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Plateaus, part two: climbing breakthroughs

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
3 min read

I posted last November about my long-term climbing plateau and some strategies that I have used to try to break out of my rut… I feel like revisiting the topic now, after a few more months of different strategies and continued fun and progress in my climbing. I’ve been visibly working an 11a in the gym (when it was marked to come down, I left a note for the routesetters to please, please, please leave it up — and have come so far as to make threats against anybody who stepped toward it with a wrench) which has lead to comments and questions from some of my newer climbing friends about how to go from 5.9 to working 11a’s.

Partly, after three plus years of climbing, my tendons have finally caught up with my muscles, and I’m experiencing much fewer injuries now than I did starting out. Overuse is underestimated by beginning climbers… going from couch to climbing gym is an exhilarating but huge transition, and it takes your body (and mind) time to adjust to the new demands you’re making. When I first started trying 10c’s and 10d’s in the gym, I’d get one attempt and then I couldn’t use my fingers for normal household activities for days because my tendons were so sore. Now, in the last few weeks, I am noticing that I’m able to make multiple attempts on a 10d or 11a in one climbing session, with much less finger pain and some days, none at all. So, pace yourself.

Also, I’ve made some big strategy changes. I am not a confident leader — I have good days and bad days leading. Good days are the ones when I see a route that I’m inspired by, and my head is in the right place, and I cruise it. Bad days are when I get overly confident and take on an outdoor route that I’m not prepared for and then scare myself silly. I decided during the winter that I had to desensitize myself to leading, and started spending most of my time in the gym on lead. I started out small — leading off route, just to feel comfortable and confident and to try to transition my attention to the climbing and off of the panic of where my bolts were. From there, I increased the difficulty by climbing easy to moderate routes, and ultimately, to working routes on lead that are at my toprope onsight level. After a couple of months, I’ve noticed a huge change in how I think about leading… I still have my bad days, for sure, but I’m getting better… and a bad day no longer means bursting into tears and hyperventilating and then not being able to climb even on toprope the rest of the day because of fear; now a bad day just involves a few tears and a little hyperventilating, and then more fun to be had on easier routes and/or on toprope.

I’ve also been climbing with lots of different partners, some of whom are much stronger than I am. Their beta, and friendly coaching, on more than one occasion, has made the difference between success and failure (or, optimistically, success delayed) on my harder redpoint attempts. Chris and I are also finding our way as climbing partners, and are having climbing with each other and with our other friends. The social aspect has helped keep me motivated, and has helped get my butt in the gym, or outside, when the sofa and a DVD sounds so good after a long day or week of work.

Finally, route selection simply cannot be underestimated. Whether inside or outside, keep your eyes out for routes that inspire you. I’ve seen oodles of climbing routes in the last three years, but there are a handful that stick out in my mind that have really inspired me to put in the time to achieve success on the route. They’re worth the work, and these inspirational routes definitely help with motivation to break through plateaus.

Please chime in… what factors have triggered your climbing breakthroughs? How have you gotten beyond plateaus? Add your comments using the link below.

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.