Learning to Teach: Climbing

Full Disclosure: Neither Knut or Skyler are guides. We do not pretend to be guides. Whenever either of us refer to teaching anything related to climbing, we are not being paid and our students are consenting adults who are aware of our lack of qualifications. We are engaged in passing along information and relating experiences we have learned from. 

Ah the intricacies of teaching climbing to beginners. Where to start? That seems obvious, tying in, using a harness, the basics of belaying and setting up a top-rope are all fairly elementary. The difficulty becomes teaching the progression beyond this initial stage. Is leading best taught in a gym? Or should you teach leading outside? I learned inside simply because I lived in a big city where getting to good rock wasn’t a possibility.

The real sticking point becomes when you reach the stage of trying to teach trad. Do you do mock leads? Or should people familiarize themselves with the gear and then get after it, perhaps following a few routes before they strike out on their own. In all of the settings where I have been involved in trying to teach climbing this has been the great debate. To some degree the key sticking point is one of gear – do you really want a total numpty flailing around and falling on your gear and your rope? But it also amounts to one of safety and mentality. Trad leading is a hugely mental game, and I maintain that the way to learn is to go slow but to start ground up, no mock leading, no safety line to rest on or to trick yourself with. After you understand the gear and know a good placement from a bad one you should begin leading, developing the shield of knowledge and mental endurance which you pull up when the going gets run out and you have to make moves out past your last piece.

Where did you learn to climb or perhaps on a more basic level to be outside and to move safely in the mountains? These are of course very different things in many respects but they both involve at some stage a step of uncertainty and for many of use they have both involved moments of fear, discomfort and recklessness which has with time and experience morphed into a degree of wisdom tempered by caution.

Now that spring is rapidly approaching, this is something to reflect on as we begin to trade tools for sticky rubber and ski-poles for cams. Where and from whom did we learn our skills and what will we do to pass them on?

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