It’s cloudy and gray. About twelve of us balled up under winter coats huddle under a cave climb. Several of us have been trying it for hours. Outside the cave, green cacti extend towards the ground, ready to poke any critters that might be moving in the sandy dirt. I get on the climb, pinching hard, twisting my foot and body as I reach up. My left hand comes off as I quickly feel the thud and hit the crash pads. I breathe. Stand up. Blowing on my hands to try to get some blood back in them.
I reach for my go-to peanut butter banana (PBB) wrap. I take several bites. Put it down, and watch as others try the climb – Full Throttle. It’s a fifteen-or-so move problem that links several V7-V10 moves together with a large two handed swing off of a pinch facing the ground. I get back on, trying the same move again. Smack. I hit the pads. Light raindrops start to hit the top of the rock and I can feel myself getting more frustrated with this move. I sit back down and whip out the same wrap to take a few more bites. Why am I struggling so much on this?
My attempts continue to be about the same for the day. I make small progress, but don’t come that close to doing the boulder.
Before this trip over New Year’s to Hueco Tanks and over Thanksgiving break I had a flare up. I have a kind of Inflammatory Bowel Disease called Ulcerative Colitis (UC), which acts in cycles. There’s no cure, just ways to mediate the side effects. Most of the time I’m fine, but sometimes it feels like my insides want to come out. It can flare up for a variety of reasons: diet, stress levels, even just being in certain environments can trigger it.
While my body’s response to these factors is certainly heightened compared to most, we are all affected by them whether we know it or not. UC has made me more acutely aware of my body’s sensitivity to these factors.
This past flare up was worse than any previous one. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I had a fever and lost thirteen pounds. It was a wakeup call for me to analyze contributing factors to this condition, and how I can prevent the same severe side effects in the future. I don’t want to go through that week again, and certainly don’t want my side effects to get worse. I’ve already changed certain parts of my daily eating routine, having five or six smaller meals spaced throughout my day. That gives my intestines less work to do all at once which provides more energy. I’ve also added in probiotics, and other vitamins that promote gut health.
There was still more work to do. Heading on my trip to Hueco I wanted to see how the foods I ate contributed to my climbing and how they made me feel in a more scientific way than I had ever done. I took notes of what I ate before each climb and how long I rested between eating and climbing.
My first day on Full Throttle, I recognized that eating in between climbs didn’t make me feel that great. It seemed obvious at the time that, if I was hungry, I should eat. But I didn’t really think about what I should eat. I’m not saying that food was the only reason I didn’t send the boulder. I was tired from previous days, and needed some time to get used to bouldering outside again. But, in retrospect, I definitely noticed a difference in how I felt while climbing based on what I ate and when I ate it.
Our next climbing day, when we got to return to Full Throttle, I decided to change my approach. I had a turkey avocado sandwich and rested for thirty minutes before getting on the problem. By the time I was climbing, I didn’t feel hungry or sluggish like I had on the previous day, and felt really excited to rock climb. I started the process of piecing the moves together again. We had limited time on the problem, as others in our group wanted to check out different areas. I gave it several burns.
I knew that the number of burns that I had on the problem were slowly running out. I was hungry, but didn’t want to feel sluggish. So when I got off the boulder, I had foods that gave me quicker energy – applesauce cups, or candied ginger (one of my favorite crag snacks!). These rejuvenated me and pushed being hungry out of my head, so I could focus solely on the boulder.
It was my last try of the day before we were going to have to move on. I was feeling good. I moved through the first few sequences with efficiency and accuracy.
Photo: Kevin Parker
I got to the overhanging pinch. Before I knew it, my foot slipped off, and I was on the ground again. I was bummed. I had felt ready to do the problem, but it just didn’t happen. We packed up the pads and moved on.
Because of the guide restriction at Hueco, and the planning that goes into each day, I didn’t have a chance to get back onto Full Throttle for another go. But that was less important to me than the process it taught me. Working Full Throttle gave me insight into what to eat and what not to, but more than that it taught me how to space food between attempts.
Several days later, I got to try Crown of Aragorn. I had seen several pictures and videos of Hueco, and Crown always stood out as one of the most iconic and stunning climbs in the area. It’s a V13 crimpy line with a traverse and several long reaches off of slippery feet. It’s tall, and arcs upwards towards the sky. It was what I was psyched for!
My first day on it I was super excited. I had my PBB sandwich thirty minutes before, and was feeling really good. I worked out the sequences, which felt a little awkward at first, and was just stuck on the first crux move: a long reach out to a small side-pull crimp. I kept trying this move – falling – trying again – falling – trying again. I could do all of the moves except for this one. A couple of hours passed, and I got hungry and fell into old habits. I started snacking on pretzels and animal crackers. I thought that they, like the applesauce and ginger, would be quick energy for me, but they just left me hungrier. I was losing some of my motivation, and the group wanted to try another climb. I took a longer rest, and then remembered what had worked so well for me on Full Throttle - candied ginger! I got on – now with an extra pick me up. Fell at the same spot. Then before packing up, I gave it one more rapid fire burn. One of my friends in the group yelled “Give it the beans!” I got on placing my toe just right and lunged for the side-pull.
Photo: Kevin Parker
I stuck it! I pulled for the next hold and then fell right off. I was breathing heavily, but psyched! I had one more day to come back to this!
The next day, was the last day of the trip. I knew the moves. I knew how to execute it. But more importantly, I felt like I had finally figured out my food schedule for climbing. I had my PBB wrap thirty minutes before trying it. I pieced the moves together again fairly quickly, and then started giving it tries from the bottom goes. Before my second attempt from the ground for the day I had candied ginger and rested. I got on, moving fast, stuck the side-pull and threw my feet out left. I pulled hard with my left hand and stuck the gastone crimp, engaging everything I could to not twist off.
Photo: Kevin Parker
I grabbed the next hold, then the next, and despite starting to get pumped, I grabbed the last good hold to let myself top out the boulder! I was so psyched!!
Photos: Kevin Parker
Obviously everyone’s body responds differently to food, but the process of thinking about food should be the same. My intent in writing this isn’t to say candied ginger is the answer, but I do think that next time you’re at the crag, or that next trip outside, really dial in on how what you eat makes you feel. The key is asking some simple questions: Am I psyched for rock climbing? How does my stomach feel? Am I hungry? We all react to food differently, but at the end of the day we all want to feel strong and psyched while doing what we love. Being self-aware of how food makes you feel can only help.
Photo: Gabe Dewitt