How to climb 8a/5.13b (after an injury, several years, and an extra 10kgs)

I’m 39 this year, and although certainly not ‘old’ by most standards, all the realities of aging and the impacts of that process on my high-performance climbing capabilities and training journey are starting to become evident. I’ve had some pretty big ups and downs over the past few years, which I talk about in some of my other posts on training and progression. But since sending my first 5.13b back in 2020, and then a major shoulder injury at the end of that season, it has certainly been a lot more down than up. Fortunately, this year, I managed to somehow claw my way back into peak form – and possibly even beyond. Climbing my way back to sending two different 5.13b sport routes, as well as managing to tick a few more 5.13a’s and a couple dozen 5.12’s has been a bit of a journey to say the least.

The full uncut send of “Sphinx”, 5.13b at Mcgillvray Canyon in Canmore.

I think I learned a few things along the way, and I felt that it is a good time to share them now that the season is winding down and I’m headed back into training season here in the Canadian Rockies. Even though I wrote this article specifically around my journey and the 8a/5.13b grade I was focused on, I think the principles I’m focusing on here are relevant for even those just breaking into the 5.9 or beyond. It is intended for anyone who is curious about improving their climbing, regardless of age, grade, or number of years climbing.

Before I get into it, I think I want to reiterate a few key facts…

  • Many people come back from injuries stronger than before.
  • Many people climb their hardest grades in their 30’s, 40’s, and even in their 50s & 60s.
  • Many people climb their hardest grades after gaining weight.
  • Many people continue climbing well into their 70s or even beyond in some cases.
  • In many cases, the combined experience & skill you build over a long period is significantly more important to one’s climbing capabilities than just pure numbers-based physical assessments.

Quick note – I am not a professional by any stretch – although I have been climbing consistently for ~12 years straight, and hopefully my experiences and successes can provide some insight.

Craig demonstrates the critical importance of effective footwork on the crux trad pitch of “The Alt-left”, an 11 pitch 5.12a on the East end of Rundle.

Dispelling a major training falsehood

I find it a bit shocking just how much narrow-focused, misleading, or in some cases flat-out false information out there in social media land when it comes to advice for improvement in climbing. A lot of it is perpetuated by the recent deluge of strength-focused instagram-toting coaching companies that charge a lot of money to effectively ask people what grade they want to climb only to deliver a generic spreadsheet with some hang-boarding and “go bouldering more” as the best or maybe only way to get better or progress.

A lot of this focus can be traced back to our human tendency to search for simplicity and “magic bullets”. We also – as humans – often have a lot of difficulty seeing the bigger picture, and understanding the idea that big progress takes a lot of small steps over a very long time. It’s consistency that matters, not so much the exact variation of the thing you are doing.

From a complexity standpoint, pure strength training is a really easy thing for our brains to digest, which is probably why it often appears to be so successful for many people. All you have to do is follow these 5 steps and suddenly you will climb a grade harder right? In contrast to skill, tactics, and other “abstract” concepts, arguably so much more important, but absolutely an order of magnitude more difficult to actually quantify into actionable steps we can measure and see improvement.

To be clear, both strength and fitness are quite important in the bigger picture. But if you only listened to the current meta out there for climbing improvement, you would think that it’s the only thing that matters – it feels like it takes up 70-80% of the “pie” when it comes to tools in the toolbox to achieve higher grades and this simply isn’t true for the vast majority of climbers who are looking to improve.

I’ll even admit that I fall victim to this mentality. I’ve posted more than enough articles on this site that probably perpetuate these ideas.

The hard truth is that the vast majority of climbers out there are in the 5.9-5.11 (V2-V5) range, and for most of these folks, just training strength is almost universally the single least effective way to actually progress in climbign. For the 5.9, 5.10, and even the budding 5.11 climber, all the other factors not related to strength are almost always the real limitation when it comes to climbing improvement.

Jolene beating her headspace demons on her send of “Time-lapse”, her very first 5.11a in Cougar Canyon

A Better Way…

My thesis here is that there is a far better way to improve. Rather than making strength the central pillar of climbing improvement, focus on weaving your strength training around what I believe are much more important aspects of climbing – a foundation of consistency climbing on real rock, mental training (not just fall practice, but much more), skill & technique, focusing on footwork, and learning the fine art of resting effectively on harder routes.

Climbing, after all, is a skill-based sport, and that means that the better you are at it (all other things being equal), the harder grades you will be able to climb. So then, let’s start by distilling down a few of these abstract concepts into real-world actions that we can focus on.

  • Removing weight from your fingers is worth significantly more than getting stronger fingers. This one should be obvious, but it really isn’t always the thing people really think about. Learning to use your feet effectively to remove weight from your fingers is probably the single most important thing you can do. Think about it – the less weight on your fingers throughout your climbing session is going to pay absolute dividends not only on a single route but over the whole day.

    I could easily write an entire post on this idea alone but suffice it to say, learning to truly focus your weight your feet on climbs, moving between stances, working on micro rests, straight arms (and straight legs!), heel hooks, drop knees, and flagging are all going to make an incalculable difference in your climbing.
  • Novel moves – This one is from Eric Horst’s training books. The idea is that the more novel moves you come across and practice, the more adaptable you are to similar moves you come across in the future. Perhaps you figured out how to use your thumb in a particular way on a certain kind of hold on a route. Once you’ve mastered it on one route, you will come across the same thing (or slight variations) again and again and next time you will know exactly what to do.

    Why is this so important? The gist is that if you aren’t climbing enough, then you are not developing this library of movement skills. You can have the strongest fingers or biceps in the world, but if you don’t know how to put those to use, then all that strength is not really serving you that well.

    This goes to the necessity and criticality of focusing on GETTING OUT and climbing frequently in your preferred climbing medium of choice to build out and practice the library of novel moves, skills, and movement capabilities for climbing.
  • Effective resting – This one is my #1. Learning to rest on routes is probably the single most important skill set you can develop. Micro shakes, effective footwork to make use of mediocre rests, tricky footwork to maximize positioning, finding stances, and other techniques are quite literally the difference between sending and failing on most outdoor routes. This is something that can only come with practice and something you really have to put time into.
  • Mental Training – No, I’m not talking about fall practice. Fall practice is a good place to start, but real mental training is about SO much more. Heart rate management, calming your mind under stress, “keep going” attitude, maintaining composure when trying hard, focusing on one thing at a time, strategic climbing, route reading (both previewing and during the climb), memory training, and knowing when to try hard, and when to relax.

    These are all individual topics, and I’ll probably write an individual post on these by themselves at some point. But for now, suffice to say, training your mind is a huge topic, and deserves more attention than fingerboard training. I’d honestly argue that all these aspects of mental training are probably what should be the #1 focus for the vast, vast majority of climbers.
  • Picking things you are excited about – It’s easy to fall into the trap of climbing things you feel you “should” do – but at the end of the day, you will burn out quickly and climbing will start to feel more like a chore than something fun. Studies have shown that learning is significantly more likely and effective when you are having fun, which means if you aren’t having fun, you are cheating yourself out of opportunities to actually improve your climbing.
  • Avoiding tunnel vision – It’s easy to get down a rabbit hole of climbs too easy or too hard and develop tunnel vision. Either avoiding harder things (due to lack of mental training!) or just projecting something too hard for too long. The best approach to really improve is to vary your climbing – spend some of your time onsighting, or doing routes you can do quickly (1-3 tries) and then pick projects you feel you can do in 10-20 tries. If you are failing to make any progress after 5 or so tries, it’s probably time to ditch that project and move on to something else.

Revisiting my own past mistakes

After finishing up my first 5.13b in early 2020, the rest of the season was truly spectacular. Climbing multiple 5.12’s and a 5.13s relatively quickly, building the best pyramid of climbing I had ever managed in a season.

But then in September, while working on “Wedding Crasher”, an iconic 5.13a up at Echo Canyon, I made a big left arm gaston move and heard a tearing sound in my left shoulder. I had managed a major Labrum tear. I took a few days off, before returning and giving it a hail mary – managing to send Wedding Crasher just as the season closed, and my shoulder becoming almost completely unusable.

The next 2 years (thanks to Covid) were rough… I like to track all my climbing, and from the graph below, you can see how post-injury, my 2021 season dropped off almost completely with only 2 total 5.12a’s for the whole season, and a handful of 5.11s. I also managed to gain around 10kg of weight, going from my 2020 weight of ~70kg up to almost 80kg around 2021.

2022 was a little better, but again, injury and headspace shut me down almost entirely when it came to climbing harder routes. I only manage to do a few 5.12s and mostly just focus on lots of easier days with friends ticking lots of 5.10 multi-pitches and 5.11 crag days. A lot of fun, no doubt, but not exactly the high bar of achievement I was hoping for.

Climbing grades 2020 – 2023

The comeback… what worked this year?

So fast forward to 2023 – I managed to find my way back to a high point. I sent a 5.13b (sphinx) which was a real high point for me. Then another “soft” 5.13b (Pass the Dog), as well as several more 5.13a’s and a few dozen 5.12’s.

Am I really just stronger this year? Definitely not. In fact, I never did lose any of that 10kg I put on over the past 2 years, my finger metrics are much worse than last year, but I’ve still managed to have a massively better season than the last two, despite these “setbacks”.

So what gives? What did I do differently and what worked? Beyond just the injury slowly (VERY slowly) recovering, what changed for me? I think I figured out a few things that really made the difference for me, here’s how I would boil them all down.

  • Do what you want to do – Ok, this one is hard. You have to do what you want to, not what you feel like you “have” to. This could mean a lot of things, but for me, it meant that I had to focus on the type of climbing in the places that I enjoy the most. Not trying to push grades up at Acephale because that’s what everyone else wants to do, not just banging off a bunch of moderate multi-pitches (although those are a lot of fun!). For me, it meant turning down a lot of friend offers, and instead focusing hard on finding people who wanted to go to the same crags I did, and focus on the same kind of climbing.
  • Consistency isn’t just king – it’s Emperor – This one is, by far, the most important piece of the puzzle. Starting last fall in 2022, I simply stayed consistent. That meant, for me, climbing about 3-4 times per week, consistently trying slightly harder grades, but never too hard. Mostly just rope climbing in the gym, but never dropping the ball on getting out and staying consistent. I also was consistent in the TYPE of climbing I was doing. Never too hard, but always hard. Willing to call it when my body was tired. Never taking the easy way, but never over-exerting. I managed to do a LOT of 5.12 routes in the gym, including my second ever 5.12d (gym routes are hard) over the season.

    Most importantly, again borrowing from the above, it was also about doing what I knew I needed to do in the gym, not what other’s wanted to do. Maybe my partner wanted a volume day. That’s ok, i’m doing what I need to focus on.
  • Frequency MATTERS – This one kinda goes back to “do what you want to do” and is specific to projecting for me. There are seasons where I get really lazy about my goals and organizing the right partners, and I end up spending a lot of my days climbing routes that aren’t my project, and sometimes I don’t even get on my project for 1-2 weeks at a time.

    This doesn’t work at all, and this year I really saw the difference. When I did settle on something that was going to take a few sessions, I made sure that I was getting back on it at least 2 times per week, with sufficient rest and with the right partners. That means lining up those days, cancelling other plans, and the fine art of saying “no” to other people’s expectations, plans, and offers.

    I promise, those other people will still be your friend when you say no – but if you have goals, and you want to see them done, setting up boundaries and focusing your time, attention, and partners around your personal goals is going to be a super critical piece of the puzzle.
  • Managing injuries, not letting them manage you – This is a big one and a bit hard to articulate. Injuries have a tendency to shut you down both physically and mentally – the second issue being the bigger blocker. It’s not so much that the injury prevents you from climbing, it prevents you from even wanting to climb – be it due to fear, or pain, or just the loss of motivation.

    Importantly, this year, I chose to pursue things in my limit that didn’t aggravate my shoulder injury too much – and maybe more importantly, to focus on climbing tactically and using my feet more so than cranking hard and oft putting my shoulder into risky positions.

    That balance, combined with consistency meant that I was able to manage my injury, rather than letting it manage me. I never threw more at it than it could handle, and I made sure to really focus on warming it up before trying hard.

    In the end, as of writing this in September 2023, my shoulder feels better than ever after it had mostly plateaued for the past 2 years since the injury. I think the plateau was largely due to either pushing it too hard or simply avoiding using it altogether, while this year finding the balance between using it and resting it was probably the best physio I could have found.
  • Consistency: continued – When spring hit, we did a trip to Vegas (April) and did a lot of back-to-back days, mostly easier grades. When we got back, conditions were good for outdoor climbing, so I simply started going out, every week, at least 1-2 times, and consistently working my way through the grades. First dabbling in 5.12, but eventually only climbing 5.12, but always following the 50/50 rule.
  • The 50/50 rule – This one is from Jonathan Seigrist: Spend 50% of your sport climbing sessions and time doing routes you can do quickly (2-3 tries, a day or less), and the other 50% doing routes that you can do, but not quickly (projects). For me, this means a split between 5.12 and 5.13 – always spending half my time ticking stuff quick, and the other half working away on projects.

    This is important because both types of climbing can actually be pretty draining in different ways, and they both work different parts of your brain (and skill set)

    The quick send routes are really about doing things that you KNOW you can do quick. It’s about giving it your all on your first, second, third tries, and learning what’s probably one of the most important mental techniques i’ve personally learned – that is to “only remember what you need to”.

    When projecting, you sort of have to remember absolutely every little detail about every climb because you are so close to your limit. But for quick sends, it’s about figuring out the beta on the fly, managing your heart rate, and if you have to do it a 2nd or third time, not making the “easy” stuff hard. Instead, it’s just about memorizing just the essentials. Where are the rests? Where is it hard? What’s the sequence for the hard bit?

    On the flip side – projecting is about no real expectations, perfection, and really working on that “process-focused sessions vs. outcome-focused sessions” (thanks Hazel Findlay). I find that project focused days are really important, because compared to redlining on routes you know you can do quickly, project days are actually kinda relaxing (for me). It’s about micro goals, practice, strategy, and just having fun learning.
  • I stopped training… for now – This one is interesting. I certainly support training best practices, focusing on training, and using the consistency rules above… but for this past year, I really needed consistent, high-quality climbing sessions doing fun routes, rather than any actual training. I’m actually fatter (I gained 12kg since covid), and weaker, but I’m climbing FAR better than ever. What’s more important is that I actually had the time of my life climbing this year. I climbed phenomenal routes – and sent a lot of things quickly, and through this continued success feedback loop, I was able to work through a TON of my headspace issues and improve my footwork and skill work dramatically.

    See, the thing is that when you are only training strength or trying your hardest, you aren’t creating room for success. You might be getting stronger, but you aren’t seeing those results pay off repeatedly and learning how to apply all the skill and fitness to the wall.

    For me, this was all about figuring out sequences quickly and executing as fast as possible. Doing 5.12 routes as fast as possible, learning to try hard because in the 5.12 range, I know I can do them quickly and it helps me fight through those short cruxes because I’m not facing likely defeat, but rather success.

This was the magic formula this year. 50/50 rule, consistency, do what you want, and lighten the training focus (for now). Maybe this winter will be a hang boarding season again, and a return to try some open 5.13c projects for me next year. If that happens, I’ll write about it and share it then 🙂

Happy Sending!

Francois on Cosmos (5.13c) at Planet X in Canmore, Canada
Francois on Cosmos (5.13c) at Planet X in Canmore, Canada

3 thoughts on “How to climb 8a/5.13b (after an injury, several years, and an extra 10kgs)

  1. Pingback: Climbing my first 8a/5.13b - Alpine Journals

  2. I just wanted to thank you for posting this because this is the first time I have felt like I can resonate in some ways with someone else’s experience.

    I was at my personal peak in 2019, but life and the pandemic changed things, and I haven’t been able to hit the same grades since, despite trying not to rush things. More recently, I have tried to focus on going outside once a week with friends on top of going to the gym. I have also tried not to be too hard on myself for gaining 10-12kg (it fluctuates) over the last almost two years, which I have not been able to lose at all. It’s been hard to keep up with my friends.

    I try to keep good morale, especially since I recognize that I have some improved skills, such as being able to climb more dynamically when I was almost exclusively a static climber in the past. But honestly, it has been quite an emotional coaster. I feel like I have mostly been at a plateau with some small gains here and there. I also cannot seem to get back to the weight I know was healthy for me per my stature but also for my climbing.

    On top of that, since November 2023 (it’s almost Christmas now), I have had on-and-off injuries from maybe pushing myself too hard. So, I decided to get bodywork and rest, and I skipped two outdoor days with friends. I picked up swimming again since it isn’t so hard on my body and makes me feel great. I finally felt better about getting back into the swing of things after having a successful endurance session last week while working on lower grades and technique. Well, yesterday, I injured my toe/foot while warming up, and now I have a swollen foot that I can’t walk on. I realize some people have injuries that take them out for months or even a year or so. Still, I never used to get injuries, so all of this has been a surprise to me.

    Anyway, I hope I am not oversharing, but I feel like it’s been hard to explain to my friends and climbing partners how I have been feeling. In some ways, I feel like I have been shut down by my own body as I have experimented with different approaches. It some ways I feel more withdrawn than I used to be. In short, it feels nice to see someone figure out how to experience the joy of climbing again and reach their goals despite physical changes. It gives me hope that I can crush again one day.

    • Thanks so much Erika! I love this so much, and thanks for sharing! I feel like everytime I write something it is oversharing, but it’s just sharing your story and I love it 🙂

      I think you hit it on the head – it’s about experiencing the joy of climbing, which is really just about dropping the expectations and just focusing on what YOU want to do, where YOU want to do it, and with who YOU want to do it with! It’s ok to focus on what you find most important to you in climbing or any other sport.

      Thanks so much for reading and responding! I’ll try to keep up the writing – love hearing how it resonates with people.

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