Rock Climbing Techniques – Avoiding a Flash Pump

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 didn’t 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. Before I knew it, I was horribly pumped.” He grimaced. “You can guess the rest. A minute later, I was sitting on the rope. I’d just blown the onsight. Game over.”

My friend had fallen prey to one of the rock climber’s greatest enemies – the dreaded flash pump. It doesn’t 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 don’t 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’ refers 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 dreaded 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 virtually any warm-up which doesn’t strain muscles is better than none. Your warm-up should be general (e.g. 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 won’t 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 crucial point for avoiding a flash pump. In your climbing warm-up, it’s tempting to just stay with routes grades easier than your onsight challenge, on the basis that you don’t want to get tired. Don’t 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.