The first time I ever experienced technical climbing was during a lesson that my then high-school girlfriend surprised me with for me for my 16th birthday. And though I didn’t actually dive into the sport until a few years later, that was the first and only time in all my years as a full-fledged climber that I’d had a proper “lesson.”

Climbers, like guitar players and kama sutraists, are mostly self-taught, relying on books, videos and help from partners to learn how to make sweet, sweet music. Thus it was with some trepidation that, last Friday, I showed up for my second-ever climbing lesson, this time with the renowned El Cap free climber and sport-climbing technician Justen Sjong.

Justen is a coach, athlete and route-setter for America’s training epicenter, Movement Climbing + Fitness. Justen works with every type of climber, from your patent beginner to the sport’s top athletes and competitors. He’s an incredible climber himself. I remember when he came out to Rifle a few years ago and repeated many of the hard kneebar routes in just a few tries. His style is the definition of precision and I’d rank him along with Alex Honnold as the two most precise, in-control climbers I’ve ever witnessed.

My reasons for seeking some coaching felt numerous but also somewhat vague. Coming into the New Year I hadn’t felt that little burst of psyche and energy I normally experience each January to start training for the upcoming rock season—mostly because I’d been doing the same routine for the last two or three years. Even though my routine—which involved a stretch of weight-lifting and lots of indoor bouldering and campusing—had worked really well, taking me to new levels each and every season … I wanted to mix it up, but I didn’t know where to begin.

Since Boulder is about three hours from where I live on the Western Slope, I spoke with Justen and asked him about helping me freshen up my routine and do some long-distance coaching with me. Unfortunately, he said that a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work.  Last week, I had an opportunity to go out to Boulder to interview Daniel Woods for an upcoming article; I used the work trip as an excuse to also meet with Justen and spend 90 minutes figuring out how to take my climbing to the next level.

I consider myself pretty experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to training and technique, and self-aware enough to know what some of my weaknesses are. Plus, I think I’m a decent-enough rock climber. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting all that much from my lesson with Justen—just reaffirmation of things that I already know.

Instead, what I learned from Justen completely surpassed my expectations, challenging preconceived notions about training and pointing out a few really deep flaws in my technique and approach that I hadn’t even realized were there.

Continued on next page … 

  • Gif

    Awesome article!  I like the tip about focusing on legs and core more than arms when you get tired.  It seems like your session was just as much mental as it was physical.  I got a lot out of this.  Really really good.  Thanks!

  • Arnor Heidar Sigurdsson

    awesome. I feel motivated to get a climbing lesson now.

  • splitter choss

    I did a session with Justen about two years ago and it was a huge breakthrough for me. Here’s to inspiration!

  • megbisharat

    So happy you did this! Sounds like a great new way to think about the sport. Wish your father would take just one, only just one, golf lesson; so I won’t have to listen to “Trying out my new swing/grip/stance/swing today” every Sunday of the year (for the last 30 years).

  • Neil

    The psychologial insight is great. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly easy to write about. Brave. Strong. Better. Feeling inspired to be a little more courageous with myself. Maybe I’ll climb like a better person. And climb better, to boot. Thanks.

  • Cuica

    Andrew, love your stuff.  Check the typo “Trying hard can and should more MORE often mean . . .”

    • Andrew Bisharat

      fixed, THANKS!

  • Josh

    I was lucky to have Justen as a trainer back in highschool.  I will never forget the times he made us wear a heart monitor and have us start routes over if our heart rate ever passed above a certain level, or if our feet made too much noise.  Little aspects that you would think have so little to do with climbing made all the difference…

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