Goal-setting has been an essential tool in all athletic pursuits for decades. You could make the argument that it is an essential tool in all human endeavors. Even chipmunks set out every Fall with the intention of gathering enough acorns to make it through the winter. Goal-setting is just as important in climbing. Goals create focus, steer the training plan, and provide motivation when the going gets tough.
Our climbing roots in the world of mountaineering provide a great metaphor. Ultimately the goal is to get to the summit (and back home), but on the big peaks this is usually accomplished through intermediate steps. For example, this may be a typical goal-oriented strategy for climbing Denali:
Main Goal: Summit Denali via West Buttress & return home safely
Intermediate goals:1: Climb from Kahiltna Landing strip to 10K
2: Haul load to 12K, return to 10K camp, establish camp
3: Move camp from 10k to 14k, establish base camp in Genet Basin at 14k
4: Back-haul cache from 12k to 14k
5: Acclimatize with day trip to 17k, return to Base Camp
6: Establish High camp at 17k
7: Climb from 17k to Summit & return
8: Break down high camp and return to Base Camp
9: Retreat from Base Camp to Kahiltna strip, bottoms up!
In the above example, there is a main goal, and a set of intermediate goals that lay the foundation for achieving the main goal. However in this example, the entire process is completed in a few weeks. Most goals are not so quickly realized, and in truth the above goals would not suffice. If you’re sitting at home and thinking you’d like to climb Denali, setting the above set of goals will leave you overwhelmed and a bit lost in terms of how to proceed with achieving the main goal. I climbed Denali via the Cassin Ridge in 2001. In actuality the goal was set several years before I ever set foot in Alaska, and I laid out a multi-year plan to achieve the goal.
The first step is to identify the objective. That’s the easy part, though it presents some pitfalls as well (see Part II). The next step is the most critical and perhaps the most difficult: identify the gaps between the desired end-state (the goal) and your present state. In other words, my goal was to climb the Cassin Ridge. At the time I set the goal, I had never traversed a glacier, summited a peak higher than 12,000 feet, climbed ice of any kind, spent more than one night camping in the snow, experienced temperatures below 0 degrees, planned or executed an expedition, bivied over 8,000 feet… I could go on and on about my lack of credentials for such an activity.
So I developed a list of intermediate goals, each of which would help provide skills and experience that would be necessary on Denali:
Step 1: Climb Mt Rainier. This provided some more alititude exposure, several nights spent on a “high” mountain, and glacier travel experience
Step 2: Climb Mooses Tooth. This provided experience in the Alaska Range, more days (~7 days) spent on an expedition and living on a glacier, more serious glacier travel experience and more challenging alpine climbing experience
Step 3: Climb El Pico de Orizaba. This provided significantly more high-altitude experienace, with a summit over 18,000 feet, and more experience with logistical planning
Step 4: Climb Mt Waddington. This was a much more technically demanding climb than the Cassin, but at a lower altitude with less harsh weather conditions. The climb helped to improve technical skills and provide confidence, plus required 7 days on a remote glacier.
Step 5: Climb Grade 5 Ice: Knowing the Cassin would likely have nothing harder than AI4 (in reality was more like AI2 or 3), this provided more confidence in ice climbing skills and some margin for error.
It took roughly three years just to complete the intermediate goals, but once completed, I knew I was ready to give the Cassin a decent shot. In the end, the Cassin was relatively easy by comparison, which made the route that much more enjoyable.
This approach can and should be applied to all types of climbing. If you’re stuck at 5.11 and you want to climb 5.13, establish some benchmarks and a rough timeframe of when you plan to accomplish them. The benchmarks should not be arbitrary numbers. Rather, they should help you develop a specific skill or confidence that will help you achieve the main goal. Part II will go into more detail about how to select specific goals for rock climbing.