The best performers in sport are usually masters of anticipating upcoming difficulties (or the opponent) and developing novel strategies for winning. Climbing is no different. To just “climb a route as it comes at you” is akin to playing chess one move at a time. Of course, the best chess players think many moves ahead, anticipate the challenger’s actions, and constantly visualize the best strategy for a successful outcome. In this way, you must learn to think like a chess player in the vertical extreme!
The first step is to gather information about the boulder problem or route relating to the location of holds, rest positions or shake outs, and protection or bolts, if it’s a roped route. View the climb from three different perspectives—straight on, from the left, and from the right—and scan for hidden holds in corners, around arêtes, above and below bulges or anywhere else they might hide. If you’re preparing for a roped climb, be sure to identify the location of bolts or possible protection and try to surmise the body position you will assume at each location. Finally, attempt to locate rest stances and try to figure the ideal position in each case. Consider the possibility of a heel hook, knee lock, stem, or any other position that might provide a thank-god rest. While none of these moves or rests is guaranteed to be correct, the act of mentally assessing the situation empowers you to climb with more confidence and a greater sense of “knowing” what’s likely ahead. Most important, spend plenty of time trying to identify the crux section and then determine the ideal sequence through it.
As you decipher the best-looking sequence, keep an open mind for alternative possibilities—does there appear to be enough holds to finesse your way through the crux or might you need to make a lunge or jump move? If the right sequence isn’t obviously, then try to visualize two sequences through the apparent crux section, and then make the choice of which to use when you get there and feel the holds.
Two more tips: If there’s an obvious hold for one hand (e.g. say it looks like a deep pocket should be grabbed with the right hand), consider for a moment how it might be climbed with the other hand (left hand in the deep pocket, in the above example) in that hold. Finally, don’t get stuck in the bottom-up paradigm when figuring sequences—sometimes it’s easier to unlock a puzzling sequence by mentally down climbing from an obviously good hold or rest above.
This skill of “reading” a route is one part visual intelligence and one part climbing experience. Over time you will develop the ability to decipher the correct sequence of moves up at least the first part of many climbs and, perhaps even all of a boulder problem or short roped route. Commit to visualizing and mentally rehearsing every boulder problem or route, regardless of grade, and you will eventually become a chess master on the rock!
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