Climb skills: how to take someone climbing

Posted by Alex Messenger on 09/04/2014
Are you ready to take someone climbing? Photo: Alex Messenger

"Climbing looks like fun, can you take me?" Mountaineering instructor Mark Hendry looks at the responsibilities and considerations (as well as the rewards) to think about before blurting out "yes" to taking the uninitiated climbing.

Walking out from the CIC hut today, I literally took off as a full-scale highland storm kicked our butts all the way back to the vehicle. Picking myself up, I looked back at the rest of the group I was allegedly introducing to winter mountaineering. As they lay sprawled across the slope, I wondered if this was the gentle introduction they’d been hoping for.

That looks like fun

If you climb, inevitably someone will pop the question one day: “Climbing looks like fun, can you take me?” At this point you’ve got a few options: “It’s fun but no I can’t,” is harsh but honest; “It’s great fun but you should probably get a qualified instructor to teach you,” is very wise; and “Yeah, it’s amazing but you should probably join a club,” dodges the bullet. But what if they catch you on a good day and you exclaim: “It’s brilliant, want to give it a try?”

Reasons to be cheerful

First, find out why this person wants to climb. Ask fifty climbers the same question and you’ll probably get fifty different answers. For many it’s the combination of challenge and excitement, for others the sense of movement and balance. It might be a desire to get to the highest peaks or the most beautiful areas of the world, or it could be the social side and the often lifelong friendships. But, as a wise chap mentioned this week, at the end of the day it’s just really fun.

Responsibilities

Now it’s time to have a quick look at yourself – what can you offer and are you doing it for the right reasons. If you need people to watch you while you do pull-ups, it may be worth joining a gym. If you’re not into protecting traverses because you like the weird high-pitched screaming noise your second makes when they fall off, then it’s probably best they find someone else. But if you have patience, a genuine and infectious enthusiasm for climbing and you’re prepared to repeat routes you’ve done before, then why not give it a go.

It’s worth remembering that everything you consciously (or unconsciously) do on the hill is seen, noted and often copied by beginners. Like it or not, you’ve become a role model. Your habits and decisions – good and bad – may well become theirs: do you wear a helmet, do you pull on gear, will that rope last another summer, is it OK to abseil off that old tat? Decisions in climbing are rarely black and white – so try and convey that. Looking back to my early climbs with mates, I realise that I was pretty lucky.

Solid technical skills and climbing techniques were passed on almost silently, along with a respect and understanding of the environment. To be fair there was also a fair amount of scaring myself stupid, but with it came an almost permanent smile.

Considerations

It goes without saying that you should choose your venues carefully: a roadside single-pitch crag will be a better spot to start off than Gogarth. Single-pitch venues with a walk-off give flexibility and, to a degree, a safety net in that you can lower them to the ground. Try to get them operating into that middle ground between boredom and panic. Get tuned in to how they’re feeling, what they’re genuinely understanding and whether they might be ready for something spicier. It’s meant to be fun though – they’re not at school – so mix your days with having fun and sampling some great routes.

Chat about what you’re thinking out loud and let them know how and why you’re making decisions. Whenever it’s safe, let them get hands on – be patient if they don’t get it right first time, encourage them when they do and remember what it was like when you started. Try to be imaginative in what you’re doing. Quiet evening crags can often give magical moments, busy weekend venues can let you watch others in action and provide examples (good and bad) to learn from. Try not to be too grade focused, it may provide a target but can also prove a distraction.

Keep it as safe as you can – bold climbing should be by choice, not neglect. Think about likelihoods and consequences and be honest about how well you can look after them. For example, a simple scramble off is rarely simple if a beginner is involved; don’t be afraid call it a day if you’re not comfortable.

If Carlsberg made climbing partners

So there it is. If you’re going to give it a go, try to do it with integrity, leave your ego at home and have as much fun as you can. Remember, for the bits you’re not happy with there’s lots of other people (other instructors, people in a local club) who can help out. You never know, a couple of years down the line you may have someone who can belay like a demon, take the perfect photo, laughs at all your useless jokes, and then lead that protection-less greasy off-width before marvelling at how well you seconded it. They may even buy the beers afterwards.

Mark Hendry has been a full-time instructor for the last 21 years and an AMI member since 1996. Based in Herefordshire, he works all over the country and abroad.

Expert Q&A

This issue’s expert is Paul Platt. Paul lives in Cumbria and directs Ascent Training (adventure and education courses) and Apex Training (SPA and ML courses). He holds the MIC and CIC awards and is Chair of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors.

Q. How can I prepare someone for climbing outdoors?
A.
After basics (tying in, belaying), new climbers often lack confidence and movement skills. Climbing walls are perfect places to learn the climbing movement skills. Confidence in the rope can be taught at a wall, get them to weight the rope, building up to a top rope fall. Often people struggle at the crag because they’re too focused on what will happen if they fall off.

Q. Our club gets lots of beginners – what’s the best way of teaching skills?
A.
Lots of clubs have novice weekends – where either an instructor, or someone with the skills to teach, directs the weekend. Why not approach an AMI member to deliver some instruction to more experienced club members so they can pass some skills down?

Q. I’m taking a friend climbing in Snowdonia – should I stick to single pitch climbs?
A.
As Ed says, single-pitch crags give the opportunity to lower to the ground if required. However there are some Snowdonia crags that give a multi-pitch experience on a single pitch crag, such as Little Tryfan in the Ogwen Valley where the ground can be reached from any point with a 60m rope. Remember, wherever you go with your friend, you need to have the skills to get out of trouble.

Q. I’m taking two people climbing – should I invest in a belay device with a ‘Guide mode’ to belay two people simultaneously?
A.
In a word, no. These devices are great but a good deal of skill is required to judge if a belay is suitable. Bring them up one at a time (least experienced first), using your normal device.

Read more climb skills articles.
 

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Anonymous User
15/02/2016
jomo - ireland...ex-outdoor instructor...from back in the dark ages when a modicum of attitude and 'bottle' could bypass certification... is this 'spike' hendry...of 'head down; lots of bottle' fame, as we paddled around the north west part of inish turk? be nice to catch up, if it was...

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