Transitioning from Bouldering to Sport Climbing: 5.9 to 5.14

It’s Neely here, and today I have the distinct privilege of introducing TrainingBeta’s content manager, Matt Pincus, as our featured author of this article. Matt is a psyched and accomplished climber, and he’s put a lot of time and thought into his training. In the coming months, you’ll be reading more from him about his various areas of wisdom, starting with how he successfully transitioned from bouldering to route climbing and went from being terrified on 5.9 to sending 5.14 in a short amount of time.

Enter Matt Pincus…

I know this sounds completely ridiculous, but I can honestly say I climbed V11 before I led 5.10.

Now I know what you’re thinking: this can’t possibly be because of anything other than that I only chose to go bouldering. While there is definitely a bit of truth to that, I can also say that when I did finally decide to go sport climbing, 5.11s felt hard, 5.12s were projects, and 5.13 seemed like a pipedream.

Sport climbing felt like a completely different sport and, while some amount of success came relatively quickly, it took years before I ever felt like I was climbing as well on a rope as I did on the boulders.

(Matt Pincus | @mpincus87 on Ghost Moon 5.13d; photo credit: Hayden Kennedy)

For some people, the transition from bouldering to sport climbing seems to be very straightforward. However, I am sharing my story because I now truly love sport climbing and can’t imagine going back to exclusively bouldering. Hopefully, if you are a boulderer struggling on a rope or avoiding route climbing all together, my experiences will give you some tips to help make this transition as easy as possible.

Back Story

I started climbing as a boulderer and right away my goals were to get stronger and work my way through the bouldering grades. None of that happened right away, but after 4 years I climbed my first V10 and quickly followed this up with my first V11 and several other double-digit problems.

(Matt Pincus climbing his first V10, Babies with Rabies; photo credit: Hayden Miller)

Achieving these goals was amazing and made me feel like I had taken my climbing to the next level. However, while these jumps in difficulty were happening for my bouldering, I also took my first sport-climbing trip to Rumney, NH.

During the two days we spent climbing at Rumney, I was completely gripped and felt entirely out of place. When I tried some of the 5.12s on the Waimea Wall, I was totally out of my league. I was overwhelmed and frankly terrified. Not only was I afraid of falling while I was on lead, but I was scared to even try routes because leaving the ground meant having to get to the anchors so I could retrieve my quickdraws.

Shortly after this failed attempt at sport climbing, I headed west with some college friends to ski for the winter in Jackson, WY.

Process of Improving

While my desire to ski powder every day took precedent over climbing for the first six months I lived in Wyoming, I kept climbing in the local gym and was psyched to get outside as soon as spring hit.

However, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of developed bouldering around Jackson so we headed straight to Lander, WY for some limestone sport climbing. I warned my two friends who had seen me bouldering in the gym that “I wasn’t that good on a rope.”  Although they laughed it off saying I would be fine, they were singing a different tune after they watched me flail and hang all over their 5.11 warm up.

Although this was another demoralizing experience, I wanted to keep climbing outside and, with sport climbing as the only available option, I decided to stick with it and try to get better.

Over that first summer in Wyoming, I bumped my hardest redpoint up from 5.9 to 5.13b. While I felt like I had come a long way, it was just the beginning of years’ worth of effort to keep gradually improving my route climbing and trying to feel less out of place at the sport crag.

This process is definitely still ongoing, but I am proud to say that, through nothing other than sticking with it, last summer I climbed my first 5.14 and complete a lifetime climbing goal by doing so.  This article is not a definitive guide for how to climb 5.14, but it does outline exactly what helped me improve my sport climbing game.

(The author on Single Cell 5.13b; photo credit: Savannah Cummins | @sav.cummins)

Tips for Switching Styles

First and foremost, I think it is important to acknowledge that different styles of climbing require completely different skill sets. While it’s all still climbing, being a strong boulderer doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed right away on routes and vice versa.

Because of this, I think it is extremely important to adopt a beginner’s attitude whenever you are switching to a completely new-to-you style. Accept that you may not succeed right away and instead of letting this hurt your ego, see it as an opportunity to learn new skills and improve as a climber.

(The author climbing one of his first major sport projects, Renaissance 5.13b in Jackson, WY | Photo: Grant Watkins)

Obviously this is easier said than done, but I can honestly say that once I committed to simply learning how to sport climb, rather than being frustrated by falling off routes I felt should be within my ability (and feeling the need to let everyone at the crag know I was actually a strong boulderer), I started having more fun.

To help out anyone who is trying to transition from bouldering to sport climbing, here are some of the things that helped me the most when I look back on it.

Climb A Lot of Pitches

This one seems like it should be relatively obvious, but volume and repetition are the keys to learning anything new.

When I first started heading outside to sport climb consistently, I was used to the pace of going bouldering where I would focus almost all my efforts for the day on climbing my project. So the idea of simply getting in a lot of volume climbing was completely foreign to me.

However, I cannot emphasize enough that at least initially you should try to forget about the grades and simply climb a lot of pitches. For me, this was the easiest way to start preventing my ego from affecting my performance. Instead of climbing on a project and being upset that there wasn’t a larger number attached to it, I was able to start focusing on simply trying to climb efficiently on a rope. I would literally have days where I never tied into anything harder than 5.11, and, while this didn’t make me “stronger,” it did help my technique and was great for my head.

(Climber:Matt Pincus | @mpincus87 | Route: When I Was a Young Girl 5.13a Wild Iris, WY | Photo: Dusty Rasnick)

A great way to force yourself to focus on volume is to set goals for the number of pitches you’d like to climb in a day. It doesn’t even matter if you send the pitches or not. The important part is that you are going through the process of tying in and leading them.

Simply having the goal to climb 9, 10, or even 11 pitches in a day will help you shift the focus away from trying something “hard” and give you lots of time to practice your technique and learn to climb efficiently rather than trying to boulder your way up routes.

Practice Taking Falls

Now this is a big one…

Like it or not, climbing above a bolt is downright terrifying initially for most people. The first thing to remind yourself is that it is normal to be scared at first and that even the 5.14 crusher repeatedly taking massive whippers down the wall from you was probably terrified at first too.

Ultimately, there has been a lot written out there about overcoming the fear of falling, but I think the best resource is Dave MacLeod’s book 9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes. Though the book is filled with all kinds of very helpful information, I really appreciated MacLeod’s suggestion that the only way to get over the fear of falling is to practice taking falls.

(Taking the whip off the top of Samsara 5.13b, Sinks Canyon, WY | Photo: Darren Flacker)

Essentially, MacLeod suggests that, in a safe situation, you start out taking falls where you aren’t even above your bolt yet and then gradually work your way up to taking progressively larger and larger falls. While it may seem silly to practice falling, doing so definitely helps you get comfortable falling on lead.

Putting the time into no longer being afraid of falling, even when well above the last bolt, was probably the most important thing I did in transitioning to rope climbing. Being able to confidently climb on lead took the stress out of going sport climbing for me. Instead of secretly dreading my next day out, I was finally able to head out for a day of sport cragging excited to try my hardest.

This mental shift was huge as it let me engage in rope climbing the same way I did bouldering. Rather than being perpetually scared, I was excited for the challenge.

Set Goals Just Like You Do When Bouldering

This tip may sound like the exact contradiction of my advice to focus on volume and not grades, but once I had gotten over my crippling fear of falling, it was the next logical step for me.

For me, bouldering was always a very goal-oriented activity. It was never enough to simply head out for the day and climb a few moderates. I always had projects and was committed to doing whatever it took to complete them. For better or worse, this goal-oriented challenge is how I define myself as a climber and how I measure success and failure.

Taking this approach and applying it to my route climbing was when the real shift occurred for me. By having goal routes and projects, my days at the sport crag changed.  Instead of feeling like I was out sport climbing because that was the only outdoor climbing available, I started attaching as much meaning to my route projects as my bouldering goals.

(The author on the final crux of Ghost Moon 5.13d, Wild Iris, WY | Photo: Hayden Kennedy)

Now when I think of my goals for the year, they aren’t simply a list of increasingly difficult boulder problems. Instead, I break the year up into periods where I want to focus on either routes or boulders and write down specific goals for each season.

Personally, I find it most effective to make my goals specific routes or boulders rather than just achieving certain grades. Wanting to climb certain grades definitely informs my goals, but I always choose actual rock climbs to accompany the numbers. I find this not only informs my training, but also makes me really commit as the goals are much more concrete.

Train for It 

Finally, my last piece of advice addresses the physical side of things. Like it or not, bouldering and sport climbing have different physical requirements and muscles trained to put forth maximal effort for 3 to 12 moves are not conditioned for sustained efforts over the course of an entire route.

Once I finally stop relying on the crutch that I was “strong enough to do all the moves” and instead started training for what was actually required to climb my goal routes, I started seeing much bigger increases in my sport climbing level.

This doesn’t mean that I simply stopped training hard moves and just focused on endurance. Instead, I kept on hangboarding and limit bouldering, but introduced some energy system work, ARCing and treadwalling, as well as some high intensity power endurance circuit training. My goal with these shifts was to stay strong and powerful, but also address the glaring weakness of getting pumped so quickly.

How and why exactly I changed my training could be an entire article on its own and coincidently is the next article I’m working on for TrainingBeta. However, for now, suffice it to say that I didn’t completely overhaul my training. Instead, I see these changes as tweaks I made as the result of honest self-evaluation of my strengths and weaknesses.

(Matt Pincus climbing Training Wheel 5.13b, Lander, WY | Photo: Liz Schafer)

While I still enjoy my limit bouldering sessions the most, only focusing on doing short sequences of hard moves wasn’t going to help me reach my goals on a rope. If you truly want to transition from sport climbing to bouldering or really from any style to another, then honestly look at what is holding you back and address it in your training.

I really can’t stress this point enough. All of the above points about shifting my mental game and focus were extremely important. However, once I got comfortable climbing on a rope, I was still getting pumped and falling. I wasn’t failing because I was scared or because I was climbing particularly inefficiently. Simply put, from a physical perspective I was still a boulderer trying to sport climb. No amount of mental repositioning is going to change that physical reality.

I am still constantly applying this process of honest self-evaluation to my climbing in an effort to pinpoint my strengths and weaknesses. These insights will always be how I inform my training decisions. Learning to use this process is an important step for all climbers looking to improve – not just those switching between disciplines.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, anyone looking to change up their climbing discipline finds these tips helpful. There’s obviously a lot more that goes into effectively climbing hard on a rope, and I am actively still trying to improve and become a better route climber.

However, I can confidently say that through devoting myself to the process, I am a much better climber on a rope now than I ever have been before. While ticking my first 5.14 definitely fulfilled a life goal (and made for a catchy article title), this overall improvement is much more important to me. When I go to a new sport crag, I no longer feel totally out of place and know that if I stick with it I will be able to climb harder and harder routes.

If I can leave you with one final take away, it’s that I truly believe that the strategy of adopting a beginner’s attitude coupled with honest self-evaluation about what is holding you back is a recipe for success, no matter what new skills you are trying to learn. TRY HARD!

Cover photo: Matt Pincus on Make It a Double 5.13a, The Finns, Id | Photo by: Jonathan Siegrist

About The Author

Matt Pincus is a boulderer and a sport climber living in Jackson, Wyoming, and sometimes in his van on the road. He’s responsible for most of the blog posts and social media posts for TrainingBeta. He’s constantly changing and tweaking the ways he trains as he learns new things. Always motivated, you will find Matt underneath his current project doing his best to figure out what he needs to send.

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By | 2017-09-18T06:37:29+00:00 March 22nd, 2017|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Jeremiah Harris July 17, 2017 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Amazing article. I have the opposite problem that as I go bouldering I feel weird not having the rope to catch me but I’m trying to improve. I’ve aslo created an iOS app called Ascend for tracking your climbs so you can watch your progress and learn your strengths and weaknesses better. I’d love to hear your thoughts. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id1227139085

  2. Michael Johnson June 30, 2017 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Wow do I relate to this article. Im totally relearning how to climb. It’s been a fun process putting the ego in check, but still struggle with the endurance and power endurance

  3. John March 23, 2017 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    This is a super helpful article! Usually when I see this title I assume it’ll just say do a month of 4×4’s or circuits and you’ll be good. But this is very comprehensive and takes more than endurance in to account.

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