A great afternoon of climbing with Lou and Leon!


I entered the climbing gym in Bozeman and looked around.  Across the room, I saw who I thought must be Leon “The Lion” sitting with his back to the window.  “Hey, Chris!” I heard from above and to my left.  It was Lou Renner finishing a route on one of the auto belays.  He came down, unhooked, and gave me a big hug.  It was so great to finally meet Lou and Leon!  Lou has been a valuable friend and mentor on MyClimb and he had told me how great his friend Leon is.  Leon is 75 years young and still climbing strong!  He got in a fight with his table saw and had just gotten the stitches out of his right thumb yesterday before going to the climbing gym!  He also had a black eye and some bruised ribs from working on the deck he’s building, but that doesn’t stop Leon!  It doesn’t even slow him down!!!  After we visited for a few minutes and got acquainted, Lou exclaimed, “So, you want to do some climbing?!”  His enthusiasm was incredibly contagious.  He was rip-roaring and ready to go!  We chose a corner at the edge of the new corner of the gym to work in.  I got my shoes on and tied in to do a green 5.5, and I warned Lou that I rarely finished a route.  “That’ll all change by the end of the day,” he said with a big smile.  I mentioned that I wasn’t a real great climber, and Lou didn’t believe me.  Lou believed in me from the get-go, and that was obvious.  I wasn’t nervous or anything, which was surprising to me, and I began my climb with Lou saying, “I’ve gotcha.”  Climbing…  I was having trouble matching on the starting hold.  “That’s a mistake I see with a lot of gym climbers.  See, outside, you don’t match like that, do you?  That’s something that happens in the gym a lot.  You want to start with one arm higher than the other to get a straight arm above you.  Like this hold.”  He pointed to a hold above the starting hold where I could start with my right arm straight.  “If you start with both arms down here, it’s a real powerful move to get started, and you don’t want that.  You’re going to need that energy later.  Climbing is all about using less energy – using as little energy as possible, because you’re going to need it later.”  I started with my arms in the new position, and it felt great!  It felt more natural.  “When you get to a good position, don’t forget to rest and chalk up if you need to.”  I rested once on my way up – something I’d never done before – and amazingly enough, I finished the green 5.5 without any trouble!  I was blown away!  I wasn’t even pumped!  Lou did a quick route on auto belay, then belayed Leon on a route.

“You’re up!”  We went over to the old side of the gym where there was another 5.5 – a blue one this time.  “I’ve gotcha,” Lou said after I was tied in.  I wasn’t sure when the killer pump was going to set in and shut me down, but Lou reminded me again to rest and chalk up when I got to a good hold.  “You always want to rest from a straight arm.  Shake the other arm out, then switch.  That way you get a good short rest, then keep climbing.”  Climbing…  I got to a good rest position, and I took a short rest, shaking out each arm and chalking up, then continued.  I noticed that my breathing was much better than usual, and I wasn’t even having to consciously pay attention to it.  I sent the blue 5.5 with no issues, and no pump, and got a high five from Lou when I got back down to the floor!  “You climb well.  You climb from your hips and not your arms.  You climb using your legs and your hips and you have momentum.  Good!  That’s really good!”  While Leon was tying in to climb, Lou explained finger injuries to me.  He had been to a gym conference and said, “Most finger injuries happen as we’re letting go of a hold and not when we’re using it.  They happen as we let go and they’re under such tension when we pop them on another hold, that we injure them when we let go of the holds.”  He showed me on the wall, and it made sense!  Lou belayed Leon on a route right next to the one I had done and coached him about his feet a lot as he climbed.  Leon is a good climber, that’s for sure!  I had popped my shoes off and was resting while Leon and Lou each did a route.  I could see why Lou called him Leon “The Lion”!

“Let’s go back on the other side.”  We went back to the corner we had worked on to begin with.  I had two clean 5.5 routes under my belt and Lou pointed to a blue 5.6 around the corner.  “Give that one a shot.”  I was sure that I was going to have trouble, but I didn’t hesitate.  I tied in and Lou gave me some helpful instruction on how to avoid shoulder injuries.  “This outside arc that we do to reach up to the next hold, and reaching straight up are the worst position we can put our shoulders in.  They’re way out there, and they’re unstable.  Instead, try to do an inside arc with your shoulders.  Outside-in.  That keeps your shoulders in here [inside toward the center of your body] and they don’t get hurt that way.  I do inside arcs whenever I can when I’m reaching up so that I don’t get my shoulders extended away from my body and it keeps shoulder and elbow injuries from happening. That’ll take care of your elbow.”  Lou is a wealth of information and I was a ready sponge, soaking up everything I could!  “Okay, I gotcha.  Rest when you get to a good position and shake out.  Do that as many times as you need to.”  Climbing…  I rested and chalked up from a straight arm position at least once (maybe twice) and I sent that blue 5.6!!!  I still wasn’t pumped!!!  I wondered what was going on…  Leon was telling me about the four-pitch route that he and Lou had put up where the third pitch was a crux pitch and didn’t have anchors because it was better, if you got in trouble, to just go to the top of it.  I was impressed with how many places Leon had travelled to climb and trek!  He’s been all over the world!!!  Lou did a quick route on auto belay and then it was Leon’s turn.  Leon decided to do the blue route in the corner with the alphabet letter holds.  With one thumb in a splint and taped up, he was doing spectacular!  I wondered what he could do with both thumbs operational!!!  He sent that route, no problem.  Lou pointed out a no-hands rest that Leon could’ve taken on the way up.  Before I looked at the grade, Leon had convinced me to do that route.

I looked at the route grade, and it was a 5.7.  Now I knew I was in over my head.  Oh, well.  I’d try it.  Lou explained the mystery of having their chalk bags in front of their bodies.  “It’s better, when you lead, to have your chalk bag in front.  That way, you’re not trying to find it if you get off-balance.  That’s important.  It helps you maintain your balance if it’s in front.  It acts as a balance point.”  Interesting!  I tied in and Lou had me on belay.  “Remember.  Rest when you get to a good position, when you’ve got a good straight-arm hold and good feet.  Your other hand hold doesn’t have to be good.  As a matter of fact, it’s good if it’s a bad hold, because then you can go to another bad hold if you need to.  I’ve gotcha.”  Okay, climbing…  The “A” foothold was pretty high for me, and I laughed as I struggled with it.  I got it, though, and was on my way.  I used all kinds of positions with my hands, my feet, my body – everything – getting through the alphabet.  I rested twice at good positions and sent that 5.7!!!  Wow!!!  I got back down and Lou and Leon both gave me a high five!  I still wasn’t pumped!  What on earth was going on???

Lou did a route on auto belay, using all of the holds on the wall instead of sticking to one route, and then explained when he came back down.  “Remember when I told you that one time to mix it up and not pay attention to the routes and the colors – to just climb?  That’s what you need to improve your letter grades.  Volume.  Time on the wall climbing. You have to have volume.  So, if you want to do a 5.12, you don’t do a bunch of 5.12’s.  You do a bunch of 5.10’s, a few 5.11’s, and then when you come to that 5.12, you’ll be amazed. Same with 5.9.  If you want to do a 5.9, you start by doing 100 5.7’s, then a few 5.8’s.  Then, when you go to do that 5.9, watch what happens!  It’s no problem!  It’s like a big pyramid.  You have to have volume!”  Lou challenged Leon to climb the wall we were working on using any holds except the green ones.  That made it an average of a 5.9 climb.  He did some awesome moves on that wall!!!  I stood in awe of Leon and his creative and powerful moves!

“Your turn!  Get on that wall!”  ME?  Do THAT?  I had very little confidence in getting very far, but I tied in and gave it my all.  On a red hold up fairly high, my grip failed.  Now, I was pumped.  Totally pumped!  Lou checked my arms and laughed.  “Yeah, you’re pumped!  Leon, feel her arms!  They’re like rocks!”  Leon came over and both of them laughed.  “Shake your arms.  If you want to detox them, lift them above your head.  Keep shaking them.  Don’t untie.  You’re getting back on the wall.”  What?!  “Now I want you to do the green route again.  Focus on your feet.  Even though you’re pumped, focus on your footwork.  Go!”  I got halfway up the green route and fell off the wall.  I got back on.  I got another quarter of the way up the wall and fell again.  “Keep going.  Finish it!”  I got to the top and Lou lowered me.  “Okay.  Shake those arms out.  Shake them.  Now, you’re going to get on the wall again and use any holds you can, but you’re going to go fast because you’re pumped.  See how far up the wall you can get.  Don’t worry about failure or getting to the top.  Just go fast.  Okay, go!”  I went as fast as I could, focusing on my feet, and made it two-thirds of the way up the wall before I fell off.  My whole body was pumped!!!  “Now that’s when I really start climbing well – when I’m totally pumped and my legs are as pumped as my arms are.  Pay attention to your breathing.”  By this time, I was breathing hard and faster than I had been.  Lou had Leon on belay by this time and was talking to me as he was belaying Leon.  “I like endurance routes.  I like long routes.  When I get pumped, I have to remember to go faster.  That’s why you rest when you can.  If you only rest when you need to, that’s way too late.  You have to take regular short rests before that because you’re going to need that energy.  Another thing you need to do is, when your brain is telling you you’re pumped and you’re tired, stop thinking like that.  You know you’re tired!  That’s why you focus on your feet.  Anything you can do to stay focused and keep that voice in your head from telling you that you have to stop.  Don’t stop moving.  Once you get control of that voice in your head, you’ll get a lot farther.  You have to believe that you’re stronger than you are, and you’ll advance at least two grades.”  Really?  “Yeah.  Really.  You’re only tapping into maybe a tenth of what you’ve got right now.”  I told him that nobody had taught me how to rest before now.  “Yeah, that’s not something they teach in gyms, but when you’re leading, you have to get to a fixed point and then rest because you have to shake out and read the rock to figure out where you’re going next, so it’s really important when you’re leading.”  Leon finished his modified route and Lou got on the wall.  They kept eliminating holds that could be used and it was impressive to see what they could do with limited holds!

Leon was on the ground again and Lou said, “I know you’ve got one more in you.”  Okay.  I’ll try the green one (5.5) again.  Lou had me on belay.  “I gotcha.”  Climbing.  And I sent that green 5.5 clean again!  That was it for me, though.  I was so pumped!!!  “You’re a good climber, Chris.  You climb from your legs and your hips, you have a good center of balance when you climb…  If you were to watch yourself on video climbing, you’d see that you have a really good center of balance when you climb.  Your footwork is really good.  You’re a good climber, Chris.  You have a good climbing style.”  That meant so much coming from Lou, and I told him that.  “You’re a good climber.”  This, coming from a guy who told Chris Sharma how to break into 5.14!

We got some photos before we left the gym and then I followed them down to KFC/A&W and we all had milkshakes: Leon had a vanilla, Lou had a strawberry, and I had a chocolate, haha!  We exchanged cards so that we could get in contact with each other and Lou said, “Oh, I owe you a painting.  And I’ve got some gear for you!  We’ll have to climb again!”  Yes, we definitely will!  Lou will be here until Tuesday of next week, so I hope to get to climb with Leon and him again before he goes.  All in all, yesterday was one of the best days of my life!!!  It was definitely the most successful gym session I’ve ever had, too!!!  I even made it onto Leon’s Wall.  Leon has a room in his house where he puts photos of everyone he’s ever climbed with.  I made it on The Wall!!!  What an honor and a privilege to climb with these two!  Truly!

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