Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Pilot Projects – aka The Day of Reckoning

Look out ladies, he's a heartbreaker...

If you’ve been following the blog for the past few weeks, you’ll probably remember that my friends and I have all been on a search for significant sendage on some of the best lines at Pilot Mountain.  My climbing partners have thankfully been gracious enough to allow me to pick their brains a bit so that I can share multiple perspectives on projecting strategies.  Since Steve (aka Crag-Daddy) was the only one that scored a send on our last visit to the area, the rest of us couldn’t stay away.  So two weeks later we returned with guns blazing, ready for what my friend Adam refers to as the “Day of Reckoning”…

Erica: “I think the A-Team sums it up best…”I love it when a plan comes together.”  I was so close last time, so ever since then I’ve been envisioning my crux sequence and the moves leading up to it, trying to find any sort of subtle nuance that would give me the extra ounce of efficiency needed to keep it together at the finish.  “Stay in the arm bar longer…lock off the left arm harder…keep core tighter…”  were the thoughts swimming around in my head all week.  My first go I was ridiculously flash pumped by the time I got to the no hands rest, but I felt much better after chilling on my little pedestal for a while.  I got to the crux – and nailed the crimp!  I continued with my crux beta, which at this point is so dialed I can do it in my sleep, but evidently I was pretty adrenalized since I overshot the last deadpoint move to the juggy handrail…by a LOT.  Despite my desperate groping I peeled right off.  Falling off was quite the buzz kill, as everyone (myself included) thought it was over when I snagged the slopey crimp.  Oh well – nothing a PBJ and a few Cragbaby snuggles can’t fix!  I waited around about an hour and then hopped on again.  This was by far my smoothest run in all sections.  This time I was hardly tired at all when I got to the no hands rest, and I felt great moving into the crux.  I was even able to lock off and go straight to to the slopey crimp instead of bumping up from the horrible one below it, and went almost completely static to the hand rail.  Yay for sending projects!  At 8 tries over 3 days, my time investment in this route is second only to Slabster’s Lament, and it’s my first .12b, so I’m definitely psyched! “

The ever-elusive handrail!

Bennett:  “I showed up at Pilot Mountain motivated and confident that Black and Blue Velvet would go.  I had all the moves dialed in and there was nothing left to do but send.  When I got on the route, I was a bit jumpy.  Perhaps my nerves needed a little calming.  Unexpectedly, my foot popped on the third move…This was surprisingly to say the least, as the “business” is definitely near the top.  I decided that instead of thinking about the send or the outcome, I would simply try and enjoy making the moves, focusing only on what was presently before me.   The real joy of climbing is the feeling of physical health and the social aspect of identifying with others that accompanies the sport.  Once I was able to stay in the moment, I think I did a better job at flowing through the route – and 27 moves later, I was clipping the anchors!  As great as it felt, the pinnacle of exuberance was quickly followed by the crashing realization that I had to find something else to push, challenge, and inspire me.  Good thing I like climbing so much…” 

 With the business out of the way before lunch, the rest of the afternoon was free to hop on whatever we felt like.  Steve was psyched to send 2 more routes off his tick list – Devil in the White House (5.10d), and Herculean Test (5.11a), while Bennett got really close on Ethics in Bondage (5.12c).  Herculean is one of my favorites, so I jumped on it as well, and was thrilled to also nab a send on Any Major Dude (5.11d).  We rounded out our day by sampling the new bolts on Bat Out of Hell (5.11).  

Bennett gettin Black and Blue

Our car had an interesting discussion on the way home about projecting versus onsight climbing (sending a route first try).  We decided they are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum.  Obviously, you can project at a much higher level than you can onsight, since on a project every move is wired and executed near perfectly, as opposed to an onsight attempt where you’re pretty much winging it and often compensating for mistakes such as botched beta, missed holds, etc.  An onsight attempt is exciting, edge of your seat, not knowing what comes next type of climbing.  Projecting is much more methodical, and culminates in a zen-like moment where everything goes right and a route that you previously struggled to even get to the top of  just flows.  There’s only once chance to do something right the first time, so onsighting can be pretty intense, both mentally and physically.  With a project route the mental pressure is more long-term, a “savor the journey” type exercise.  Though there are no expectations in the early stages of working a project, there comes a point where you realize a send is within reach and its just a matter of time, which can elevate the “must send now” pressure to a steady boil.

So is it better to be a good onsight-er or a good redpoint-er?  Which style requires more mental muscle and physical toughness?  In my opinion, the answer is all of the above.  A smart climber is able to find that balance between the two.  If you only climb routes you can onsight, you’ll never know how hard you could really climb if you’d invest more time on a route and push yourself a little.  However, only working routes that are at the outskirts of your limit not only keeps you from being well-rounded and consolidated at a particular grade, but is also a great way to get injured.  

Steve passing The Herculean Test (5.11a)

For me personally,  I prefer to stick mostly to routes within my onsight range when we go on multi-day trips – if I don’t onsight it, I may pull the rope once and try again, but I won’t spend all afternoon on one route.  Most of my projects are on local rock that I can get to any time I want.  Logistically, the onsight pool at the home crags is pretty picked over at this point since we’ve been in the area for a while.  Also, since I’m just down to a handful of routes that I haven’t done, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on a whole slew of area classics by narrowing my focus to just one route on the day.  But my strategy is really just one out of probably a million different ones however, and my only expertise is based on trial and error.  With that in mind, I’d love to hear everybody else’s approach – do you climb a route once and move along to the next, regardless of the outcome, or do you work, work, work a line until you can completely dominate it?


11 Responses to “Pilot Projects – aka The Day of Reckoning”

  1. eddy ramirez

    Great post congratulations on all the sendage! As to onsight or redpoint, I must agree that it is a healthy balance of both. I absolutely love onsighting because of the idea of trying to achieve the same smooth ‘savor the moment’ type feeling as when I am responding a 5.12. With that said, the hardest grade I’ve onsighted is in the 5.11 range. I spend most of my time trying to onsight so I you are correct when you say that I don’t know what the hardest grade is that I can project.

    If I can finish my goal of leading and sending all the published routes at Crowders Main Area, I can foresee some future hard route projecting and some travel time to Moore’s Wall and Looking Glass!

    Keep up the good work Crag-Family and friends!


  2. Sam Stephens

    I personally prefer to onsight as much as possible. I feel it is an excellent judge of ones climbing ability. That being said, there would be no progression in our personal climbing ventures if we only stuck to routes we could onsight.

    Projecting and red pointing have their place, but at some point I think a valid question is “How much is too much?” by that I mean, if it takes 100 attempts of being on a route to send it, did you really gain anything fom that route or did you learn the moves well enough to be able to eventually do them. Along the way however, your climbing ability most likely would increase from other climbing and maybe the project that took 100 tries could be considered a metric on which to judge progress. At some point from start to finish, there was most likely something learned in technique or strength which wasn’t there before.

    That being said, I don’t think obsessive projecting at an extreme extent outside of ones climbing ability is the way to best progress as a climber. I believe projecting consistently a few letter grades outside of your onsight or 1-2 red point limit is the best way to move through the grades and see measurable changes in your ability. Couple that with specific training regimens and I think you have a formula for reaching whatever grade you want.


  3. Erica

    Eddy – I agree that the “savor the moment” feeling of onsighting blows away a redpoint any day!

    Sam – Well put, everything you said is spot on. I think there is a sweet spot as far as a range for projecting that extends just a few letter grades above your onsight/quick redpoint level. Just hard enough to push you to the next level, but practical enough to have helpful applications to other routes you are getting on in the meantime…and it doesn’t take forever.


  4. Congrats on finishing the projects – so awesome!

    Mark and I have always been onsighters. Mostly because we have spent our time looking for new climbs and exploring new areas. Repeatedly trying to get a route perfect always seemed like a bit of a waste when we could be out trying something new.

    That being said, we have rarely climbed harder than 5.10, even in the 11 years of time we’ve put in. There are many beautiful 11s and 12s that I would love to be able to do some day, and it’s likely that the best way to work into these grades is by pushing the envelope and learning to climb routes that are actually too hard for us now!

    With the Gabinator in the picture, we’ve turned to a lot less trad and more sport. Maybe this focus will result in some higher grades by the end of this season… 🙂


  5. Drew

    What a great day, everyone climbed so hard!

    Thinking back to all of the climbs that I have done, the majority of them have been onsight/flashed. Most of my redpoints have been within 5 or 6 tries. I can’t explain why, but I don’t even really like to try a route more than 2 or 3 times unless I feel close to getting it. I’ll give up for the day and come back to the route at a later date when I’m feeling stronger. Routes like that are what drive me to train in the gym so I can go back and finish them. There are 3 right now nagging me until I go back and do them: Ethnic Cleansing at Foster Falls, Psycho Wrangler at the New, and now Blind Prophet (thank you for hanging those draws and beta!).

    The only route I have sort of projected is Energy Czar, which took me 3 or 4 days. That was a great learning experience and I feel like that is what taught me how to climb. Because there aren’t really super great rests, it taught me how to shake out and recover when I can. Because there’s a crux near the top, it taught me to keep it together and fight the burn. Maybe I do need another project…


  6. Erica

    Kate – Thanks! We’ve definitely shifted more towards the bolted arena now that Cragbaby is in the picture as well, mostly b/c the majority of our trad climbing before was multi-pitch, which is obviously out for now except for those rare days we are cragbaby-free…

    Drew – Yeah more than 2 or 3 tries and I usually abandon ship to revisit at a later date, unless its a route pretty close to home. I think you’ll nab Blind Prophet pretty easily next time you’re out there. 🙂


  7. So proud of you all!!! Congratulations on impressive sendage!


  8. Mike B

    Great post, I firmly fall into the onsighting camp, mainly because I love the experience of figuring it out on the first go, but as someone stated above it’s probably because I rarely climb harder than .10b. A friend and I were discussing this a few weeks back and I can count on one hand the number of redpoints (post a fall) that I’ve gotten. Most often am doing longer multipitch stuff so if I buff a move on pitch 2 or 3, I find it’s not even worth my time releading the whole thing to get that move. That being said before I injured myself I was starting to embrace the world of harder sport (and bouldering) and pushing my limits because I had definitely reached a plateau in terms of limits.


  9. I dont care that much about onsighting. Most of our strictly rock climbing trips or outings are just for training for our multi-pitch mountain climbs out in the Tetons which are rarely above a 5.10. There are times though when i’ll stay out there trying to get it until way after dark.

    thanks for the post!

    MK & David


  10. Shawn

    I know I’m a little late in responding, but the excitement from reading the post left me so fired up that I’d like to write even if nobody reads it.

    I know two people who climb completely opposite – my wife and her former climbing partner, Jonas. She used to live in Hamburg, but since she moved to Forchheim to be with me, she obviously left him behind and we became (climbing) partners. The area I live in has thousands of routes, so her argument is always “with so much to climb, why spend so much time on one route?” She often only tries a route a maximum of twice. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jonas who prefers to find something that’s just possibly feasible for him, despite the fact that he lives 6 hours away and typically only gets to visit once per year. Often he is able to only tick off about 3 routes per day, if he succeeds on his project, that is, whereas my wife and I typically get around 10.

    I’m definitely in the middle. I really want to project to push myself, but climbing with my wife pushes me to keep moving, so I don’t usually get more than 2 attempts on any route. Consequently, I’ve managed to reach 5.12b on a couple of occasions, whereas she hasn’t cracked the 5.12 threshold, though she certainly could with the right amount of effort.

    Your point about the mental aspect of onsight climbing vs. redpointing is why I wanted to respond. Since we’ve had a baby (which is also the reason I first heard of this website), she’s been struggling with getting her lead head back and is only leading at max 5.11a. I keep emphasizing that projecting would be a better option for her because a) she could focus on the moves and less on the intense emotions that you experience during an onsight attempt, and b) it’s much easier to project with a baby present than continuously moving camp all over the crag as you onsight everything.

    But it’s hard to get her out of her comfort zone. Do you have any tips on inspiring an onsight-oriented person to project? What about inspiring someone who’s good at vertical, technical climbing to try something continuously overhanging?


    • Erica

      Hey Shawn!
      Glad the post got you fired up to send! Your points to your wife about projecting being a logistically easier option are spot on. That is the main reason we switched more to a projecting mindset, just so that we could hang out in one place for a while with the baby! Projecting does wonders for the lead head, b/c you get the moves so dialed in that you aren’t thinking about the falls. As far as tips for inspiring someone to move more towards that mindset? I’d say show her how it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing, that it’s on a spectrum. Then start out slow. Maybe just encourage her to retry something a second time if she was close to sending it the first time. It’s AMAZING what the power of the 2nd go can do!!! The moves always feel WAY easier and you feel WAY less pumped. If she sees some success in that regard perhaps it will encourage her to push a little further to see how far she can go? And a sfar as the climbing styles go, everyone has their own preferred climbing style and motivation, but maybe choosing a goal route that was out of her comfort zone style wise? I’m a much stronger face climber, so my steep projects are always easier in grade if I’m wanting to send them quickly (I usually nowadays try to choose routes that I can send in 2-5 tries.) So keep style in mind when you guys are picking out projects. Flip through teh guidebook. Read the history of your local areas. See what feels inpspiring to her. I know for me I enjoy getting on routes that are significant in some way to the climbing community (oldest line in the area, was the first of it’s grade, etc.). Anyway, hope that helps and happy projecting!

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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN