Helen’s Tips for Climbing Trips

Helen Sinclair High above Yosemite Valley

By Helen Sinclair

It’s summer (in the US anyway) and a lot of climbers are either out on climbing road trips or planning one for the fast approaching fall temps. If you’re not, you should be. It’s time to amp up your training, pull out your guidebook, fix up your van, negotiate time off, or better yet, quit the 9-5 all together. Here are a few tips that work for me when I am on a climbing trip:

1) Plan

Planning a trip on a macro scale, such as the country, traveling distances between crags, and correct season is important. Otherwise you may find yourself on a 14-hour car journey across Australia in search of Arapilies with 3 climbers and gear all crammed into a 3-door Holden Barina without air conditioning in 40+ degree (110°F) heat thinking, wow Australia is a big country, it didn’t look that far on the map.

Use guidebooks, ask people who have been there, and research on the internet for things that you may need to hike/travel to the climbing area. This could range from bringing your own water to knowing that there is a well-stocked climbing shop, bar, or supermarket located within walking distance from the crag or camp.

On a micro scale, choosing which crag to visit on which day, what time of day, and in what weather is important to get the most out of your climbing trip. Consider shade, sun, rain, wind direction, and approach. Plan ahead when to start. You may want to get up early to beat the sun or if it’s a long approach. Find close crags for those late start, cruzy days. Plan a good mix of early days, relaxing days, easy climbing, and hard climbing.

I often end up climbing with others who do not climb at the same level of difficulty. I’ve had to learn that dragging my “new” friend who has been climbing for only six months to a steep, dark, shady cave with nothing under 27/5.12c is, perhaps, not the best way to get my “new” friend to continue climbing with me in the future. Ask your group where and what they want to climb. Read the guidebook and pick locations where there is something for everyone. Sounds simple enough, but when you’ve traversed the edge of a mountain covered in gorse (spiky New Zealand weed) or brambles looking for a crag you were told about in the pub the night before, and finally find the crag with dubious bolts and nothing to climb under grade 26 (5.12b) in blazing sun, you will learn that attention to such detail is important.

Ian King on Werk Supp (5.9) in Eldorado Canyon, CO. Photo by Kevin Riley.
Ian King on Werk Supp (5.9) in Eldorado Canyon, CO. Photo by Kevin Riley.

2) Partners

Normal people don’t go climbing without a partner. Treat your partners with honor, respect, and tolerance. You will be responsible for each other’s lives. You will know some partners intimately. You may have traveled with them before. Others you may only know from post work climbing sessions and will discover all sorts of new things about them.

Choose your partners carefully. A mismatch could end up being detrimental. Know your partners as well as you can and be honest with each other. Discuss what you know and what you don’t know. Don’t wait until you are five pitches up on El Cap to tell your partner you have never jumared before. Ensure you know what your partner can climb across all types of rock, not just the hardest grade they’ve climbed.

One evening I took a partner I just met up a quick 3-pitch 19 (5.10ish) rock climb. He told me he definitely could climb it. I thought nothing of it. Turns out my newfound partner had not been climbing in years. He struggled with the climbing and cleaning gear was totally foreign to him. When we topped out in the dark he looked like he had stared death straight in the eyes. I returned to the route the following day to retrieve my gear vowing to ask more questions of new partners in the future.

3) Goals

Set goals, but don’t get hung up on them. Too often climbers come away from a trip unfulfilled having only seen one patch of rock. Difficult projects are often best left to home crags, unless you have unlimited time and funds.

I once decided I was going to climb my age on a particular trip. (In the NZ and Australian grading systems this is somewhat attainable in your 20’s, after that it’s all downhill.) I spent the majority of the trip studying the minute detail of 15-vertical meters of rock and saw little else. My first attempts on the climb were my best. Then I wore myself out trying it over and over, psyching up for it and putting huge pressure on myself. I had to get it before leaving, but inevitably time ran out.

In contrast, the best trip I ever took came when I went climbing with the attitude, I have limited time so I will treat this as a training trip. I removed the pressure and I could relax and enjoy the rock. I ended up going home with my biggest tick list ever and had a ton of fun doing it.

4) Choosing grades and climbs

Much to the amusement of myself and fellow Yosemite locals, I have watched many a Europeans get spat off climbs ten grades lower than what they climb at home. In a new place the rock, conditions, and body movements are unusual, or the gear placements are difficult, or simply it’s a case of climbing culture shock and it’s hard to focus. An extreme example of this are the foreign mountaineers who travel to New Zealand’s mountains assuming our tiny 3000m peaks can be easily knocked off. They discover isolation, difficult approaches, unpredictable and dangerous weather, and no catered chalets. In some cases this has been fatal.

Start out with low grades, warm-up, and don’t expect to crank out your ‘hardest-grade-ever’ without a bit of work. Grades in guides are just that, a guide, to be taken as a rough estimate of difficulty relative to the area. They may or may not be comparable to your grades at home; however, it does give climbers something to talk about.

Helen Sinclair bouldering with friends at Flock Hill, NZ.
The author bouldering with friends at Flock Hill, NZ.

5) Test out the rock/absorb the environment

Have a practice day.

Climb much lower than your grade.

Warm up for the whole morning or the whole day.

Repeat climbs.

6) Eat & drink right

For most, a climbing trip and a vacation are one and the same. Eating all sorts of interesting, dubious, fat-loaded, sodium-induced, sugar-full food, drinking alcohol, and over indulgence are all part of the package. This definitely comes at a priceYou have heard it before; the healthier you eat, the fewer hangovers you have, the better you climb. Find a balance between the indulgences that give you the most out of the climbing trip.

Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to this rule. There are climbers out there who can drink all night and can climb hard on a hangover after a breakfast of pies from the local petrol station (in New Zealand) or a breakfast of gas station hotdogs (in the USA).

7) Stretch & yoga

You are either a yoga-climber-type or you are not. For me, you can not win yoga, nor can you get to the top of it, Therefore, I am a non-yoga-climber-type. However, the best climbers (always with exceptions of course) employ a combination of flexibility and strength in their climbing. I grudgingly participate in yoga sessions and stretching in the camp and feel remarkably better for it, possibly recover faster, and prevent injuries. Science is yet to provide solid evidence of the benefits, but most research suggests stretching and yoga are beneficial and do make you feel great. I am fully convinced my ability to utilize crazy footholds very high or out to the side can be directly credited to yoga, so practice while you are on your trip.

8) Rest

How can we possible rest with so much rock and so little time?!

For some, rest days are looked forward to and enjoyed. For me (obsessive-compulsive-climber-type), they are an unfortunate, but necessary, interruption in the climbing that I would rather be doing more than any other activity.

However, what is the point if you can’t pull any more? Rest is not optional, it is a requirement to climbing your best so you may as well make the most of it. For a lot of climbers – myself included – it is the rest days where climbers will get themselves into all sorts of trouble, varying from abseiling into Harwood’s Hole* and not being able to get out for about 36 hours to getting blind drunk and throwing full gas canisters into open fires at 2am.

It is the rest days where guidebooks are pored over and grand plans for multi-day-big-wall-highly-optimistic-way-beyond-all-abilities-plans are hatched. More often than not these plans are modified sensibly at the point of implementation. For some – myself included – these plans are adhered to and on the days following rest days a climber will find themselves balanced between a rock and a hard place quite literally wondering what the f@#% they were thinking while safely drinking coffee on flat ground the day before.

Plan something fun on rest days. Don’t forget a world exists outside of rock climbing. See the sights. So many times I have returned from a trip and been asked, so what did you do? by a non-climber and I’m not able to say anything other than, we just went climbing.

* Read the entire story: http://www.helensinclair.com/climbing.html

9) Bad weather and rainy days

This has been, by far, the most challenging aspect of any trip that I have ever had to deal with. The weather has let me down and disappointed me so many times. Be prepared for bad weather and have a plan B.

In the USA often you can drive somewhere else with better weather. Plan for an alternate destination in case the weather is bad. You could also pick a destination with reliable weather. This does not always work. I have been rained out in Las Vegas quite a few times. (PLEASE be respectful of climbing on sandstone and any desert rock after the rain. It’s 48 hours in Zion and Red Rocks. DON’T climb wet sandstone. DON’T climb wet sandstone. Got it? Right. Moving on.)

Here’s a crazy idea. Have an alternate sport. New Zealand climbers usually have a kayak, bike, and/or surfboard with them on climbing trips, because you just have to do something else in the rain. Personally, I run. Running is not for everyone, but you can do it in any weather.

10) Have fun

Why else do we go on climbing trips? If at some time in the trip you suddenly find yourself not at all happy, something is going wrong. Check out the other 9 tips I have here. See if you are tired, hung over, stressed, etc. Is your partner-team work not going well? Do something, address the issue and get your trip back on track, even if there is only one day left – make it a good day!

Helen Sinclair aiding on El Cap in Yosemite.
Helen aiding on El Cap in Yosemite.