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Grades, information-gathering, and leading near your limit as a short/tall/non-"average" climber


Original Post
Etha Williams · · Somerville, MA · Joined May 2018 · Points: 259

As a fairly short (5'1'') climber, from time to time I will encounter a move that, due to body size, climbs much easier OR harder for me than the guidebook/MP grade would suggest. I have a couple very tall (>6') partners who have had similar experiences. Our experience has been that there are advantages and disadvantages to being on either end of the height spectrum--but that overall, we tend to experience significantly more variability compared to the stated grade than climbers of more "average" (especially average male) height seem to.

Recently I've realized that this can sometimes cause some mental issues for me when I'm leading near my limit (or just when I'm scared...). Sometimes, I find it difficult to differentiate between a move that feels like it might be harder due to my height, vs one that actually is. This can get in the way of the climbing a bit: often I will overthink a move that is actually fine at my height, while other times I will overcompensate for this tendency too much and get frustrated trying to convince myself that a move should be easier for me than it is.

If I'm climbing a route well below my limit, even if there ends up being a height-dependent move that's harder for the shorter climber, it's no big deal because the move is probably still within what I'm comfortable climbing. Plus, figuring out beta on routes below your limit is usually (though not always!) fairly easy, so I'm generally pretty confident that if I'm pulling a harder-than-grade move it's because I have to and not because I'm missing something. Climbing below my limit has also taught me that truly height-dependent moves (i.e., where the move is close to a grade harder, or more, if you're short) are relatively infrequent.

On the other hand, if I'm climbing near my limit and there's a move that looks hard coming up, often my first instinct is to believe that it's height-/reach-dependent. This is probably a common experience for climbers of all heights ("if only I could reach a little bit further!..."), but because I know that occasionally there really are moves that are significantly harder due to height/reach, it's easier for me to believe these thoughts and psych myself out about the move. Similarly, if I find myself pulling 11-like moves on a 10, it's harder for me to be sure that I should look for an easier way to do it, because I know there's a chance that the short person beta is just harder. Finally, because I have less mileage, and fewer sends, near my limit, it's harder for me to judge what a true-to-grade move is in the first place, which I think plays into this issue.

Although height-/reach-dependent moves definitely exist, I tend to think this phenomenon is primarily a mental issue, because I encounter this feeling way more often on routes that are at harder-for-me grades or have scarier falls--and I don't think these kinds of routes are actually more likely to be height-dependent, haha.

It's totally possible I just need to get better at reading the rock and trusting my instincts and this issue will largely disappear. This is also definitely partly a symptom of a larger tendency to overthink things while climbing, which I'm working on.... But in the meantime, if anyone has had similar experiences and has found effective strategies for dealing with it, I'd love to know. Thanks!

(Preemptively, yes, there are definitely moves that are easier if you're small. However, pulling a move that is easier than the grade generally feels pretty chill :P. Also preemptively, yes, grades are subjective, but the fact that we all use them suggests people get some kind of useful information from them; so I'm interested in strategies for dealing with situations where this information is less reliable than it might otherwise be.)

Dan Cooksey · · Seattle, WA · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 365

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

When I don’t flash a route I start to make every excuse in the book as to why that didn’t happen (ex. I’m to tall and the crux is scrunchy, or the FAist must have been high on acid when he graded this 5.10)

When I flash a route I tell everyone it’s a fun route but probably soft for the grade.

Climbing grades are subjective.  Don’t over think it. 

FosterK · · Edmonton, AB · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 60

I don't think you need a specific strategy for this when you are already leading near your limit - the strategy is still same as any challenging lead (see Rock Warrior's Way). At most, you may find that the actual beta or recommendations for the route are untrustworthy - or take warnings for reachy moves at their word; but you are not in any greater danger than any other climber leading that same route at their limit.

I would recommend reading Rock Warrior's Way and Vertical Mind to learn strategies for dealing with your fear, how to mange risk, and how to focus on the moves at hand.

Tommy Salami · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Nov 2010 · Points: 3,436

Take all your excuses and all your stresses and all your weird body size movement expectations and burn 'em.

There isn't an average climber, everyone has weird arms or weird legs or some weird nagging injury they've had forever that makes them different than that other person crushing their proj at the crag. It's not that your stresses aren't valid, its that they aren't really conducive to success or healthy problem solving. You need more mileage, you're not trying hard enough, you're too scared, you ate too much fried chicken last week.

Personally, I've got T-rex arms and a nagging knee injury that prevents me from doing hard right heel hooks. I used to blame it for all kinds of stuff, it made me really unhappy when I'd think about how it was unfair that others have longer arms, which means I have to try harder or get that shittier higher foot.
These days I don't think about it. Climbing is an individual sport.
If you want to get better you have to work from where you're at, not where you expected you'd be.

Use your climbing time to focus on the things you are in control of. You're probably not gonna get any taller.

Malcolm Daly · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 380

And, according to Lynn Hill, there are no height problems, only power problems.

Mal

Adrienne DiRosario · · Troy, NY · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 0

Lynn Hill is only 5’ 2”

Mark E Dixon · · Sprezzatura, Someday · Joined Nov 2007 · Points: 614

The rated difficulty of any particular route is only roughly correlated to the difficulty any specific climber will experience on that route,
For lots of reasons, height only one amongst them.
I think you are reading too much into the grade.

Have you seen this blog post by Neeley about training to mitigate shortness?

Training beta blog

phylp · · Upland · Joined May 2015 · Points: 612

I'm not as short as you, I'm 5'4".
A useful tool when climbing bolted routes is to have a stiffie quickdraw that enables you to clip a bolt that is out of range of your normal reach.  I have a homemade one but I think Trango makes one.

I also know that I can sometimes french free/A1 a move that I really cannot make because of a height issue.  Most typically (but it's a rare occurence) this might happen to me on a larger roof where due to my size, my feet can't get my hands to the point where I can reach a needed hold over a roof.  You can often plug a piece in, stand on it to create that foorhold, and get the next hold you need.  This might be a useful thing for you to practice.  

Sometimes I feel shut down (due to height or rating or whatever, it's irrelevant) and I feel like a fall will be dangerous and I figure out a way to back off (leave a piece and lower, downlead or down climb).  These are also useful to practice if you are concerned that your height is something that is going to routinely shut you down.

And sometimes I try a move and it is too hard and I fall.  On some occasions when I have fallen, I have gotten injured.  But I suspect this last part is the thing you don't want to hear because really your question sounds like a mental issue about a fear of falling and getting hurt.  No climber of any size can really "trust" any grade.  I pretty much figure any route I get on can range plus or minus 2 in my personal opinion of how hard it feels for me and I am mentally prepared for it to be harder.  

Good luck with your journey and safe climbing.

Etha Williams · · Somerville, MA · Joined May 2018 · Points: 259

This thread was really just an experiment to see how many replies it would take until Lynn Hill was mentioned ;) (It took 3 more than expected!)

More seriously, though, thanks for the responses. It's a good point that a lot of this fits in with the more general mental problem of excuses, which are problematic not because they're necessarily untrue but because they divert your attention from the actual climbing at hand. One of my favorite points made in The Rock Warrior's Way is that wanting more reach falls into the category of "wishing behavior" and is unhelpful because you're wasting energy imagining an alternate reality (one where the holds are closer) instead of focusing on problem-solving within the reality you inhabit. Recognizing that has helped a lot, but obviously there's still work to be done...

For me the core mental issue usually is less a fear of falling (which I'm generally fairly comfortable with, when it's safe-ish; and comfortable managing risk when it isn't), and more anxiety about failure. I can get frustrated fairly quickly when f(l)ailing on a move, or looking at a move that reminds me of one that was hard for me in the past, and if I'm not careful it can be really easy for me to sort of mentally shut down. The more I start to feel frustrated/shut down, the more I look for reasons/excuses, and height is usually one of the first and most salient that comes up. Then I often get mad at myself for blaming height and tell myself if I were just a better climber I wouldn't be using height as an excuse...etc....

From a slightly different angle, perhaps I'm naïve, but I do think that the information one gathers about a route before getting on it (including grade) creates a set of expectations that, when managed appropriately, can be useful for problem-solving and risk-management. If I get on something that's been labeled a 5.7 (especially if I'm familiar with the area), I usually expect to encounter climbing movement within a certain set of (rough, subjective) boundaries. If I find myself doing moves that don't fall within those boundaries, I'm likely to start asking myself some questions (am I off route? am I failing to notice a critical hold? am I scared and therefore moving inefficiently?) that may furnish useful information. I guess I'd like to be better at asking those questions, and not tending to fixate on height, when the climbing gets harder-for-me.

Probably what it really comes down to is that I need to think about climbing less and go climbing more.

trailridge · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 20

If the midget on game of thrones has taught me anything; it is don't underestimate short people. You are a Lannister just climb like one. 

Juffrey T · · Louisville KY · Joined Apr 2018 · Points: 20

As I am 5'3", learning to work on technique helps a lot. Climb slab routes though sometimes they tend to be too tall for me but eventually, technique and being limber can help. Just learn how to do things differently. Your beta may not work for someone taller. Just try to find creative ways to climb.

L Kap · · Boulder, CO · Joined Apr 2014 · Points: 55

I just want to validate that the height thing is real, and climbs are typically graded for a climber of at least average height. If you have to dyno to a hold that other climbers can reach statically, that move is obviously harder for you. We've probably all seen route descriptions that say the route is a grade or two harder if you are too short to easily reach the crux hold. (Yes, conversely, an unusually tall climber is going to be extra challenged in other ways like squeeze chimneys, crunched-up stemming problems, and, I dunno, maybe holding slopers where the feet are too close?)

The best really short climber I have known cultivated her ability to do dynamic bouldery moves and to use tiny little intermediate holds, e.g. cranking off of tiny foot chips in the gym. 

revans90 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2013 · Points: 50

When all else fails I rely on blind ambition.

Kalli Schumacher · · Chanhasssen, MN · Joined Mar 2017 · Points: 1
Adrienne DiRosario wrote: Lynn Hill is only 5’ 2”

Can we all stop saying this. I’m 5’ 0”. How would you all feel if every time you couldn’t pull a move the entire community responded with, I bet Adam Ondra could do it. Of course they could. They’re freaking pro climbers. The height challenge is real (and albeit occasionally an advantage). 


I’m not sure there’s a concrete strategy either. I think what’s helped me is just accepting some moves will be hard or impossible. It’s not so much of letting go of a fear of failure, more like letting go of expectation. Just climb as smart as you can... and get real good at deadpointing. 
Zacks · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2015 · Points: 65

I am not short but there is one particular developer at my local crag who is tall, tends to bolt tall and tends to sandbag grades if its reachy (ie easier when your 6'+)

I am glad that I have figured this out so when I see this one particular persons same as the FA I know what i'm getting into lol

Kinda like when something has a "Fred Becky 5.7 offwidth" you can expect it to be 5.10 in the offwidth section

the schmuck · · Albuquerque, NM · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 115

My wife is 4'11" with a neutral ape. She has surprised me at times by getting through reachy cruxes by using lots of crappy intermediates, hand-foot matches, and deadpoints. These strategies however depend on how confident and aggro she feels. If she's not feeling it, it usually doesn't end well. That being said, there are occasional routes that completely shut her down based on reach, and she has no choice but to accept it. A very tall climber may be at a disadvantage at times, but will never be completely shut down due to being tall. 

Franck Vee · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2017 · Points: 90
Etha Williams wrote: Probably what it really comes down to is that I need to think about climbing less and go climbing more.

Possibly.

Though since you are thinking about that (given the lengths at which you described the issue) it's probably not bad to reflect on the meta of things either.

I would agree with Marc above - grades are subjective because of differences in heights among many other factors. imo style (slab/overhang/cracks/etc.) matters a lot more for most people, unless you're a really versatile climber, than height of FAs/grader vs yours.

I would suggest refraining from gather too much info on a climb, at least during a few sessions - e.g. maybe stick to the grade and if there's a significant runout. Then just climb it. This may be a way to get ride of expectations you mentionned...
John Byrnes · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Dec 2007 · Points: 612
L Kap wrote: I just want to validate that the height thing is real, and climbs are typically graded for a climber of at least average height.
And average hand-size, and average technique, and average strength, and average route-reading ability, etc.   Height/reach is only one factor, and not nearly the most limiting one.

 If you have to dyno to a hold that other climbers can reach statically, that move is obviously harder for you. 
Sometimes.  Doing 4 difficult static moves with high body-tension can be much harder than just popping for a hold.

We've probably all seen route descriptions that say the route is a grade or two harder if you are too short to easily reach the crux hold. (Yes, conversely, an unusually tall climber is going to be extra challenged in other ways like squeeze chimneys, crunched-up stemming problems, and, I dunno, maybe holding slopers where the feet are too close?)
So it balances out, right?  Some routes are harder if you're short, others if you're tall.  

The best really short climber I have known cultivated her ability to do dynamic bouldery moves and to use tiny little intermediate holds, e.g. cranking off of tiny foot chips in the gym. 

Short climbers, often women, also have smaller fingers, hands and feet (unless they're a dwarf).  She can get a better grip on a small edge than I can and they have less weight to support on that edge.  They can get sinker jams in finger-cracks where I can only get tips.   They always get one more finger into a small pocket than I can.  Two toes on the footer, a better toe jam in thin cracks.    Et Cetera.     And of course, when it gets to be good hand jams for me, she's using fists or OW.    So again, it balances out.   

The "problem" occurs when a short/tall climber expects to do the moves the same way their opposite number did.     No, you'll most likely need to do it differently depending on the factors I listed above.  So stop your whining and go find some 5.11 finger-cracks that your small fingers will make 5.9.  

"I want to be reincarnated as a small asian woman so I can climb hard at Indian Creek."  -- Maury Waugh, 6'1" 180lbs and breakfast sausage fingers.

In the gym, what I said above is often not true because poor/average setters don't know how to, or care to, set routes that can be done by climbers of all sizes.   (Especially these days were big shouldery dynos are so fashionable.)  However, I have seen good setting where a "foothold" I would just skip is quite usable by a smaller climber as a handhold.    But usually, it's a lack of footholds that make gym routes harder.   For me, I have to put a foot up above my waist off of slopers.   That move is easy for her, but then she has make a dyno for the next good hold.  

Gym routes are training, just suck it up.  Grab a hold on the neighboring 5.6 route and carry on.
Julian H · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2017 · Points: 5

Well since everyone gives you the usual BS like suck it up or look at Lynn Hill.

Get better at reading to routes and planting how to actually climb the route. Basically figuring out the moves and rests before you start to climb or when you are in rest position  You want to limit the amount of time you spend searching for holds and figuring out the moves while climbing. On easy climbs or climbs with a lot of rests you can get away with it but less likely on climbs at your limit. 

What you don’t want to do is things like. Reaching with your hand empty hand to see if you can actually reach a bolt. I see that all the time and I find it ridiculous because ....... You've got to know your limitations. I don't know what your limitations are. I found out what mine were when I was twelve. I found out that there weren't too many limitations, if I did it my way. Johnny Cash


Etha Williams · · Somerville, MA · Joined May 2018 · Points: 259
Franck Vee wrote:

Possibly.

Though since you are thinking about that (given the lengths at which you described the issue) it's probably not bad to reflect on the meta of things either.

I would agree with Marc above - grades are subjective because of differences in heights among many other factors. imo style (slab/overhang/cracks/etc.) matters a lot more for most people, unless you're a really versatile climber, than height of FAs/grader vs yours.

I would suggest refraining from gather too much info on a climb, at least during a few sessions - e.g. maybe stick to the grade and if there's a significant runout. Then just climb it. This may be a way to get ride of expectations you mentionned...

I totally agree that style makes a way bigger difference than height...however, style is usually pretty obvious and easily identifiable. I climb about a grade lower on steep jug hauls than everything else, but it's hard to imagine a situation where I'd be questioning, "Is this hard for me because it's a steep jug haul, or is it secretly a splitter crack and I'm just overthinking it?" By contrast I fairly often find myself wondering if something is really reach-dependent, or if it's all in my head.

Totally agree that too much information-gathering can be counterproductive. I used to fairly often read all the MP comments and ticks for a route, and pay special attention to any comments about how the climb felt for shorter climbers....that information was pretty unreliable (understandably since it just represents one random person's experience with the route, usually absent of much context) and would tend to just psych myself out mentally more rather than helping with problem-solving.
Stu Hopkins · · Logan, UT · Joined Dec 2017 · Points: 26

I know for me these types of things are more in your head than anything. Easy to say I know but every time I project a grade and finally get it, the next time I climb that same grade I'll onsite it. This pretty much means climbing that grade was more in my head than anything else. I agree with Lynn Hill. Always blame your lack of power not something you can't control.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

General Climbing
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