Second in the series of interview excerpts is this segment of The Circuit’s interview with German Coach Udo Neumann. Here at The Circuit we are flat chat getting the first issue lay out completed and all the content balanced out. This is just a short excerpt from the full length interview appearing in the magazine.
In any sport there are figures who stand out from the crowd. They are the people who, knowingly or not, molded the sport into what it is today. Often the most recognized of these are the athletes, the Tony Hawk’s, the Matt Hoffman’s, the Kelly Slater’s of the sporting world. Innovators and shapers they are recognized for the progression they bring to their respective sports.
Those who follow sport (like anyone reading this book) will know that behind the scenes there are also figures who stand out from the crowd, their legacies decided not but their own victories or accomplishments but by those of the sports people they work with. In running there was the legendary coach Arthur Lydiard whose philosophy on middle distance running revolutionized training for the sport. In Formula 1 it was the designer and team owner Colin Chapman who’s mid-engined car designs, using the engine as a structural element changed the sport forever, signaling the end to the front engined roadsters of the 50’s and early 60’s.
Climbing has its own visionaries who have pushed the sport over the years, from Wolfgang Gullich and Jerry Moffat in sport climbing to Lynn Hill with her visionary free ascent of the Nose in Yosemite. But behind the scenes there had been visionaries as well. One of the true visionaries of climbing for over 20 years now is the German Udo Neumann. Now the German team manager, Udo has been climbing since the early 80’s and has always been a passionate advocate of the sports progression. 20 years ago this year Udo and Dale Goddard published Performance Rock Climbing, considered the bible of climbing training manuals. Copies of it will be found on the shelves of the vast majority of today’s top climbers.
Sitting down to discuss the evolution of competition climbing with Udo the first thing you notice is his enthusiasm and energy. Under a shaggy mop of greying hair his eyes dart to and fro, following the antics of the German Bouldering team who are in the playground behind us, traversing trees and pulling stunts off the swings. He is very much the mad scientist of the climbing world, fast talking and full of ideas and opinions. It is clear that he is an observational genius, taking in what is happening around him and analyzing the performance of his athletes even on a playground swing. Indeed at one point he interrupts the flow of the interview to point out to me the difference between the swinging skills of the German athletes versus that of the support staff. Truly a unique talent.
Udo and I were discussing the ideal body type for climbing and quickly the conversation evolved into a discussion on the evolution of movement and the changes in the application of force that have occurred over the last 20 years. As well as a discussion about the crossover of talents from other sports and what coaches need to be looking for.
As Udo talks as much with his hands as his words I have included bracketed sections on his body language as often the descriptiveness of this completed his sentences.
So Udo, how important is body type in climbing today? I mean if you look at Jonas Baumann and Jan Hojer theres a huge difference in physique.
If Jonas would be 90kg like myself, he would still be the better climber. And the main reason is now days, especially in bouldering, flexibility is so important, and Jonas mind just goes into any position and this is important for all. This is a fairly new development that we didn’t see coming 10 years ago. For example it is not at all in Performance Rock Climbing as flexibility only legs, as it used to be. The frog position, Patrick Edlinger and so on.
Now days, especially since the volumes, you know you have to be able to apply force to the wall in super weird body positions. So you’ve got this (Udo starts mimicking moves), and over cross compression moves and so on, but those guys like Jonas, they can bring their body into positions that I can’t, and I can’t apply force like they do.
So you think it’s not just the strength then, it’s the flexibility that allows them to apply the strength.
Yeah yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I mean it’s obvious if you pull over roofs that we always knew this. If you see how their spine makes an S and so on and you know we couldn’t go into those positions to save our lives!
So you manage the German team, when you are looking at young climbers, do you look for the same things that you did 10 years ago? If you meet a young climber…
No, no no no. We still, even in the alpine club that pays my bills, we still have a controversy on how to look for talent. And it is still, as we are talking, an ongoing process because I was very unhappy how the youth, we have separate youth coaches, and they really know a lot about climber and climbing, but how they did the selection for the team I was pretty unhappy with.
You know we really have to do things a different way because they really cared a lot about force and physical factors where I would place much more emphasis the coordination and also flexibility… And also of injuries, a history of injuries is very important. You know and in the future we want to deal much more with recognising talent for climbing and what is a talent you know? What should be there with 8 years, what should be there with 10 years you know?
So like what they are looking for in Gymnasts from a young age?
Yeah, (Talking about gymnasts) I would’ve thought that gymnasts would do much better in climbing but now days I think they are missing a certain… You see that they’re too rigid and that is their understanding of body tension… If you look at the very good climbers you don’t see the body tension because the body tension just switches on very briefly and only for the muscles that are absolutely needed. For example look at a gymnast playing basketball you know, they’d look so ridiculous. Just the way they bounce the ball…
It’s always there, body tension is their second nature and I think you can not afford this in climbing, so I’m very interested how well it really goes for them. At the beginning we all had this idea, he’s a ballet dancer, or she’s a ballet dancer, look at what positions she can go she must be such a good climber but then she also has this thing of beauty and looking weightless so deeply ingrained in all her moves that she can not do moves that are ugly, you know and things like this (mimics compression move).
This is what makes performance sport such an interesting field, the transfer is not the way you would expect it. It’s much more subtle.
And you’ve got junior coaches that are still touting the power, the force and things like that?
Yeah they did that for this time but also we need to establish some qualities, what do you call it? We don’t need to look only at quantity. Of course the things that you can count are easily measured but there are things that you have to perceive or that you just see…
So it’s very easy to have a tick list but you need to look beyond the tick list.
Exactly. And for that you need to have a really good eye for the activity and then in every country there are not so many people that can really do the job… Without sounding (shrugs) … But if you really look at all the people that hang out at all the World Cups they know lots about climbing, obviously enough. But if you talk to people that think they know shitloads about climbing but don’t have this experience (Udo shakes his head dismissively)… You need to look at World class climbers on a daily basis basically to know what they’re capable of, and these people are hard to find.
Grading. Why is it so important to us as climbers? And why is it the bone of so much contention? All the time you hear climbers plead that it’s not important to them or that too much emphasis is placed on grades, only to see the same climbers rushing away to update their scorecard on 8a.nu or arguing for hours about the grade of some piece of choss that no one in their right mind could be bothered repeating anyway.
After the excerpt of my interview with Daniel Woods where I quizzed him on grade compression at the upper end of grading I received a lot of emails and comments about certain problems and whether our disregard in mentioning them was a slight against the perceived difficulty of the problems in question or the credentials of those who graded them. If you go back and reread the excerpt though you will notice that Daniel only mentions one problem by name. One! And that is purely discussing its aesthetics in an anecdote about life before youtube.
Sure Courtney mentions Daniels problem ‘The Game’, but again that is as an example of a problem which has experienced grade compression after repeat ascents.
So, getting back to the original query that I raised, why are grades so important to us? Indeed why do we grade in the first place?
Daniel made a comment about just this in his interview, a comment I removed from the excerpt as I felt it was superfluous to the discussion we were having. How wrong I would prove to be. Daniels comment on grading was as follows.
“Numbers are irrelevant, it’s like how do you post a number to a rock climb? It just basically shows progression, that’s all it labels. It’s more of a safety mechanism so that if you’re a V6 climber you’re not going to go and try V14 and get really hurt, like pop your tendons or eat shit onto your back and be done. I see it that way, but it is a cool way to be like “oh I’m improving” you know.”
And in that one comment he pegged the two most important aspects of grading to climbers. Safety and progression.
Safety is important whether it be on a sport climb or boulder problem, and even more so on a traditional, multipitch or alpine climb. When someone makes an ascent putting a grade on it gives perspective to the objective. Much the same as giving a name can set the tone of a route. Calling a problem “Shitty razorblades of skin eating death” isn’t going to have you expecting skin friendly open hand slopers all the way to the top!
Progression on the other hand is the nightmare. Calling a problem or climb a certain difficulty is exposing your ego and there are climbers out there who by their very natures will enjoy nothing more that undermining the achievements of others.
The simple fact is we all want to improve so we can enjoy climbing as much rock and as many climbs as possible. If you go to a bouldering area like the Grampians your options are limited if you are a V3 climber. Progress your ability to V6 and the number of problems open to enjoy increases massively. Likewise if you were to move the bar again to V9 or V12 the scope of available problems increases again. So progression is important and grading gives us a measure of that progression.
The simple fact is however that bouldering grades are confused and fundamentally flawed.
Ask a boulderer what the grade of a problem reflects and they’ll give you one of two answers. The grade given either reflects the difficulty of the hardest move of the problem, or it reflects the cumulative difficulty of the moves. Two very different answers with two very different outcomes.
The Grampians mega problem ‘The Wheel of Life’ is the perfect example of this conundrum. Originally the unheard of grade of V16 was thrown around, the mythical 8c+ that has been strived for over many years. However speak to the ascensionists (I’ve spoken to several), and you’ll hear them give the hardest individual move no more than V9. So if we are going by the hardest move school of thought we are left with the world’s hardest pumper V9…
On the other hand if we give a cumulative grade based on the overall difficulty of linking the problem we see a far more difficult grade associated with the problem. But then a fit (super talented) sport climber like Germany’s Alex Megos will come along and dispatch it with little difficulty at all… So maybe it doesn’t deserve the higher grade after all…
The solution is simple. It’s time to consign V grades and Font grades to the same scrap pile that contains Gill grades (B1, B2 and B3) and other defunct systems. It’s time to replace them with a new grading system that reflects both the Safety through indicating the overall difficulty and progression through outlining the actual maximum difficulty.
So I propose the following.
Break the grade of a boulder in to several separate components that when joined give the overall difficulty of a problem. Similar to the English E grade system but tailored for boulderers.
The first component we will give is the overall length of the problem, just how many moves is it? So on a long problem like The Wheel you’ll see a huge number like 70. Whereas a problem like Fontainebleau’s Rainbow Rocket will get a far more reasonable looking 1. We will call this the Full grade
The second component will be using the symbols on any modern keyboard to indicate the predominant angle of a problem. So The Wheel, being a roof, gets a -. On the other side of the spectrum Duel would get / for being a slab and Unrepeatable in Castle Hill would get a ^ as a mantle. Nice and visual for the current generation of instagrammer’s and iphone beta video watchers.
Next we will have the Ultimate grade. How hard is the single most difficult move on the problem? In isolation. So now we are looking at a grade that will resemble this in a guide book. The Wheel of Life 70-9 or Duel 7/11.
Penultimately for the guide we will have the option of giving the problem up to two letters. The first letter would be C for contended. Confirmation can only be given by repeat ascensionists, preferably climbers more fashionable and better sponsored than the first ascensionist.
Lastly, and because safety is important we have an optional D to put on the end if a problem is dangerous. So an established, reasonably safe problem like Duel getting a simple 7/11 but Eagles Nest in the Grampians as a sand bag V8 by today’s standards would end up with a grade something like 14I8CD. In itself the length of the grade should deter less experienced suitors.
This I am calling the Full Ultimate (F.U) grading system. Contentious problems would get a F.U.C Grading until such time that they are confirmed and potentially dangerous problems will be known as F.U.C.D!
Cancer. Possibly the worst word you can hear in the world. It can spell a death sentence and reflect agonizing pain and physical Deterioration.
This year, more than any other, cancer has pushed into my life and impacted those I care about. From the beginning of the year when I found a young friend of mine was battling thyroid cancer through to the discovery on the day of my return from a two month European road trip that my Father had pancreatic cancer. A cancer we were soon to find out was terminal.
So what does this have to do with The Circuit I hear you ask?
During my European trip my friend and European correspondent Natalie introduced me to John Ellison, a man she’s known for much of her life as a young British climber. John found out last year that he had prostate cancer and that it was terminal. Facing such horrible news it would be easy to turn in on yourself and wallow in self pity but John railed against the cancer. Seeing cancers impact on people’s lives he decided he was going to fight it through the avenue he knew best. Climbing and climbers!
John founded the charity Climbers Against Cancer (CAC) initially just selling tee shirts to raise awareness and funds for the fight against cancer. Over the course of the last year, through John’s tireless commitment to the cause and his belief that cancer can be beaten, CAC has grown into a major charity raising a great deal of money which is being donated to research facilities around the world battling the disease.
There have been two major donations already, the first in Australia at the National Lead Champs and the second at the IFSC Lead World Cup recently held in Briançon. Through these donations and the many to come, CAC is channeling the efforts of climbers in the fight against cancer and it’s great to see the extent the climbing community is uniting behind the cause.
So wanting to contribute more into the fight against cancer myself (and already owning several CAC tees) I decided the The Circuit was going to do its bit and we will be donating $1 for every copy sold to CAC. I’m excited that I can be in the position to help raise awareness of this amazing cause and would urge you all to get behind CAC, check out the site http://www.climbersagainstcancer.org/ and do your bit in the fight against cancer!