Monday, November 18, 2013

Reflections from Bouldering

I've been spending a lot of time bouldering recently, a few times a week.  Besides strongly incentivizing me to lose 10 lbs, I have started to learn some interesting lessons, the hard way.

Indoor bouldering is like rock climbing, but the highest it gets is about 17 feet, the floors are padded about two feet thick, and there are no ropes.  That means I can show up whenever I want, alone, and climb for as little or as much time as I want, and not need someone to belay me.  It also means that the first few times you climb, it can be pretty unnerving because when you fall, you just fall, boom, onto the mat.  In fact I noticed that as I grew more tired during climbing, if I thought I wasn't going to be able to make it to the top, I would frequently climb or jump down while I still had control, even if I had some power left,  because I wanted to avoid being all the way at the top and having no strength left, forcing me to fall uncontrolled from the top, as opposed to falling in a controlled way from halfway up.  But, after you fall from the top a few times, this turns out to be a mistake: falling from the top doesn't hurt.  That's why they let you do it and don't get sued too often (although, the place is actually blanketed in cameras, in deference to our tort-happy society: just in case someone does something stupid and sues, they have you on record.)

But, the more interesting thing that I discovered was that the barrier to failure was often simply exhaustion rather than skill.  And this has a particularly interesting consequence: often, the best next move is making the next move.  As a beginner, your instinct is to stop at each hold, look around, and see where the next move is.  Which hold can you reach without falling over?  But, watching other skilled climbers in the gym, they do it differently: first, they study the route before they start climbing.  Then, once they're on their way up, they move gracefully and smoothly from one hold to another, and importantly, they keep moving.  While you're stopped, looking around, your arms are growing tired, your tendons are aching, the skin on your fingers is starting to grate under the hand holds.  And what I found, through brutal trial and error, was that I was much more consistently successful if I just kept moving.  In an indoor bouldering gym, the holds are laid out somewhat logically, but also somewhat deviously, so that it's not always obvious what the solution is.  But your brain moves pretty quickly, and without even realizing you're doing it, you're not even considering 9 out of the next 12 possible moves.  The extra 5 seconds that it takes per move to decide amongst those three remaining moves is probably the difference between near-complete exhaustion and complete exhaustion.  And complete exhaustion means failure.  I'm a big fan of stopping and thinking about what you're doing, but the lesson is, when you're resource constrained and time is not on your side, don't think too hard.  You might back yourself into a corner, but it's no worse than falling on your ass.

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