Climbing My First 7a Boulder
On Sunday 5th September 2021 I climbed my first 7a boulder, completing my goal of accomplishing this feat by the end of the year.
In this blog post I will introduce you to the boulder and take you through the process of climbing it.
I’m not ordinarily the type of person who toots their own horn, but I’ve been working exceptionally hard in order to get to this point. So, I hope you’ll understand my sense of pride and desire to soak up this moment like a JoJo shaped sponge full of joy.
I first spotted the boulder at Eden Rock (Carlisle) on July 27th and immediately identified it as having the hallmarks of a boulder I could get along with.
On a vertical wall.
Awkward but not tiny footholds.
All things I enjoy in a boulder.
During the first twenty minutes or so of trying this boulder I couldn’t even get off the floor. As usual, I was trying to figure out a way to avoid a sit-start.
A sit-start is exactly as it sounds. You start the boulder by pulling yourself onto the start hold(s) from a sitting position on the floor.
When I started climbing, I absolutely hated sit-starts. The bouldering wall where I started climbing was relatively short and the setters, understandably, seemed to use sit-starts to make the boulders a bit longer and meatier. The problem I had with these moves, as a new climber who hadn’t grown her big girl muscles yet, was that they often required a big burst of power that I simply didn’t possess.
Power is an important part of climbing that has to be earned and grown. At the time though, I found it frustrating that I could often do every other move of a boulder apart from one powerful move at the beginning. This experience left me resentful of and keen to avoid sit-starts and boulders that started with your whole body very low to the ground.
With this boulder, I eventually had to admit the only way I could get off the floor was to start with my butt mere inches above it.
It also took me a long time to work out which hand to put on each of the starting holds and how best to use them. I concluded that starting with my hands crossed, my left hand pinching the heck out of the higher hold, and my right hand scooping the bottom of the lower hold was the best way to start the boulder.
The next couple of moves are not the flashy kind of moves that look impressive on video. It’s the curse of the naturally more static climber that the moves we’re often drawn to just don’t look as difficult or impressive as massive dynos or huge cut-loose moves. The crucial thing about these moves is maintaining body tension to stop yourself barn-dooring off the wall.
In the first session, I also managed to do the last couple of moves, which felt far easier than the first few moves. My height definitely helped with the end of this boulder. I’m not a tall climber but I was able to use every inch of my reach to get to the penultimate hold while keeping both my feet on some relatively low footholds before bumping my right foot up and delicately crossing over to the top hold.
For the next couple of weeks (August 3rd and 10th), I desperately tried to figure out how to do what I identified as the crux move, getting my right hand up to the next skinny wavy pinchy thing. I struggled to work out what to do with my feet and raged at the uselessness of the flat little fucker of a hold that my right hand was fruitlessly trying to use to stop myself swinging to the left and ultimately onto the floor.
I was completely stumped.
I wanted to go to the next hold with some level of control and thought that getting my left foot on the lower starting handhold and my right foot on the higher one would allow me to more easily turn my hip into the wall, making the long reach more manageable. This beta proved to be totally impossible due to the shoddiness of the lower right handhold. I couldn’t grip it sufficiently to maneuver myself into the position I wanted.
I tried so hard to get more out of this hold. I rammed my nails down the back of it. I squeezed the heck out of the extremely shallow and thin pinch that ran across the diagonal of it. I jammed my fingers into the screw holds. I did my best to pinch the full width of it.
No matter what I did, I couldn’t get enough purchase on it.
I also half-arsedly tried popping off only my left foot but the distance felt too big to cover with this method. I got close to the hold but didn’t feel confident in my ability to catch such a thin pinch from a dynamic move.
After a couple of crappy sessions on the crux, I couldn’t face going back to it again the following week (August 17th). I had climbed other things during the catastrophic crux sessions, but the experience was becoming frustrating and lacking in fun. So, I had a break from it and made peace with the idea that maybe this wasn’t my boulder after all.
In the meantime, I carried on training, climbed a couple of 6c+ boulders I’d also been working on, and reminded myself that this whole climbing thing was meant to be enjoyable.
The following week (August 24th), I returned to the boulder in a healthier headspace. I still couldn’t figure out the crux but I did the following move up to the hexagonal hold, leaving only one move of the boulder uncompleted.
Then a poor defenseless route-setter had the misfortune to wander my way. I collared him, interrupted his work, and interrogated him for beta. I frantically explained that I’d done every other move and blabbered on about my desperate desire to climb my first 7a. He very serenely considered the boulder then delivered some astute words of wisdom.
The tips he gave me for how to physically execute the move weren’t anything I hadn’t tried before. He told me to play around with the terrible right handhold and find the way that worked best for me to use it. He showed me the rubber marks where other people had put their left foot in the same place I was plonking my left stomper.
Nothing revolutionary but he assuaged my doubts that I was ploughing down completely the wrong track.
Aside from specific beta advice, the most useful thing he told me was that if I could do every other move of the boulder, then I could certainly do the one that had been causing me so much grief. Somehow this assertion was more useful to me than anything else he said. It took the sting out of the move and made it feel less daunting.
The following week (August 31st) I decided it was time to settle on my beta for the crux. Enough fannying about wishing the right handhold was better or trying to come up with something clever to do with my feet. Every way I tried it felt improbable, so I had to settle on the least improbable of them all and stick with it.
I plumped for the dynamic method with my left foot on the lower starting handhold and kept my right foot low on the same hold it had been on from the start. Something about making that decision gave me a new sense of purpose and I finally committed to putting everything I had into the move.
I managed it after only a few attempts.
As with so many difficult moves, when you do them, you wonder why you’d been making such a fuss about them for so long. It certainly didn’t feel easy but it felt right, like the mystery had suddenly been solved.
There was then a brief and fraught interlude in which I completely overthought how I did the move, got fixated on what my right leg was up to, and had to watch the video of myself executing the move to confirm which way my right knee was facing.
It turned out to be very important for my right knee to be pointing to the left so my right hip was as close to the wall as possible and I could bend my right leg enough to get sufficient pop to complete the move. I'm fascinated by the minute details of climbing and I find it so intriguing to watch the video below and spot the immense difference the angle of my right knee makes. I never complete this move with my right knee facing forward or to the right.
Eventually, I managed to complete the majority of the boulder starting from the crux move. I had a couple of attempts from the start but was too physically and emotionally rung out to really give it my all.
The successful session on this boulder (September 5th) was also a rather bumpy ride.
On my first attempt, I cruised the crux move only for my left foot to slip off a hold it had never slipped off before. I remember thinking, just before my foot slipped, “hmmm, I’ve never hit my teeth on that big red hold before” and suddenly I was on the floor. I’m not sure if I can blame my failure on the big red slopy hold gently bumping my teeth but the brief stint on the wall left me buzzing with adrenaline.
I had another go shortly after, still a little shaky and frazzled from the first attempt. I climbed the first few moves terribly and fluffed the crux.
In order to get rid of the adrenaline, I hopped on a very satisfying overhanging boulder with lots of jugs. It allowed me to pull hard for a minute, clear my mind, and burn off the buzzing sensation.
The next two tries both went the same way. I tensed my way through the first few moves, set up for the crux, popped up nicely with the right hand, then couldn’t catch the following hexagonal hold with sufficient gusto to stop myself swinging to the right and hitting the deck.
Although I could stick this move comfortably in isolation or as part of smaller chunks of the boulder, the cumulative effect of all the moves from the start left me feeling unable to cling onto this hold.
More brushing was clearly the answer.
While scrubbing the holds, I had a brief chat with a chap who was lying on the mat not far from my boulder looking positively exhausted by his efforts on the wall. Apparently he’d had a long break from climbing and his body was taking a while to reacclimate itself to the stresses and strains of being repeatedly dragged up a wall. This random bystander was extremely complimentary about my climbing and provided a nice distraction from the stress of sending my project.
I bid him good day and returned to the problem at hand.
It suddenly dawned on me that the beta I had been using since my very first session was totally stupid. Why was I trying to catch this move with on the hexagonal hold on the right rather than the more positive crimp on the left? My original beta involved aiming for a poorer hold and made the move longer, swingier, and harder. A quick attempt at going for the left hold confirmed that I had been a flailing idiot for six weeks and that the move was infinitely easier with this new beta.
Time for one more go.
I got through the scrunched up first few moves, positioned my left foot firmly, and popped my way up through the crux.
I bumped my feet up, easily caught the swing with the left crimp, and lifted my left foot onto its final foothold.
It took a bit of fiddling about to find the sweet spot on the hexagonal hold with my right hand as I’d never actually tried the last moves from this position before.
I wriggled my fingers into position on the penultimate hold, pulled myself up, totally forgot my beta for the final move, and ultimately lunged for the top.
During every previous attempt to reach the top hold I had put my right foot on the long curved pinch and crossed over with my right hand. I don’t know if I was confused because I had my right hand on a different hold or if my brain was too boxed from climbing the rest of the boulder to remember my original beta.
Either way, I was extremely relieved when my left hand latched the last hold, I brought my right foot to where it probably should have already been, and I matched both hands on the top of my first 7a.
I then cried on the floor for a few minutes while the crowd (Husband) went wild.
I’d love to tell you that what followed was nothing but joy. There certainly was a lot of that. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and delight that all my hard work had finally paid off. I couldn’t wait to share my success with my friends who’d followed my journey. And there was a massive sense of relief that I’d set myself a slightly daunting goal and managed to achieve it.
But I think it’s also telling that one of the first things out of my mouth once I’d stopped crying was: “It’s definitely a 7a, right?”
I knew it was a 7a. I’d checked the list of boulders and their grades over and over again to be damn sure it was a 7a. Despite having just climbed the wretched thing, a part of my brain still doubted I was capable of it. In the days since I did the boulder I’ve wondered if other, better climbers would decide it was soft for the grade or the setters would realise they’d made a terrible mistake and downgrade it. I was internally willing them to immediately reset it so nobody could snatch the victory away from me.
It turned out that physically climbing 7a hasn’t been the totality of this goal. Seeing and accepting myself as a skillful climber and someone who is capable of the grade has in many ways been just as challenging.
Throughout this experience I’ve had to bolster my self-belief and have stern words with my frail and fickle ego. I’ve doubted myself during difficult sessions and wondered why I was putting myself through the misery of mountain climbers and side planks when I’m clearly just not that good at climbing. Even at the moment of success my brain wouldn’t quite belief what it and my body were capable of.
I have no idea how many 7a boulders or what grade I have to climb before these doubts completely go away. Going forward, I fully intend to keep following my training plan, challenging myself on the wall, and telling myself a more positive and accurate story about myself as a climber. I’m not going to set myself another goal immediately as taking some time to climb with a little less pressure will do me the world of good.
In the spirit of working on my self-image, I will close this post with the sentence I’ve been writing at the start of every entry in my training diary for the last few months. Except this time, I have the footage to prove it.
I am a 7a boulderer and I bloody love climbing!