though that may sway the many climbers that dismiss push ups as a useless exercise for climbing: 
  • Pushups work the triceps and pecs: important antagonists for the pulling muscles that we use in climbing moves. Keeping the antagonists just as strong as the pulling muscles helps keeping a balanced, injury free body. But it doesn't stop here: both the triceps and the pecs are recruited in many actual climbing moves: when moving up one hand, we (should) push down with the other. The triceps does this. And think of all the moves that require the pecs to come into action: sidestepping, locking off sidepulls, compression moves, etc.
  • Pushups train core strength and stability, especially when instability is introduced by doing the excersice on one leg, using rings, a suspension trainer or a fitness ball. Core strength is required in nearly every climbing move, especially when the terrain gets steeper.
  • Pushups can train a variety of shoulder muscles by varying in hand positioning (wide, narrow, above the shoulders, close to the waist, etc.) and by introducing instability to the hand using gymnastic rings, a suspension trainer or a fitness ball. Shoulder injuries are common among climbers and can hold you back for months or longer. Chronic shoulder injuries are almost impossible to get rid of. Strong shoulders are much less likely to get injured. By varying the push up excercises a lot of shoulder muscles can be trained, including all the small, tiny ones that get tweaked easily (think rotator cuff...).
There are endless variations of push up excercises. Varying them is important. Which ones you like comes down to personal taste, but I would recommend introducing some sort of instability and doing only exercises of which you can do at least a few good repetitions. It is easy to injure the small stabilizing muscles with an exercise that is too tough. That kind of defies the purpose of the exercise, wouldn't you say? 

For inspiration I've made a little video of the excercises that stuck with me and keep coming back regularly in my trainings. Enjoy training!