For the first month of 2014, I’ve been injured, again. Back in the first week of the year, I aggravated a hip flexor while shuffling my way up a mountain, and a month later it’s finally showing signs of health. Injuries aren’t unfamiliar to me, but after 19 years of running, they are no less frustrating. Especially when seemingly induced by an activity (skinning uphill) that, by all accounts, should be the perfect, low-impact  winter complement to my summer pursuits. A year ago, I wrote a post about dealing with injuries, so I have no desire to re-tread that ground.

With skiing (skinning) and running off the table, I’ve been attempting to remain physically engaged in the only other activity that holds serious interest to me: climbing. Except that it’s the dead of winter here in Boulder and the local crags are typically wet, if not fully encased in snow and ice. Other than a week in mid-January when I was able to get in three days on proper granite and sandstone, this means that I’ve been climbing plastic, in the gym.

Rewritten, Eldo Canyon. Photo: Caroline Treadway.

Before the cold snap in January. Rewritten, Eldo Canyon. Photo: Caroline Treadway.

This has very much been a first for me. Prior to this winter, I had roped up in a gym exactly once before. But, I have some modest climbing-ish goals for the summer season (mostly a couple of moderate but long and tricky traverses/link-ups in Wyoming) and getting stronger and improving my technique will make those go a whole lot more efficiently, hopefully. And especially with the winter conditions, the easiest way to be consistent, improve, and lay a base for the summer is to hit the gym. At the first of the year I finally committed to the indoors by buying a pass to Movement Climbing+Fitness and have been going four or five days a week.

The climbing gym (especially in Boulder, CO, where there is a pretty astounding concentration of climbing talent) is an eye-opening place. First, I’m not a good climber. Outdoors, I’m a below-average climber; in the gym, I’m a rote beginner, both in terms of strength and technique. Second, the vast majority of my climbing outside has been of the traditional variety, meaning that I’m placing my own removable protection (stoppers, cams and the like) on lead, or seconding beneath a belay constructed of same. Third, while well-placed cams and nuts are fully capable of holding a fall—but, really, who wants to unnecessarily test this?—I generally subscribe to the maxim that the leader does not fall. As a result, almost everything I climb outside has been fully within my abilities, which doesn’t offer up much opportunity to really push myself and get stronger.

The first week in the gym, I was barely able to climb. After maybe 30-40min, my grip strength was completely exhausted and I could barely untie my shoes let alone continue clinging to a hold. To counteract this, however, is the totally ridiculous but still nice ego-boost one receives by rocketing up grades that I typically wouldn’t even consider outside. Even if one factors in the generally safe, controlled environment of a gym (pre-hung draws, top-ropes, extreme unlikeliness that a hold is going to break or a rock is going to fall on your head), gym ratings still seem outrageously inflated. In the gym, I typically warm up on a grade that is at my leading limit outdoors. Fun! And after six weeks, endurance is rarely the limiting factor for me anymore; I can usually climb with decent technique for almost all of my typical 2-2.5hr session.

Any inflation in my confidence is very short-lived, however. The simple fact is that I am a horrendous climber. This is not annoying self-effacement. This is fact. Much like how in running, the track and stopwatch don’t lie, in climbing, one’s pure strength and technical expertise (or glaring lack thereof) is laid out quite starkly in the gym. Essentially, all the heady intangibles of actual climbing—wind, loose rock, run-outs, lichen, wet rock, poorly-placed protection, etc, etc—are removed and all that is left is pure performance, the movement. My chosen gym is aptly named, I’ve found. Just like there is no denying that I’ve never run faster than a 4:42 mile, in the gym there’s no denying that in my current state, I will almost certainly fall off a 5.11b.

On any given day, I am pretty close to being the worst climber in the gym. Again, this is no exaggeration. Thanks to the previously mentioned, prominently posted grades, it’s really easy to see how easy or hard everyone is climbing. And everyone climbs harder than me in the gym. Women twice my age. Dudes with beer bellies. Tiny girls a third my age. Fellow weakling runners, who, given their technical trail skills outside (or lack thereof—I’m looking at you, Trent :-)) I would never expect to excel in the vertical world. So, it is deeply humbling. The ego is deflated.  It turns out that being able to nimbly scramble a flatiron in running shoes (or ten in a morning), or launching up a multi-pitch climb in Eldo with no more than five cams and a set of stoppers (climbing gear is expensive!) has absolutely zero bearing on one’s ability to crush in the gym.

But, the flipside of this is that my curve of improvement is pleasantly steep. In running—especially in the mountains—I’ve felt competent, even accomplished, for many years. My improvement in that arena continues to go up, but it occurs in predictably incremental steps. And to continue to improve, I have to keep paying attention to smaller and smaller details.

Conversely, after only six weeks in the gym, I can tell that I have made significant gains, if only because I started so pathetically low on the spectrum. Most of the improvement comes from simple consistency and from realizing that there is usually an easier way: rotate your hips into the wall, move your feet up, read and anticipate the sequence, don’t hold on so tightly, quickly move past the bad holds instead of stalling out on them. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but, like most things, is also easier said than done (at least for me).

While applying myself with commitment to something new is inherently fresh and exciting, it is also frustrating. Since my goal is improvement, it seems that working towards that on a climbing wall inevitably means struggle and failure and an overall feeling of incompetency. Because of the cush, controlled environment, it doesn’t take long for laps on easy routes in the gym to start feeling like complacency instead of training for endurance. So in striving to improve, a lot of my time is spent falling off of routes that are at the very edge of my current ability. This is frustrating, especially when you can feel yourself doing it wrong—climbing with poor technique—but somehow feel powerless to do anything about it.

Because I’ve been running for 19 years, being outside, moving quickly and efficiently in the mountains has become the main thing in my life where I feel competent. I feel reasonably skilled, effective, a master of meshing my effort and abilities with the terrain and covering ground quickly. If indoor climbing is supposed to be my physical outlet right now, in almost every way it’s an awfully poor one when compared to what I’m usually able to do outside.  But that’s okay. Growth only comes through challenge and failure, so I’ll take my lumps. And, eventually, hopefully, it’ll have a positive effect on my experiences out in the mountains.

More noob activity---top-roping ice in Clear Creek Canyon this week. Photo: Joe Grant.

More noob activity—top-roping ice in Clear Creek Canyon this week. Photo: Joe Grant.