Now that I’ve moved back to NYC for the summer, climbing primarily with my boyfriend on weekends has become routine. Kurt has weekends off for the most part, so a typical weekend consists of us packing up the car Friday evening with gear and dogo and heading upstate to the Gunks.

Coming back to the Gunks has been an interesting experience. For one, I expected to feel humbled on a lot of things. Climbs like Friends and Lovers (5.9) and the first pitch of Falled on Account of Strain (5.9+) have done exactly that. I thoughtfully moved up the first pitch of Friends and Lovers until placing my first piece of pro, probably a little higher than I would have liked. With nervous laughter, we acknowledged the quintessential Gunks pro and I continued on to the crux.

Perhaps the summer temperature can be blamed, as I renegotiated the crux sequence several times before changing my mind and stepping slightly left, using a series of small crimps to edge on to pull up on instead. I even waited until there was cloud coverage above me to make the move, convinced that the smarmy holds would somehow feel better with less direct sunlight. Matt Matera said he’d never seen anyone climb the crux of Friends that way, and I laughed and figured that was just my “shorty beta”.

Last weekend, I backed off the first pitch of Falled entirely, having a big moment of hesitation heading up the runout face in the summer heat. It felt frustrating, to say the least. I gave Kurt the roof pitch of Falled on Account of Strain (5.10b), having sent the roof several years ago. I’m generally happy to give Kurt the crux pitch of routes I have onsighted in years prior because I really want him to fall in love with the Gunks while we’re living in New York. However, this particular day I was feeling a little less than psyched after having bailed on the first pitch. My confidence in my own abilities was low.

Kurt Ross taking down the roof of Fat City Direct (5.10d) in the Nears. Photograph by Debra Beattie

Following several pitches of 10s, I’ve managed to unsend most of them. This has also been frustrating. On the one hand, I’m proud of Kurt for onsighting. Despite working a new full-time job, he’s climbing well and it’s been awesome to see him take down things so swiftly. The Gunks can have a steep learning curve, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping him.

On the other hand, as Matt joked below Friends and Lovers (an appropriate name for our party of three), “It’s a love/hate relationship with this guy, isn’t it?” Matt is probably a little taller than me, with a negative ape index as well. We lamented over the start of Lisa, a 5.9 that Mountain Project declares “harder if short”. I absolutely hated being in the awkward corner, having placed two okay-ish nuts and struggling to make the move to the pod. In reality, the brassies I’d placed were probably fine and a potential fall wouldn’t have been bad. Not to mention that I knew I was strong enough to make the move–I would have to pull on the thin seam below to get to the pod. But my mounting frustration didn’t let me and I soon admitted defeat.

“There’s a good pod.” Kurt had said.

“I can’t fucking reach the pod!” I cried angrily.

Again, I’ll quickly blame the imperfect sending temps for the reason I faltered. Yes, some crisp fall temperatures would be a great cure-all for my hesitation and would certainly feel much better for everyone. But the fact of the matter is that Kurt is 6’4” and I am 5’ and there is a slight difference between the two. The pod was within reach for him because after stepping onto the face, it was within direct reach.

One of my old climbing partners once joked and said, “If I were a short person, I just don’t think I’d rock climb.” We were such opposite body types, just like Kurt and me, but we’d always climbed pretty well together. He has a typically good body type for most styles of climbing: tall and lean, so he too had less trouble with longer moves on routes.

Matthew O’Connor styling Uphill All The Way (5.12a). Easier crux down low for tall people, harder crux at the lip. Photograph by Seth Gross

I’d definitely reached a point climbing with my old partner where I decided that complaining about my height wasn’t helping me. In fact, being short was probably more helpful than anything. I figured that making three smaller moves as opposed to one big one was making me a stronger climber in the end.

But rational thoughts have a time and a place, and this wasn’t one of them. I was pissed. Weeks ago, I’d unsent the final roof pitch of Erect Direction, following Kurt. I thought I was stretched out enough to hit the hold and fell off. I wasn’t too upset at the moment, but falling on Falled on Account of Strain’s mega roof broke me. I wasn’t having fun on our weekend climbing getaways anymore, something that was really bothering me. Climbing was supposed to be fun and I was repeatedly getting shut down and pissed off about it, instead of enjoying the only real free time Kurt and I had together. I’d encourage him to take the crux pitch, watch his movement and gear placement, and then, with different beta fresh in my head, follow to clean.

His beta was all wrong for me. His gear placements were constantly in awkward positions to retrieve–with our difference in height, I would never be able to place pro where he could. Maybe I needed to stew a little bit in my frustration, but I knew that in the end, it would only get me so far. I remembered climbing with David Draper in Tennessee. He was there for my redpoint of Mrs. Socrates, my first T-wall 12. When I was lowered to the ground, he exclaimed, “Bio-mechanically, you have EVERY advantage over most climbers. You’re ninety pounds and got less pounds per square inch. You are not too short! All it means is you’ve got to get your ass up and climb harder.”

Climbing through the Winter (5.10d) several years ago. Short person beta captured by Seth Gross

Kurt has quietly made similar comments, but I chose to ignore them. Hey, I was stewing! But truthfully, cruxes like Carbs and Caffeine are going to be easier for shorter people, who can stay much closer to the wall when things get cramped. Claustrophobic moves will be difficult for bigger bodies. Taller climbers might have longer reaches, but also longer levers, making certain power moves harder. Shorter levers are helpful in any situation that requires body tension to place as much weight as possible on your feet. In general, having less weight is especially advantageous on mediocre, intermediate holds whereas taller climbers are often lacking in sheer strength to weight ratio. Smaller hands, which can typically come with smaller heights, hold much better on crimps and in finger pockets. Large finger pockets to my taller friends are often comfortable, full hand holds for me. My smaller frame will fit through atypical structures such as cavities, chimneys, and offwidths much better than they ever will for Kurt.

It’s beyond frustrating to watch a taller climber effortlessly reach a hold that I will struggle and pop a vein to try and get to, but as a shorter climber, I need to remember that the most important thing is technique. Regardless of physical advantages, any climber with good technique will out climb those without.

Both advantages and disadvantages will exist regardless of size, and at the end of the day, it’s easy to whine about what’s fair and what isn’t. It is much easier to convince yourself that others have it easier than to realize and accept that they are either stronger than you, physically, or have better technique. Being creative and willing to push beyond what limitations you think exist is really no different than your daily life. In fact, I’d go as far to say that that’s one of the things that makes life so beautiful.

Cover photograph courtesy of Sam Cervantes.

3 thoughts

  1. Sounds like a rut! I hit one last winter after a really strong fall season. I lost confidence in my ability and ended up injuring a finger because I was over crimping to make up for my sloppy climbing. In the end, I learned precisely what you concluded with. I had to re-evaluate what climbing meant for me, and go back to the basics, and through a nearly year long journey I was able to find a meaning and finesse that I could have never found without hitting that rut.

    Keep climbing, and keep inspiring, Kathy!

  2. I think the Gunks really discriminates against shorties more than any other area I’ve been to. There are the horizontals, and then maybe nothing in between, no intermediates whatsoever. Definitely makes a climb much different for someone who is 6′ versus 5′. I guess climbing there you just have to know it’s part of the game and come up with your own ratings when you can’t even reach the holds. You’re dead on about the technique though, and I blame the Gunks for giving me really horrible technique when I was first learning to climb because I was rewarded for making big reachy moves even if that left me spread out and I had to pull hard to get my feet up.

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