How to boulder hard – conversation with Paul Gennaro!

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Bouldering Veteran's road to V11 - Introduction

The US is undoubtedly a rock-climbing paradise, full of fantastic climbing areas. Whether it's big wall climbing, endurance sport climbing, crack climbing, or bouldering, you're sure to find something for yourself. However, since it's such a vast land, it's often necessary to travel extensive distances to get to the most popular and well-known crags. But it's only sometimes required to travel far; incredible climbing could lurk just around the corner.

This is the story of Paul Gennaro, a New Yorker who recently climbed his personal best at the local climbing area of Shawagunks [1]. Earlier this year, Paul reached out to me asking if I thought a 40-year-old veteran could still make some strength gains to leap from V10 to V11 outdoor bouldering. I was instantly intrigued - there was something about his drive and systematic approach to hard training that I found extraordinary. Of course, I tried to help, but truth be told, Paul did all the work himself, and I learned from him as much as he did from me, if not more.

When he wrote to me, he was getting close to sending one of the few premier lines in the Gunks called Venus in Scorpio, graded V11, and in this post, Paul will tell how he managed to stick the final dyno and ultimately tick off his first outdoor V11. If you'd like to learn more about Paul's bouldering training methods, go ahead and listen to our recorded podcast, where you'll learn how to leverage the Finger Strength Analyzer to monitor your fingerboard strength training progress [2]!

Video 1: Training for hard bouldering with Paul Gennaro - StrengthClimbing conversation [3].

A few words about me - Paul Gennaro

I am a 43-year-old gym rat who lives in New York City and works as a motion designer. This past year, I began training for outdoor climbing after 15 years of experience. As a gym rat, I was satisfied. I enjoyed spending time outside but only ventured out here and there. However, there were moments when I climbed in Central Park a lot or traveled to the Gunks with my next-door neighbor. Occasionally, I would even travel with friends to Rumney, New Hampshire, for sport climbing, but all for fun. Truth be told, I’ve always enjoyed getting more volume and a better workout inside. However, as Covid, gym closures, and comp-style boulder problems popped up more and more, I decided to make a change and venture outdoors.

When I first started climbing in 2007, it was all about getting strong, having fun, and pulling hard. But climbing meant more than fun and fitness as I became older. It was a lifestyle, an outlet for stress, and a way of tackling life. It was how I synthesized my problems on and off the wall. In many ways, I thought climbing mirrored life, and life mirrored climbing. So why not learn and take from climbing, and apply accordingly?

bouldering in Shawagunks
Photo 1: Paul Gennaro in front of Venus in Scorpio.

Why do I climb in the Gunks?

There is a ridge line about one hour and a half outside New York City called the Shawangunks (also known as the Gunks). Purity, ethics, and bolt-free lines are the hallmarks of this place. Although it’s known for its fall beauty, its history is second only to Yosemite. Compared to other known or popular climbing crags, it is a small place that packs a punch. Despite its size, it is home to some of the finest trad lines in the country. This place offers a range of X and R-rated routes, as well as boulder problems. If you want to cut your teeth on challenging trad lines and boulder problems, here is the place. But, beyond its lines and overall development, its history sets it apart from all other crags in the region.

What is Venus in Scorpio?

It is Ivan Greene’s classic V11 benchmark, established in the early 2000s, that became viral in the region. Featured in Sender Films’ Dosage Volume 2, it became one of the most coveted lines in the Gunks. The climb offers endless possibilities, making it a true full-value climb [4]. For example, even the first ascensionist climbed Venus in a way that appears to be humanly impossible by mono-ing to a crimp below the dyno.

The climb starts with two amazing jugs that lead to a crimp rail. Depending on your finger size, the rail will feel like an 8 to 10-millimeter edge. As you transition, you step up, stab your opposite foot into a smallish hole, and hit a V10-ish span to a glassy side pull. The span is the first crux. If you don’t slip off, the foot move that follows, in my opinion, is more challenging than the span itself. Near the first hole, there are a series of small holes arranged in a row. While holding the span and holding crazy amounts of body tension, you need to release your left foot and slide it to the furthest hole. Then, it’s a sprint to the finish, with a dyno at the end. In isolation, one of the easiest parts to mess up is the dyno. But the moves before the dyno are equally challenging, involving unimaginable holds. Since this is a friction-dependent problem, putting the whole climb together requires a lot of mental stamina.

Video 2: Jesse Grupper on Venus in Scorpio V11, Shawagunks [5].

My strategy for Venus in Scorpio V11

Over the course of seven months, I spent ten sessions projecting Venus. April 27th to November 26th of 2022 to be exact. In my first three sessions, I had the climb in two links minus the dyno. By the fourth session, I was able to include the dyno in my upper link but made no further progress. There was another session in May, but the weather was hot. In terms of strategy, I would rest for 5 to 10 minutes and try endlessly until I had nothing left.

After a three-month break, I matched my high point in September but made no further progress. I was slightly disappointed, but what do you expect after not trying a project for three months? In the seventh session, my friend Josh noticed that my beta was off. After remembering some key foot placement, I quickly linked both cruxes to the dyno and tried ground-up send attempts shortly after. It was a huge relief. At this point, I noticed I had about five worthwhile attempts in me on some days and more on others. But the first two were always solid.

For the eighth and ninth sessions, I almost sent Venus but fell short because I couldn’t stick the dyno, or I would latch and fall off. But, on the 10th session, it all came together on my second attempt. As cliché as it may sound, I felt euphoric when I finally sent the line. I felt so alive. God only knows what type of chemicals were released in my brain. It’s a feeling you really can’t explain unless you’ve experienced it yourself. It was so dramatic emotionally that I know the feelings following my first 8A will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Video 3: Paul Gennaro on Venus in Scorpio V11, Shawagunks [6].

Other notable boulder problems in the Gunks and future plans

Sit back, relax, and enjoy some popcorn! Or I might consider Euphoria, which is another V11. The climb is a compression climb on tiny holds like Venus. Dave Graham established the V12 extension to Euphoria in the early 2000s.

There is one king line in the Gunks, Operation Ranch Hand, which is a V14. It’s an extension of Paul Robinson’s V12 crimp test piece Agent Orange, and it’s just around the corner from Venus on the Yikes boulder. But it’s also an R-rated climb and one of the toughest lines in the Gunks. That said, Agent Orange may have four ascents, at most five, I believe. As a result, I left a comment on one of Paul’s YouTube videos. I asked about his pad and TR situation if any, and he responded, which was cool of him. Therefore, I’ll probably place some gear or wrap off somewhere, and TR the top, like Paul mentioned in his response. But, regardless, one needs a lot of pads because you can’t take that fall.

The climb is basically finger pain with a 10 mm under-cling/in-cut start on the left hand and maybe 8 mm (maybe smaller) on the right hand to a razor-sharp 10 or 11-ish mm side-pull crimp, depending on how you start. It looks like at least two V10 moves on micros with maybe some V9 mixed in connected to a crimp rail. I hear the rail itself climbs near V3 or V4 but it looks more like a scary V5 or V6. In short, it’s like a crack with a few slots into a rail, involving nothing but crimps. The crack is fine, but the rail exits over a talus, which makes it extremely dangerous. Hence, nobody climbs over the talus without understanding the risk.

That’s all I know at the moment. But I would love to put this line on video because of its historical importance. There is one video of a local climber doing it with dropped frames on Instagram, but you must scrub his feed, which makes it almost impossible to find. Last spring, I was able to do the stand start easily (moving left first). So, I’m excited to try again. In any case, both problems will require superhuman crimp strength. After all, I could be dreaming. Plus, I might not have the mental fortitude for the climb. We’ll see if lightning strikes twice. After all, it is called the “Yikes” boulder for a reason.

My bouldering training approach to finger strength

I designed my training around my most limiting factor, which was my thumb. So, I then started Googling hangboard training. With all the books, online articles, and YouTube videos available, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. Furthermore, with all the new science behind RFD (Rate of Force Development), I questioned if the hangboard was even useful. However, training for climbing is still in its infancy, so I opted for the KISS Method (Keep it simple, stupid), which would make training quantifiable in my mind, albeit anecdotal for everyone else. Therefore, if I failed, I wanted it to be my fault alone and not someone’s personal doctor-prescribed training plan. But if I had to describe my protocol, it was like Eva Lopez’s max hangs, which is well covered on strengthclimbing.com. I would also evaluate and reevaluate my success through the Finger Strength Analyzer 2.0 and tailor things accordingly. Having the ability to track my success was the most significant part.

I began with 3 or 4 sets of max hangs twice per week. But, I realized I could get stronger by only performing two sets of max hangs per session. The trick was warming up due to the load needed to achieve a max hang. I would start by bouldering ten problems that ranged from V0 to V2. Then I would transition to a large campus rung at bodyweight and hang for several seconds, namely, to get the blood flowing. Then I would hang from a 15-millimeter edge for several seconds. Still hanging at body weight, I would transition to the 10-millimeter edge. If I felt warm enough, I would attach 15 lbs. to my harness and gradually increase the load. How long does one hang? For me, I would perform something I call “Establish, Control, and Release.” During the warm-up process, I found all I needed was to feel positive and in control, then quickly let go. I would repeat those words to myself while performing each set. Then, I would rest for 2 minutes and increase the load by 10 or 15 lbs. until I hit my max weight. For the record, I hit 5 seconds on 110 lbs. at 150 lbs. of body weight on Sept 24. I did try to break my 10 mm PR. But it was to no avail. The original goal was to reach 90 lbs. I came up with this goal after listening to a pro climber discussing such things on a podcast.

The key to my training success was the Finger Strength Analyzer 2.0, which I used to continually assess my performance and push myself in the right direction. My initial goal was to become two grades stronger than the climb in case of human or climber error, or I found myself climbing at my limit. I ended up achieving three grades higher instead of two, which was more than enough. I decided on two grades higher as a contingency plan for two reasons. One, human judgment, which I just mentioned above, and two, it would be impossible to peak for the entire fall season. In the end, I guessed right and settled back at V12 when I sent it. I also contracted a sinus infection, but I felt my numbers dipped due to the strain I placed on my body. Furthermore, the Finger Strength Analyzer 2.0 was the real lighthouse in all of this because it provided me with a quantifiable goal. I had other measurables as well, such as my own style of one-arm pull-ups and supporting core work. In addition, I would weight lift and stretch as much as possible. But, despite all those things, finger strength was the biggest limiting factor.

Video 4: Paul Gennaro training power, 1-5-Almost 9 [7].

Things to consider...

The original goal was to improve my finger strength by two grades. Ultimately, I predicted correctly and settled at V12 based on my own self-assessment following the send. Because I knew it was impossible to peak for months at a time. Also, please bear in mind that I might’ve hit high numbers, but there are other metrics that contribute to a send. I also pushed beyond my target goal out of curiosity to find my absolute limit, which was not needed. Additionally, I regularly performed weightlifting, core work, stretching, and my own flavor of one-arm pull-ups to support everything else. Finger strength was not the only factor. However, finger strength was the limiting factor, and the website provided me with the gauge I needed to climb my first 8a.

This brings me to my last point…

In the end, I was always chasing incremental progress and never expected to send the climb. I placed my faith in progression and nothing else. For the entire journey, I would not even contemplate what a possible send would feel like. Furthermore, I was aware that the physical attributes I acquired would not overshadow the mental aspects of bouldering, but it would help. As a result, I did not place any additional pressure or expectations on myself to succeed. I simply wanted the experience of the journey and full commitment to a boulder problem.

References

  1. Climb Like a Local: The Gunks, www.accessfund.org, Jul. 20, 2017. (link)
  2. J. Banaszczyk, StrengthClimbing – Climbing Finger Strength Analyzer 2.0, Jun. 25, 2020. (link)
  3. StrengthClimbing, YouTube, Training for hard bouldering with Paul Gennaro, Jan. 15, 2023. (link)
  4. reelrocktour.com – DOSAGE VOLUME II, 2023. (link)
  5. "Venus in Scorpio - Jesse Grupper", Apr. 20, 2015. (link)
  6. "Venus in Scorpio - Gunks Bouldering - V11", Dec. 07, 2022. (link)
  7. "Campus Board 1-5-Almost 9., Apr. 13, 2020. (link)
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