Route Pyramids: Practical Application and the Quest to Climb Harder Grades

When I picked up a copy of How to Climb 5.12, I  found an extraordinarily fun worksheet in the back of the book. Its a pyramid shaped chart you fill out with all the routes you have done at certain grades. It is also a good place to give yourself a gold star for your latest redpoint. See below for a representation of a route pyramid as someone works up to their first 5.11a (applies to all other grades as well).

 The concept of the route pyramid is simple. Build up a good base of routes at one grade before moving onto the next. Explicitly, a base of eight routes at the a/b level (or 5.8 in the case of your first 10a), 4 routes at the c level, and two routes at the d level before reaching whatever X.a you are looking to send.

This is great advice and in 2018 I didn’t follow it at all. The route pyramid is not law, but based on my experience this season, my lacking adherence to it has been strongly associated to the predicted outcome from Eric Horst.

Eric, if you’re for some reason reading this, you can say “I told you so.”

Let’s break down a couple of situations in which I learned about the value of the route pyramid. I’m going to elaborate on my mistakes, because dear god, don’t repeat them if you can avoid it.  

Example 1: Time well spent or time well wasted?

Eager and confident that I could bag my first 12a in the fall, I went full force into projecting Orangahang in Rumney, New Hampshire. During that time, I clung to this line written in How to Climb 5.12.

Avoid getting involved in projects more than one number grade above your onsight level – Eric Horst

For reference, this is what my route pyramid looked like prior to working on Orangahang:

I had a lot of two-try 11a sends, and an 11a flash under my belt. Not quite an 11a onsight. So per the advice of Eric Horst I was an extremely borderline case of having any business trying to redpoint Orangahang–a full number grade harder than my almost 11a onsight.

Results: Over three weekends and more than 15 total attempts, I did not send this route. I whittled it down to a couple moderately satisfying one hangs, sorted out the beta, but still no send. The pyramid prevailed.

Lauren Abernathy - Rumney NH
The first weekend I spent on Orangahang.

I did learn quite a bit about the process of projecting, but I can’t help but think I would have gained more from climbing some high 5.11s and saving myself the frustration and discouragement that came from failing on this route so many times. Fall in Rumney doesn’t last long, and I spent essentially all of it working one route.

Lauren Abernathy Orange Crush Rumney NH
Staying positive despite epic amounts of failure and lots of bloody fingers.

Verdict: My route pyramid showed I was 
 not really ready to start working a 5.12a. 
My results were as such. 

Example 2: Close enough?

Having headed home without a send from the last reasonable weekend in Rumney, I was off to Mallorca where I bagged another 11b and my first 11d. So then my route pyramid looked like this. Still no 11c on the roster though.

Lauren Abernathy Rich Bitch Mallorca
Me on my send-go of Rich Bitch in Mallorca. This was, my first 5.11d.

I had three days for a Red River Gorge trip and a tick list that involved some high 11s and a couple “this route will really suit me” 12as, I barged into my former home crag ready for more action.

It comes to no surprise that with a solid 5.11a/b foundation, Banshee 5.11c went down easily in two attempts.

Lauren Abernathy Banshee Red River Gorge
Me on my first attempt on Banshee. I one-hung it right from the start.

On the second day of our trip, I spent an entire day on Beattyville Pipeline, 12a. This route was selected because it suits me and it is a style I prefer.

Results: I racked up seven attempts in one day. The first few burns were mostly for working beta, then I moved into redpoint attempts. My final attempt that day left me at an ascent involving one fall, reaching the finish hold and falling before clipping the anchors. Close, but no cigar. Maybe if I had another day I could have done it. Maybe not.

Lauren Abernathy - Red River Gorge KY
Quintessential crux whip on Beattyville Pipeline. This move always got me.

Verdict: Closer, better prepared, but still no 12a. Projects started with an incomplete base 
of routes were still out of my reach.

The state of the route pyramid directly correlated to my rate of success on whatever route I was working on. Solid base of 11a/b lead to an easy send of 11c and 11d. Minimal base of 11c/11d–still no 12a.

Key Points

So what can we learn from my personal experimentation this year? Here are a few key takeaways.

You don’t have to follow the pyramid exactly. You can skip from 11a to 11c because you feel moved to try it.
Climbing is fun, it is not calculus. 

Trying to skip grades or move too fast through the grades is potentially very unproductive.

Your ego has the potential to get in the way of you getting better at climbing. Doing three 10cs really well in 1-2 tries is better (and feels better) than slapping around for eternity on an 11b that you are not yet ready for.

Future Applications

So now what? This is what my route pyramid looks like at the end of 2018.

Using myself as a case study, it is prudent for me to add more 11c and 11d routes to my resume. My strategy at the beginning of next season is to fill out the rest of this chart. Then, I plan to continue on to tackling my first 5.12a.

In summary, I believe following the route pyramid as a guideline is a wise, and time efficient decision to make as a climber.

I think it’s wise to ask yourself every now and again: “What does my route pyramid look like and where do I think I can take it from here?”

Further Reading on Route Pyramids

http://www.powercompanyclimbing.com/blog/2010/08/great-pyramids.html

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