Friday 8 May 2009

The Zen arcade

Climbing media nowadays is awash with increasingly sophisticated advice on training on strength and stamina. Wisdom on technique is basic by comparison, and as a result folk keen to improve often focus on the physical aspects. Part of the problem is that strength training is so easily reductible in a scientific manner whilst technique is not. So first lets try to define technique; mine is simply that technique is efficient movement.

I look at climbing not as a simple physical challenge, but as a four-dimensional puzzle. On an easy climb there are any number of solutions, but as the climb gets harder the available solutions get less in number and demand greater precision in execution. Strength can help you bulldoze through but the really useful skill is to be able to find the most efficient solution quickly and repeatedly. This is the skill I'm most bothered about in my own climbing, and what I touched on in the previous post is that I don't feel its one that has especially improved over the years. I don't agree that this is because it is innate talent, it certainly wasn't for me, but I think it is the kernel of truth behind the old adage 'the best training for climbing is climbing'.

The subtleties of sequence choice and body-positioning are best left to the subconscious, as Bruce Lee put it 'don't think - feel', and the best way to get that to learn is to immerse it in the environment you want it to perform in. Long-term training on a board is likely to leave your subconscious confused when you get back on the rock, just as a summer on lime leaves you flailing on the grit. Malcolm Gladwell's recent book Outliers glibly suggested that elite performers in any discipline have one thing in common - not talent - but practice, and at least 10,000 hours of it. In Jerry Moffatt's book Revelations he recalls training endlessly in a cave at Stoney, confident that he is the only one of his peers so motivated, and later reaps the rewards in the USA.

Back when I was twenty and obsessed I put in far more hours, all on the rock, than I do now, and I'm sure that's the key to what I seek. Of those climbers that are putting the hours in now, how many are on unrealistic artificial surfaces? I'm sure that you have to spend at least 50% of your climbing time on rock to avoid loss of technique. My base level is high enough now for me to rest on my laurels at a respectable standard, and there's also a problem of dimishing returns in seeking out new problems locally to solve, so its not likely to change soon. In fact I'm quite looking forward to decrepitude setting in and pushing me back down through the grades and a new set of puzzles!

What has also intrigued me is how technique in climbing is analagous to composition in photography. Its another four dimensional puzzle that for me gets played out twice for each photograph. First there is getting yourself to the right place at the right season, time of day and weather. Secondly is settling on the right angle of view and precise positioning to resolve the elements within the frame and give a harmonious composition. I say harmonious but its an inadequate word, for many shots you may be trying to create a startling effect or a neutral one. If its a climbing shot a lot then rests on the timing at the last instant, plus recomposing on-the-fly to ensure that as the main subject moves they aren't upsetting the composition as a whole. On a landscape shot the final timing is also suprisingly fraught, I guess the final images give the impression that the making of the image is a calm affair - not usually! The final composition has to be tweaked to accomodate moving and reshaping clouds, wandering sheep etc, all whilst trying to capture what is usually fleeting good light and ensuring any wind effects on vegetation are as desired.

I'm sure lessons learnt in reading climbs have been used to good effect in composing photographs, and I'm sure in time compositional trials will further my pursuit of a more refined climbing technique. Some of my most productive times in both areas have undoubtedly been away on trips when I've been immersed in both on a daily basis.

I equate making it to a good location with the right gear in the right season to turning up to try a climb fit, strong and with the right boots. Success of sorts may be easy to achieve, whether the desired tick or a half-decent photo, but what will create real lasting satisfaction comes down to those last little elements, and ultimately, technique. Flashing the climb with an elegant sequence, or quickly settling on a really cogent composition, these are things that cannot be trained for but rely on regular practice in the field coupled with maintaining an open, creative mindset. Or as the Zen maxim goes:

'First develop a perfect technique. Then place yourself at the mercy of inspiration.'


Fiend said...

Good post. Always interesting to read this sort of philosophy. You are the Unc of technique lol.

So first lets try to define technique; mine is simply that technique is efficient movement.
Sounds like a good definition - it boils down to finding the way to perform a move with the minimum of overall physical effort.

bonjoy said...

Fine wordage again yoot. Good to hear an alternative perspective on the game.

cofe said...

'First develop a perfect technique. Then place yourself at the mercy of inspiration.'

Good blogging. That's how I felt at the weekend. Over time, you learn, make errors, learn some more, perfect technique and develop personal style. Then, when you're presented with many photographic opportunities and you have to come up with the goods, all of this development and experience takes over, almost like you're on autopilot. Sure there's invention, but it's invention born of experience. It's a buzz.

Must read Outliers.

uptown said...

Refreshing thoughts there Adam, a kindred spirit though neither of us would admit that...