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'Learning to Walk' with The Maestro

Written by George Fisher

Image for article 'Learning to Walk' with The Maestro

Imagine you have worked as a mountain guide for over 27 years. Imagine you were joined by several other guides with similar long service, including some whose climbing achievements were so legendary they had been nominated for the Piolet d’Or*. Then imagine you had all signed up to a course where someone was going to teach you how to walk uphill. You might think this sounded like a waste of time; or, you might think (like I did) that if the course dared to teach something so simple, then I needed to be there.

"Then imagine you had all signed up to a course where someone was going to teach you how to walk uphill"

The course venue was in the famous climbing town of Finale Borgio, about 35 minutes’ drive west of Genoa, Italy, and about four hours south of Chamonix where several of us live all the year round. It was to be run by the man who single-handedly invented the concept of climbing coaching; Paolo Caruso. Paolo is very famous in the Italian climbing community, and has become renowned for his teaching methods and results. Paolo has systematically broken down all the rock climbing, ice climbing and skiing movements into quantifiable blocks. His system is known as the ‘Caruso Method’ and the course can be distilled into this phrase: "How to change or move from one most advantageous position to another”. Yet the course started by reviewing how to walk up and down hill, or for that matter, walk anywhere.

"Have you considered if you walk with your feet closer together, you go further because each stride length will be fractionally longer?"

The course convened (as most things do in Italy) with a cappuccino, in an exquisite café in the equally exquisite hilltop village of Verrazzi. Apart from the group of British guides, we had invited a couple of local Italian guides to join us too; Sergio and Giovanni. Mountain guides are notorious for being unable to organise themselves when the group consists entirely of guides, yet this first potential hiccup was brilliantly anticipated by getting Cain Olsen to coordinate the whole trip. Cain is a member of the British Mountain Guides AND the Italian Guides, and lives in Finale. He is bilingual. Why did we need a bilingual guide? Because, unbeknownst to the rest of us, Paolo did not feel confident enough to deliver the course in English.

The course kicked off with an explanation of what pricked Paolo's interest in developing his methodology. He explained that, when he first went climbing, he was told he was quite good. Yet when he asked how he could improve, he was told: by doing lots of climbing and gaining experience.

The problem is that gaining experience can be a hard-won lesson in our sport. There is a logic, still very prevalent today, that the only way to learn is from your mistakes; but (and it is a big but) in climbing, sometimes those lessons can get you killed. According to Paolo, nobody wanted to teach him the basic movement skills, the building blocks which help you to progress.

"We started (like most of the best climbing courses I have ever been on), in the car park"

Paolo produced a bag of wooden blocks, and got us to walk on them. Easy at first, but with the series of sequencing he introduced it became difficult, in the sense that you were required to think where your foot might be several steps ahead. This is key for good footwork while learning to rock climb.

Next, we headed for the crag. What a setting! High up on the cliffs which looked out over the Mediterranean. Yet instead of climbing, Paolo discussed how we should teach people to make big step-ups in a way that reduces the stress on the knees, and be as anatomically efficient as possible.

"This was a revelation"

We gradually moved on to actual rock climbing. Paolo's aim was to pass on four key base positions (or resting positions) from which all climbing movements commence; what Paolo termed “progressione fondamentale”. Next, Paolo introduced the concept of ‘homo lateral movement’ and ‘cross lateral movement’ progression. Homo lateral movement is less stable than cross lateral movement. Imagine how a baby crawls; it learns to cross crawl, otherwise it falls flat on its face. What this means for hill walkers and mountaineers is this: if you are walking with trekking poles, you should move your right foot and left arm. Cross lateral. You should not use your right arm and right foot (homo lateral) because you are less stable, and prone to what climbers call ‘barn dooring’ where you are trying to layback up a crack and inadvertently swing out like a barn door.

The same would go for steep snow gully or ice climbing. Obvious, but weirdly very difficult to relearn how to walk. Paulo has devised a series of exercises which are designed to put his theory into practice. He did this by taking us to another beautifully-positioned crag. Here he stuck masking tape on the holds he wanted us to use. Blue tape for the feet, and white tape for the hands.

It is difficult to explain all this in written form, in a way that will not bore the reader senseless, but it is my aim to incorporate what I learned into my own guiding bag of skills, having been indoctrinated into the ‘Caruso Method’.

We all left the two-day course with plenty to think about, but all asking the same question: why had nobody told us any of this 30 or 40 years ago, when we started exploring the mountains for the first time?

* The Piolet d’Or is an is an annual mountaineering award given to climbers who have made an outstanding alpine climbing achievement. It is the ‘Oscars’ of the climbing world.