It’s been about 10 months since I’ve been roped up to do some climbing and with that kind of hiatus, it’s hard to know what to expect. Stefanie and I decided to take a short trip to the Gunks in upstate New York–which is unmatched for its autumn beauty and its ability to punish the overconfident climber. This is where I grew up and learned how to hike as a toddler and how to climb as an adult. The grades in the Gunks are notoriously sandbagged. Many climbers get their egos checked when they flounder on “moderate” routes and to be honest, that’s always been my experience. I’ve had my good days on sandstone or limestone but the yardstick by which I measure everything is how well I climb when I am back home.

I’ve climbed a few 5.11 routes in my day–even fewer 5.12s. Those were always red-letter days. I measure my abilities based on how I do when I am at my worst, not my best. I seek to raise my “floor” more than my ceiling. Combine that perspective with the fact that I’ve been riding a desk for the last year or so–and living in Massachusetts (which is not notable in terms of topography) it should come as no surprise that I decided to approach this trip with an expectation of absolutely nothing.

The result was surprising. In a good way.

Day 1

I warmed up on a 5.11 called “Into Thin Hair” despite my initial reservations about the difficulty. I’ve never been able to climb a route of that grade in the Gunks. Ever. My partner Peter Darmi, local climbing legend and audio production sage who actually put up the first ascent, assured me that I could do it–especially since it was on a top rope, so the risk of falling was mitigated. My rejoinder was that he was being taken in by my relative youth and would have make use of that top rope to haul me up the rock face!

I sent it on my second try, then ran several more laps on it.

The weather was beautiful and it was my turn to pick a climb to close out the day. I had a long-standing project called “Le Teton”, a thin and exposed 5.9 (Peter insists that it’s got legitimate 5.10 moves on it and I’m inclined to agree). I had attempted it unsuccessfully several times over the years and these repeated failures had created a mental block for me where I just couldn’t envision climbing through the crux without falling or hanging. It really had psyched me out.

I sent it first go, on lead and felt solid through the crux. The image below was shot once I was through the hard moves and prepared to turn and finish the route up the airy corner. What you can’t see below me is the complete exposure (nothing but air!) that makes the mental difficulty of this route so much greater. You feel like you are dangling in space all through the climb.

rock climbing in upstate new york called le teton

Day 2

Having scratched my “harder climbing” itch, I decided to spend the day with Stef and Lilo–just doing some active recovery–easy bouldering and hiking. Our friend Michael Kurek joined us and shot this photo of me running laps on a boulder problem called “Colorful Crack”

shawangunks in upstate new york hiking and rock climbing

Here’s the significance: I’ve done this climb probably 50 or 60 times. I love this photo because it captures how tall and committing it is. This is not a climb that you fall off of. Period. It’s a mental test piece even though the holds are quite good. In the past I’ve always hesitated at the start–climbing up a ways an sometimes reversing those moves a few times before summoning the will to go for it. This time there was no hesitation. I just went for it, and felt 100% in control.

This climb has always been a yardstick to gauge how prepared I am–and I surprised myself here again by being equal to the task before me. I had several more days of climbing with a new type 1 climbing friend that I made–and if you’ve subscribed to the AdventureRx podcast you’ll be hearing about that in due course!

So why did this trip, which, from a superficial survey should have been lackluster, wind up being so successful? I want to examine several factors that yielded these benefits despite far from ideal training circumstances over the past year.

  • Blood sugar control and diet I’d love to be able to discuss these two topics separately but I believe that they are inextricably linked. I’ve written a lot about how I’ve used the last year of diminished training to focus more closely on my diet, trying a Vegan and Ketogenic diet, ultimately landing on a low carb, high fat approach. I won’t suggest that I know what is best for you–but taking the time to decide which was better for me yielded more energy and more stable blood sugar. Each of my days out climbing on this trip did not require me to eat anything between breakfast and dinner. I could have eaten but I simply wasn’t hungry and my energy was not lacking–so I just kept climbing. No crashes, no burnouts.
  • General fitness- I have mentioned a few times on social media how I have learned to enjoy running and walking–seemingly unrelated to climbing and even counter to high level training for climbing. However, at the level which I am climbing, simply gaining general fitness and cardiovascular endurance holds some benefit. Additionally I have been working on oppositional muscles as a result of injuries in the spring. Obviously injuries are bad–but the motivation to work on muscular imbalance and opposition can be helpful!
  • Hangboarding I hung a So-ill board above my closet door and once or twice a week I make it a point to work out my hands and fingers. I have been doing dead-hangs (not pull ups) on both hands using the larger holds. My target has been getting a solid “pump” and riding the edge of that metabolic curve for 45 minutes or so, 2 times a week, not including warm up and cool down time.
  • Getting creative- Have you ever heard of a rice bucket? It’s just what it sounds like–fill a container with rice and stick your hand in there and work your fingers, wrist, etc and use the simple resistance to build endurance and help injury-proof your joints. I have been working a lot with thera-band flex bars and resistance bands too.
  • Weight loss- Over the last year, my focus on diet and basic fitness has helped me lose 10-12 pounds. I didn’t have that as a goal, but it was an added benefit that certainly improved my ability to hold on longer to smaller holds!
  • Unkinking the hose- Improving at any pursuit is not always about increasing the volume of the “flow”. Certainly it can be, but only after doing everything possible to remove impediments that are putting a “kink in the hose”. Focusing on peripheral factors that I could address without climbing, allowed me to actually improve my climbing a lot. Not being so focused on my climbing allowed me to go in expecting nothing which removed some mental blockage. Getting stronger is not always about getting stronger. It may be as simple as learning to better use the strength you already have.

All of this doesn’t suggest that the key to climbing harder lies in cubicle life. Adaptation, on the other hand may be the real takeaway from this climber in a flat, urban part of the world seeking to improve his abilities. If you’re a solid 5.11 or 5.12 climber than it’s less likely that this post will hold any unturned stones for you. Sorry.

If you’re like me and have had brief moments of 5.12 climbing punctuated by many failures on 5.10s, then it’s possible that we can benefit by stepping back and addressing the context in which we are building our climbing efforts. I look forward to the day that I am able to address the needs of the solid 5.11/5.12 climber in a future blog post!

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