When training pays off

Club PRO Stephen Farrugia caught up with Sean Cassar; who earlier this year became the 7th Maltese climber to climb routes harder than 8a, to find out his secret to success (in climbing and beyond).

Sean Cassar pulling hard on tufas near the end of Tropical Twister (8a) at Smoothies Cave, Wied Babu. Photo by Suhail Kakpori (Kako).

MCC: You’ve been climbing since around 2011, more or less when I started, but in the last year or so you’ve jumped three letter grades, going from working on a 7a for a couple of months (when we worked on Dark Ways 7a in Mosta together), to sending an 8a in a few weeks. What changed? more training / more free time / focus on climbing? Or did you just suddenly discover you’ve got a hidden climbing talent?

Sean: I don’t think I discovered anything new, but I guess I’ve always been a strong believer in the benefits of specific training and over the years I’ve been constantly experimenting and refining my way to train. Nowadays that means isolating and working on all the different physical and mental components that form part of the physiological process of climbing and then bringing them together in the correct sequence to allow me to kind of ‘peak’ at the right time. Naturally what happens is, in the build up to this peak when I’m in a training cycle my actual climbing takes a dip. I’ve learned to be patient and keep persisting and in the end when everything comes together nicely I can feel the hard work pay off. Besides that I’ve also been lucky enough to afford to have more time to climb now that I work for myself and am not restricted to a 9 to 5 office schedule, so I can train and climb more freely.

Bouldering in Xgħajra. Photo by Suhail Kakpori (Kako)

MCC: Jiu jitsu, surfing, swimming, cross fit – you seem to be a man of many sports. Usually the tenet is that cross training is good for general fitness, but it takes time away from climbing specific training, which is what is needed to climb better. How do your diverse activities pay into your climbing performance? 

Climbing always comes first for me, but I do like doing other fun activities to keep giving myself new stimuli and keep things interesting. Generally though, I do these sports with the aim of gaining something that will make me climb better: give me more stamina, strength, power or flexibility. I also think that doing things where you are making your body keep going when your mind is telling you to stop builds great mental strength and the general ability to not only be able to suffer more but even, very strangely, find comfort in pain which is very useful when you’re pushing your limit on a route.

MCC: Tell us a little bit about Tropical Twister, your first 8a

It was a route that I looked at seriously for the first time in early June after having sent Muesli Yogi (7c, also at Smoothies cave). James had given me some insight into the route and said it’s incorrectly graded as a 7c in the 2013 guidebook but actually is an 8a. Really and truly I only started trying it because I wanted something to do in that cave after having done most of the 6s and 7s there. My first try didn’t go too well: I found even the easier section quite hard and pumpy, but I thought it would be good training anyway so I decided to keep trying.

After a few sessions I started to get to the crux quite comfortably but could never actually do the crux, even on a good day. At that point Kako (Suhail Kakpori) decided to start working on the route too. We traded some beta and both made progress to the point where we could do all the moves and just needed a good run to link it all. The route has decent rests, however the crux is a solid boulder sequence at the end of the route that is physical, technical and also bold (especially if you skip a bolt like we do). It ends with a dyno to a not-so-good sloping hold that you need to hang on to and mantle over to finish.

I started to get closer and closer and eventually could do all the moves, so I knew it was just a matter of time till I got the send. A month after my very first attempt I went for it, gave it my best, and fought a hard fight. It was a great feeling throughout and even more so when I reached the top. I just took it all in in that moment and just felt a great appreciation for just being there.

MCC: Favourite route / crag on the islands?

Favourite route: Dancing on the moon 7c Terry’s Cave, Għar Lapsi (climbed at night), Favourite crags: Pillarbox cave (Thaiwand Walls) and Mellieha cave (Il-Latnija).

Dancing on the Moon (7c), at Terry’s Cave, Għar Lapsi. Photo by Nicola Gatti

MCC: you’ve sent Tropical Twister and James’ Smoothie, two routes in the 8th grade in a very short space of time. What comes next? A break from hard climbing till the temps cool down? Or are you already eyeing up an end of season project at Smoothies cave before you shift your focus to autumn/ winter crags?

I’ve got my eye on one more project that I just started, before I go away for a month or so. It’s known as the Delta Variant, probably an 8a+, with a very intense roof boulder sequence; so I’m not sure I’ll get it before the end of summer but I will definitely try my best. Then from the end of September I’m spending a month doing some climbing around Spain, probably in Siurana, Lleida area and El Chorro and then back for the next training and climbing cycle with some new goals and hopefully some new interesting projects.

Sean navigates a sea of tufas and concretions on Tufa Tirtogħod (7b+), Garden of Eden, Żurrieq. Photo by Suhail Kakpori.

MCC: any parting words?

Just to thank the people around me who push me to give the best I can. James Herrera and Jeff Camilleri have been an inspiration to me as fellow local climbers who have been pushing the envelope of possibilities for a while now and have been kind enough to want to share their knowledge and experience of these hard lines and convince me to join in their projects. The same for Kako, who I’ve had the pleasure of sharing projects with recently and who constantly pushes me to give everything I have and more. To you (Stephen Farrugia) and Tommaso Ligcata, and Nicola Gatti and Charlie Ylaya who have also supported me whenever I was trying hard and with whom I shared many great experiences. And just generally to the climbing community we have here, most of whom are always very friendly, supportive and easy-going. Just hearing encouragement from people you hardly know for example, is something I find really nice and I hope this way we have of building each other up and pushing and supporting each other continues because just as much as I like to try hard myself, I also really like to see others give their heart and soul and push their limits.

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