The first time tactics nudged into our summer routine was during a hot week in July sport climbing at a small conglomerate crag in southern France, La Rochette. On our first day there we nearly killed ourselves staggering up the approach mid-afternoon, with all of our gear and a dubious volume of water. We began to climb, which was actually an improvement on walking up hill, but the overwhelming feeling was that of sweaty hands on the big, rounded, polished cobbles that jutted out of the rock. Keen to avoid a repeat of this unpleasantness, we began to head up instead at 7pm and climb for the cooler couple of hours into dusk. It was a pleasant novelty. Go figure....
Since this, we have spent a lot of time in Fontainebleau over the summer months, which, with its friction dependant slopers is not usually recommended for climbing at this time of the year. However, we have had some our best climbing days during these times; the forest in summer is quiet and tranquil and the weather is glorious. The rock dries within hours of rain. In order to enjoy our time and keep climbing projects (as well as the fantastic circuits) we have had to adapt our style, tactics and expectations. Here are some of the ways that we have found to improve our climbing in summer, predominantly trialed in 'Bleau but certainly applicable to other hot weather destinations.
It's probably important to have a chat with yourself about expectations. It can be a real fun sponge when you expect that spring sending spree to run smoothly through summer, stood in your pants berating your terrible climbing, 35°C sunshine drawing the sweat out of every pore. Yeah, this has happened. More than once. Lowering grade expectations a bit can take off pressure, and if you send something at your limit despite less than ideal conditions, then great! To quote Bill Watterson: "I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations."
Pick Your Battleground
Location is everything. Many climbing areas are much more tolerable in the summer than one might think, it's all about picking the right spot. Bouldering areas with high, thick tree cover, north facing or that catch any breeze are all going to be more pleasant in summer, all three could be pretty special. Seaside based climbing areas can be good too, as coastal areas tend to be cooler than inland and are more likely to catch some wind. There is also the added bonus of cooling down by swimming.
Boulder descriptions like “cave” “roof” and “pit” are ideal. Caves and roofs will tend to stay cooler as they probably never see the sunlight – but beware a roof with a crux top-out as this will be as warm and sploodgey as anything else. Avoid friction-based, slopey bouldering at your limit until later in the year, this is a time for positive holds. Fontainebleau has a surprising number of long-drying roofs with more positive holds. These are actually too damp to climb without the possibility of breaking holds for the majority of the year, so summer can be a great time to explore a different style of bouldering. The only downside is that you won't be alone; mosquitoes really dig the cool, damp shady spots too.
Timing is Everything
Coupled with the previous point. If you faff about all morning and reach your project at 1pm, unless the problem is literally underground it's going to be pretty unpleasant. We've found that the best time of day to climb in hot weather is often early morning; the rock has had all night to cool, dawn weather normally feels a bit fresher and usually you'll have the boulder to yourself if you're early enough. Evening sessions can also be cooler, but usually not as low temperatures as the morning and bear in mind that it is not recommended to climb at night in many bouldering locations due to the disturbing effect on animals and the preferences of some land owners.
A stunning sunrise over Arbonne-la-Forêt, in the heart of the Forest - an early morning bonus
If you're going to be climbing somewhere hot for a while / are expecting a heat wave, it is possible for our bodies to adapt to function better in the heat. Start slowly with a short session and build up the time spent climbing outside. Apparently it takes about 10-14 days to adapt to hotter conditions, depending on both the information source and your body. This article goes into acclimatisation in greater detail ,and whilst it is written for runners, we thought that it was useful for bouldering too.
We have also found it speeds up our acclimatisation to do other activities outside. Getting used to functioning normally in the heat really helps us climb better in it; we try to work, walk, slack line, play table tennis, garden, forage, and whatever else as usual. Our previous practice of rushing into the sun and spending the maximum time absorbing has usually backfired with sunburn, exhaustion and poor performance, and we are probably lucky that it hasn't been worse.
When you are resting in between attempts on the boulder, stand in the shade. Even better, sit in a damp cave. Don't wrap your hands round your sides, or hold them together, or worst of all, stand around holding onto the start holds of the boulder. All of these will make your hands warmer and sweatier, and lower your chance of success dramatically. Keep them out by your sides, fingers spread, gently wafting to make the most of any air movement. Sam takes it one step further, taking a bottle of frozen water to hold and cool the fingers. Take care not to allow the skin to get too wet, perhaps wrapping the bottle in a thin towel. Water splashed on the face or hands can provide some immediate relief too, due to the cooling effects of evaporation.
One of the most important points is to keep an eye on the time and temperature. Everyone knows how quickly time travels when you are immersed in climbing a project, and there is a huge difference between a fairly fresh 20ºC at 9am, and 28ºC sneaking up on you by midday. Sometimes its nice to know that the huge dive in your performance is down to a temperature change rather than just becoming awful over a couple of hours.
Dress for the Occasion
If you're climbing in the sun, take some light, loose layers to protect your skin; back and shoulders in particular. Light clothing is important to allow sweat to evaporate. On the other hand, if you're somewhere isolated, or climbing on a nudie beach like Cornwall's Pedn Vounder, capture the best of the breeze and climb in the buff...
Remove climbing shoes regularly to prevent them from getting too swampy. You should really do this at any time of year to save your feet from, well, climbing shoes, but some of the negative effects are more noticeable in heat. Flip flops are good for allowing feet to breath, but suck at protecting your toes from rogue tree roots or boulders and are rubbish for most walk ins. Sam swears by Crocs, but the less said about that the better. Conclusion: flip flops (or Crocs...) for in-between attempts, trainers for the approach.
HYDRATE HYDRATE HYDRATE
Sounds obvious. Strangely easy to drop the ball on. We try to keep extra water in the van as back-up, and take a couple of litres each if we expect to be out for more than half the day. Basically, the body regulates its core temperature through sweating, but without adequate fluid intake this mechanism can lead to dehydration. Headaches and weight loss after climbing are indicators that you aren't drinking enough water, as well as the old pee test.... One to three is healthy wee, four to eight you must hydrate. See a urine colour chart for comparison.
I lost 1kg during a warm climbing competition despite drinking water regularly throughout. An approximate two percent decrease in body mass from sweating such as this indicates that dehydration is becoming a problem, and will begin to effect performance. This showed that I need to drink more than I thought necessary to maintain health and performance when bouldering under hot conditions. Hydrate properly the previous day, also, especially if you are climbing early in the morning. And one more: as good as a cold beer is after climbing, try to drink a pint of water first.
So there it is; our seven ways to improve your bouldering in summer. Applying these methods have helped us continue to climb hard boulders (relative to our level) throughout the summer, but more importantly have enabled us to relax more and treat the warmer months as more of a down season, to enjoy these fresh forays into the warm leafy forest, rather than wallow in sweat, stress and self-pity.
We hope that this can help you a little in meeting and enjoying your summer climbing goals too. Any more tips for hot weather bouldering? Let us know in the comments.