Monday 2 May 2016

Practice of the Wild

Video still of climbing Practice of the Wild (Font 8C) in Magic Wood last week.

The footage of Tyler Landman doing the second ascent of Practice of the Wild was what first inspired me to visit Magic Wood in 2012. Obviously I’d already heard about it, as ‘Chris Sharma’s hardest boulder problem’. I’d heard about Chris’s method for the last move - a wild all points off dyno across the roof. Landman looked so dynamic and strong on it and the climbing looked so good. It it was an exemplary piece of hard climbing. I had to go there.

But not for Practice of the Wild - at Font 8c and one the hardest problems in the world according to Daniel Woods who also repeated it, it was too hard for me. Although I do boulder for quite a few months in the year, sometimes as much as 6, I’ve never got much beyond a handful of Font 8Bs. On my 2012 visit, feeling in good shape for me, I did manage two 8B+s (New Base Line and Mystic Stylez) which I was very surprised and delighted with.

Of course bouldering grades do tend to be a bit stiffer in the UK and neither of these felt as hard as some of my own problems in Glen Nevis such as Seven of Nine. But operating pretty much on your own, it’s easy to get lost with grades, and I frequently do. I’ll give myself the excuse of not doing one climbing discipline for long enough to get an idea, and stick to it.

In 2012 I did try Practice of the Wild for a session, and confirmed that it was indeed far too hard for me. I couldn’t do any of the crux moves. None. But that was sort of irrelevant. Because I was inspired by it, which is all that really matters. I’m fully accepting that when you try something hard, you might never succeed. If that wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be hard, would it? So who cares whether it’s too hard, so long as it drives your motivation.

I visited Magic Wood again in 2013 for a week (of warm and wet weather). The hardest thing I climbed was 8A. Ridiculous as it is to say, the best thing about the trip was just to stand and look at Practice of the Wild again, and think.

Climbing Dark Sakai (8B) last week. I'd tried it before in October but tweaked my finger on a nasty pocket at the start. This time I could do it first try after a quick reacquaintance.

In the past year or so, I’d gone through two ankle surgery rehabs, a big chunk of the year on crutches and was looking at another surgery. I was 36 and after so much time just trying to be able to walk and climb anything, the idea of reaching a new level of Font 8C seemed laughable. A joke. I looked at the problem and even in my dreamy inner thoughts I felt there was no chance, ever. Don’t kid yourself on MacLeod.

For quite a while I accepted this. Actually it was part of a wider shift in my thinking at the time. I was really trying to come to terms with my loss of form after the surgeries. I wasn’t really prepared to deal with it and was trying to find the best way forward. For a time it seemed like I should accept that upward progress in sport climbing or bouldering was just over for me. As I wrote in Make or Break, I do feel that almost every serious battle scar you pick up in life changes your constraints. It changes the rules of the game for you, sometimes tipping the scales against you. If you are unprepared to push back against this and still fail, it may be better to leave the game. Eventually I realised this was not me. I do still enjoy trying to improve at climbing so much, that playing against poor odds is still worth it for me.

Given some time to recover from the surgeries, I naturally felt this black and white way of thinking melt away a bit. The reasons why I couldn’t keep improving seemed less important when I could get on with a daily routine of actually training and going climbing, ticking routes again, even if they were not hard ones.

Some footage of me climbing my model of Practice on my board in March

So with some positive feelings returning I made a statement of intent by building a model of Practice of the Wild on my board. It was a pretty good one! At first, I couldn’t do any of the moves. After several sessions, I could do two of them individually, then another, then another. But that’s where the progress basically ended. By last September, at my strongest I could string two moves together (of seven). At this rate, I’d maybe climb the model when I was 45?! I’d have to hope it was harder than the real thing. Actually I knew it wasn’t.

And so I knew I needed another ingredient, not an edge, but a supercharger on my climbing standard. You don’t get many of them at 37 (without crossing boundaries of legality and sporting fairness). But you do if you are not thin. I’ve never been a thin climber, and always struggled to keep my body fat % below about 15% (putting me firmly in the outlier category at the high fat end of the Font 8B+ or harder cohort). For reasons I couldn’t fully understand (even now I still only have fluid hypotheses) it was getting harder and harder for me to even tread water in this battle. I still had a hunch that somewhere beneath my tyre was a potential Font 8C climber.

So although this aspect of my preparation clearly would be the linchpin, the trouble with it was that I’d already thrown every single piece of advice coming from sports nutrition at it already, and failed. I’d slowly, depressingly failed for two decades. So how might I suddenly succeed? I’m sorry to break the narrative and potentially spoil the read at this point, but the ‘how’ what came next I’m going to save for a dedicated blog post (well, actually massive essay). Please forgive me for this, but it’s such a controversial topic that I am very concerned that I might be taken out of context, or seen as being flippant or glossing over important details in such an important issue. Also, and not least because the approach I took was precisely the one that many nutritionists warn is a path to outright failure in sport performance. So if you are interested in the ‘how’, it’s coming. For now, here’s what happened:

Phase one of me intervention was reading around 20 books and many hundreds of scientific papers and hundreds more webpages, so I had a handle on what I was doing. In phase two, I easily lost 3.5kgs in less than one month and my climbing standard took an immediate jump. I didn’t really get to test this other than on my board since it was the start of the winter. In phase 2, I maintained my new lower weight and felt great in training with much better energy and much to my surprise a few other long term health issues cleared up as well. During this time I managed to climb my model of Practice of the Wild. So I made it harder so I couldn’t do one of the first moves again and built up to being able to just climb it once at my limit.

In phase three of my dietary changes I dropped another 2.5Kgs, still feeling great and just before my trip to Magic Wood in April I could run laps on the model! When I arrived in Magic Wood I headed straight for Practice. I was somewhat bleary eyed after the long drive across Germany, but I could immediately feel I was much stronger on the moves. But it was on the second session, after a night’s sleep that reality hit - I could link it straight away to the last move! A huge leap in progress, and more than that a realisation that this was not a joke project. I could do this.

Since the start holds were still quite wet I spent time practicing the finishing big dyno a few times. On the third time I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder while holding the swing. “Oh no! Surely I’m not going to get injured now. Not now!!!” It didn’t feel that bad, but not good either. In hindsight I think I just scraped a rotator cuff tendon a bit. But I was worried it might be a SLAP tear. Either way I was terrified of doing the move that way again.

So one night while it snowed about a foot, I broke trail into the wood, set up my lights and worked out another method. A huge cross through stab to a crimp, and then I could get the jug statically. It was maybe a tiny bit harder, but I could do the move several times in isolation.

I had one more session of redpoints to the last move every time. One time I held it and my lower hand pinged off. I knew it could happen next session. But I also knew this could get harder psychologically - playing defensively creates pressure. When all you have to do is not blow your chance, somehow this becomes much harder to avoid!

Sure enough, next session I felt inexplicably a few % weaker. Two mistake riddled brawls to the last move, falling weakly. One fall from lower down. Then a hole opened in my finger. It was unravelling! I’d surely need two days to let the hole heal up, then the rain was coming. Practice of the Wild can stay wet for weeks at a time. I spent half and hour repeatedly doing the last move, systematically trying every tweak in the movement I could think of. I came upon a small improvement. If I pulled up a little higher and went for the move without dropping down so much (more of a snatch than a lunge), it felt a tiny bit more solid. I went for a walk. Looking at my shredded fingers, I figured I wanted one more try that day from the start. If I was going to take two days off and potentially more after the rain, what did it matter if my fingers were totally trashed?

Whatever happened in that moment, the pressure of anticipation for that session dissipating, the walk warming me up a bit, my skin hitting that sweet spot of friction just before it gets too thin, whatever, everything clicked. As soon as I pulled on I felt good. The moves flowed by and I arrived and the last move not feeling anything. It wasn’t until I felt my fingers bite into the crimp that I woke up and realised it was on. I breathed to force me to take my time setting my feet, and then grabbed the massive jug.


Video still of going for the jug on the last move on the successful attempt. I'll post up a video of it when it's ready.

None of this matters to anyone except me. And only two things about it really matter to me. Firstly, Practice of the Wild is a brilliant piece of climbing, and by being hard enough to give me a good battle, I was able to enjoy it all the more. Secondly, I had to make real progress in my climbing to do it. Well okay one more thing matters, I had to use my brain to figure out how to make the progress. The battle was won while sitting on my ass at 2am with square eyes reading obscure papers on cellular metabolism. There is more to climbing than just pulling on holds.

Footnote: I’m always a bit sensitive writing about weight and climbing. Personally, I think writing about it and being open is much better and healthier than being secretive. But I know disordered eating and inappropriate food restriction happens in climbing and it’s a problem. In my view we’ve got to be open about when it’s appropriate to look at weight as a priority for training for climbing. As I said above, I have a post coming on the ‘how’ of my training intervention. It’s a highly controversial and polarised topic that needs handling with care. So even in that post I’ll be urging you to listen to the whole body of research out there, not just one voice. But from this post if you take anything away from it regarding weight in climbing, let it be these three simple points:

1. I spent months and probably 1000s of hours studying vast quantities of scientific research and discussion before doing anything.

2. I used a strategy for weight loss which does not involve being hungry, or anything other than eating high quality real food.

3. I am a 37 year old male who had a tyre around my waist. My individual story is relevant to me, not you. Fat loss tends to be effective in climbers with excessive amounts of fat. It can be seriously performance negative (at the very least) in those who do not carry excess fat, or people who are growing or have other health conditions. This leads back to point one - start from an informed position.

Climbing Steppenwolf (8B) in three tries.


  1. Wow! Big Congrats! and brilliant post too. Reading your articles are both inspiring and valued food for thought. Many thanks for sharing & letting your experiences be relevant for others.


  2. Thanks for sharing, Dave. Brilliant effort and huge congrats.

  3. Congrats Dave!! I look forward to your follow up post.

  4. "None of this matters to anyone except me." It matters to me. You are an inspiration, Dave. It is another piece of data: If one human can do it, then I can do it (at my level). Keep up the excellent work. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Beautiful! Really enjoy it.! "There is more to climbing than just pulling on holds." that's a quote I will remember...thanks for sharing!

  6. Keep doing what your doing and keep writing about it. Great stuff

  7. I have a tire and need to loose it before I'm 60. Only one year to go and need your diet soon! ;o)

  8. Nice work Dave. I'm 41, had a spare tyre and have had great results with a cyclical ketogenic approach. I know you've a post coming, which I'm fascinated to read. A question I'd be really interested to get your opinion on is fully ketogenic (which I think you've gone for) or consuming carbs around high intensity exercise. This is the bit I'm most unsure of - ketogenic seems to work (which makes sense in terms of biochemistry) for low to mid intensity endurance stuff and probably bouldering with maximal effort if rested. I'm least convinced about power endurancy sport routes where from my understanding as effort is very high the body starts looking for glycogen which may be depleted from a ketogenic diet and therefore performance could be compromised...what are your personal experiences in this respect and what is your understanding of the biochemistry / scientific studies...sorry for v long comment!

  9. Congratulations on the send. A great story and a few takeaway nuggets of wisdom such as: "When all you have to do is not blow your chance, somehow this becomes much harder to avoid!" is very pertinent for me at the moment!

  10. Awesome Dave! Your work ethic shows not just in your writing, but also in your climbing. I appreciate the integrity and thoughtfulness of your posts. I'm curious, I know you don't want ignorant people bashing on your diet choices, but would you be willing to answer questions you might not address in your upcoming article? I've studied biochemistry and physiology and am really curious about a few things regarding ketogenesis that I haven't gotten answers about yet.

  11. "There is more to climbing than just pulling on holds" - Great quote and well done; an inspirational bit of text!

  12. Well done Dave. inspiring.

  13. Congratulation Dave! Thanks for sharing climbing Job experience.

  14. I'm looking forward to your next post on your weight loss, Dave. I've lost around 2 stone throughout my time climbing by calorie counting (as suggested in 9 out of 10), but I've plateaued at around 17-18% for a couple of years now. I think it's a major factor holding me back from unlocking the harder grades.

  15. Great post Dave and cracking effort to come back from such injuries and climb a PB! keep up the good work and remember, you're not that old:-). Cheers, A.

  16. Good post Dave and a cracking effort to climb a PB after such injuries. Keep up the good work and remember, you're not that old:-) Cheers A.