It’s an old, familiar, rock climbing story. “I went to Millstone (a cliff in the UK’s Peak District) and headed straight for Bond Street (a classic HVS / 5.8 climb). I was worried that, if I did not get on the climb right away, I’d wimp out. ” “So how did it go?” I asked curiously. “A horror show,” my friend grinned ruefully. “For a start, I misjudged the size of the crack and tried to place the wrong pieces for protection. He grimaced. “You can guess the rest. A minute later, I was sitting on the rope. I’m just blown the onsight.
My friend had fallen prey to one of the rock climber’s greatest enemies – the dreaded flash pump. It does not matter whether you’re cranking 5.7 or 5.14. A flash pump will close you down almost as fast as you can yell, “Take!”
What causes any pump in rock climbing? The simple answer is a build-up of lactic acid in your muscles to the point where they just do not work properly any more. Imagine someone throwing pig slurry into your petrol tank. Step on the gas and … you grind to a halt. It’s demoralising, that’s for sure.
The term ‘flash pump’ reflects to the first time in the climbing day when your muscles are engaging in strenuous activity. My friend wanted to get on his onsight project, Bond Street, before he got psyched out. Fair enough. But he also thought he was going on it fully rested, with maximum physical advantage. Big mistake.
How does one avoid the wasted flash pump? It’s simple. You warm up before you climb and again before you climb anything hard. There are many, many ways of warming up (and I’ll discuss them in other articles) but actually any warm-up that does not strain muscles is better than none. Your warm-up should be general (eg running on the spot) and specific (climbing). I’m one of those climbers who needs a long (long!) Time to warm up, so I’ve learned to do it slowly. It takes me three or four pitches to get into my strike. My best onsight is done after a short rest, but I may have stiffened up (old age!) So another warm-up might be in order. The best time for my onsight certainty will not be the first pitch. It may be pitch five or six. But experiment – find out what works best for you – and stick with it.
A critical point for avoiding a flash pump. In your climbing warm-up, it’s tempting to just stay with routes shades easier than your onsight challenge, on the basis that you do not want to get tired. Do not do this. It’s better for your third or fourth route / pitch to be near the onsight level. You need to ‘wake up’ your muscles and ‘fine tune’ them for the coming challenge. It’s as though they develop a ‘memory’ for just the right effort, the right approach.
Everybody – even the world’s best climbers – can succumb to a normal pump. But none of us should fall victim to a flash pump. It’s eminently avoidable, once you know how. And now you know how. So warm up – sensibly and thoroughly.