Maybe you’ve heard of James Lucas through his writing for Climbing Magazine. However, if you’d heard of James Lucas before that, chances are you know of him as a dirtbag climber. That’s because James did spend a better part of a decade living out of his car, working odd jobs, and climbing as much as he possibly could.
At this point, you may be wondering, “What could this career dirtbag possibly teach me about training?”
Well, we’ve got news for you. Yes, James did chase the dirtbag dream, but he also LOVES climbing, cares deeply about his performance, and is willing to work hard to reach his goals. With an in-a-day free ascent of El Cap and mid-5.13 sport routes under his belt, James also has an impressive and well-rounded tick list. Now that he lives in Boulder and works full-time for Climbing Magazine, James has turned the majority of his attention to improving his bouldering. As a lover of all things Yosemite, the iconic boulder problem Midnight Lightning was high on his list. Unfortunately, it also felt really hard for him, and James no longer had the months and months of free time to spend in Yosemite Valley. Rather than be deterred, James set out to improve his bouldering so that he could get strong enough to achieve his goal. Sounds a bit like training right?
Well, before you start to picture James chaining himself to the Moon Board, remember this guy did live in a sedan for nearly a decade just so he could climb outside all the time. So, James set out to systematically better his bouldering through doing just that: bouldering outside. A lot. In today’s installment of the TrainingBeta How I Trained For Series, James outlines exactly how he leveraged his love of climbing combined with some well thought-out goal setting to help him train for and eventually send Midnight Lightning (V8).
Before I turn it over to James, I think it’s important to note that when I started the How I Trained For Series I really wanted to share stories of how people trained for their goals and what actually worked. With all the training information available these days it can be easy to forget that the goal is to improve our climbing. Whatever helps you reach your goal or send your dream climb sounds like the perfect training plan to me. Who cares if it doesn’t include the newest hangboard protocol or even a climbing gym? For me, James’ story on Midnight Lightning is the perfect example of a commitment to the training process and a “whatever it takes” approach to reaching your goals. With that in mind, we’ll let James take it from here and, if you like what you see, be sure to listen to James’ episode on the TrainingBeta Podcast where he talks more about his process on Midnight Lightning …
~ Matt Pincus
How I Trained for Midnight Lightning
How to Send A Bouldering Project through Climbing
In the fall of 2015, I flicked on my headlamp as an evening wind swept through Camp 4, clearing out the campfire smoke and cooling the granite. I’d been too insecure to try the problem during the day when other climbers, and the occasional passing school group, could see me struggle. My friend, and the only other person in the campground, Sean Villanueva Driscoll, dug into his backpack as I shuffled the crashpads closer together. He pulled out his flute, letting his digits dance across the wooden pipe. I chalked up a few times, then tried the start moves of Midnight Lightning. I crimped hard, pasted my foot, slapped up, and then fell trying to stick the second left handhold. Sean’s flute echoed, bouncing against the house-sized Columbia Boulder, to the bathroom, and out to the parking lot. I fell just a few hand moves into the problem, despite the cool fall temps and the evening breeze. I just wasn’t good enough. The flute resounded as Sean played the traditional Irish jig, I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave.
In 1978, Ron Kauk jumped to an edge in the middle of the Columbia Boulder. His feet flew off the wall, his hands matched on the sideways lightning bolt hold, and he threw his body right. With just a flat rock protecting his fall, he smeared a high foot and pressed out a committing mantel, making the first ascent of Midnight Lightning (V8).
“We thought there was about as much chance of doing it as there was the chance that a lightning bolt could strike at midnight, like in the Hendrix song Midnight Lightning,” wrote John Bachar in a SuperTopo Climbing post. John “Yabo” Yablonski saw the original line in the center of Yosemite’s climbers’ campground, Camp 4. He mentally connected the crimps and the difficult mantel, excitedly telling Bachar and Kauk about it. The two twenty-one-year-old climbers dismissed Yabo initially, but then they began working the problem, with Kauk doing it first. Then, after a crimp broke on the mantel section, Bachar did it as well. A few years later, Kauk glued the lightning bolt hold to reinforce it. Sitting in the middle of the climbers’ campground, the problem became a test piece for Yosemite climbers.
In the early 2000s, when I first moved to Yosemite Valley to work as a housekeeper at the Yosemite Lodge, I watched El Cap free climbing pioneer Thomas Huber flag his foot, wrap his fingers on the crimp ten feet off the ground, and jump to the lightning bolt hold. As a new climber with my first 5.6 trad lead under my belt, Thomas’ climbing seemed heroic. Coupled with the legends of the Stonemasters climbing the problem, the story of Pete Takeda sending it in the climbing anthology “Pete’s Wicked Tales,” and all the spray from climbers, the problem had an instant mythic quality.
As I wandered through Camp 4 for the next dozen years, I saw thousands of climbers trying the problem. As Stonemaster John Long wrote of the climb in Outside Magazine’s “25 Greatest Moments in Yosemite Climbing History,”
Nearly 40 years after Kauk’s iconic first ascent, on most any summer afternoon, crashpads are stacked like cordwood below Midnight Lightning, and climbers from Switzerland to Shanghai are hurling themselves at Columbia Boulder.
And as the rotation of climbers tried it, they also failed on it, greasing the holds, as a squad of hecklers sat on the logs a hundred feet away. A young Canadian ran laps on it every spring and fall, downing a King Cobra between each lap. Random climbers greased up the first few footholds, climbing it barefoot, and never brushing. It turned into a spectacle, a testament to hard climbing but also a tourist attraction.
By 2017, I’d moved out of my van and to Boulder, Colorado. I’d free-climbed El Capitan’s Freerider (VI 5.13a) in a day, and sent my long-term Yosemite crack project, the 16-move Cosmic Debris (5.13b), but I wanted to feel like an accomplished boulderer as well. Midnight Lightning nagged at me. I’d left without sending it, without even coming close really, in 2015. I decided to make it my next goal. I knew it’d be difficult but achievable. That summer, I climbed two V8s in Rocky Mountain National Park, Skipper D and Left El Jorge.
Tapping the Bolt
In the fall, I returned to Yosemite. I felt stronger than I ever had. On the second day of my ten-day trip, I pulled onto the first few holds of Midnight Lightning. I set-up and tapped the lightning bolt. While I was far from actually latching the hold, it seemed feasible. I waited until that evening, when the boulder was free of crowds, and grabbed a rope. I rapped down the problem. I felt the lightning bolt hold and the moves to the mantel. Matching it seemed hard but doable and getting to the mantel seemed possible. I could conceivably shake out below the next series of moves.
Then I tried the mantel.
I couldn’t pull the move at all. My hips felt low and the move felt hard. It felt like a V5 move. I was stronger than I’d been but I wasn’t strong enough. Unlike my 2015 attempts, however, I didn’t fail on the problem. Instead, I framed it as an instance of learning what I needed to do.
The session on Midnight Lightning showed me a few things:
- I needed stronger fingers to do the moves to the lightning bolt and match it
- I needed to improve my dynamic movement to stick the bolt, and I needed to improve my manteling
- I learned where I was weak on the problem
- It also gave me a frame of reference for how hard it would be to send the problem.
With this knowledge, I did some mental calculations. During my annual fourteen-day vacation, I could climb two-thirds of the days, or ten days. I also needed to factor in a few days of bad weather, and some skin farming. That translated to roughly seven climbing days to send Midnight Lightning. If I waited until the fall of 2018 to return, I would have eleven months to prepare. I also spoke with a number of successful boulderers, including my girlfriend Nina Williams, Carlo Traversi, and local Boulder folk. I noted that most of them send their projects in just a few days with Carlo telling me he would give something five days and if he wasn’t strong enough, he’d come back the next year. It seemed to be a good strategy for bouldering, where strength matters.
By the beginning of 2018, I had established a plan. First, I had a goal of sending Midnight Lightning. I knew how much time I would be able to spend on the problem. I knew the moves and what I needed to be able to do to send the problem. I could train in the gym, do hangboard workouts, and campus. But I’d rarely had success with that formula before. I have minimal patience for that sort of training. However, I love to go climbing, so I planned to achieve my goal simply by climbing.
Working backward from there, I realized I needed to send V8 in just a few sessions, ideally ones that involved finger intensive cruxes. I also needed to get stronger at manteling. Third, I needed to be willing to climb in front of a crowd and be relaxed. I set a goal of sending ten V8s by the time I returned to Yosemite. Additionally, I’d need to practice mantels whenever I could and avoid injury for the next eleven months. I wasn’t sure what to do about my anxiety.
Living on the Front Range of Colorado allowed me to try a lot of problems in a variety of styles on different rock types. If I was going to climb ten V8s, then I knew I’d also need to climb a lot of V7s and V6s. With the local guidebook, I started trying all of the high-quality problems. I checked 8a.nu to see which problems had the most ascents. I scoured YouTube for beta videos. By the time summer rolled around, I had climbed nearly a dozen V7s and one V8. I was bouldering every other day. I also had bought some lightweight photographer lights so that I could climb after work at night.
The alpine bouldering in Colorado is some of the best climbing. During the early season, snow pads many of the landings. The problems tend to be long, power endurance, crimping testpieces. I was sending a lot of 6s and 7s but struggling on harder climbs. To relieve the pressure I was putting on myself of ticking 10 V8s, I added in a sub-goal, something more easily achievable. I would do thirty days of alpine bouldering. The mandatory four miles of hiking coupled with the difficult climbing would certainly get me closer to sending Midnight Lightning. As the days passed, I slowly got stronger. Thirty days turned to forty and then fifty. I was fit as ever. I was also sending harder. By November I had climb nine V8s, nine V7/8, and twenty-eight V7s. I tried to avoid projecting too much. I assessed how my body felt on a regular basis, usually just climbing day on day off. It seemed like the best strategy for long-term increased performance while avoiding overuse injuries.
Just before heading to Yosemite, I traveled to the Southeast with my girlfriend for a couple of work events. I climbed in Stone Fort and then Horse Pens 40 for a few days each. While I’d tried to do mantel moves when I warmed up, Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans, the main zones I climbed at over the summer, lack difficult mantels. With not much time in the Southeast and suspect weather, I focused on climbing as many problems as I could and focused even more on manteling. I also was trying a lot of the more moderate classics, which meant climbing in front of a crew of people. I felt nervous but focused on the climbing. Luckily, many of the climbs were at a moderate grade. I noticed that my anxiety increased as I grew more tired. I’d suddenly become more aware of people talking, or random bad beta while I was climbing. Climbing in the park meant that I often had silence and had little performance anxiety. I dealt with this by simply breathing, acknowledging my nervousness, and being ok with whatever my performance was.
Matching the Lightning Bolt
My first day back in Yosemite, I wondered if I had trained enough. I warmed up, unsure if I should even try the problem as I shuttled six pads to the Columbia Boulder. I worried about making such a big landing. It’d attract other climbers. I tried to relax. I pulled on the first few moves and tapped the lightning bolt hold. I felt noticeably stronger. I quickly set a timer. Resting ten to fifteen minutes between burns allowed me to recover. It also kept me from manically rapid-firing the problem and allowed me to keep track of the number of tries I was putting in. I worked on hitting the lightning bolt hold and a few times, stuck it and almost matched it.
The problem felt within reason if I could work out the mantel. The following day, I ran into a friend who had brought an extendable ladder with him to Yosemite. He’d been working a few problems with the ladder. I propped it against the boulder and climbed up to the mantel, then my friends pulled the ladder away and I tried the move. It took me eight tries before I figured out the hand and foot combination to make the mantel work. I had to push up and then over onto my foot. I spent a little bit of time working the start again. I had all the moves in place. I almost made it to the mantel. There was a real possibility that I could do this boulder.
The Lightning Strike
“Get off the boulder with your bare feet!” my friend Bronson shouted. The tourist had been watching Bronson and me on Midnight Lightning the first day and had pawed at the holds that day. Now, he’d seen enough beta that he was able to smear his greasy feet all over the start. A crew of climbers had collected around the boulder as the man caked the tiny smears and big ledge with foot funk. This was the kind of scene that I’d always associated with the problem.
I rested the following day. Over the summer, I’d lost five pounds from all the hiking. Then through the fall, I gained three back. I’d weighed myself every morning from January until just before my trip to Yosemite, but though I kept a scale in my van, stepping on it in the cold morning seemed a little too much of a commitment. My friend Rob Miller once told me, “What you’ve been doing six weeks before trying your project makes a bigger difference than what you do the day before.” I ate like I normally did, rested, and tried to keep my mind from dwelling on the boulder.
The following day, I woke up early to get good temperatures. At the Wine Boulder, I ran through the warmups I’d been doing for over a decade. I added in a few problems that I’d done less regularly, including the technical arete, Cocaine Corner (V5). I focused on climbing with precise footwork. I also climbed on Tendons Give (V4), moving quickly between the big holds and trying to jump between them. When I felt warm, I shuttled pads to the Columbia boulder problem.
My first try, I fell getting to the lightning bolt hold. I set a timer, brushed the holds and tried to relax. I fidgeted with my video camera. I went to the bathroom. Just a couple of my friends had shown up at that point. Most of them were still warming up slowly. After my fifteen-minute rest was up, I started up the problem. I grabbed the right-hand sidepull, I hit the left handhold and bumped. I adjusted my feet and nailed the lightning bolt hold. My core stayed engaged as I walked my feet through to the mantel. With my feet on the right smear, I pushed my body up and then over my foot. I reached to an edge and casually walked up the slab to the top of the boulder.
Sending Midnight Lightning was cool. More significant to me was figuring out how to set a goal, how to make a plan of action, and to see it through to its execution. I learned a lot about bouldering in the process, what sort of difficulties I may encounter, what some strategies are to achieve better results in my climbing, and how to try hard and send.
Cover Photo: James Lucus on Midnight Lightning | Photo: Dean Fidelman
About the Author
James Lucas works as a senior associate editor at Climbing Magazine. Beyond being an obsessive boulderer, James also likes other things like sport climbing, which he likes to think of as multi-pitch bouldering.