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Guides and clients: why hire a guide?

Each experienced rock climber started climbing in some manner or other. We were all beginners at some point. No one started out “well ahead” of their peers. We all remember our first time on the rock, our first lead, and our first lead fall. However, the journey to becoming an experienced climber that each of us took was most likely unique, to a point. Baskin Robins ice cream store has 32 flavors. While all of the flavors are ice cream, they are all different. Each of our journeys to becoming an experienced rock climber could be compared to the different flavors at Baskin Robins. We all have our own flavor, but in the end we are all made of similar ingredients and fall under the same category – rock climbers.

Since none of us was born with the knowledge and technical skills required for rock climbing, we all had to learn from someone. When I first started rock climbing, I learned from my sister. She showed me the basics (which was about all I was able to absorb at the time), and then showed me some books to read to further my understanding of the technical side of rock climbing. This gave me a reasonable foundation, and I was able to practice what she showed me and enhance my skills in good style with a solid foundation of understanding and instruction. I was in all actuality quite lucky. The person who showed me how to climb was a solid climber. I have since seen a broad spectrum of technical skills and practices, some of which are good and some of which are horrible. The problem with being a part of the latter group (horrible technical understanding and practices) is simple. The sport of rock climbing is very unforgiving. Without proper understanding, the chances of injury increase dramatically. This spring, in Joshua Tree, someone died from making a technical mistake. No one deserves this, and no one wants this to happen to them. As a rock climbing guide this makes me very sad. I could have provided the rock climber who died with the technical information she needed to still be alive today.

If you spend a moment and talk to most experienced climbers and ask them what they would advise for new climbers who are interested in getting out on their own, most experienced climbers would tell new climbers to hire a guide. There is a reason for this. Experienced climbers have been around enough other climbers to realize that not every climber at the crag is making good decisions or understands the technical systems involved in rock climbing. New climbers are at a disadvantage. If a new climber walked up on a scene at a local climbing crag, they will probably not be able to tell the difference between a safe technical system and a very dangerous technical system. And even if they could tell that one looked better, they probably will not understand exactly why. Even if they were able to determine that one system was technically more sound than another, would they be able to determine if they are risking their life on the system, or possibly only a bad fall? The differences in appearance between these two systems could be minor. Depending on which person (the safe technical climber or the dangerous technical climber) this new climber is learning from could mean the difference between a serious injury/death or a long and fun climbing career.

The problem with being a new climber is complicated. Climbers who have a lot of experience don’t want to climb with you because you are dangerous. You don’t have a solid technical background, and you may not know how to belay properly. You are new. You probably are not able to climb at the same level as an experienced climber, and an experienced climber doesn’t want to take a day out of their weekend to show you basic stuff or climb easy routes. A lot of experienced climbers are quite wary of new climbers. No one wants to get dropped by a belayer or be the victim of a faulty anchor. Since most experienced climbers avoid new climbers for these reasons, new climbers often find themselves looking for partners in random places and settling for whoever they can find to climb with them. When someone gets on Mountain Project and is looking for a partner to climb 5.5-5.8, they are pretty much advertising that they are new to the sport. When you are new to the sport, 5.5 to 5.8 is a typical grade you might be interested in. And all the partners you will find will most likely be interested in the same grade (unless you are a very attractive female). The problem is that more than likely, none of the climbers interested in the same beginning grades has solid experience to draw from, and neither do you. It’s a “blind leading the blind” situation set on a stage of high and possibly ultimate consequence.

I believe that as rock climbers, we all go through a stage early in our climbing pursuits that I will refer to as puberty. This stage usually happens, and hopefully ends, during the first year, although it could stretch into two. The stage ensues after we climb a few times on top rope, have some basic instruction from someone (a friend, partner, hopefully a guide), and had probably done a few leads. We were excited about the sport and wanted to get into it more. We felt like we understood the technical side of climbing well enough and wanted to show everyone that we were a solid and competent climber and “knew what we were doing”. We searched for affirmation and praise of our ability to progress at this new sport, and wanted everyone to know that we were no longer a “noob”. We were looking for respect. We had enough of an understanding to play the game, and enough ego to make us dangerous. It is during this stage of the game that climbers tend to do one of two things: make it in the sport or get seriously injured. After about the second year of climbing, most climbers have grown past this stage, and although egos may be a big factor, climbers have a real understanding of what is really going on. Understanding expands from the component level to the system level and begins to include understanding the consequences of system failure. In essence, we begin to realize and understand the risks at play. We become aware of the whole situation and not just the rules. We have enough experience and knowledge of systems to make educated decisions on how much risk we are putting ourselves in. At this stage, we are finally able to make educated decisions about the risks we are putting ourselves in. How then do we progress from the beginner to the pubescent to the experienced climber? What is the best path for a climber to take to make sure we don’t make a single ignorant mistake in a high consequence environment? It only takes one to end our climbing career, and possibly our (and our partners) lives.

The determining factor in this journey is knowledge. If there is no knowledge to draw from, there is no way to know if a climbing system is dangerous or safe. This knowledge can come from two places: experience or advice. In order to have experiences safely, we must start with sound advice. The best person to give you this advice is a person trained to instruct you in this exact area; a person who has been certified by a recognized organization as able and competent. There are many solid climbers who are horrible teachers. And there are also many great teachers who are horrible climbers. A good guide must be a great teacher and a solid climber. They say that a good guide should have about 20-25% of his business in the form of returning clients. That’s how a client should feel at the end of the session. “When can I do this again?”

First step: Find a good guide

In any other sport, when someone is serious about the sport, they hire a trainer or become the pupil of a coach. This is a typical action in relatively risk free sports (dancing, soccer, ballet). Considering the consequences involved in rock climbing, why would the approach be any different? Just like other sports, where some coaches are good and some are not-so-great, guides are not all “created equal”. Some guides may mesh with your personality better than others, and some guides may just be much better at teaching than others. Finding a good guide may take a couple tries. A good place to start would be reading reviews. After that, ask around the climbing community and see if anyone has heard of a good guide. Go to a local gear shop and ask around. Climbers all love to talk shop!

Second step: Learn from that guide

For most clients, I am able to transfer enough knowledge, check for understanding, and verify understanding to a level that allows them to lead their first trad climb (placing gear) within 8 hours.Within 8 hours of being a completely new climber (maybe having top roped a few climbs), a client is able to safely lead a traditional climb.

Third step: Practice, practice, practice

I would say that within 3 sessions, a beginning climber would have enough understanding to go out into the world on their own and begin their rock climbing pursuits with their friends. Of course, this may vary on an individual basis. We are all different and all have particulars that may inhibit us or push us. Some clients may take fewer sessions, and some may take more. It’s really relative to the client. A client should feel confident enough in their understanding of the basics to lead and be ok with falling before going out on their own. This confidence should come from the instructor/guide. They will give you the feedback you need to know if you are doing the right or wrong thing while climbing.

Fourth step: Partners

Ideally, you would bring your tentative partner with you and you would both go through the same training together. This would give you a solid second pair of eyes to watch out for you while you are climbing. This is quite important! If you are not able to bring your partner with you during your initial training sessions, you will have to decide on your own who is safe and who is not. You may even have to teach your future partner some of the skills you learned from a guide. While this may be concerning on a few different levels to you, there is an upside. You now know that you are both on the same page. You are certain that your partner knows the basics. You know this because you know the basics. You learned from a competent person, and now you are spreading competent practices and advice among other people. This makes the entire climbing community safer! In the event that a person is not picking up advice from you or is not practicing solid basic concepts, STOP climbing with them! Immediately. This person could kill you.

Fifth step: Making it through puberty

Now you have the basics and required understanding to go out on your own, find or train a solid partner, and begin your rock climbing pursuits. Don’t forget to keep an open mind, and be open to positive suggestions from experienced climbers around you. Excellent advice is often withheld from beginning climbers because no one wants to deal with egocentric people! Put the time in at the easier grades. Lead climb everything 5.8 and under in the area for a few months. Get quicker at identifying gear placements, making anchors, approaching hikes, cleaning anchors, and all the basics that you have picked up recently. The learning curve is huge at the beginning, and you will learn a TON during this phase. Take your time with it. It’s supposed to be FUN!

 

 


August 12, 2014. Posted by: nelsonday