Thanks for the email, and although I can hear James Mchaffie Twitter as I type this (questioning how I’d know anything about E1s), I’ll try to respond.
Before I bang out some ideas, I need to own up to the fact that James would be right. I’ve never been a great rock climber, and at best I’ve been an E3 climber. I’ve pretty much climbed the same grade all my life (wet or dry, drunk and sober, fat or less fat, on any rock, at any time of day) of about E1/HVS. The reason for this is the reason why most trad climbers climb around that grade once they get up to speed, in that they’re not willing or able to dedicate any more of their lives to get any better than that.
Someone like Adam Ondra, beyond genetics, spends every single moment of his life climbing, either physically, emotionally or intellectually, and when he isn’t? Well, he’s resting from climbing, which is just another form of training (I always think a pro is not paid to do what they do, but to rest from doing what they do).
If you take any bog-standard climber, give them three months off work, drop them in the Pines campground in Arapiles (as both time AND favourable weather conditions are essential), they’ll go up a full grade every month, maybe more. Give them a year, and a ticket to fly, combined with no work commitments at all, and they could be doing E5 by the end of it, have a six-pack, tuck their t-shirt into their trousers, make weak humans swoon etc. Unfortunately, what happens for most people is that they don’t progress like that, as they just get distracted, bored, burned out, or injured. When they get all the climbing they want, they don’t want it, and just can’t be arsed putting in the effort, realising it’s just not that important. As for the world-class climbers, I don’t know what kind of spectrum Ondra, Honnold or Megos (or Mchaffie) are on, but although it’s neither normal, nor perhaps even healthy, it is effective in the narrowest way possible (such things can be used as leverage to fame or fortune, and it’s definitely better than being the world’s best Warhammer player) but with it, performance becomes the only manageable component of your life.
So what am I saying? Yes, you (we)‘re shit, and although we could be good, maybe even great, what we really want is to be less crap, which is sort of what E1 represents (or going from 5.9 to 5.10), some kind of a crapness ceiling we don’t want to smash, but only poke our heads through.
And so here are some random thoughts on how to poke your head through the shit ceiling and why doing so is a good idea (but not that important).
At the level we’re talking about, this has very little to do with it, but such things are relative, as when you’re unaware of being fit, you don’t think fitness is necessary, but if you get tired just walking up a flight of stairs, then it is. But a climber who can climb an HVS without getting boxed is fit enough. Weight and fitness are often more psychological, as when you feel light you feel like you’re stronger and have more power (on a 9a such things as low weight and high strength, power and fitness are essential, but not so on an E1). At E1, your mental fitness is what counts (a fat fucker with a good head will always trump a fitter climber with no head at all).
One of the biggest factors in being a better, more confident climber, is footwork, which means just trusting your feet, knowing if you step on a pebble, a sloper, or twist a toe into a crack it’ll stay there. Now you’d imagine this comes down to experience, which it does, but you’ll also find pretty good, experienced climbers who have terrible footwork, but somehow still get up things. The reason for this is that really, on an E1, your footholds are just solid, no matter how small they are, and what’s going to lead to feet popping, is you. What I mean is that your lack of confidence in feet, boots or rubber, will translate into footholds letting you down. I like to transplant the mixed climbing tool idea, of the balanced cup of tea to my feet, in that once you have a foot that’s placed with the correct degree and angle of force (as Johnny Dawes says, imagine a helicopter landing on the hold), visualise a cup of tea balanced on your toes, the aim being not to move your feet and spill any. One of the significant boosts in foot confidence can come from climbing lots of scary slabs, as this forces you to understand just how small or even ‘nothing’ hold can be, the angle at which a smear will fail, how the time of day, how tired your calves are, all play an effect. Having fit feet and calves and legs is vital as you get onto harder routes (much of moderately hard trad climbing is about pushing with your legs), as you need a lot of stamina, moving from poor foothold to poor foothold, but on an E1 you’ll probably only have to use one or two bad footholds, and often it’ll only be one ‘scary’ move (a route like Time for Tea at Millstone Edge in the Peak District is a typical E3 where you just have to do a move that would be easy off the deck, but hard to do when above your gear). So I’d say that although you can learn good footwork, you have to consciously get better at it, which means thinking about how you place and trust your feet. One way to do this is to top rope routes that are way too hard to lead, and really focus on your feet, or sometimes just reminding yourself of the mantra ‘a committed foot never slips’ as you climb does the trick.
One overlooked aspect is hesitation, where you have to begin a move that takes you from A to B, but in which you get stuck between the two. A and B are ‘safe spaces’, but you end up in a scary, pumpy, limbo. At this grade, you can pretty much be sure you’re going to go from a place you can be in balance or rest, to another spot where you can rest, even when the HVS climbing has some curve ball thrown in that’s not HVS. Being able to ‘pull through’ this kind of logjam, knowing you’ll get a good hand or foothold eventually, comes down to having climbed lots of routes at that grade, and the harder the route, the greater the distance between these safe spaces. Again, you need to create a set of actions when climbing that you can start as soon as you reach the point when you need them. This would go like this: You’re climbing comfortably, placing gear. The crack pinches down, and the feet get really small, with no gear for a body length or so until you can reach a hand jam (so gear as well). You can see you need to switch into ‘crux’ mode, that you’ll have to fire through a couple of moves to the jam. Now what will often happen is the climber will get afraid, tense up, focus on the fact they won’t be able to place any gear for a while. Then, without a real plan, they start up the section without really mentally committing to it, maybe then get bogged down by trying to place a crap runner before the hand jam, get pumped, down climb or fall off. If you’re lucky, you might arse around for twenty minutes or an hour and finally commit and get to the jam (telling your poor belayer it was easy), or not. What you should do is get to the beginning of the crux section and first look at the moves, not the gear, as you know you can get gear when you get to the hand jam. By moves, what I mean is check the footholds first, working out how to execute as few moves as possible to get to where you want to. Next you place some solid pro, and tell your belayer you’re at the crux. Now you commit and execute the moves you’ve planned, the aim to complete a set of actions as quickly as possible, with no hesitations - bang, bang, bang, hand jam.
Going Up And Down
A great skill for climbing is being able to climb down, and sometimes a little recognisance is rewarded, say bouldering out the first few moves, maybe placing a hard to place runner, then climbing back down, resting, then sending the crux. Doing this helps your confidence as you will feel less committed, and when things don’t feel good, you might be able to climb down a little and think it through again.
The harder the route, the higher the chance of falling off, but also the steeper the rock becomes in general, which means falls are safer, but you need to get the gear in to make this true. It’s not ideal to be totally gear focused when climbing (easier said than done I know), and you’ll often notice you feel you climb better on a route that has no gear than on a route that has plenty (one reason why soloing is so enjoyable). But it goes without saying you need to be able to place bomber gear whether you climb Diff or E7. The quantity of gear in a route is worth nothing if you’re crap at placing it, and you know you are. What you should do as you climb up the grades is work through a decent apprenticeship, learning how to place solid gear you trust, and when and when not to place gear. If you’re confident in the gear, the rock, your skill, you can place gear less often, which allows you to focus on the climbing, whereas if you stop at every possible placement you’ll take forever and just get tired. I suppose experience tells you when you can run out the placements a little, and when you need to close them up, but relying on gear as your sole psychological crutch is counterproductive long-term, as it’s your ability to climb that really counts.
Positive Mental Attitude
Someone once asked a friend of mine who climbed E7 why E1 was so hard, and he just replied ‘it isn’t’, which maybe explains why he climbed E7. But how you view these things, square and rationalise, is maybe the most important aspect of climbing, that to build up a piece of rock to represent anything but a natural puzzle is daft really, the E1 or 5.10 grade is a pretty blunt instrument of measuring such a thing. Building a positive mental attitude isn’t that hard (thinking it is maybe a sign of a bad one), and just starts with only saying positive things when you go climbing (faking it to make it), like ‘it looks great’ or ‘I can’t wait to climb it’, rather than ‘it scares the crap out of me’ or ‘I think I might die’ (if you’ve made it to E1 the chances of death are slim). This leads to positive thoughts, and it’s best not to focus down on one chock point in your ambition, maybe think about what E2 and E3 you want to do, maybe even try them, before you’ve climbed E1. Think of yourself at the top of the route rather than dead at the bottom, and also try and flip the fear and anxiety into something else, that what you thought of as fear is just excitement! Fundamentally a good mental attitude is developed by building up your climbing route by route, pitch by pitch, move by move, and spot, and addressing your mental weakness creates a better foundation for mental strength (how people talk about themselves is often indicative of how they perform so avoid speaking negatively).
Being a heavy-boned kind of chap I’m not suited to climbing overhanging routes, as I can’t be arsed eating fewer cakes in order to do so (the cakes vs grade equation is an important one), and so I tend to gravitate towards slabby or vertical routes, and scary routes tend to be easier if you’ve got a good head, than more technical well-protected routes. Saying that it’s not a good idea to become a specialist as a climber, such as ‘you lead this, I’m not good at cracks’, as you need to be able to climb everything once you start climbing longer and harder routes, with a hard pitch in Red Rocks for example perhaps having slab, face, cracks, chimney and off-width all in one pitch!
I once had this idea of trying to work out how many routes you’d need to climb to be able to move up a grade, like 50 HVS would lead to E1, and 45 E1s would lead to E2, but it didn’t really make much sense (it was based on the fact someone climbing 9b would only have climbed a few 9a+ routes). But the bottom line is the more quality climbing you do, quality meaning it’s not piss-easy, that challenges you physically and mentally, the better you become. If climbing is becoming stale and you’re plateauing, maybe it’s just not fun anymore, and you’ve lost the hunger and the vitality, maybe you need to stop and change what you’re doing, take up some other sport, a martial art, for example, and return - or not - when you feel that passion return. The issue of stagnation is also tied to having good climbing partners, maybe mixing it up with people better and not as good as you, to see climbing both as a white and black belt. Yes, climbing can just be like going for a run, but really, to work it has to be more than that, and like any long term relationship (be it with a sport or a human being), you need to feel lucky to be part of it.
Is It Worth It?
Yes, you can climb around the world at HVS and never really feel like you’re coasting, especially if you keep challenging yourself on new kinds of rock (almost everything seems like a sandbag outside of your home territory), but breaking out of HVS, and well into 5.10, opens up some really amazing routes, routes like Angels Crest in Squamish, Dream of Wild Turkeys or Prince of Darkness in Red Rocks, Bunny Bucket Buttress in the Blue Mountains, allowing you to get a taste for harder and steeper lines, but without putting in all the effort of really being that good. What about harder than that, 5.11 etc.? Well, you’ll need to ask someone else.