Have you ever wondered how to climb 5.13? I know I sure did. In fact, before I sent my first 5.13 in 2018, it had always seemed like a unicorn – a virtually unattainable pipe dream. Even after I had cracked the 5.12 barrier in 2014, 5.13 still seemed crazy… it was just so much harder than any 5.12 i’d ever done.
This post is part of a series on my progression from a terrified 5.6 top-rope climber, to sending my first 5.13a here in the Canadian Rockies. In this series, i’ll break down my own journey, and try to share a few lessons I learned that helped me progress to, project, and eventually send my first 5.13. Hopefully this helps you answer the question for yourself: How to climb 5.13?
Not 5.13, I am the 98lb Weakling Incarnate
I’ve always been on the absolute bottom rung of raw strength and power, ever since I was a scrawny, uncoordinated kid. Failing hard at almost every sport I attempted. The only two exceptions to this were mountain biking and skiing, both of which fit my love of solo-access activities, and required endurance and tenacity than just raw strength.
Lesson 1: “Weak people” can climb “hard” grades. It just might take longer to get there than you expect, or than your peers. In fact, don’t pay attention to how long it takes you peers to achieve things you are working towards!
When I started climbing in May 2012, I had it in my head that 5.10a would be a pretty realistic “end” point for my climbing career. I had almost no understanding of climbing, other than a long history of spending time in the mountains on easy scrambles, hikes, and a bit of ski touring.
The funny part of my climbing career is that I owned a rack of quickdraws and a set of nuts for almost 6 years before I actually put rock climbing shoes for the first time. I was always dreaming of someday being a climber. When I was a kid, I would make “ice axes” out of wood, living out my aspirations to be a National Geographic Explorer by climbing snow piles behind my house, and reading the “Everest Adventure” Choose your own Adventure book.
Lesson 2: You have to really, really want it. It takes a lot of internal motivation to climb at a high level. Let the motivation and tenacity that comes with this drive to carry you there over the years.
My first day actually rock climbing was May 06, 2012. I joined up with an Alpine Club of Canada trip intended for people new to the sport to learn the basics. A group of approximately 20 of us went to Wasootch Slabs where a few of the more experienced among us put the ropes up and the rest of us flailed around on 5.6 climbs on top-rope. It was terrifying trusting the gear, and a total struggle fest, but I was instantly hooked.
I met a few other beginners that day, and we began making a weekly trek to Wasootch to continue climbing, slowly improving. One of us was a stronger 5.11 climber, but a month after meeting he ended up spraining his ankle. This was ultimately the best thing that could have happened to me personally. I had to learn to lead quite quickly. I was terrified leading my first few 5.6 and 5.7 routes, but that fear slowly faded while the love of the sport increased.
Lesson 2.5: Start leading as early as possible in your climbing career. If you’ve been climbing for a long time, but still heavily favor top-roping rather than leading… change that habit!
Year 1, Lifetime Goal: Achieved
By the end of 2012, I accomplished my lifetime climbing goal and sent my first 5.10a on lead… Dry Heat. A short little slab climb in Cougar Canyon, Canmore. My seemingly unattainable climbing objective was complete, and I had no idea what was next, or the crazy journey I was about to begin.
At the end of the 2012 summer climbing season, I joined the Chinook climbing gym in Calgary, at the time, one of 2 climbing gyms in the City. It had short walls, and dirty holds, but I committed to climbing at least 1-2 evenings per week, and getting outdoors on weekends whenever possible. I slowly worked my way up through the 5.10’s in the gym, which were definitely harder than the outdoor slabs I was used to!
Early in the 2012/2013 training season, I joined an adult training team coached by (now legendary) climber Sam Tucker. This group met twice a week at the gym, and Sam never hesitated to push us to our physical limitations. We would always start with 30 minutes of soul-destroying core, then around 2 hours of various training regimes, ending in 30 minutes of opposition.
With the steady commitment to climbing regularly, I progressed at a steady pace, even more than I realized at the time. By the end of the winter, I had ticked a nemesis roofy 5.10b, and a few vertical 5.11a/b routes… a foreshadowing of how steep routes were going to be a thorn in my side for a long time.
Lesson 3: Maybe the most important lesson of all… Consistency is your gospel. Be consistent, or forget it. You aren’t going to reach a new PR or hardest route every session, but you still have to show up regularly. A good rule of thumb is the following…
Year 1: 1-3 days per week
Year 2: 3-4 days per week
Year 3-5: 4-5 days per week (with rest weeks)
Year 5+: You’ll have it figured out by now 🙂
Lesson 4: Don’t get injured. Just don’t.
During that first winter training season of 2012-2013, I started to see some small issues arising in my elbows and shoulders. A physio diagnosed me with tendonitis (internal elbow inflammation) and prescribed acupuncture and physio exercises to help reduce the pain and help me recover. She also noted that my shoulders were not overly in good shape. Likely the result of a combination of a sedentary desk job, and an old biking injury where I crashed onto my head on Moose Mountain.
With some opposition work, I started to see some small improvements in my flared up elbows, however, this was an unfortunate shadow of issues to come as I started pushing hard into the upper 5.12 range. My lack of upper body foundational strength was going to become a factor.
Lesson 5: Good form is far more important than almost anything else in climbing if you want to avoid injury
2013 was a good year. I was more consistently out climbing with some of the friends I had met at the climbing gym, and I managed to tick my first 5.11a, as well as a number of mid-5.10 climbs as well. While this wasn’t exactly a breakthrough season, it was consistent, and looking back it was overall excellent for both my headspace and my ability.
Lesson 6: Deal with your headspace issues early in your climbing career. Lead everything, take the lead falls. If you let your fears and anxiety write the story of your climbing journey, those demons will become harder and harder to shake every year that goes by
A major life shift at the end of 2013 lead me to move to the small mountain town of Canmore Alberta. An extremely mountain-centric community nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, and surrounded by massive limestone walls. Little did I know that this move to Canmore, and my 2014 season was going to be a massive leap forward.
Lesson 7: Make climbing an important part of your life. Move somewhere closer to climbing, if that’s what it takes to reach your goals.
In early 2014 before the snow had even melted, I took a trip up to the lookout at Echo Canyon with my friend Tyler. Tyler and I tackled a number of easier climbs before I decided to go for broke and jumped on “No Love”, which I somehow managed to onsight – my very first 5.11b. At the crag that day, I met two people who would play a pivotal role in my season to come.
This was the beginning of what I would consider a true mentorship that I am still immensely grateful for. Without that 2014 season spent with these two people – Nancy, and Doug, projecting my way through grades I never thought possible, I never would be where I am today.
Lesson 8: Mentorship is a critical step in your journey. It is often hard to find, but if you do, hang on to it. When you are ready, offer it to others.
The Quantum Leap
Doug had a system where he would spend every season starting at around the 5.11b grade, and working his way up through the grades, 2 at a time, as far as he could go in a season. At this point, I had never projected anything in my life. My climbing had consisted of trying to onsight a route, and if I failed, never trying again. The concept of getting on a route with no expectation other than “get the rope up” and start working out the moves over a number of tries or sessions had never occurred to me.
Doug is an extremely experienced climber and was pretty adamant this was the way to see real progress. It turns out he ended up being more correct than I imagined. I joined him in his quest and we banged off an impressive tick list throughout the season… starting with my humble 5.11b early in the spring, and culminating with a huge list of climbs I never could have imagined ticking.
- 5.11c – Holey Shit, Grassi Lakes
- 5.11c – Yoshimi battles the pink robots, Echo Canyon
- 5.11d – The Harlot, Grassi Lakes
- 5.11d – The Kinematic Wave, Bataan
- 5.12a – Tetris , Echo Canyon
- 5.12a – Raw, Grassi Lakes
- 5.12a – Suicide Bomber, Lakit Lake
- 5.12b – Hickory Dickory Dock, Acephale
- 5.12b – The Power of Youth, Echo Canyon
The key to this season was simply persistence, mileage, TONS of days outside and having the right partner. Little did I know at the beginning of the season that I had the ability and strength already, I just simply hadn’t applied myself yet to wrapping my head around the projecting process. Some of these projects went down in only a handful of tries, vastly shifting my perception of what was possible.
Lesson 9: Mileage is everything. There’s no substitute for getting on real rock, as much as you possibly can. Make it a priority, do it often.
Even though i’d now ticked a number of 5.12a/b’s by the end of 2014, I didn’t even consider the idea that 5.13 would ever be realistic for me. It turned out I wouldn’t really have another massive season of progression for 4 years. How to climb 5.13… no idea. At least not yet.
2 steps forward, 1 step back
2015 would be a difficult year for me. I went through a divorce and other significant life changes. To add insult to injury, I ended up contracting Mono partway through the summer, which reduced me to a pile of goo for the majority of the season, unable to do much of anything. Turns out Mono is dangerous as an adult, and I spent about 2 months doing little more than sleeping.
My old mentor Doug and I teamed up for one big highlight on an otherwise difficult season – an off-the-couch on-sight ascent of “The Tall Storey” in Echo Canyon. This is a classic 8-pitch 5.11c that I had low hopes of nabbing, but the on-sight was an absolute high-point in my so far mind-altering climbing career.
Lesson 10: Enjoy the little victories. You can’t always consistently make those big strides. Sometimes, you just have to take the small victories and make the best of them.
How to climb 5.13… er 5.12c
Over the winter of 2015-2016, I did my best to make up for a difficult 2015 by training has hard and often as possible at the local climbing gym – Elevation Place. My training consisted mostly of doing pyramids and TONS of enduro laps at the climbing gym, and a little bouldering. Progress was slow, but I knew I was at least keeping my baseline not too far off optimal.
Lesson 11: When life gives you lemons… make lemonade. Had a shitty outdoor season? Yep, welcome to the club. Head back to the gym, and keep going. It WILL pay off.
Elevation Place gym has a reputation for being a little sandbagged, and all this sandbagged training definitely paid off in 2016 with another high point in my climbing career, my first 5.12c.
My partner Jolene consenting to be towed along with me on the gruelling 1.5 hour hike to Echo Canyon to belay me on a project I wanted to try – Atlantis. This route is a classic 5.12c that I wasn’t sure would be possible for me. I fell off near the bottom on my first few tries, but quickly the route started to come together for me as I put the pieces together.
3 days, and around 6 tries later, the route went down. In no small part to Jolene’s incredibly patient belays while I went through all manner of emotions and fears of failure. Finding a no-hands rest before the crux, and getting up to Echo as much as possible were the primary catalysts to finding success and sending the route extremely early in the season… only April!
The remainder of 2016 was less about sport climbing and more about climbing a huge range of exciting alpine routes with Jolene. We took a week long trip to the Bugaboos, which culminated in 3 awesome routes and ended with a short trip to Rogers Pass to climb Mt. Tupper.
2016 was a highlight in many ways. Even with the success of nabbing my first 5.12c/7b+, I personally felt the lack of pushing my sport grade. I resigned (again) to train as hard as possible over the winter of 2016-2017 in hopes of pushing my limits again in 2017.
Injury Strikes Twice
Unfortunately, my over-stoked & obsessive training season over the winter of 2016/2017 resulted in a return to the problems I began to see in 2014. Those weak shoulders I mentioned? They had finally gotten the best of me. Labral tears in my right shoulder resulted in a massive strength drop and the beginnings of what would amount to pain that remains to this day. I’ll speak more about it in Part II, but this was mentally a big setback, and physically a major stopper for close to an entire year.
Lesson 12: DON’T GET INJURED… broken record yet?
How to climb 5.13 with what seemed like chronic shoulder weakness and injury was going to be a difficult question to answer.
Despite being a relatively poor sport climbing season, 2017 was full of adventure in the form of buying a van, outfitting it, and a number of fun short climbing trips and routes including River Run (5.10d), Takakkaw Falls (5.7), an Attempt on the Tower of Babel (5.8) and ticking off the uber-classic Gmoser Route on Mt. Louis (5.9), a major milestone in my own personal climbing career. A difficult but ultimately amazing climbing trip to Squamish also highlighted our year.
Despite the adventures we had, my shoulder recovery was long, tedious, and consistently demotivating. Finally, late in 2017, I started to tick off 5.12c routes in the gym that I started to feel like I was beginning to recover. It was going to be a long process. How to climb 5.13? Still not sure. It turned out to be both harder and more attainable than I ever thought.
In my next post, i’ll go into detail with my training regime in 2017/2018, and the events leading up to the best sport climbing season that both Jolene and I have ever had, sending 5.11a and 5.13a respectively. Hopefully this helps you answer the question… How to climb 5.13?