Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson spent seven years working on the Dawn Wall. Chris Sharma needed a multi-season campaign to send Jumbo Love. Nalle Hukkataival spent more than 80 sessions over four years to climb Burden of Dreams V17.
Climbing is full of these epic projecting stories and they don’t all need to contain the world’s best climbers. If you’re a regular at any crag, then you can probably think of some local who tried a route/boulder for seasons before finally sending. For a lot of climbers, this projecting experience of trying something that first felt impossible and eventually succeeding is what climbing is all about. For others, the thought of trying the same climb season after season sounds like the worst thing on the planet. Neither approach is right or wrong; we all get to choose how we want to engage in our sport.
That said, whether you commit to a long-term project, to climbs that only take you a few goes, or something in between, there are some basic principles and a mindset embedded in the projecting process that all climbers should employ. I’d call them good tactics…
What is a Project?
Before we jump into what these basic principles are that make up good tactics, it’s important for us to define exactly what a project is.
In my opinion, a project is simply a climb you try multiple times. This climb can take on a wide variety of magnitudes and durations, but at its core, a project is about the process of trying a climb more than once so you can use the information learned on previous attempts to improve your chances of success.
Clearly, as the examples above illustrate, this process can be carried to an extreme. It doesn’t have to be, though. You can have a day project, a weekend project, a project for a week-long trip, or a project across multiple seasons. How long you choose to engage with a climb is up to you. What is not up to you is the fact that all sends anywhere near a climber’s current limit require multiple attempts.
Who Should Project?
Ok, now that we’ve established that a project is simply a climb that you try multiple times, the next logical question is, “Who should be projecting?” Is it a process reserved for the climbing elite? Is there a minimum grade you must climb to be allowed on the projecting ride?
In my opinion, these are inherently silly questions. When you use our above definition combined with the fact that we know pushing your personal limits requires multiple attempts, I’d say everyone should be projecting.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all of us need to bite off a seven-year project. In fact, I would say that most climbers shouldn’t engage with long-term projects of any kind. What I am suggesting, however, is that if you shy away from “projecting” because you feel like you haven’t reached some imaginary required level, then you’re robbing yourself of the immense amount of learning that occurs when you try a climb more than once.
The Projecting Mindset
So far we’ve defined projecting and who should do it. With our answers of “it’s simply trying a climb multiple times” and “everyone,” the next step is to establish what our priorities should be when giving a rock climb multiple burns.
Obviously, the main goal when trying any rock climb is to send, meaning you do the climb without falling. The send is the outcome, however, and I think it’s best to think of projecting as the process that can take you from feeling like a particular climb is impossible to sending. No matter how long this process ends up taking, the key component that makes projecting work is that you learn each try and apply what you’ve learned each attempt in an effort to make the next try more successful. This approach of being open to learning from attempt to attempt is what I’d call the projecting mindset.
What we are going to talk about for the rest of the article are simple tactics, strategies, and techniques that help make this process of learning as efficient as possible as you work towards a send.
It’s easy to look at the examples I opened this article with or watch videos of Adam Ondra sending the hardest routes in the world and think, “Wow. They are just so strong and amazing at climbing.” Those statements aren’t wrong, but it’s important to remember that you are only seeing the finished product. What’s left out is all the hard work that went into getting to that point.
The more I coach and teach clinics to climbers who haven’t really experienced the projecting process before, the more I realized how surprised many climbers would be if they saw even the world’s best climbers on their first time up a route or first time trying moves on a hard boulder. Remember it’s a process and the initial attempts don’t have to look anything like the finished product. What follows are what I consider the projecting basics. They could also be called good tactics, and learning them is simple and will make you a more efficient climber.
First Attempts Are for Beta
One key to efficient projecting is to learn as much as you can about a route or boulder as quickly as possible. Whether you are trying to do a route second try, in a weekend, or eventually, the first step is to learn the beta as quickly and efficiently as possible. With this goal of accelerated learning on a route, your first go should be all about finding the holds, unlocking the sequences, finding rests, and learning the clips.
This is one of the main areas where a lot of climbers get hung up and sabotage their efforts, especially in sport climbing. As I mentioned above, your first go on a route doesn’t have to look anything like a send to mean you’re capable of doing it. In fact, if this route is actually going to require more than a go or two, there’s a good chance you’ll be falling all over it, and that’s fine. Rather than always pulling off the ground for your first try on a route and trying hard until you fall, a better approach is to set your intention for the attempt while you’re still on the ground. Is this route something you feel like you have a legitimate chance of climbing first try? If yes, then pull on and don’t let go until gravity rips you off the wall. If no, then be smart about it and go bolt to bolt learning the route.
Assuming that you’ve settled on the bolt-to-bolt approach, it’s important to try to do this while expending as little energy and skin as possible. This means you should definitely experiment with different sequences in an effort to refine your beta and find the most efficient way through each section. When doing this, however, avoid making lots of big links on the first try. They may feel good and boost your confidence, but they are tiring and even if they are massive they don’t count as sends. Save that energy for another go where you can leverage all you’ve learned on this first beta reconnaissance mission.
Now, while you’re up on a sport climb, there’s nothing that says you have to do every section on lead while learning the route. Remember, the goal is simply to find the holds and piece together a sequence. This means you should take advantage of all the tactics at your disposal. Going in straight to a bolt and clipping up to the next one so you can try a section on top rope is completely fair game. If you can’t reach the next bolt, you can even send down a loop of rope while clipped in straight to pull up a stick clip.
Trying a section with the next bolt pre-clipped does a couple of things. First, it lets you pull up the rope to inspect the section and find the holds. This can cut down dramatically on wasted efforts trying with bad beta. Additionally, it can make the whole experience much less scary. For many climbers, a lot of the fear that can come with lead climbing is the result of having to launch into the unknown. First trying hard sections with the next bolt pre-clipped ensures that you can figure out your beta and where you’ll eventually clip before having to face the prospect of climbing each section on lead. Personally, I tend to give any section I stall out on at least two attempts on lead before looking for a way to get the next bolt pre-clipped, but that’s definitely not a hard and fast rule. Do what works for you and remember that these tactics are accepted and used at all levels of climbing, and there’s definitely no shame in using them.
Now that you’ve used all these tactics to efficiently get up a route and have unlocked the beta, there’s one other crucial step, and that’s committing this beta to memory. This is a skill that takes practice, but a good place to start is by visually reviewing each section and mentally running through the beta while having your partner lower you slowly. Eventually, if a climb is going to take more than a couple of tries, you’ll want to memorize every hand and foot move, but this can be too much at first. Start by memorizing the crux and any other critical/tricky sequences.
While the tactics outlined in this section mostly apply to working sport climbs, we can apply the same principle of using tactics to speed up your learning of the beta to bouldering as well. Power spots through hard moves, stacking pads to reach higher holds, and even portable ladders are all common tactics used by seasoned boulderers to ensure they can figure out the beta as quickly and efficiently as possible. No matter what style of climbing you’re engaging in, the important message here is that you do whatever you can to accelerate the learning process.
Planning Your Climbing Day
If you’ve never had a projecting mentality before, how you structure your climbing day can be confusing at first. The most important thing to remember is to have a plan. This doesn’t have to be a route by route or boulder by boulder outline of your whole climbing day, but you should have a rough outline of what you want to climb. When planning out your day, here are two rules to keep in mind:
Warmups Are for Warming Up
This may sound like common sense, but I see climbers mess it up all the time. When you are going into a climbing day with a projecting mentality, the only role of the warm-up is to get you ready physically and mentally to try hard on your project. That’s it.
This means warming up too little or too quickly are both mistakes. The key is not to have an ego on your warmups. If pushing through to get to the chains is going to be too much effort too early in the day, say take and avoid getting flash pumped. If you’re bouldering and your fingers aren’t warm enough to pull on the crux crimp of the warmup, drop off and continuing warming up more gradually. In both instances, being smart about your warmup ensures you don’t sabotage the rest of your session by doing too much too fast. Sure, you might not get to send the warmup, but are you going to be more psyched that you always send your warmups or that you eventually send your project?
It’s also worth noting that the opposite is also true. You can warm up too much. Remember the idea is to get ready to try hard on your project – not to get tired before ever getting on it.
Ultimately, how much and how difficult of a warmup you need takes some trial and error to figure out and it can be different for different climbs. Just remember that when you go into a climbing day with a projecting mentality, putting high quality effort into that climb is your main goal for the day, which brings me to my next point…
Most to Least Intense
In general, once you are warmed up you want to structure your climbing day as moving from more difficult to easier climbs. This means that the obvious place in the day for your project, which is likely the most difficult thing you plan on trying that day, is right after you complete a thorough warmup. At this point in the day, you’re the freshest you’re going to be and are also primed and ready to try hard. Put your efforts into your project and focus on learning as much as you can. After you give the quality efforts you have the energy for, you can drop the intensity and climb on something easier if you still have more energy/skin to give.
How Long to Try a Project
Now that we’ve established that everyone could be approaching climbs with a projecting mindset and covered how to make the initial process of doing so as efficient as possible, the next logical question is how long you should try a project for.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the most straightforward question to answer, as it depends on the climber, their climbing history, and the climb itself. That said, I think I can give you some basic guidelines and advice.
How Long to Keep Trying: Days, Weeks, Years?
Remember those examples we opened the article with? It’s important to remember that you don’t need to commit to trying a climb for that long to approach something with a projecting mindset. You can and should apply this growth mindset to your climbing, even if you are only trying to do a route or boulder second try.
Things get a bit tricky and it can get harder and harder to stay open to learning the longer you try a single climb, as our own expectations can cloud our ability to keep an open mind. Ultimately, how long you stick with a route or a boulder is up to you. That said, important questions to ask yourself are:
- Are you making progress?
- Are you having fun?
- Is this climb a big step up for you or have you built a good base to support your efforts?
The first two questions here should be pretty self-explanatory. If you are continuing to make progress and are having fun, then go ahead and keep trying. If you stall out in either of those categories, it’s time to move to the third question.
If the climb you’re trying is more than a letter grade or a v-grade harder than anything you’ve ever tried before and you’ve stalled out for more than a couple of days, it’s probably time to take a step back and build up to it. Think of working up to new grades as building a pyramid. You’re going to want to have a good base of climbs completed 3 to 4 grades below your target grade.
These aren’t hard and fast rules that say something like you can’t even try 11a until you’ve climbed at least five 10ds. Think of it logically, though. We gain experience through completing climbs. 5.11a is going to feel like a big jump if you’ve only ever sent 10a before. However, if your route pyramid looks more like this, it’s going to feel like the next logical set rather than a big jump:
10c, 10c, 10c
10b, 10b, 10b, 10b
10a, 10a, 10a, 10a, 10a
The last thing I’ll mention here is that while it can be tempting to just jump into the projecting deep end and get to work on your dream grade, building a pyramid similar to the one above is a much better approach and it comes with the added benefit of getting to send along the way.
How Long to Try on a Given Attempt
Obviously, this applies mostly to routes where you’ll be up on the route working things out for an extended period of time. There are two main concerns to keep in mind here:
- Your energy levels
- The happiness of your belayer and others at the crag
In terms of your own energy levels, when working a route don’t keep trying to the point you fatigue and your technique breaks down. Once you’ve given the quality attempts you have in you for a go, come down, rest, and try again later or another day. This rule applies even if you haven’t made it to the top of the route. Remember, when you are approaching a climb with a projecting mentality, the goal is to learn the route so you can apply that knowledge to future efforts. If you’ve fatigued to the point that you aren’t climbing effectively anymore, then you aren’t really learning anything useful, are you?
The second point is maybe even more important. We all want to send and it’s easy to get sucked in and start obsessing over your project. Just remember that even though you consider it your project, the climb doesn’t belong to you and it’s not just your climbing day. Be considerate of your belayer and others waiting to get on the same route. Everyone is entitled to their tries and the best policy here is simply to be open with communication. If you’ve been up there for a while, be willing to come down. Chances are it’ll be better for you anyway.
More Advanced Tactics
In this article, we’ve covered what I would consider the components of the projecting mindset and what I would consider the basic tactics that everyone should use when approaching projects. If you’ve noticed a sport climbing lean to this discussion, you’re not wrong and that’s just the most common climbing style where I see these tactics employed–and also messed up by people the most. Everything we’ve covered in this article, however, can also be applied to other kinds of routes and boulders. The important takeaway is that while projecting can seem overwhelming or unapproachable at first, the underlying mindset is central to improving as a climber. No matter how long you end up investing in a climb, if you can bring a learning focus mindset to your climbing you’ll be heading in the right direction.
That said, the more invested you get in harder and harder climbs, the more complex the process can become. We’ve really just covered the basics here, and there are many more nuanced approaches to getting climbs done. Here are two articles from the TrainingBeta blog that illustrate two different approaches to projecting. They again are both written mostly about the process of working sport climbs, but the processes they describe can be adapted to any type of project:
Finally, it’s important to note that neither Dan or Danny’s approaches need to be adopted completely. It’s ok to develop your own process. Adopt what you find helpful and skip what doesn’t resonate with you. The critical thing is that you understand completing climbs is a process and you have a thought out and deliberate approach. Hopefully, this article gave you the information you need to start developing a process for yourself.
Cover photo: Sam Elias climbing in the Red River Gorge | Photo: Matt Pincus | @mpincus87
About The Author, Matt Pincus
Matt is a boulderer and a sport climber from Jackson, Wyoming. He spends most of his time on the road living out of his van. Matt is responsible for most of the blog posts and social media posts for TrainingBeta and is our head trainer. He’s a seasoned climber and coach who can provide you with a climbing training program from anywhere in the world based on your goals, your abilities, the equipment you have, and any limitations you have with time or injuries.
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