Tip 8: Climbing Your First 5.12

By Calvin Landrus


A couple of years ago in Eric Horst’s book, How to Climb 5.12, I read that the average climber should be able to climb at that level. I guess I’m average. This February, I climbed my first 5.12 (Heinous Cling – 5.12a) at the age of forty-four years old. What follows will be a muse of my journey rather than the typical “tip-and-go.”


When I started climbing in 1978, 5.12 climbers were considered world-class. Dreaming as only the young can do, I dearly wanted to taste the day I too would climb at that level. With all my life ahead of me, I knew I could do it. I never thought, however, that it would take me 27 years!

In the 1970s, trad climbing was the standard and the thoughts on training for hard sport-climbing were in their infancy. Ignorantly, I began to do pull-ups, increasing to the point where I was doing 200 pull-ups day. How stupid! You do need some bicep strength in climbing, but your forearms are the first to fatigue and feel like dead logs! One winter in college, I took a weight lifting class. I got bulkier and heavier; the result of which was that my spring climbing season began several grades below my expectations.

In the mid-eighties, as better training techniques began to surface in the magazines and plastic holds became available, I refocused and began to progress up the climbing grades. Being able to climb 5.10 became a regular habit. Occasionally, I would try an easier 5.11 and end up hanging several times doing a route. My gear-climbing and sport-climbing levels were about the same.

Then in 1990, I moved to Bend, OR where the sport-climbing mecca of Smith Rock was in my backyard. Now was the time to push myself into the harder grades! However, more important priorities came into my life. I was a pastor. Many think that ministers only work one day a week – on Sundays, but that is not the case. More importantly, Jan and I were blessed with having the priority of raising three young children. By choosing to focus on the most important things at that time, my climbing time was very limited. And with limited time, finding partners was even more difficult.

LIVING THOUGHT: Many things in life should take priority over climbing. Norman Vincent Peale said, "The man who lives for himself is a failure; the man who lives for others has achieved true success."

In the late nineties, a climbing gym opened in town. On the varying steepness of the gym walls which were fill with tape-marked holds, my journey towards 5.12 leaped forward. With the few hours I did have each week, I began to grow in my forearm power. That translated into climbing harder outside - easier 5.11s’ began to be red-pointed with regularity. My training for rope climbing emphasizes power-endurance. One great way to do this is to link four or five moderately hard boulder problems together and do all of them without stepping off the wall. Also, don’t waste time while your arms are de-pumping - train your calves! Stem in a corner or smear on low-angle instead of hanging out with all the “spray lords” on the couch.

Getting to the gym and then increasing my workouts were never easy! When I was training a lot indoors and climbing occasionally outside, my motivation would often wane. However, the thought of climbing harder than I ever had was a forceful voice that kept calling me back.

LIVING THOUGHT: For any athlete to reach the next level, they must be disciplined when it comes to training. Dr. John C. Maxwell says, “Discipline is doing what you really do not want to do, so you can do what you really want to do.” A little discipline will enable you to become a better climber but also will allow you to reap more in all areas of your life.

The last time I tried to red-point my first 5.12 was two summers ago. One attempt was going pretty well and I was feeling like I might send it. Holding onto a good hold for clipping, I messed up my foot placements and, suddenly, I found myself hanging on the rope, 15 feet lower. Wanting to work out the moves a bit more, I went up the route again, this time on a top rope. I was one move from easy ground, cranking hard on a three-finger pocket. Suddenly, a popping sound rang out. The tendons on my left ring finger had been injured. Having experienced injuries like this in the past, I knew my attempt to climb at a new level wouldn’t come any time soon.

After I recovered from the injury and was working towards climbing hard again, I stumbled on to a training tip that has paid huge dividends. Fellow Solid Rocker, Doug Englekirk, competed at climbing at the highest levels in the world during the 1990s. He was having finger injuries when the late training guru, Wolfgang Gullich, gave him a training tip. He suggested doing isolation hangs from each finger as a way to strengthen them.

Smith Rock is a very “fingery” place. Cruxes are usually small hand holds with even smaller poor foot placements. My fingers usually ached after climbing there. But, since applying this tip last summer, my fingers have never felt better. I no longer feel the need to tape my fingers.

TRAINING TIP: For strengthening the tendons/ligaments of your fingers for climbing, do isolation training on each finger. Hang from the first pad of the same finger on both arms. Don’t hang using all your body weight. Keep most of your weight on your feet and reduce the amount of force on your hands as you move to weaker digits. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, repeat 2 to 3 times. The best time for this to be done is at end of your work-out.

When I began to lead climb, it was ingrained in me that a leader never, ever falls. Being cautious in the routes you tried so that the protection and rope only came into play in the case of an accident. Although that is great advice for beginners and true in most climbing scenarios, not being willing to fall (or fail) was a limiting factor for me. As I began to get close to succeeding on the route “Heinous”, I decided to tie into the sharp end. The day I red-pointed it was the first time ever I climbed to the anchors without weighting a rope.

The crux on Heinous comes with the last bolt about a yard below your feet. On two attempts, I reached the crux but didn’t have the strength to pull through to the bomber holds. The result was twenty-foot falls. Although falling is never a natural act, it’s a great skill to acquire because of what you can learn. First, I gained confidence in my climbing system (rope, bolts, belayer, etc.). Also, I learned that I didn’t have enough endurance to rush to the top. Resting, where I barely could rest, became important beta to eventual success.

LIVING THOUGHT: No one's life is an unbroken chain of victories. We all experience setbacks... defeats... losses...failures. Nobody bats 1000%. We all make mistakes. Somebody once said, “Before getting up after a fall, take a look around and see if there is anything you can take up with you.” Failure is not a sign of weakness but can be a path to greatness. Or as Abraham Lincoln said, "The person who is incapable of making a mistake is incapable of anything."

When I sent Heinous, the enormity of personal satisfaction was not to be found merely in the physical achievement but in the focused effort it took to make it happen. However, upon later reflection, the literal insignificance of the accomplishment quickly took hold. In the scope of the climbing world, it is not significant. Considering all the world’s struggles, it seems like the old Kansas song - “Dust in the Wind.” What puts it into proper perspective is thanksgiving. I’m grateful for the great winter climbing season we had at Smith. I appreciate all who belayed me and gave me beta for the route. I’m thankful to the Creator for giving me a body to use for climbing and rocks to ascend. I give thanks to my Lord for giving me the opportunity to accomplish this goal!

CLOSING THOUGHT: The more you recognize the Source of all the good things, the more you will enjoy life. In the Bible these words are written: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17) The greatest gift you can ever have is to know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.


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Date Posted - 12.24.13

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