Sport climbing is full of tales of projecting devotion. The plot, however, is usually pretty simple. X climber tried Y climb for Z impressive period of time and persevered through mental and physical challenges to send. Before you gloss over and disregard this article as another stock projecting tale, ask yourself, “When was the last time you read about a send over two decades in the making?”
Today’s installment of the “How I Trained For” Series is about just that. Meet Donn Goodhew. A climber for over 30 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more dedicated to their goals and the process of continual improvement. In today’s article, he chronicles his quest to complete two nemesis Scott Frye routes–Dude at the VRG and Highwater in American Fork–all while living in the Bay Area.
I first met Donn on the day he sent Dude in the VRG. While I shared in his excitement, I had no idea how big a deal that send was and just how much effort was behind it. Everyone at the crag shared in Donn’s send and victory beer, but I figured this was simply because sends don’t happen every day on the Blasphemy Wall. It wasn’t until later that I learned just how special this send really was.
Since that day, Donn and I have stayed in touch. Initially, he offered encouragement as I worked to send Dude myself and, then, progressively more about training and coaching. I first asked Donn to write this article while we were both attending a Performance Climbing Coach Seminar in Tennessee. My thought was that Donn’s story of returning to routes he had nearly sent 25 years earlier and projecting them while living a plane ride away would be a great lesson in perseverance and in the importance of showing up. While this article certainly contains those lessons and they are important, Donn’s description of how he prepared for his Scott Frye Clean-Up tour is much more than that. Rather than just expose the importance of giving yourself a shot to achieve your goals, Donn wrote a retrospective on over two decades spent committed to the process of continual improvement. As a coach, I often preach about the importance of prioritizing long-term development and learning to love that process. What Donn has outlined here depicts that perfectly and is full of useful practices we can all learn from.
I’ll let Donn take it from here. Enjoy and prepare to be motivated.
~ Matt Pincus
During my carefree youth in the early 90s, I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time sport climbing in the West and managed to climb many classic 13a’s and 13b’s that were the basis of any 90’s sport climber resume-routes like Smith Rocks’ Churning in the Wake and Aggro Monkey, the VRG’s Fall of Man, and The New River Gorge’s Apollo Reed.
However, as my attention turned to the upper end of 5.13, my progress slowed. In particular, I had two projects which came to define my close-but-not-quite modality on 5.13c: Dude at the VRG and High Water at the Hell Cave of American Fork, UT. While these routes are quite different in style, they share one common factor: they were both put up by the 90’s powerhouse Scott Frye.
For those that don’t know, Scott Frye is a Berkeley, California based climber who made the transition from the staunch ground-up ethics of the pre-sport climbing era to embrace the modern sport climbing techniques of hang-dogging and rap-bolting. As an itinerant climber in the late 80’s and early 90’s, Frye established numerous cutting edge routes that remain sought after ascents by today’s generation of climbers. Scott’s routes include 3-star gems such as Living in Fear 5.13d and the more attainable but equally classic Beer Run 5.13a in Rifle, California’s early sport climbing test pieces such as Surf Safari 5.13d and Steep Climb Named Desire 5.14a, as well as the aforementioned Dude at the Virgin River Gorge. Any sport climber from the 90’s knew that a Frye route would always be high quality but never an easy tick.
Dude, in particular, caught my eye. The climb takes a proud line up the gorgeous Blasphemy wall at the VRG, tackling a hard bouldery crux down low, followed by the “robot section” of positive but strenuous edges that ultimately lead to a technical shallow dihedral, and finally a balancey slab. Success requires strength, precision, and balance.
During my early-90s visits to the VRG, I managed to work out the beta on Dude. But, being young and cocky, I only went through the upper dihedral a couple of times, dismissing the section as technical but not too hard. As you no doubt have already guessed, when I finally made it through the bottom difficulties on redpoint, the wheels flew off the bus when I got into that techy dihedral. After that high point, the weather turned warm and I left the VRG. As life happens, I did not return for 25 years…
While living in SLC in this same era, I projected the scrappy High Water in the Hell Cave. This route consists of a short 5.11+ intro to a 10-move boulder problem. While back then I was a decent boulderer, I ended up punting a number of times touching the final hold of the boulder problem. Again, life has its flow and I did not close the deal.
Back to the Present
Fast forward about 25 years. While my psyche for climbing ebbed and flowed to some extent during the intervening years, the past 20 or so years living in the Bay Area of California have been a period of high-psyche. With a busy job and family life, I still got after it on the boulders and the sport climbs. I managed to climb past my previous high watermarks (no pun intended) but eventually the progress began to slow. After careful consideration, I decided to hire a coach to help guide me.
With the help of my coaches (initially Justen Sjong and currently Dan Mirsky), I was able to break through my plateau and reach a lifetime goal of climbing 5.14a, which I did at age 48 on the solid endurance route U-Haul at my home crag of Jailhouse.
After achieving that goal and considering what’s next, I set a different and challenging goal of the Frye Clean Up Tour. The idea behind the goal was to go back and redpoint my two old nemeses and fulfill two different desires:
- To broaden my base of 5.13c’s–a grade I always found quite hard.
- To clean up these old projects as an exclamation point to the statement that I’m climbing better than ever.
While these climbs had been in the back of my mind for over two decades, projecting them was going to be made more difficult by the fact that I’d be doing it long-distance, weekend-warrior style where just getting to the base would require a flight, a rental car, and finding local partners. Additionally, since I’m with my son every other week, that leaves me just every other weekend to try these challenging routes.
When I look back on the work I put in to achieve my goal of climbing U-Haul, what stands out is not the specific training as it relates to sets and reps and exercises, but rather the mental practice that was a key part of the training. I knew that the lessons I learned during my campaign to climb 5.14 could be applied toward this somewhat complex new goal. Thus I continued to employ these same physical and mental training constructs as I progressed toward the Frye Clean-Up Tour. On the physical side, a few overarching principles guided my training as defined by my coach and were executed, often in isolation, by me:
- Avoid Injury
- My weekly routines always included some form of antagonistic and core strength aspects to help maintain the health of shoulders, back, elbows, and, to a lesser extent, knees, and hamstrings.
- When in doubt, leave it out. While a coach may prescribe a week’s exercises, they cannot be there daily to monitor my progress and health. Based on my experience, I would tweak the day’s work if warranted. This can be a double-edged sword as it’s easy to misuse it as an excuse to skip hard work. There is no magic way around this conundrum other than reflecting honestly on your current situation.
- It’s hard to overstate the importance of this point. By having a written plan for each gym session, I had a set list of tasks to accomplish. I also knew beforehand how long these tasks should take, which is useful for working within time constraints.
- Consistent and Progressive
- In my mind, this is the single most important point in training. Be consistent. Do the work within the confines of the avoid injury principle.
- Progress the exercises. Again, the coach can’t always be there to guide every aspect of a workout. By recording my workouts, I was able to review previous results to guide the current workout. Progression can come in many forms such as increased load, more reps, or greater density (shorter rests). These progressions should be tailored to the desired outcome, but the key is to progress them over time.
- Vary the Training Stimulus
- Naturally, the progressions in any exercise will slow or even regress at times. This is where a coach can help vary the exercises to continue to advance the desired trait. In general, my program would progress an exercise for 4-6 weeks before switching it up.
- For general strength and core training, there are a wide variety of exercises to fulfill any need. By switching up individual exercises in roughly the same 4-6 week period as the climbing-specific training, my program stayed fresh and interesting.
It wasn’t just about physical preparation.
As mentioned previously, while the physical aspects of training are obviously important, I felt that the mental drills were the true key to breaking my plateau and reaching a new level in my climbing.
While the majority of my training time was spent bouldering on plastic, there was an important lesson taken from pacing drills done on routes in a gym. Essentially, I would find a route with a pumpy section leading to some sort of rest hold (or even just pick an off-route hold if needed) where I practiced getting calm and recovered. To help with this process, I used a heart rate monitor with a watch display so I could see my heart rate change as I tried different techniques for getting calm after a deeply pumpy section.
While this pacing practice certainly helped my physical ability to recover, another important takeaway was finding the appropriate mental state during a rest. A rest is just that, a rest. I learned to forget about what I just climbed and to ignore the upcoming difficulties. As I rested, I learned to focus on my breathing and nothing else.
Furthermore, after a rest, you’ll often need to launch immediately into a hard section. For this, I learned to have an intentional rev-up phase to prepare. Mentally, this is different than the resting phase, and, for me, may take 20-30 seconds of coming out of the rest state and psyching up for the hard section.
The climbing at my local crag Jailhouse is a stop-go style with hard moves punctuated by rests of varying utility. This newly honed ability to stop and go as needed helped tremendously during my U-Haul efforts, and, as I have traveled and climbed in other areas with different styles, I find I can still employ this technique when dealing with the ebbs and flows of effort on any climb.
A simple yet powerful drill was Reflection Bouldering. The theme of intent is woven throughout all of these points, and this drill is a specific example of that. When doing this drill, each effort on a hard boulder problem was followed by an intentional reflection on the move or moves. This meant thinking about the position of hands, feet, ankles, knees, hips–everything really. I found this exercise was best done alone on my quiet garage home wall.
Ultimately, this drill helped me shift my mindset from “I’m not strong enough to do this move” to “How can I position myself to use these holds?” The latter is a far more useful mindset when sussing beta, and it was critical in my new efforts on these old projects.
Use of Rituals and Mantras
As I practiced the mental aspects outlined above, I developed my own mantras to reinforce the concepts. I found this useful as I could incorporate my lessons from training into specific beta on specific routes. With pacing, my mantra was “When you rest, rest. When you go, GO.” This vocalization would be accompanied by a full-body relaxation and tensing at the “rest” and “GO” trigger words. By repeating this mantra just prior to starting up a route, I was able to bring my mental practice into play where it mattered most: on the route.
What follows are two more mantras I continue to employ to help bring the lessons I’ve learned through intentional practice into my performance on rock:
- Detach expectations: “It doesn’t have to feel good.”
- As climbers, we often want to feel in control and strong at all times. Sometimes that is just too much to ask. With this mantra, I’m able to incorporate that less than ideal feeling into my beta.
- Try hard: “Do the move like you FUCKING MEAN IT!”
- On routes, or even boulder problems for that matter, we all know how a move can feel reasonable when dogging, but feel so much harder on link. This mantra is my reminder to really dig in during those fatigued hard moves. Having practiced and reflected with this mantra, I came to be aware of when I was really trying and when I didn’t truly give everything on a move.
- Detach expectations: “It doesn’t have to feel good.”
As anyone who has redpointed a project near their limit knows, the process can be mentally challenging even when done at your local crag. But, when a day of climbing involves airports, rental cars, desert bivies, and finding partners to support the effort, the mental load can be crushing. To manage these challenges, I learned to treat the details of travel just like beta on the route and tuned my efficiency over multiple trips. By making something of a game of it, the little details became fun rather than drudgery.
Besides the aforementioned points, which I embraced as an inevitable part of projecting routes far from home, the single biggest meta-challenge was simply overcoming the fear of failure. There is an excellent book Vertical Mind: Psychological Approaches for Optimal Rock Climbing by Don McGrath and Jeff Elison that devotes an entire chapter to the fear of failure as it relates to climbing. As they succinctly state, “Fear of failure is mostly fear of looking bad in front of other people.”
For each trip, I would have to find psyched partners and, of course, explain why I was traveling from California to battle this route. But, each time I would have to arrive with the knowledge that I may not send, and, in fact, I may not even be able to do the crux moves. Again, this dives deep into the fear of failure as I had to show up in front of people that I may not know, proclaiming to be here to send this route with the distinct possibility that I might not even be able to do the crux.
I finally discovered that the real crux is simply showing up to try.
And, just as suggested in Vertical Mind, the reality of the situation disproved my fear of judgment. Eventually, I came to realize that everyone I had ever climbed with on this Frye Clean-Up Tour was nothing but psyched and supportive. Never during my attempts did they judge me if I failed to do the moves. All those fears were simply inside my head.
Back at the VRG
Having committed to the idea of the Frye Clean-Up Tour, there was nothing left to do but start trying. First up was Dude…
Over the course of the winter season, I made trips to the VRG every other weekend. As my final weekend trip of the season to VRG approached, I knew I had a high chance of success based on the previous trip’s highpoint.
But, as the weekend approached, the weather forecast began to crap out. By Wednesday, it looked certain that Friday night and Saturday would be rainy. I kept my flight but adjusted my plan: train at home on Thursday, rest Friday, arrive as I normally did that night, rest in-situ at the VRG on Saturday, and climb Sunday. I knew one day could be enough to do it so I didn’t panic.
On the redpoint day, I stuck to the plan by warming up and then bolt-to-bolting the route. Sometimes this is daunting, especially when you climb bolt-to-bolt and the individual moves still feel hard. This time was no exception. When I look back at my journal I find this entry which is a great reminder to myself to stick to the plan in the future:
Yesterday was rainy. So just rested. Sunday. Warm-up Brutus, FOM start x2. Then dog up Dude once to refresh.
Refresh felt hard, but I processed that and understood it’s just warm-up.
Conditions perfect. 58 degrees, 40 percent humidity. Windy!
Got through the bottom reasonably well.
Got psyched….got through 6 and 7….thrutch to last good right hand, barely.
Got to slab rest….chilled.
Fucked up the beta in that weird section of corner…persevered.
Clipped dem anchors!
Returning to American Fork
While Dude went down with only a moderate fight, my other Frye nemesis High Water continues to kick and scream against my attempts. Over the years, I’ve gone back to this route and spent a few days here or a week there and generally could get back to my old high point of falling off the final hard move.
As the 2019 High Water season froze to a close (my last weekend there held temps in the mid-30s in the shade), I realized it was time to put the route aside and come back in the spring. Upon reviewing the season’s results with my coach, Dan and I came up with a winter plan that will have me switching gears, to some extent, to get back in touch with my inner-boulderer. Generally speaking, this winter will focus on finger strength, limit bouldering, and intentional practice on plastic and rock. With this preparation, I should be ready to roll for High Water in the spring, and, in general, be ready to continue progressing on both routes and boulders.
The fact that I’m writing this article now, before I’ve even achieved my goal, illustrates the point I’m making. Focus on the process. Tune the process toward the desired outcome. No matter the outcome, the process can feed the joy we find in climbing.
Cover Photo: Rob Jensen
About the Author
Hailing from Omaha, Nebraska, Donn Goodhew began his climbing career while attending college in Socorro, New Mexico over 30 years ago. As the sport climbing era was just dawning in the US at the time, Donn was drawn to the athletic and gymnastic nature of the sport and has been at it ever since. After living in Colorado as well as Utah, Donn eventually landed in the Bay Area of California in 2000, where he’s been ever since. Working as a software engineer for an AI technology company, he raises his son, Lander, trains in his beloved garage gym (affectionately known as The Donn Wall), and frequents local crags such as Jailhouse and Yosemite on weekends whenever possible.