In sum­mer 2006, af­ter a long day of climb­ing at the high-el­e­va­tion Tioga Cliff near Yosemite, I’d worked up a mas­sive ap­petite. On the hike out, I stuffed cheese puffs by the hand­ful into my mouth as my part­ner, El Cap­i­tan free-climb­ing vet­eran Rob Miller, poured a few macadamia nuts into his hand, looked at them, and then re­turned three to the bag. “How many macadamias do you eat?” I asked Rob, bits of cheese puff hang­ing from my lips. “Well, I eat 10,” the buff climber said. “But since you’re a lit­tle”—his cheeks bal­looned—“you’d want 7.” I grew up on the East Coast as one of six kids. Our par­ents fed us econ­omy-style, fa­vor­ing quan­tity over qual­ity. At din­ner, I crammed fish sticks into my gob, com­pet­ing with five other hun­gry mouths. In mid­dle school, my mom told me I had “broad shoul­ders” and took me shop­ping in the Husky depart­ment at JCPen­ney. Through­out high school, I played foot­ball and cross-coun­try skied. I be­gan climb­ing in 1998 in Ver­mont, be­com­ing more ath­letic though still bulky.

As I pro­gressed through the grades, from lead­ing my first 5.6 trad pitch on Ma­nure Pile to free climb­ing El Cap in a day, I grew skin­nier. The cor­re­la­tion was ob­vi­ous: In our constant-fight-against-grav­ity sport, the bet­ter your strength-to-weight ra­tio, the harder you climb. In win­ter 2003 while I sold over­priced alpine jack­ets at a Santa Cruz out­door store and saved money for my next climb­ing trip, I ate Nut­terBut­ter cook­ies by the pack­age, ap­a­thetic to the hy­dro­genated fat. My climb­ing took a nose­dive. Then I trav­eled to In­dian Creek and got lean. My friends and I sur­vived off eggs we’d scav­enged from be­hind a Moab gro­cery store. When one of our crew got food poi­son­ing, we just shrugged and kept eat­ing the eggs. Later that sum­mer in Squamish, I spent two months camp­ing in a cave, eat­ing peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wiches. Once a week, I spent a loonie on deli-meat ends. Poverty had shrunken my stom­ach, but it also made me climb harder.

Over the years as my ca­reer as a free­lance writer took off, my in­come ex­panded and so did my waist­line. Af­ter so much time on a sur­vival diet, per­haps my me­tab­o­lism had slowed. Also, I could fi­nally af­ford good food. Around me, other climbers were more weight con­scious. A scale sat on the camp­ground ta­ble for morn­ing weigh-ins at Ri­fle; in Squamish, a sweet-toothed friend ab­stained from sugar for a month; and af­ter one friend con­tracted gi­a­r­dia, she crushed a long-time boul­der­ing project she couldn’t re­peat af­ter she re­gained weight. Af­ter a bout of food poi­son­ing in Ri­fle in 2013, I floated through the crux of my project, Hang

‘Em High (5.12c). I bought a scale and kept it in my van for morn­ing weigh-ins. When I moved to Boul­der in 2016 to work at Climb­ing, the scale came into my cu­bi­cle.

Climbers have even been known to fast, as un­healthy as this can be. In Jerry Mof­fatt’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Rev­e­la­tions, he con­fesses that prior to his FA of Yosemite’s no­to­ri­ous V12 the Dominator, he barely ate for days, pass­ing the time hik­ing the Yosemite Falls Trail. He at­tributes his send to his lighter weight. On Cos­mic De­bris, a 5.13b fin­ger crack I’d been try­ing for years, I took a sim­i­lar ap­proach. When I fi­nally sent, in 2017, I could lock off harder and felt lighter, mak­ing the place­ments eas­ier.

So how skinny do I—or any of us—re­ally need to be to crush? Where do you draw the line be­tween strate­gic di­et­ing and an un­healthy eat­ing dis­or­der? “Well, one par­tic­u­lar an­swer from our data comes in the form of ‘ lighter does not equal bet­ter grades,’” says climb­ing trainer Tom Ran­dall, who has tested hun­dreds of climbers through his Lat­tice Train­ing pro­gram. “But be­ing in ap­prox­i­mately 20 BMI is best for healthy, long-term climbers.” Body-mass in­dex mea­sures your height-to-weight ra­tio. While many climbers fa­vor cal­cu­lat­ing body-fat per­cent­age, cal­cu­lat­ing BMI is eas­ier given the dif­fi­cul­ties of mea­sur­ing body fat ac­cu­rately. In The Rock

Climber’s Train­ing Man­ual, the An­der­son brothers recommend that climbers be gen­er­ally fit, with 10 per­cent body fat for men and 20 per­cent for women. At 5’7” and 158 pounds, the up­per end of a healthy BMI, I’d need to drop 28 pounds, or roughly 18 per­cent of my body weight, to get close to a 20 BMI.

I like broc­coli and chicken as much as the next guy, but weeks on end of such fare seems un­main­tain­able. Per­haps I could close the gap by cam­pus­ing, hang­board­ing, and pound­ing iron.

“Strength train­ing is cu­mu­la­tive over your life­time,” write the An­der­son brothers. “Weight loss is not.” They ex­plain that the 10 pounds you lose post-breakup won’t af­fect your per­for­mance a decade later; how­ever, those six months of angsty dead­hang­ing might. There are count­less ar­ti­cles about how to in­crease fin­ger strength, how to break boards on your abs, and how to do fin­ger­tip pushups. But sus­tained weight loss can be more chal­leng­ing than the lat­est Eva Lopez con­trast­ing dead­hangs pro­gram be­cause strength build­ing comes through chang­ing your

ex­er­cise pro­gram, while long-term weight loss re­quires chang­ing your life.

“Long-term weight loss (or weight main­te­nance) doesn’t come about through short-term fixes; it’s the cul­mi­na­tion of build­ing long-term, healthy


di­etary habits,” writes Brian Rigby in “Los­ing Weight II: Food & Diet At­ti­tudes” at climb­ingnu­tri Los­ing weight re­quires a thou­sand mi­cro de­ci­sions that combine over time to make a macro dif­fer­ence. For me, carrots and cel­ery would need to re­place potato chips, while seven macadamias would re­place cheese puffs. And I’d need to change my emo­tional-eat­ing habits. In­stead of down­ing a calo­rie-filled beer and pound­ing na­chos when I couldn’t deal with work dead­lines, I’d need to guz­zle LaCroix and rage-eat al­mond sliv­ers. Go too far, how­ever, and I risked suc­cumb­ing to or­thorexia, an ob­ses­sion with main­tain­ing a per­fect diet rather than an ideal weight. Think no sugar, no gluten, no fun … but lots of send­ing!

Eat­ing dis­or­ders are the third rail in per­for­mance climb­ing—no­body wants to talk about them, but to climb 5.13 and be­yond, it helps to be lean and light. For most climbers, ac­knowl­edg­ing they have an eat­ing dis­or­der means putting on weight, which in turn trans­lates to a worse strength-to-weight ra­tio and thus less send­ing. It’s a fine bal­ance to main­tain an ideal climb­ing weight and still stay healthy.

“It’s a lot eas­ier to lose five pounds than it is to get five pounds stronger,” says the pro climber Jonathan Siegrist. In 2015 in Spain, while he worked La Ram­bla (5.15a), Siegrist me­thod­i­cally pre­pared his food, stay­ing light for his project. But ex­tended calo­rie re­stric­tion can—among myr­iad is­sues—cause re­duced brain vol­ume, ac­cord­ing to a May 2010 study in the In­terna

tional Jour­nal of Eat­ing Dis­or­ders. “Starv­ing is bad for your brain,” says Siegrist. “I’ve no­ticed it change peo­ple’s be­hav­ior.” Siegrist be­lieves that it’s bet­ter to fo­cus on other facets of per­for­mance climb­ing, like clean­ing the holds on the MoonBoard. (“Brush the holds; they don’t come down that often,” he says.) When he’s not in send mode, Siegrist gains a few pounds, drink­ing a nightly beer and main­tain­ing a healthy weight. “I’d much rather re­sist de­vel­op­ing an eat­ing dis­or­der than send half a let­ter grade harder,” he.

As the pro climber Emily Har­ring­ton puts it, “The harsh re­al­ity is that [climb­ing is] a grav­ity-based sport, and if you want to climb hard it helps to be a few pounds lighter.” In 2005, Har­ring­ton trained in Europe, hon­ing down to 100 pounds. The weight loss turbo-charged her per­for­mance, and she placed sec­ond in the lead world cham­pi­onships. In 2007, when I met her at Jail­house, she sent Burn­ing Down the

House (5.14b). How­ever, Har­ring­ton strug­gled with the de­mands of con­stantly be­ing that thin, and even­tu­ally gained 20 pounds. When she did, her climb­ing suf­fered. Then she learned to train prop­erly and bet­ter use her strength, go­ing on, at her cur­rent healthy weight, to send Golden Gate (VI 5.13b) on El Cap­i­tan in 2015 and Fish Eye (5.14b) at Oliana in 2017.

Like all the best things in life, climb­ing re­volves around strug­gle—the give-and-take be­tween what we want to achieve and what we’re will­ing to do to get there. Sac­ri­fice too much and you risk your health. But ig­nore the role of nutri­tion in climb­ing and you might not re­al­ize your goals. If I want to im­prove in climb­ing, one area is my weight—but it’s just one area. I can also im­prove fin­ger strength, flex­i­bil­ity, and power. Each morn­ing, I stare at the scale in my cu­bi­cle. Our re­la­tion­ship has had its ups and downs, but lately we’ve been on good terms, as I’ve learned how to bal­ance my weight, climb­ing, and a happy life. Some­day soon, I hope, we’ll no longer need each other.


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