The 23rd October 2016 will go down as one of those truly important days in climbing history. In a hundred years, they might not remember the date but they’ll certainly remember the climb: Burden of Dreams, the world’s first 9a boulder problem.
It is a peculiarity of people the focus we put on numbers and with the nature of our obscure grading system to measure the difficulty of a climb, while the first climb at a new grade will always generate interest, the first at a new number grade will garner more exponentially. The first 6a is in Fontainebleau – La Marie Rose at Bas Cuvier- to this day attracts massive attention, partly due to being an exceptional line but often as it is the first grade 6 in the world. (That being said, it is notoriously tricky…) Thankfully, both these lines are pure gold to observe.
Burden of Dreams is only five hand moves and a top out on a fierce 45 degree overhanging face, nestled in a crag known as Lappnor in a small forest, east of Helsinki, Finland. This in itself pleases me greatly; there is currently a solitary 9a climb in the world and it can’t be found in any of the popular destinations, like Magic Wood, Fontainebleau, Rocklands or anywhere in the States. Nope, it’s in Finland. In a time of global introversion, we find the hardest sequence of moves in the world in a country most will never have even thought of visiting. Perhaps until now.
As would be expected in this modern digital age, with the coming of the first ascent came a documentary film to go with it: a stunning watch, available to purchase from Vimeo to either stream or download for the price of £7.34. It is worth every penny. It documents the journey taken by the first ascentionist, Nalle Hukkataival over the course of three and a half long years and over 60 sessions. In essence, it is the quintessential bouldering project.
The film was very well received throughout the bouldering fraternity and highlights the sometimes obscure and horrid world of projecting. For anyone that has been through this, it will ring very true.
My own effort took seven years from the initial kindling of interest, four years of intense effort and much the same project-specific training that Nalle performs for Burden of Dreams. I have talked about it extensively before. Just search Carnage on this blog to find out!
Now, i am currently coaching a young girl who is trying to up her grade from 6a to 6b and one of her problems is getting into this mentality. If a problem fails to fall in the first four efforts, her head goes down and she walks away defeated. Sadly, this is exactly the opposite of modern hard bouldering.
And it does take a certain type of person to be able to cope with it. Failure upon failure takes it’s toll, the constant thought that it is too hard, that you lack the ability. To be able to get beaten down time and again and keep coming back for more is a hard thing to master – maybe harder than any grade. Without it, whatever that next grade is will forever be out of reach; even if it’s the next grade for the whole climbing world.
So we’ve been working on it together. Try, fall, analyse, repeat. Over and over. Some climbs are knacky and often the analysis tells you that you’re doing everything right, you just need that fraction more accuracy or for it all to come together a little bit more. Sometimes it’s just a case of being that little bit fresher.
Nalle: “There are so many factors that need to be just right when you’re trying something at the limit of what’s possible. Some of them you can control and some of them you can’t and to get everything to walk into place at the same time can be incredibly frustrating.”
It’s very complex and utterly relentless if you want to achieve that goal. So what are the crucial factors and how do you manage to get into the right mindset to unlock that potential?
You’ve gotta want it. Like really want it. If you’re not 100% committed, quite simply it won’t go.
That doesn’t mean you need to let the thing consume you, or prevent you from going elsewhere and doing other things. Nalle certainly didn’t ignore all the other climbs in the world for the duration of his time of Burden of Dreams! But you do have to keep it in mind and keep going back.
You also have to remember that it is going to be almost 100% failure. You’ll probably only do this project once after what could reach over 1000 attempts. Nalle puts it very well with this quote: “I finally for the first time ever i think i got to the point where i actually realised that i had what it takes to climb this boulder” That was after session 45…
The fact is that the key is simply perseverance. The title of the aforementioned film is The Lappnor Project: A Documentary About Not Giving Up. That sums up this particularly peculiar style of climbing very well indeed.
Granted, often it’s just a case of keep going at it over and over until that one effort where it all comes together. Sometimes, it’s a case of keep going until you get the right conditions; especially with climbs at your limit where the slightest advantage could be the difference.
But at the same time, there are those times where there’s a really obvious change that you can make yourself that you’d just missed, being as involved as you were in the whole thing. Both Nalle and myself have experienced this, where talking to another climber had given some slightly different beta that subsequently proved crucial.
You have to keep thinking about what you’re doing and this can be one of the hardest parts of projecting. Every time you hit the floor, stop, think, “why did i come off?” Often the answer is so obvious as to negate the question – “i didn’t catch the hold right” for example but sometimes, it’s not that straighforward.
Keep thinking, keep analysing, keep checking that you’re not doing something the hard way. After all, a project should be hard enough already without making it harder!
Analysing things isn’t enough if you don’t use that information. Once you’ve figured out what you’re doing wrong, you need to set about putting it right.
Occasionally, more for less experienced climbers, there might be a crucial technique or trick that you can learn, perfect and implement to make that crux move fall.
For those more accustomed to projecting, there are still nuances that you can employ to figure your way through. Outdoor projects make this so much harder, as you normally can’t cheat your way in to a mid-problem crux but this isn’t always the way.
One popular trick is to get into the position you’re trying to stick and learning where your body needs to be to latch the hold. Completing the top half of a sequence can change how you climb into it. Almost every hard or classic boulder problem now has a video to show how it’s done. There’s no point during the entire process that you stop learning.
Turned up one day and you’re too spent when you get there to try the whole thing? Don’t; do something else. Work the crux or the lower moves, focus on getting individual moves absolutely dialled, hang the positions to the point of failure. While it might not fall for you this time, you can use this to put yourself in a better position for the next one.
Even if you do feel great, like the next try is “the one” you still need to be tactical. Time your rests, that’s always a good idea because, when we’re fired up for it, we never rest long enough. Do that enough times and you’ll never send. I’ve been known to take a good book to the crag purely to slow down my attempts. After all, it was better than rolling and smoking a cigarette between every go…
Whether you’re ready to tick off your project or not yet, make sure you give yourself the best possible shot at it.
Once you’ve done all the individual moves, figured it all out, got yourself ready and you’re still not quite finishing it off, it’s worth looking at your strength.
With outdoor conditions being fickle, or projects often being very far from home, training strength can be a way to put you in a better position when you can actually get there.
Most of the time, when you reach this stage, the sequence will be so ingrained in your mind that replicating the moves somewhere else will not be particularly difficult. It is a common practice nowadays to set an indoor version of your climb but if you do, make sure it’s that fraction harder. Circuit boards are immensely useful for this.
Meanwhile, it’s quite popular again to train specific muscle groups by selecting similar holds in a similar position on a fingerboard or even a wall. Dead hangs in these positions can deliver that crucial strength gain you need to complete your project.
As we’ve already seen, this process is not a quick one. If you’re looking for short term gratification, you need to go elsewhere – projecting is a LONG game.
According to the film, it took three and a half years to climb Burden. That involved some 80 days not including gym training compared to 13 days on anything else. When you’re operating at your limit, whether that’s 9a or 6a, you need to be patient. Try and rush it and you’ll get nowhere.
Bearing this in mind at the very beginning can be the difference between maintaining your sanity and losing your shit. And once your head goes, your chances drop substantially.
Start just trying each move, or even just hanging each position. Be systematic in your approach, linking sections at a time and not trying too much until you’re ready.
The flip side of the Patience coin. When on Carnage, i was convinced every effort might be that one where it fell; although it helped i fell from the topout nearly three years before it finally relented (see Luck below…).
You have to have hope that you’ll get this done one day. If you don’t think you can make progress, you have to ask yourself what’s the point of putting yourself through this.
Meanwhile, remember what progress might be. A move done for the first time, a new piece of information, a new thought as to what you might change, these are all steps forward – all things that will eventually lead to success.
As long as you have hope (and all the other factors mentioned here, of course) then keep going. Lose hope and it’s best to move on.
Don’t underestimate how important this can be but remember this is one of those things you can’t control. But you can help…
That perfect day where the conditions are exactly what you need might not be under your influence but if you don’t keep going out and trying your project, the chances you miss that mint day are significantly higher. You’ve gotta be in it to win it, as the old phrase goes so focus on the other factors and the luck will come.
The word honest is key here. It comes back to the point from earlier: you’ve gotta want it. And if you want it, you’re gonna have to really try.
Projects don’t fall easy – that’s kind of the point of them! and with that effort will come the reward. In many ways, the two are linked, effort and reward: the greater the effort, the greater the reward.
For Nalle, the effort was monumental. His reward: eternal adulation. He didn’t get there by half-arsing it and neither will you. Put in the honest effort and reap the rewards. Try and cheat and land on your arse. Every time.
Best of psyche to you.
For more information on the Lappnor Project, there is a fantastic website detailing the climb and the ascent – quite unique for a single boulder problem!
For more information on Nalle Hukkataival, he too has a website, although this is slightly less surprising.