Rock Climbing History – The Story of Climbing Improvement

Ethel Gonzales

You may not be interested in a rock climbing history lesson; you may simply think, “I just want to get better!” But the great thing about history is this: every mistake has been made before, not just once, but again and again. So it makes sense to learn from what didn’t work – and what has worked for other climbers.

Rock climbers have always wanted to get better. In the late 1950s/early 1960s, John Gill was light years better than his contemporaries. However Gill was a lonely visionary. This is not to imply any disrespect; far from it. But his methods didn’t reach a wider audience. He felt that gymnastic prowess could translate into dramatically improved rock climbing performance. Back in 1967, in Ireland, a 14 year old boy (me!) pondered the same argument. Of course, I’d never heard of Gill. People thought he was mad; people thought I was mad. (Perhaps we both were!) He trained on specific problems and traverses. I trained on specific problems and traverses on, of all places, the walls of a disused country cottage. It was out of bounds but within sight of my boarding school. If I’d been seen, I’d have been expelled. It added spice!

By the late 1960s/early 1970s, the rock climbing standard had gone up to 5.11 in the US and the then HXS (about E3) in the UK. Although climbers did a bit of bouldering, they didn’t really train in the modern sense. But then came a breakthrough. In the UK, the charismatic John Syrett went from beginner status to frighteningly good in about a year – climbing almost exclusively at a 4 metre high wall at Leeds University – primeval by modern standards. Brick edges, polished holds, no mats, and an unforgiving landing. At the Leeds wall, there was always the disturbing feeling that you could split your head open. It was rumored that people had.

But it worked. John did the second ascent of the infamous ‘Wall of Horrors’ at Almscliffe. E3/5.11 sounds pretty tame, doesn’t it? Well John did it with protection that we would now find laughable and, believe you me, that wall was shrouded in reputation. It had waited 10 years for a repeat – and not for want of suitors.

John was a climbing genius – sporadic but, at his best, a genius. His amazing breakthrough was noted by a guy called Pete Livesey, who wasn’t a climbing genius but probably was a genius at nabbing anything that worked. Pete had been a national level athlete, running a mile in 4 minutes 1 second – tantalizingly just outside the magical barrier. He’d been an elite white water canoeist and a top caver. But he’d always been stopped from being the best by lack of natural ability. With rock climbing, he realized that the athletic curve wasn’t that high; training (even without natural ability) could push it much higher.

Pete pushed hard – from E3 to E5, i.e. 5.11 to 5.12. Doesn’t sound impressive? Well consider this: Pete could climb British 6b with or without protection. To him, 5.12, 5.12 R and 5.12X were all pretty much the same. Gulp!

After Pete came his protegee, Ron Fawcett, and, after him, Jerry Moffatt and Ben Moon. Jerry got into training big time and got seriously injured by over training/ inappropriate training (a lesson to us all.) So did his mate, Andy Pollitt, who did the then hardest climb in Australia, ‘Punks in the Gym’, 5.14a, after many (20?) days.

Probably the next big advance was made by the underrated Mark Leach, with his 46 day siege of ‘Cry Freedom’, one of the first routes of F8b+/5.14a in the UK. (It’s now thought to be F8c/5.14b.) Leach trained for his projects on them, much as Chris Sharma seems to do today. Interestingly, towards the end of his career, Leach came to the conclusion that it might be better (and more time-effective) to train for projects well away from the projects – typically on climbing walls/cellars/boards. People began to create simulations of specific routes/cruxes and found that it was motivating to go on routes knowing that you’d cranked much harder (but similar) moves in training. This ‘climb hard, train even harder’ approach was taken to its logical extension by the late Wulfgang Gullich on the campus board moves he developed specifically for the first ascent of ‘Action Direte’, the world’s first F9a, 5.14d.

That’s a brief (as brief as it gets!) history of climbing improvement. You may not want to climb 5.14 – or 5.13 – or even 5.12. But the lessons are clear to all of us. Climbing training has pushed the limits from 5.10 to 5.15. Climbing training can be on projects or off them, or – probably best – a combination. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s essential not to get injured by inappropriate training or overtraining. As Gullich said, ” Anybody can get strong. The trick is to get strong and not become injured!”

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