With the nights drawing in and the autumn rains arriving, I realised with a sinking feeling that it was about to get harder to stay fit, and my annual decline into winter fat reserves was fast approaching. Unfortunately, given the choice between exercising and getting on with jobs on the computer or around the house, exercising has always lost the battle. Only mountain activities have ever motivated me enough to get off my butt and push myself physically – so the problem was how to manage the wet season so that I can remain fit enough to make the most of those warm dry spells that appear from time to time?
Well, with a state-of-the-art climbing wall opening just down the road, stamina and technique could at least be maintained to a certain extent by devoting some evenings and weekend time to hauling my body up resin panels, but even this tends to be sporadic, and two limiting factors are soon apparent: my fingers don't seem to get much stronger, and the skin gets quite tender if the sessions are too far apart. The result is that my fingers get tired and sore before the rest of my body.
I share an office with several other mountaineers, all working for Mountain Training administration or the British Mountaineering Council. So it was not too difficult to persuade my colleagues and the facilities manager that a fingerboard would be a great addition to the furniture and also would divert the attention of guests away from the hole in the carpet which was left after we merged two offices into one. This certainly proved more successful than my attempts to persuade the Board that an ipad would be more effective for my work style than the steam-powered PC that lurks under my desk! However, it did take a while to get round the politics of getting permission to drill holes into the wall - a bit like trying to put one up in your own home - unless you are single, in which case the piles of dirty plates and laundry are probably more of an issue anyway than the plaster-work.
"I persuaded my colleagues that a fingerboard would be a great addition to the furniture and would also divert attention from the hole in the carpet."
Metolius provided us with a new fingerboard pre-production model (the Contact), and sent over some fixing screws and installation instructions, which was just as well because otherwise I would have fitted this item the wrong way up – the design means that superficially it looks upside down! The reason for this break with traditional shaping soon becomes apparent: the outer rim provides a comfortable pinch grip for a shoulder width grip.
"The reason for this break with traditional shaping soon becomes apparent: the outer rim provides a comfortable pinch grip for a shoulder width grip."
The obvious place to hang the fingerboard was over the door of Elfyn's room, because he was on holiday. I'm sure he'll love it when he gets back anyway. Probably the single most important point here is to fix the board properly so that there is no way that it can pop off the wall while you're hanging from it. Plas y Brenin kindly sent one of their engineers over to fix the board for us, and to tell the truth I think the fixings might have been a bit overkill here – a sandwich of half inch ply on either side of the door arch, clamped together with 12mm coach bolts. That certainly wasn't going to come off in a hurry.
There are basically two main materials for fingerboard construction; wood and resin – each has its own benefits and weaknesses. There can be little doubt that a wooden fingerboard is aesthetically more pleasing; indeed it could even be presented as a decorative feature (well, it's worth a try!) at least until the chalk stains start to spread. The resin type looks kind of – industrial – so it's not likely to grace the entrance to the family lounge. The “Contact” Board that we were testing is the resin variety, gritty white with a charcoal pattern, strangely reminiscent of the Beatles Revolver cover, and it certainly makes a talking point in the office – the missing carpet is now largely ignored. Personally I prefer the resin construction for a number of reasons. Firstly you don't particularly need to use chalk to get a reasonable grip, which is handy when you just want to hang onto the thing little and often throughout the day. I've set a little rule that I'm not allowed to walk past it without cranking a few pull-ups, so it's already made the office a healthier place for me to work. Secondly, some people complain that resin is harsher on the fingers – but I see that as an advantage because it builds up and maintains the calluses in between climbing sessions.
"The obvious place to hang the fingerboard was over the door of Elfyn's room, because he was on holiday."
So what of the specific design of the Contact Board? There are four parallel lines of slots of widths varying from 2 fingers to the whole hand; each row is shallower than the one beneath it. Above this there is a large rounded “forehead” with just one shallow slot in the central area. The top itself is incut, providing an open hand-grip with a distinct “jug” hold at each end. So there is plenty of variation for progressing to shallower and smaller slots, as well as a comfortable full grip on top.
"I installed a camera in the office to see whether the Contact Board attracted repeat visits."
The verdict: I installed a camera in the office to see whether the Contact Board attracted repeat visits. Sure enough, after a few days it was apparent that several members of the staff team as well as visiting instructors couldn't resist grabbing a few pull-ups. Belinda in particular became a regular devotee and within a couple of weeks had progressed from ineffectual grunts to solid sets of pull-ups and started to move on to the pocket grips. The initial fixing turned out to be too high, so she had to chimney up the doorframe to grab the top rail. To add injury to insult she then banged her head on the ceiling, but being ex-military she found this strangely reassuring – goodness knows what they get up to in the navy. Ignoring her protests I moved it down a few inches; a distinct improvement. I would advise leaving at least 20cms ' gap between the top and the ceiling, and ideally you should be able to reach the top without having to jump for it.
This is not the place for a tutorial on using fingerboards, but a few observations probably won't go amiss. One of the take-home messages from the recent BMC injury prevention clinic was that the oft-repeated recommendation of hanging from your skeleton is potentially damaging to the shoulder connective tissue – so retain some tension in your shoulder muscles. Another common injury is caused by repetitive strain, particularly to elbows. So the variety of holds on this board presents a distinct advantage, because by varying your grip you not only better simulate the range of movement in climbing but also reduce this risk. I found that exercising on this board felt more strenuous and realistic than a pull-up bar, and is particularly good for building open-hand grip strength and pinch grips.
"This is not the place for a tutorial on using fingerboards, but a few observations probably won't go amiss..."
The verdict from the staff at Mountain Training is that this board does a really good job. It transforms a working day into a mild work-out that helps maintain fitness and build both power and calluses, and of course for the more obsessive there is potential for either big improvements in upper body strength or overuse injuries depending on the design of your training regime. The pinch grip feature in particular proved very popular with our staff and visitors..
Steve Long (51) is an International Mountain Guide currently working as part-time Technical Officer at Mountain Leader Training UK and also serving as the president of the UIAA's Training Standards Working Group. He is a founding member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors, and worked at Plas y Brenin as a senior instructor for 12 years. He is the author of the popular instructional DVD Self-Rescue for Climbers and also the definitive text for mountain leaders: Hillwalking, as well as various over projects such as the current Tremadog guidebook.
Steve is a keen and active climber, equally at home on rock or ice; and has visited every continent for mountaineering activities. Climbing highlights include one of the few British ascents of Cerro Torre, several routes on the Troll Wall, canyoning and big walling in Borneo (Low's Gully), a winter ascent of the Dru's French Direct and various other big walls; the most recent being the Fish route on the Marmolada. Steve also regularly works with climbing federations from other countries to help them set up their own leader and instructor training schemes: current projects include Nepal, Ladakh, Israel, Turkey and Portugal.
See this product at the Ellis Brigham shop
See this product at the Cold Mountain Kit shop