Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ueli Steck demonstrates the rest step - NOT

Ueli Steck is making a name for himself. He's pushing faster and faster times on what used to be testpiece alpine routes. He's a visible part of each generation's trend to push beyond perceived barriers. This process is interesting to examine, and attempt to guess the relative weight of physiological versus psychological factors, as well as their interaction.
This isn't a brand new video. While many of the climbing scenes are obviously posed, based on his pace on these formations, it's not that far off. Whether it's posed or not, it's pretty entertaining to watch Steck hustle up these daunting routes. He is most certainly not doing the rest step and he is likely violating the "three points of contact" rule occasionally. A while back, he was in Yosemite. Day one consisted of a "warm-up" run up the Nose. Day two was on the Nose again, to try to pick up speed. I like where he is going with that attitude.


I was reminded of this video after reading a guest feature in Alpinist by Boulder's Peter Beal. Beal touches on author Malcolm Gladwell's explanation of pushing beyond perceived limits
using the concept of critical mass in group psychology. I think that there are more pieces to the puzzle.

  1. Training is more and more intelligent these days, and athletes have a better understanding of where they need to focus their time and energy.
  2. The number of people participating in athletic activities has increased exponentially over the past century. We live in a world where there is a socioeconomic condition that allows millions to participate in what were once called "fringe sports", like climbing. Of those millions, there are now many participants that may have had the genetic potential to be a gold medal athlete in other sports, but their passion, focus, and attention is focused on climbing.
  3. Now you start throwing in the idea of group psychology to smaller cliques of high-end climbers, and it really nurtures the process of moving into the next level of speed and difficulty. Peer pressure can really help us reach a new threshold.
Putting oneself in the right environment, for training and peer encouragement, can have an enormous effect on our performance. But we can not forget intelligent training. There is a physiological component that must be in place for the psychological effect to work.

Beal's piece is fun because it turns to the creative mind of business consultant and author Jim Collins, another Boulder resident. Towards the end of the initial free-climbing rush in Eldo, Collins and the Gunks' John Bragg were checking out Genesis as a potential free climb. Collins saw a possibility of freeing the climb, after Bragg asserted there was a chance. He realized how hard it was going to be, (or so he thought), and so began a siege on the climb. Ultimately, he pulled a trick on himself. Collins, as a student, was already cognizant of the historical transition from "impossible" to "not that hard" in the younger sport of hard rock climbing. He thought of Roger Bannister's world record sub four-minute mile, after which the world record was broken six times over the next ten years. He actually visualized (props and all) that it was 15 years later in time, to remove the pressure of breaking through the perceived barrier of a route that hadn't gone free. After dedicated work, including the visualization approach, he sent. Indeed, after 15 years, the route saw many free ascents, including onsights. For Collins, he trained smart and specific, and his final piece was the psychological component, one he felt was critical for this step.

So, what can we accomplish when we start to imagine that the barriers have long been broken and everyone else is operating at a higher level? Being in Boulder, I enjoy being around numerous climbers that can circuit 5.13 or V10. Living in Jackson, it was cool to be surrounded by tons of skiers that wouldn't even tighten their boot buckles on [real] 55 degree terrain. This just sets the stage to start pushing barriers. When "super hard" becomes a "warm-up" as a result of our peers/mentors/coaches and our training reaches a highly refined standard, we can expect great things and learn more about ourselves. Look at Steck. I would be surprised if he didn't expect certain climbs or workouts to become "warm-ups" over time. As a result, the great alpine faces of the Alps are turning into workout tracks.

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