Breaking Through to Harder Grades


By CTT Athlete Melody Goudarzi

Melody attempts El Camino de Chino (5.13b), El Salto, Mexico. Photo by Cole Paiement.
Melody attempts El Camino de Chino (5.13b), El Salto, Mexico. Photo by Cole Paiement.

Editor’s Note:

Most of us struggle with attaining the next level of climbing. 5.10, 5.11, 5.12, 5.13, 5.14… In an effort to break into new grades, CTT Athlete Melody Goudarzi uses pyramid training, gym training, specific techniques, and travel to world-class destinations. Melody’s story, and related tech tips, are below.

I discovered climbing about five years ago, and it has given my life a path I never expected. Since my first exposure to the sport I’ve dedicated countless hours to climbing in the gym, as well as climbing outdoors, physically and mentally training, and educating myself about climbing by reading, watching Climbing Tech Tips videos, listening to podcasts, and pure observation.

Last year I made the decision to quit my job, move into a van, and climb full-time. In the past nine months alone, I have spent roughly 200 days climbing outside around the country. For more information on my Van Life and Climbing on the Road, here’s a link!

I am not a professional climbing coach, just someone who really loves this sport and has learned a lot from it. I want to share my failures and discoveries in hope of inspiring others, and helping them to push their climbing to new heights.

Maximize Rests and Clip Efficiently

Last autumn, I spent over a month climbing at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. The Red is mostly known for juggy climbs, up fiercely overhung walls. The style of climbing I enjoy the most is technical climbing on vertical or slightly overhung faces so, even though the walls at the Red were littered with huge holds, I found myself consistently getting spit off climbs because I could no longer close my grip. It was a frustrating experience, but it helped to teach me a couple important things. Specifically, how to maximize rests and how to clip efficiently.

Maximizing rests can start before you even leave the ground. When you first walk up to a new route, study it from the ground. If you notice there’s an area where holds start to get smaller or the wall begins to steepen, try to figure out where you can rest before getting to that section. Based on the nature of the route this technique might not always be possible, but it won’t hurt to spend a few extra seconds on the ground if it means you’ll climb more efficiently later.

Once you are actually climbing, rests can be used not only to shake out, but also to study the sections above. If I’m in a section of the route that feels easy, I often try to slow down and hang out on the good holds. This helps me study the next part of the climb. Usually if the route feels easier than the grade, you’re about to either get slammed with a hard boulder problem or sustained hard climbing to the anchors. As such, even if I’m not tired or pumped, it benefits me tremendously to utilize a rest and give myself some time to study what’s ahead.

During on-sight attempts, this means trying to read the beta to the next rest. With redpointing, this means remembering practiced beta to avoid mistakes. Either way, the best thing to do during a rest is to look up and study what’s coming next, because looking down at what you’ve already climbed won’t help you focus on getting to the anchors!

The last important part of maximizing rests is timing. When I’m working on a project there are times during my redpoint burns when I’ll get excited, think that I’ve rested enough, and move out of my rest sooner then I should have. This causes me to enter a crux section more pumped than expected, often leading to a fall. To help avoid this, I’ve added a rule for myself when I am in a good rest: when I feel like I’m ready to move out of the rest I’ll slowly count to ten, shake out again, and then continue climbing. Obviously this method is not always possible, as many rests are only good enough for a quick shake, but it is very helpful during those times when you aren’t sure how long is “long enough” to stay on a jug.

Besides maximizing rests, the other technique that has helped me reduce pump is finding the best clipping stances. I have the tendency to try to clip a draw as soon as my reach allows. This usually means I end up clipping off terrible holds and over gripping for the few seconds it takes to clip the draw. Generally, after that, I’ll make another move or two and find a stance with a jug or better feet. From there I probably could have clipped more securely, safely, and easily.

Extending quickdraws can also help with clipping efficiently. Often times a route can be bolted by a much taller person, and in these cases extending quickdraws is a useful way to allow for clipping off good stances. Sometimes an extra six inches of quickdraw can be enough to make a clip much safer and easier. Try not to go overboard with this; I’ve definitely seen someone extend a bolt with six draws, and that seemed a bit excessive!

Melody stick clipped and rehearsing beta before a redpoint burn on The Infidel (5.11d). Funk Rock City, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Melody stick clipped and rehearsing beta before a redpoint burn on The Infidel (5.11d). Funk Rock City, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

Try Harder Routes

When I was a 5.10 climber, the idea of climbing 5.12 felt unobtainable. Even after I was consistently climbing 5.11-, the idea of sending a 5.12 felt like a far-off dream. I don’t remember what inspired us, but one day my friend and I decided to try leading a 5.12a called Pretty in Pink at Echo Cliffs, near Los Angeles. I did pretty badly on it, falling a lot, yet somehow I made it all the way to the anchors. I was nowhere near sending, but I made it to the anchors of a 5.12 and suddenly, sending the route didn’t seem so far off if I was willing to put in some work!

I began studying training routines, and started taking my climbing a lot more seriously. It didn’t happen overnight, and took some serious training, but close to a year after I first tried Pretty in Pink, I found myself clipping the chains of my first 5.12a send. If it wasn’t for that first time, I might have never thought it was possible for me to climb 5.12. Getting on something I once thought was unobtainable and making actual moves on it, helped me realize what my weaknesses were, and what to focus on at the climbing gym. When I first got on Pretty in Pink, I was able to make a few moves from bolt-to-bolt but when it came to doing the hard moves in one sequence it felt impossible. This helped me realize my major weaknesses were coming from endurance and power endurance, which shaped a lot of my training.

Trying harder routes gives climbers realistic goals. Instead of just saying you want to climb 5.12, you have the ability to say you want to climb a specific 5.12 that perhaps you’ve been on. This gives you a clear goal to work towards. This can inspire and push you more than just an arbitrary goal.

It is important to note that my advice to get on something harder should be taken within limits. Someone who regularly climbs 5.11 would most likely receive few benefits from jumping on a 5.14. As such a maximum of one number grade above your NORMAL red-point grade is ideal for setting realistic goals, which are obtainable within a reasonable amount of time.

Pretty in Pink (5.12a). Echo Cliffs, California. Photo by Mike Lanoue.
Pretty in Pink (5.12a). Echo Cliffs, California. Photo by Mike Lanoue.

Check your Ego and Work on your Pyramid

About eight months ago, when we were in the Red River Gorge, I fell into a 5.12 ego trap. At that point, I had climbed about five 5.12- climbs. Therefore, the idea of projecting anything below that felt beneath me. So when I fell off a 5.11d on my 6th attempt, and failed on two other 5.12’s, I was furious at myself and was having a terrible time. It took a few weeks of being miserable before I decided to take a step back and reevaluate my climbing.

While my story is a little embarrassing to tell, hopefully I can help other climbers avoid frustrating themselves by falling into the same trap I did. I learned a few lessons from this experience, some of which seem pretty obvious to me now, but did not at the time. These three lessons helped me become a better climber, and enjoy the rest of my time at the Red:

The first lesson is that if you’re good at one style of climbing, it doesn’t mean you’ll be good at all styles of climbing. Before we arrived at the Red, I was climbing at the Fins in Idaho. The Fins is made up of beautiful, pocketed, vertical limestone and I excelled at climbing there. Arriving at The Red River Gorge was an immediate reality check. The Red is sandstone, steep, and powerful. The two places couldn’t be more opposite, yet for some reason I expected to climb 5.12- as effortlessly at the Red as I did at The Fins. Expecting to be able to climb a certain grade without accounting for the climbing style is a great way to fall into a trap of frustration, as well as to limit improvement.

The second lesson is to attempt to embrace failure and use it to identify your weaknesses. Just because you’re failing at a climb with a rating below your red-point limit, doesn’t mean you’re “too good” for the route and you should immediately consider it a terrible route because you failed on it. Most likely your failure was caused because the route targets your weaknesses. Climbers often search out routes that fit their strengths and refuse to try anything else. This method might allow a climber to reach higher grades, but also limits the number of climbs available to them and makes it more likely they will fail at an “easy” climb that targets their weaknesses, leading to frustration. Everybody has a climbing weakness, whether it is slab climbing, steep climbing, or off-width trad routes. Whatever the case is, putting your ego aside and working a route that seems “beneath you” will only benefit your climbing, especially if the route is considered a classic.

The final lesson from my trip to The Red was realizing the importance of the climbing pyramid. For those unfamiliar with the term, a climbing pyramid is sort of like the experience section on your resume. It shows your progression through the climbing grades and allows you to quickly see where you might be lacking. The image below shows my climbing pyramid during my stay at The Red (pyramid on the left) compared to my climbing pyramid as it looks today (pyramid on the right). Building up your pyramid is a great way to make sure that you have the skills necessary to tackle harder grades. Another great thing about building your pyramid is that it’s a nice, low-pressure thing to work on when you feel defeated on a project, or if you’re having a low energy day at the crag. Sometimes climbers need a break but still want to get on the rock and days like those are perfect for building out your pyramid.

Melody’s Climbing Pyramid, before and after The Red River Gorge.
Melody’s Climbing Pyramid, before and after The Red River Gorge.

Minor Successes are Still Successes

When I started working one of the hardest routes I’ve ever touched, Camino del Chino (5.13b) in El Salto, Mexico, it felt nearly impossible. It wasn’t until my third day of projecting that I was able to get to the anchors, and it wasn’t until day six of projecting I was able to successfully clip all the draws. Because of this, I felt like I was just consistently failing and making little-to-no progress.

What helped me through this battle was comparing my most recent burn, to the day before or even the first time I got on. At the beginning, these were very tiny successes. I would leave the crag thinking things like “I didn’t make it to the anchors, but I successfully made the crux moves”, or “I couldn’t clip the draw above the crux but that’ll be my focus for tomorrow”. Each time I came back to the route, it felt a little bit easier.

When I started doing redpoint burns and actually realizing I could send the route, I noticed these minor successes helped me stay excited after repeatedly falling. Instead of focusing on my failure, I could focus on how I made it one clip or one move further, or how I improved my beta to make a rest better or make a section a tiny bit easier. Eventually I was able to send the route, although it took many attempts over multiple days. I don’t know if I would have been able to stay motivated if I hadn’t been able to embrace these minor successes, especially during the last few attempts, where I was literally falling on the final moves.

If you’re able to look at projecting this way and make goals for yourself before your next project day, it can help make you feel like you’ve still succeeded even without sending. Projecting something that is at or even above your current limit can be extremely taxing and can sometimes make you feel discouraged. If you can break up the process and give yourself the minor rewards you deserve, it’ll make for a much better journey and help keep you stoked.

Melody on El Camino Del Chino (5.13b), El Salto, Mexico. Photo by Cole Paiement.
Melody on El Camino Del Chino (5.13b), El Salto, Mexico. Photo by Cole Paiement.

Most Importantly – Enjoy Yourself and Encourage Others

Climbing is a personal pursuit and we’re all in this because we love the sport. As great as it is to climb harder grades, it shouldn’t be the only reason you climb. Climbing is a beautiful sport that challenges us as individuals to face our fears, push our physical and mental limits, and see views from high places only a few have seen. Never lose sight of the reason you got into this sport in the first place! Sometimes it’s enough to just have a fun day once in a while to remind yourself that there is something beyond your current project.

As our sport gains popularity, there will be even more people discovering the rewards of climbing. Everyone was a beginner at one point. If you see someone struggle on an easy boulder problem, encourage them, don’t call them a “gumby” and roll your eyes. Don’t be afraid to give people advice if you see them doing things you know are dangerous. If you see someone belaying incorrectly or doing something dangerous, let them know and demonstrate the correct way if you have the knowledge. Showing them the correct way or respectfully explaining the dangers of climbing is much better than just calling them a “gumby” and letting them keep making the same mistake. Nobody wants to see an ambulance at the crag, especially if you could have done something to prevent it.

Thank you guys for reading this. I hope you can learn something and hopefully avoid making some of the mistakes I have made. These climbing tech tips should help you take your climbing to new heights (literally and figuratively). Stay stoked, stay safe, and keep crushing!