How to Climb Your First 14a

[All photos by @Ladylockoff ]

There are things about sport climbing and redpointing that no other person can instill in one another, or at least no one had ever told me. Some people say trying hard is the only thing that you can’t teach, but in my own life I found more than that to be missing. There’s a drive, a devotion, a mental capacity and strength that isn’t always innate (especially for me). An ability to tell yourself that you can do something and actually believe it, even if it’s not logical.

In the past, I’ve had very negative experiences projecting. My failure to accept small gains or believe that a route was possible, led me half-heartedly to try but then eventually give up. I’d learned to sport climb without a mentor or anyone to explain how to adapt from bouldering and it felt like almost a different sport to me.

Before projecting a harder sport climb, my insecurities and lack of confidence held me back. There were many worries that came into my head:

What if I can’t do it?
What if it’s to too hard for me?
What if I pick the wrong route?
What if I just waste my time?

Last year I decided to challenge myself bouldering and I stepped out of my comfort zone. I tried something that made no sense. I couldn’t do any of the moves and I couldn’t figure out the beta easily either. It was a complete puzzle. But about 2.5 weeks of trying it later, my body had completely adjusted and my mind was open to the possibility and I was able to do it.

When we look at a route or problem as something measured more in time than in ability, the motivation shifts. The finish is always in sight. Success is constant, from each joyful moment of progression.

This year I wanted to experience the same progression but on a route. I hadn’t tried anything for longer than 10 days previously but then, I had failed. It had been a defeating process, leaving me more discouraged than before. I tried to pick routes at my ability but struggled. I wondered, am I ever going to climb something harder? I’d always found climbing on a rope much more stressful, each clip full of fear and anxiety, consequences greater, demands on time immense, far surpassing just a boulder.

© Irene Yee

After sport climbing for a few years sending consistently 8a, despite my boulder grade progressing steadily, I was climbing the same grades.

Then something strange happened, I got injured. In my injury I was climbing about V4 in the gym, taking it easy and careful of the pain in my knuckle from a collateral sprain. While only able to climb V4, I found myself sending an 8a. How could I still send an 8a, my top grade, and be about 1/3 as strong? It made no sense to me.

Out of curiosity and encouragement from my partner Molly Mitchell, not to mention the pure fact that the local Vegas crag didn’t have many climbs 8a+-8b, I picked an 8b+ project. Although 8b+ to many professionals is a warm up, this grade felt unachievable and intimidating to me.

The first day on the route, to be honest, went pretty badly. In fact, I kind of hated it. I couldn’t get to the top… or even the middle. I was even unable to place a draw in the crux section with the marginal holds available. Already about 30m up, there was no option to bring a clip stick or retrieve one as my rope was too short…

It started on a 7b+/12c pitch and I couldn’t even do the 7b+/12c for 3 days, a grade I can typically onsight on this climbing style when in shape. All logic pointed to not try this route.

But somehow I didn’t let this stop me from trying. It took another 3 – 4 days to re-send the 7b+ pitch in order to even start redpointing. A full-stretch, powerful move on small feet made the 7b+ extremely droppable and the 5m whip each time made me scream at the top of my lungs.

I found that my fear was crippling me on all parts of the route. I tried to tell myself the transition after not climbing limestone for almost a year was just a phase. My body had lost all of my fitness for climbing vertical crimpy routes and instead only powerful overhangs from the Red River Gorge and Red Rocks. My forearms burned on each go and my mind riddled with the stress of small feet and hands.

The moves were a mix of powerful and technical. The climb was a 45m pitch and until me hadn’t been sent by a woman. Those who know me know I typically only climb up to 25m max, as I have mainly bouldered for most of my climbing career and struggle to gain route fitness. It had obviously not been climbed this year. There was no chalk and I spent hours trying to find my sequence. With sharp holds, a mono slab to finish and insecure clips with a power endurance finish on bad feet – I’d accidentally chosen everything I disliked in climbing.

After time passed, I progressed, but so slowly and in such volatile chunks, I wasn’t never sure I would be able to send it. Each go took over an hour to learn something subtle. It was so time consuming you could only red point 1- 2 times a day. To get to the harder section I had to climb the 30m 7b+/12c so by the time I got to the extension, I was often too tired or demotivated to work the harder moves. I found it mentally exhausting to be so high up, to be constantly run out, and to climb for more than an hour each go. It wasn’t unusual for me to never go to the top of the climb. Again, all logic pointing to stop trying the climb.

It was by no means a quick process. But over the span of almost 2 months, I felt a slow transition from extreme fatigue and fear to then going to the top every time. I felt like a different climber. To evolve into not even noticing when I took the 5m whip, and confidently clipping draws on the slab was an incredible and wonderful feeling. But the progress was so slow, I started to doubt myself and become very discouraged, I faced the fear that everyone faces – have I picked a climb that I am actually not physically able to do?

I was unable to do the moves properly until I had practiced them so much that they felt second nature and could do them without getting stressed. But even so I wasn’t making it through the crux. I realised that what was holding me back was my mind.

Sometimes the only thing holding us back is our confidence. It was only when I was relaxed that would I get a high point.

Then all of a sudden I made it two clips from the end. But I wasn’t ready. The thing I found most difficult in the process was staying motivated over such a long time. I wanted to do the climb, but the drive and the ambition, the try-hard and the passion has faded. I worried I was trying it too much. I wasn’t sure if this was just what happens over time with any project. I felt like if there was a way to find my passion and motivation again, the process would be so much faster, but I just couldn’t. I wondered to myself, ‘Do I really have what it takes?’

© Irene Yee

Maybe I’m over dramatizing the process, but for me, everything was different on a rope. When you have to try hard consistently and stay focused for 45m, the drive to finish seemed to diminish as I climedb higher. When I was 5m from the top, I was tired and unmotivated to push on. I still didn’t know if I was capable of this climb. Could I do it? I wasn’t sure, but I needed to find a way to try my absolutely hardest. When I started, it felt impossible, but the route had turned into something that I could maybe do. But in the end, I just felt discouraged. It became a mental battle. I sought the council of friends, of those who had encouraged me to try the route in the beginning. I didn’t believe that I was capable of the climb, but they reassured me that I could. I don’t know if they actually believed if I could or not, but no one ever said otherwise. It almost didn’t matter if they believe what they said to me, because it was just the kindness and support that I needed. I couldn’t find the confidence in myself, but somehow I found the confidence in their words. If they thought I could do it, maybe I could. Maybe it was true. And then one day I did it.

Watch this space!

Stay tuned for another blog coming up on The Mental Strategies and Redpoint Tactics that I applied in order to prepare my head for each try. Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss it.


17 days climbing on the problem
25 approx goes
2 months trying

The schedule I typically kept to was:

Mon – project/train

Tues – rest/rings/core

Wed – project/train

Thur – rest

Fri – project/train

Sat/Sun – rest

Writing down the progression of days on the project, I noticed a few patterns:

  • After 1 days of rest I tended to get highpoints rather than 2 days, despite ‘feeling’ better after 2 days
  • 3 days on the project showed significant jumps
  • 6 days on the project showed significant jumps
  • 7- 9 days regression in performance and feeling discouraged (Week 5)
  • 10 days on the project showed fitness jumps
  • After 10 days began the final redpoint phase. Progress for 3 days in a row then fell into a pattern of every other day advances
  • After 10 days I was able to climb on it 3x a week not just 2x

Thanks for reading!