The Journey to Send my first 8a/5.13b

~ By JonnyPublished June 3, 2020


Last year, in 2019, I made the decision to start putting in some honest effort into sending my first 5.13b. I had tried a couple, including The Hood at Acephale, and a few others, but hadn’t really ever thought of myself of even capable of 5.13b up until this point. As I alluded to in my previous post “How to climb 5.13” i’ve always been very weak (in general), and especially weak compared to most people who climb the grades I do.

I did a lattice assessment at one point to see where I fell on the strength totem pole. To quote Tom Randall in a Skype coaching session after I told him I was only holding 120% of my body-weight for 7 seconds when I sent my first 5.13a… “Hmm, yes, that is actually rather abysmal isn’t it?

Over the next season or two from writing this post, I am looking forward to consolidating my “pyramid” with more routes in the 5.12+/5.13- range. However it can be tricky because the Bow Valley Climbing Season often only really lasts from mid-April until mid-September, or early October on good years. Between that and working full time, it can be hard to determine what to prioritize… projecting harder routes, or spending time on easier climbs to round out the pyramid.

2019/2020 for me was about the former… trying hard, and doing something truly hard for me.

A few days before sending, day 6 & 7 of redpoint burns on The Stepping Stone.

The Stepping Stone

Early in the season in 2019, my good friends and climbing partners Shane & Bart started working The Stepping Stone at Echo Canyon. To be totally honest, this route is a bit of an anti-style for me. It is a route that has stymied many strong climbers who could typically do 8a in a day or two, forcing them to return over several days to finish it. The moves themselves aren’t too hard, but putting the whole rig together can become a bit of a tour de force, and my story is no different.

The route focuses heavily on power endurance. After a short 5.10+ intro section to a no hands rest, the meat of it begins with a vertical section of 5.12a to a mediocre shake out below the roof. The roof leads into powerful, slightly overhanging back to back V5 boulder problems on tiny holds, and a V4 final boulder on micro crimps that guards the exit moves to the chains. All in all, a 5.12a followed by around 16 hard moves in a row with very poor shakes along the way.

Jakob Learned getting close on his second day on the route.
Photo by Jay Metcalf, chilling out at the no-hands rest.

I like routes where I can find all kinds of sneaky rests, not routes that force me to pull hard on stacked, straight pulling moves on tiny holds and crimps.

This style of climbing really forced me outside my comfort zone in a very big way. I had to change tactics a number of times working on it until I finally put all the pieces together and sent it. I couldn’t just find a way to rest on every move, I had to nail down the sequence so perfectly, that I wouldn’t get pumped while executing a long sequence of moves near my maximum so I could still pull some of the hardest moves at the very top.

Injury

I started working the route in April 2019, and in May, “tragedy” struck as I manged to pull/tear my ring finger A3 pulley on the tricky under-cling move.. the first crux of the route. It was a tough blow, and caused me to take a big step back almost immediately, rapidly stifling my dreams of doing the route quickly.

I tried the route a couple more times before the summer, but pain in my finger made me unable to complete the moves. I ended up spending a couple days on the route pre summer, not making much progress.

As it turns out, my fingers were actually… REALLY weak. Too weak to really do the climb, something I would have to fix before I had a shot or risk further, more permanent injury.

Summer in Squamish

Our summer plans had us taking 2 full months off of work. Sort of a sabbatical after so many years working without any real vacations. Our plan was to spend a bit of time in the Rockies, climbing at our favorite crags, then heading to Squamish for a few weeks to truly disconnect for a while.

Finding perfect Cracks in Squamish. Exasperator (5.10c) on the grand wall.

The timing of my finger injury was not great, a few weeks before we left for Squamish. However, the weather ended up not being that great in June, and it was just in time for us to leave town and head to Squamish, where the weather ended up being absolutely perfect.

Summer trips to find Granite Perfection

Crack climbing in Squamish ended up being the perfect “finger” therapy, taking my focus away from hard crimping and focusing on jamming my fingers into shaky hand jams. The weeks flew by, and by Mid August, we were back in the Bow Valley, ready to jump back on our outdoor projects.

Shut down

After returning from Squamish, we ended up with about 3-4 weeks of decent weather and weekends to get back on the projects. A couple of days at Echo saw my finger well enough to try hard again, but I ended up spending a lot of days falling without being able to send the first crux from the ground. The route requires you to climb a 5.12a section flawlessly enough to be completely fresh going into the first V5 crux, and I just couldn’t get there, always a bit too pumped and falling off that first boulder problem.

Finally, on the very last weekend of good weather in Mid-September, I managed to stick the first crux from the ground, and I was absolutely elated. Then the next day I manged to not only stick the second crux, but I fell going for the very last move at the end of the 3rd crux of the route. So close I could taste it. Sadly, the next day the weather closed in and it snowed, effectively shutting down the climbing season until 2020.

Although it was a heartbreaker to get so close and then get shut down at the very end of the season, it was the kick in the ass to finally change something. I had always “Trained” and spent time getting stronger over the winter, but this time I was motivated to really focus on my weaknesses and get some real strength to send it as quick as possible in 2020.

The second (and hardest) cTRrux on The Stepping stone. A micro crimp, a high smeary foot, and a deadpoint to a sharp crimp.

No Train, No Gain

Dave Macleod put out a great video a few years back on “how to hangboard“. He spoke of how he had plateaued at around 5.13d for a number of years. He committed to hang boarding (max hang protocol) for 6 days a week for an entire season, or around 6 months. After this season of training, he progressed to 5.14b, and then 5.14d the following season. A massive improvement, and “A revelation” for him.

I decided that I was going to commit to the “daveboard protocol” for a full training season. 3-5 days per week of max hangs on my training edge, gradually increasing the weight/intensity as I went.

The process was gruelling, to say the least. I documented most of it in another post where I have some graphs and data from it. I had a crazy regime where I would run home almost every day at lunch, bang out a 35 minute max hang set, a few weighted pull ups, throw together a massive salad lunch, and run back to work. It mostly sucked, honestly. Hangboarding is hard, and most of the time it feels like failure and misery, at least if you are doing it right 😉

But, it works. Slowly, steadily over the months I made progress. Sometimes negative, but in the big picture, shockingly positive and progressive. Whenever I would manage two full max hang sessions without failure, I would add 2.5lb (1kg) to my training weight, and then repeat the process.

The result is that I went from a 7 second maximal hang of +22kg in September 2019, to a whopping +42kg in April 2020. An improvement from 120% of my body weight to over 155%!

Putting it together: Sending 5.13b/8a

2020 was obviously an incredibly unique year. The lockdown and quarantine associated with the pandemic meant that there was no outdoor climbing, no climbing at the gym, and a lot of time at home. In some ways, this ended up being a huge benefit for me. I had gotten a small finger “niggle” in December after doing a little bit too much climbing at the gym in addition to my intense hang-boarding protocol.

The lockdown forced me to do nothing but core/upper body fitness and pure hangboarding for 2 months straight until April when things began to lift.

The very last day of April, I got back up to Echo for the first time, and tried the project again. I had absolutely zero endurance, but surprised myself by not only repeating the first crux on my second burn, but doing the move open handed and fairly easily. This section had me full crimping hard previously. Clearly the hang-boarding had paid off in a big way.

Over the next several weeks, I made the trek up to Echo canyon about 8 times. Each trip, getting one move higher as my endurance came back and I was able to apply my newfound finger strength to the project directly.

On June 02, 2020, I finally put all the pieces together and sent the route after 6 quality days of red-point burns in the season. The Stepping Stone, my first 5.13b/8a. After all that work, all those tries, the send burn felt incredibly easy. I even ended up changing my beta a number of times in the last few sessions, small tweaks to body positioning, and getting the last/3rd crux of the route absolutely dialed.

Lessons learned

I have to say, such a long process meant that I learned an incredible amount of things about myself, and the process of working at or near your limit.

  • Some things don’t come easy, or fast. My previous hardest climb (Timber, 5.13a) took a total of about 15 tries over maybe 7 days to do. Stepping Stone probably took closer to 50 tries over 15+ days and two seasons and an injury. Even though I would have loved to do the route much faster, I am grateful for the process as I would not have learned so much had I done it quickly.
  • Find a route that inspires you and you care about. If you are gonna settle in for the long haul of doing your “hardest thing ever”, you better care about the route. Don’t commit to session after session on a route you don’t even really like climbing. I’ve tried routes that it was clear I just didn’t really like enough to pursue, and it was better I quit sooner than later.
  • Sometimes, you really are just too weak. For the Stepping Stone, I was a bit too weak in 2019 to do it. Full crimping every hold and barely holding on to most of the holds was a result of weak fingers and core, and it was something I had to work HARD at to train over the winter to be able to do the route.
  • There’s always more to learn and tweak. After 15+ days on the route, I still was adjusting beta on the very last burn before I sent. The send coming as the result of two small shifts in body positioning at the 1st and 3rd crux making it all come together.
  • Sometimes, you have to change tactics completely. What worked before, might not work again. I was so used to long technical routes that allowed me to find plenty of resting positions. This tactic didn’t work on this route. I had to learn to just keep moving, and get more efficient at hard moves to put it all together in the end.
  • Put your ego on the back seat. I’m sure most of us have dealt with this in one form or another, but a lot of people started the route after me and sent long before I did. It’s ok, climbing and projecting at your limit is a very personal thing. Don’t let other people’s success (or failure) dictate your own. Don’t let other people pressure you into feeling bad about not sending it as fast as them.
  • Most importantly, you have to trust the process. Don’t be too discouraged if it feels way out of your league at first. Get on the route, do it again and again and again, commit to the process. At some point, you will suddenly find the moves getting easier and easier to the point where it just all comes together. Trust the process, allow yourself to learn, slowly putting the pieces together until the work pays off.

Here’s a great sequence shot by Shane Hourigan of the redpoint crux, the last hard move on the Stepping Stone before you exit the hard climbing.

Setting up
Stand up into it
Reach for the last crimp
Shane on The Stepping Stone
Shane Hourigan climbing the Stepping Stone, 5.13b, at the Lookout in Canmore Alberta


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4 thoughts on “The Journey to Send my first 8a/5.13b

  1. Pingback: How to climb 5.13 // Part I - Alpine Journals

  2. Pingback: How to Climb 5.13 // Part II - Alpine Journals

  3. It’s really helpful how you broke down the step-by-step progression and show all the preparation that went into this. I’m a total newb at climbing, so new I probably can’t even call myself a newb just yet. I love stories from seasoned climbers who share all the ups and downs. Great pictures too!

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