Having been climbing for as long as I can physically remember, I have been privy to a variety of changes in the climbing community. One of the changes that stands out the most is the extremely fast rate at which limits are being pushed and physical feats are being accomplished. There used to be a few climbers here or there that were setting the standards for difficult climbing- they were icons that we all watched and assumed we could never understand or become.
When I began climbing, there were hardly any gyms in the country. We went inside only when we couldn’t go outside and all of my climbing memories were in nature. There were no training walls, the gyms didn’t have fitness centers or yoga classes, there were no try-outs for kids teams – if there even was a kid’s team at all. Everyone climbed together at whatever level they were. For the average climber, the idea was to never progress in climbing, it was to climb as much as you could, and have as much fun as possible with your friends and family members who also shared a love for the sport. Young, old, gay, straight, man, woman, we all climbed as one unit because there were only so many of us. But times have changed – not necessary for the worse, but it is very different now.
There are nearly 1000 climbing gyms worldwide. There are hundreds of thousands of people who either consider themselves rock climbers or have tried the sport, and the sport has very much become divided. There are now disciplines of climbers- competition climbers, youth, old-timers, millennials, sponsored athletes, wanna-be sponsored athletes, indoor-only climbers, climbers that are faithful to specific gyms or specific brands, you name it, there is a way to divide us up.
With the increase in climbers, there has also been an increase in competition- there are more talented climbers sprouting up every day, who “want it.” They dedicate their lives to the sport, like many other professional sports, only climbing doesn’t come with as much publicity and financial support as the other professional sports- yet.
I remember being a young teenager and seeing the Romanian coach Claudiu Vidulescu working with siblings Andrea and Gabor Szekely and Sasha DiGulian at the gym I went to at the time, Earth Treks. I remember watching those young climbers who already seemed to be climbing circles around everyone else in the gym and finding it so foreign. He was the only coach I knew of aside from the famous Chris Sharma and Lynn Hill, and the hometown hero Jason Kehl, I had never heard of any other professional climbers. I never saw Claudiu do any sort of training with his students except endurance. Earth Treks didn’t even have a place to train at the time.
Now it’s 2017, I live in Boulder Colorado, along with Sasha, the Szekely siblings, and most of the sponsored and professional climbers in America. It’s a Mecca for climbing and training, as if everyone assumes if they move to Boulder they will instantly become a pro. Although I will admit, you WILL more than likely become stronger- how can you not with so many world class facilities and hundreds of die-hard, motivated climbers of every age who climb and train on regimented routines. The average activities I partake in with my friends are fitness related- climbing, training, hiking. Most people I know are equally obsessed/passionate about climbing and we all desire to be better.
It’s pretty easy to get fit and stay fit when you are surrounded by a homogenous community of climbers, but what about those who are super strong, pushing the limits, and are living in places that are lacking the large, obsessed climbing community, infinite outdoor rock, dozens of coaches, and hundreds of sponsored and pro athletes to aspire to be? Take two midwest climbers for example- Kyra Condie and Michaela Kirsch. Michaela is known for her impressive outdoor rope ascents and has won the Psicobloc competition in Salt Lake City, while Kyra excels in indoor bouldering competitions and has quite an impressive track record for lead and speed competitions as well (can we say Olympic hopeful?). I have been impressed with Kyra for years, in part because of everything she went through with her scoliosis and surgery and because she is able to successfully compete in so many climbing disciplines- something most competitive climbers don’t attempt- and lastly, because she is so nice and down to earth.
While I did not originally plan to tell Kyra’s entire back story, I am so inspired and awestruck by what she went through and how she has overcome the pain and extensive surgery that I am including the entire story.
So, when I was about 11 I had started having really terrible back pain. I thought I was just being wimpy, so I tried not to complain about it too much to my parents. Eventually it got so bad that I told them about it and, after some google searching, I thought I had scoliosis. I talked to a guy I knew at the time who was a PT and climbed at my home gym. He checked me for the rib hump that’s the classic symptom of having a bent spine and said that I definitely had a curve and to go see my doctor to get an x-ray and get checked out. I remember googling what the treatment for scoliosis was and finding out that surgery was a possibility, but only if the curve was greater than 45 degrees. I specifically remember talking to my mom in the car on the way to the doctor’s office to get x-rays and saying something along the lines of, “Well I definitely have it but there’s NO WAY that mine is over 30. I’m going to guess it’s around 25.” Of course, when my doctor called she told me that my curvature was 58 degrees. I immediately burst into tears and my parents started looking up reviews of the best spinal surgeons in Minnesota. After I visited a few surgeons in person, it was clear that I had what they call “idiopathic scoliosis” which basically means the cause of it is unknown, I simply grew into being bent. I picked the surgeon who I liked the best—he had an awesome South African accent and he was the only one who told me I’d be back to climbing faster than I’d know it. His exact words to me were, “Send me a picture when you’re on top of the podium!”
I honestly think the surgery happened at a really good time for me. I had been climbing for about 2 years and had fallen very in love with the sport, but I was facing the classic dilemma that many middle schoolers face. Did I really want to go to climbing team practice when all my friends were going to go to the park and hang out? But when the unrelenting fact of back surgery approached, it made me realize just how much I loved climbing and how much I didn’t want to be without it. So really instead of discouraging me, I think having the surgery really motivated me in the end. It wasn’t until a year and a half after my surgery that I won my first youth national championships. The only times I notice my back while climbing now is on very specific movements. I really suck at climbing in dihedrals because you often need to bend in ways that I physically can’t because of my ten fused vertebrae. I also have a really hard time generating when I’m horizontal and my foot is really far away from my hand—because I am really restricted in twisting without using my hips. To get around this in training, I’ve gotten really good at “staying square” while on the wall which I think is a huge part of my climbing style.
For some background, the surgery I had was a spinal fusion of 10 vertebrae. The vertebrae fused were T2-T12 (thoracic vertebrae) and the curvature of my spine was around 70 degrees by the time I had the surgery. We postponed the surgery a few months so that I could train for the upcoming youth national championships before I had to take time off. I only ended up having to take 4 months off in total because it’s like healing a broken bone. I grew 2 inches during the 6-hour surgery and I still have the metal bars in place, they don’t need to be taken out. I still have a curvature to my spine, too, which is about 25 degrees.
I personally train for outdoor climbing and try to push myself where I have weaknesses and simulate my outdoor crux through indoor movement, but it seems like these days most people are training to either be better at indoor climbing or better at competition climbing. I was surprised to find that Kyra and I have a similar schedule with it comes to climbing, but its what we do within that session that seems so different. Across the board it seems that most climbers who are pushing themselves to get to that next level seem to climb 3 days on, 1 day off. As an indoor focused climber, Kyra does at least one climbing focused workout, in addition to her regular climbing each day she goes into the gym- this could be anything from campusing, to hangboarding, to power endurance and more. She puts her finger exercises at the beginning of the workout, while she reserves her endurance workouts for the end of the session. Her main plan is always to keep up her psych and try her hardest, while listening to her body to prevent possible injuries.
Regardless of whether you have a coach or a steady group of climbers, the key to getting strong and staying strong in climbing is self-motivation. If no one will go to the gym, you need to have the motivation to go anyway, if no one will climb outside with you, you find something that you can properly project and focus on bouldering that. Most importantly, those who love the sport the most, seem to be the most motivated to push themselves anyway, because we always want to be climbing.
Want to see how one of the most motivated climbers trains?
On a typical training day, Kyra says. “I’ll go into the gym and immediately start warming up. Once I get into the range of v7-v8 (about 80-90 % of my max) I feel ready to do some heavier training stuff. This usually takes around 30-45 minutes. Once I feel nice and warm I head into the other room to start a campus work out. I do a couple of easier pulls and pull-throughs to make sure the campus-specific muscles are ready to try hard too. Then, I start into the more regimented routine. Three sets of each pull, 2 minutes rest in between, and about 5 different exercises. Once I’m done (the whole workout takes around 45 minutes) I head back into the normal climbing area. After a bit of rest, I start trying to climb new boulders and repeat hard, old boulders. I’m lucky enough to have a gym that’s similar to CATS, so the wall never changes. This makes it super easy for me to repeat old climbs and to make up new ones. I typically try to climb at least 20 hard boulders, and depending on the day this takes anywhere from 1.5-3 hours. Once I’m done climbing, either because my skin hurts too bad or my muscles are dying, I like to try to do a bit more strength training before I’m done for the night. I usually head back into the other room and try to get through some sets of front levers, dips, handstands, and one arm pull-up progressions. Then, finally, I go home and eat some dinner!”
So what do training routines like this lead to? Well multiple women have now climbed V14 and breaking into V15, 2 women have climbed 5.15a and recently a woman climbed 5.15b. The standards for men have broken into V16/17 and 5.15d. While there used to be just a small handful of climbers at the top (and at the highest level there still are only a few) there are now dozens of climbers performing at what up to a few years ago was the hardest bouldering grade, V15 and the hardest rope grade, 5.15b. Kids are crushing at lighting speed, training harder, climbing more, staying focused. Coaches are breeding climbing machines and the kids and parents are loving every minute of it. Families relocate to Boulder, Colorado if their children are lucky enough to be accepted onto Team ABC, the premiere 18 and under climbing team in the world run by a past professional competition climbing couple.
With all the training aside, there are two components to climbing- especially climbing outdoors- physical and mental strength. While training can get you as physically strong as possible and ultimately boost your confidence to improve your head game, if your goal is to improve as an outdoor climber, the best way to have mental strength is to climb outside often, climb smartly, and slowly but surely challenge yourself mentally. There is also an innate climbing ability to consider, for those who are “born to climb” as many have said of Adam Ondra and Ashima Shiraishi. And while it’s hard to argue against this statement, their ability does not come without a lot of training. Kyra gives the example of the Japanese bouldering team. Everyone that makes it to the world cup semifinals is strong and those who make it to the finals are strong and lucky, but to have seen so many rounds throughout this past season be so obviously dominated by the Japanese team is no coincidence. They know their country will be hosting climbing for the first time in history in the Olympic Games of 2020 and it is clear that they are already training to take home the Olympic gold.
With this years announcement that climbing would officially be in the 2020 Olympics, things have begun to accelerate even faster. Gyms are opening left and right with high-class climbing facilities and kids are learning to climb as they are learning to walk. It’s a very different world than I grew up in and try as I did to fight it, I finally caved and joined in. I train as much as I can with a regimented and often written exercise plan. I bring training props on vacation with me and seek out gyms or monkey bars for pull-ups wherever I go. Like the rest of them, I am fueled by the success and the chance to be better, to do more and do it with ease.
An unfortunate thing about climbing, is it could not be further from riding a bike. You can’t just stop climbing and doing climbing related workouts for awhile, and expect to pick it back up and be equally competent. Mental and physical breaks are quite important to regenerate the body and mind and refuel the passion, but these breaks cannot be for too long or it will take quite some time to return to the place you left off. Climbing also has a very high injury rate, meaning that you never know when you will be forced to take a break and how long that break will to be. For many of us, that means we never take for granted that we are able to climb, and we all climb as much as possible.
There is no best way to enjoy climbing; it’s not about who thinks of climbing as a relaxing past time, as a motivation to be the best at something, as a way to mentally and physically challenge oneself. The “best” way to enjoy climbing is by having the most fun and allowing the sport to be a part of who they are and what makes them smile.