Keeping It Fresh: How To Keep Psyche Going With Old Routes In The Wall

A friend of mine sent me an interesting question yesterday: “do you have any tips for keeping going when the wall rotates new climbs very slowly?”

Now, firstly, i’m going to defend the wall a little. I don’t know which wall it is and that is largely irrelevant as this is a common problem for any climbing wall: how does the wall cater for people who come at different regularities? Some people will go once a week or even once a month, others will visit five or six times a week and both want, ideally, new climbs that are challenging for them and some stuff they can project. Throw in the fact that these visitors will operate at every possible grade – rendering one man’s project another’s warm up – and they’re on a hide into nothing.

I’m sure my friend will agree and while the question above is quoted verbatim, knowing him as i do i know he doesn’t hold it against the wall per se. He just wants to know what he can do with himself while waiting for new lines to get set.

It’s a problem i used to have regularly when hitting the wall over the winter months time and time again. I was one of the stronger climbers at my gym of choice (at both walls, at one point or another) and out of a new set of 25 problems, i’d flash the first 20, tick off another 2-3 quite quickly and be left with a couple that i would have to work on. If that happened to be the day they set, that left me with potentially one or two climbs to try until the next set. You can shuffle the numbers as needed, depending on the climber and the grades.

So what does our climber do now? And how do they keep things fresh and keep wanting to actually go to the wall?

1. Project the Remaining Problems

Projecting is hard, can be dull and takes a very long time; so in this context, it could very well be absolutely perfect! I’ve written a page explaining The Horrid World Of Projecting that is worth a read.

The joy of projecting is that it leads to improvement. Because routes or boulder problems that fall into this category sit just above your limit, when you finally crack it, that limit is fundamentally raised.

This may be because of a new technique or because you’ve got stronger, it could be because you’ve switched onto it more and improved your tactics or mentality but whatever it is, by the time you’ve completed your project, you will by definition be slightly better than you were.

This scenario – where someone has climbed all of the climbs within their ability – fits perfectly with projecting. If they’ve done everything within their abilities, the only climbs that lie ahead are ones above their current standards.

The other situation this is the case is outdoor climbing. If a climber has done, say, all the 6a climbs at their local crag, all that is left is the 6a+ or the 6b or whatever. After all, no one is going to come and reset the local crag, leaving three options: repeat stuff forevermore, project new stuff or stop going.

The only downside with having indoor projects is that they do change. When they do reset, that long term project is gone, whether you’ve finished it or not, so be prepared to be a bit disappointed.

2. Adjust the Existing Routes

Most indoor routes are set alongside other lines, with multiple climbs on the same panel. Often, they’re set by colour too, so you climb on one colour at a time.

Now, climbing is based primarily on ethical standards rather than rigid rules (i can discuss this further if anyone disagrees) so there’s actually nothing to stop you changing the rules you’re following.

Say there’s a jug half way up the route you can do and a crimp from a different route right next to it. Can you use the crimp instead? Yes, it’s not the right colour but so what? You’re adjusting the route to make it more challenging and as long as you’re honest about what you’re doing – to yourself and to others – there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe hands on one colour and feet on another may work – you’ll have to see what the wall has to offer and be creative.

Eliminating holds is a popular example of this; or trying to skip certain holds altogether. This works on the same principle: take the route you know you can already do and make it a little bit harder.

3. Deliberately Climb the Routes Wrong

That may sound weird and it’s certainly not a long term fix; the last thing you want to do is ingrain poor technique into your subconscious. However, climbing wrong-handed, deliberately not twisting your hips or not dropping a knee can teach us quite a lot about good technique.

This requires a lot of thought. Firstly, you’ll need to know how to climb it right the first time. Then you’ll have to decide what you’re going to change. It might be as simple as swapping your hands over on the starting holds, or could be totally complex, it’s totally up to you.

It also requires a lot of analysis afterwards too. Was it harder? If so, why? Perhaps it actually turned out to be easier! If so, what can you learn from that to use for other climbs later? This exercise keeps things a little more fresh but will only last for a short while.

I would suggest that this is the type of exercise that is best employed when you are bored of your warm ups and need something to get you going a little more at the beginning of your session.

4. Refine The Routes You’ve Done

Yes, you’ve done all the 5+ routes in the wall but have you done them well? I mean really well, like seamlessly?

Can you climb them all silently? Without pausing between moves? Granted, this isn’t always possible (i can’t imagine doing a dyno without making a slapping noise and pausing for a second) these are suggestions.

We can always refine our technique and polish things to make ourselves a bit better. For this to be useful, you need to be plenty critical of yourself, not that self-criticism is a bad thing. Self-analysis is one of the best ways to improve your own performance and this is a great way to learn how to do that.

5. Make Up Your Own Routes

You can often see a group of mates playing add a move (where each climber adds the next onto the sequence in turn) and there’s nothing to stop you doing this on your own.

You can either memorise the sequence or subtly (obviously with permission of the wall) mark the wall up. Some walls even let you tag your routes, although this is becoming much more rare now gyms are a lot more commercial than they used to be.

Teacher’s chalk is often a good option for this, although i can’t stress enough how much you need to be subtle. Remember if they let you, they could theoretically let everyone and imagine every climber in the wall drawing chalk marks everywhere.

Last option is to annotate a picture on your phone. That’s a lot of effort though, especially as they will change eventually.

6. Speak to The Gym Owner/Manager

You could potentially persuade the wall to let you route set. I know this has worked for another friend in Germany: he got annoyed the wall wasn’t resetting enough so spoke to the owner and he, with a couple of other regulars, would go down the wall to set their own problems. The owner was happy, as it saved him a job and they didn’t require payment, but not all gyms will be so accommodating.

It won’t hurt to ask but you’ll need a very good relationship with the owner/manager and don’t be surprised if the answer is no.

The one bright side to asking could be that it highlights the lack of regular route setting and if you’re a regular climber there, you would hope they would take it into account. Again, though, don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Many walls don’t make enough money from regular, actual climbers to stay solvent and rely on birthday parties and taster sessions to stay open. A business minded owner may not agree with route setting as a profitable use of time.

7. Take A Break

This isn’t a popular one and as a coach, i’d leave it as a last resort. Still, enthusiasm doesn’t last forever and motivation wanes after a while.

Going for a swim, taking in a walk, doing something different – often under the banner of cross training for the die hard climbers out there – can sometimes mean when you come back to it, you’re more fired up than ever.

Of course, this only works if you know when the next set goes up. This might appear on a social media page or by chatting to mates but if not, you might just have to go down and find out.

Again, i’m not suggesting that people should stop climbing when they’ve done all the routes they can. What i am suggesting is that instead of boring yourself silly doing the same routes over and over, and if none of the above has done it for you, perhaps dropping a session every now and again to try something different might be an option.

An aid to learning

All of these suggestions lead to ways to make yourself a better climber and they are, in fact, either strength and conditioning training or an aid to learning.

Fitting all of this in and structuring your sessions can become problematic and overwhelming, so it’s worth a quick mention of the best way to do that.

Let’s start with the basic structure of a lesson as our foundation:

  • Starter. Usually a warm up.
  • Main. The bulk of your climbing session
  • Plenary (warm down). Burn off the last of the energy, do a few circuits, chat about the session with a cup of tea, whatever you like.

Getting on your project line as a warm up is far from ideal – you’re risking injury. Likewise, dedicating a whole session to climbing the same lines with more and more grace, or as quietly as possible, may drive you insane. All of the suggestions can fall into one ideal part of the above structure, perhaps like this:

  • Starter: Drills. Technique drills are slow, steady and happen on routes well below your max. So is your warm up. Points 3 and 4 above are ideal for this part of your session.
  • Main: Projecting and going hard. Projects are ideal for this period. You’re primed, you’re ready to push on and this is the time to do it, this is your max. Point 1 obviously sits here, as could point 2.
  • Plenary: Calm it down. Add-a-move is a great warm down, as it allows you to finish off the last of your energy without again risking injury. So point 5 sits in here. Sociability is also important so point 6 could go here too, or to be honest, could also be incorporated into your breaks. Always good to be friendly with the hand that feeds you.

So there are some suggestions but of course, it’s all down to you. The bright side to this is any lull in route setting allows a certain amount of creativity on your part and can open the mind to playing around and doing something different. The above are some ideas to get you going. Maybe you can come up with something else, there are no boundaries now. Whatever you do, i hope it gives you a more enjoyable session!

Tried these ideas? Did they work? Got any other suggestions? Comment below and your comment could be included in the text of this article.