I am a fit 60 year old and have been climbing for 20 years. Last season I tried hard to lead 6a trad and 7a sport. I did onsight F6c but hit a barrier with 7a which has left me feeling very unmotivated. I have to take medication which causes some muscle weakness and fatigue, and I don't think I'm going to get any stronger. A few years ago I lost enthusiasm and overcame that by making my goal to climb elegantly rather than harder, but I don't know how to proceed this time. I don't want to give up completely. Can you help and if so what would be the best format?
This is a fascinating question and one I need to think hard about. To be honest it’s a toughie and as I haven’t quite reached 60 yet, I can’t talk from personal experience but I’ll try to offer some advice.
Firstly, I like your practical and realistic approach to your climbing. I think you have adopted the right tactics and it goes for everybody that climbing ‘elegantly’ is a great way to improve your climbing standard.
I hope you have managed to consolidate this style and feel it is working.
Now, to onsight f7a, you need to be able to regularly climb English technical 6a. This is no mean feat and isn’t easy, whatever age you are! So how do you do it? Well you are lucky that you have 20 years of experience behind you but as we all know we can pick up bad habits, that hinder us more than we realise. I am not a sports physiologist and I obviously don’t know the ins and outs of your medication side effects but I suspect you already have good musculature for climbing, as the level you have reached is pretty good. So what you need to do is make sure that you are using what you have to it’s fullest potential. I also have a sneaky suspicion that with some extra focus on weights, you would be able to increase your strength even a little but this could be the clincher to make a difference.
So practice makes perfect…you need to be climbing a lot of English 6a moves because:
A. It teaches you how to climb at this level competently and confidently.
B. It enables you to mentally prepare yourself for what maybe coming up.
C. It helps you to make sure you have enough in reserve to be able to hang in there and do these hard crux moves and
D. It helps to give you realistic goals as you understand the level of difficulty you will come across
So you need to get on this terrain, ideally at the crag on the sort of routes you aspire to do. This can either be by following your slightly better mate, or top roping the routes, or just throwing yourself in at the deep end and giving it a go. This last option is admirable but only worth doing if you feel you are ready and able to climb at this level, if not it’s a little disheartening and kind of pointless. Also, you can spoil those routes that you really want to onsight by blowing them too early.
Assuming you can get this practice, you then need to analyse why you are failing to do the moves. This is the tricky bit and being able to do this is an art and what helps to make good climbers great.
If you find you get to the moves and you have no idea how to do them and can’t work out the sequences, then this is down to a lack of technical ability. And this is why practicing a lot will help to teach you how these moves are made possible. As you say it’s a fairly big jump form f6c to f7a and the moves can be very blind. So you have to have the stamina to be able to hang around and work things out but you also need to have the strength to do it once you’ve decided on your winning sequence.
If you find you CAN work out the moves quickly but you just can’t physically do them, then this is obviously a strength/power issue. You need to work out where your deficiencies are, generally fingers, biceps and or back!
Footwork is key. If you feel you are at the upper limits of your strength reserves constantly then using your feet properly will help you utilize the strength you have to it’s utmost. I say this a lot but I am one of the weakest climbers I know and yet I can still manage to drag myself up some pretty hard routes every so often. This is down to my footwork, my economy of movement and canny thinking. I never use any more strength than I have to, even on easy routes, this guarantees I always have quite a bit in reserve when I need it and being able to think laterally while you’re climbing really helps as you find rests and extra holds that most people never see. So what sometimes seems like an impossible move, with a little thought becomes relatively easy.
The last thing I would like to say, is possibly a little controversial. But having a grade as your goal can be a hindrance more than a help. We all need goals but they have to be realistic and we need to remember that the process is important. Also, there are ‘whole’ grades in between the 6b’s, 6c’s, and 7a’s etc. Try to consolidate at f6c+ too, this is an important grade in itself and can equate to a tricky E4 6a at times, so mustn’t be underestimated.
So, there is a lot to take in here but I hope you can take something from this and apply it to your climbing.