Surviving the Start of Your Climbing Career

Hindsight is 20/20 and it has me pondering how I managed to survive my early climbing days. The more I learn and experience, the more I realize how naive I was when I started climbing 11 years ago. I knew how to set up a strong anchor and I knew how to belay (kind of) and rappel (kind of). Like any teenager, I wanted to get outside and climb without being told what to do and how to do it.
I began my mountaineering career with a solid start. Several guided trips built my skill and competence level to an acceptable level. I don’t have many regrets or feelings of horror looking back on my progression in mountaineering. Technical climbing is a different story. I look back now on all of the ludicrous stuff I pulled and wonder, “how did I pull that off without a mishap?” It wasn’t until I started to meet climbing partners, hire guides, and eventually take guiding courses where I learned the correct way to do even simple things like belaying correctly, or at least to the current “industry standards.” I made mistakes and I learned from them. If you are starting your climbing career, ask yourself some of these questions…

Can I belay a top-rope belayer using the BUS (brake, under, slide) method?
Can I set up an Earnest or Serene Anchor?
Do I know how to properly place Trad gear?
Do I know how to rappel properly by extending the belay device and backing it up with an Autoblock?
Can I coil my rope so that it doesn’t get tangled?
When do I retire my rope?
Do I know how to safely clean a sport anchor?
Can I properly protect my second?
Does my partners level of acceptable risk match my own?
Is the risk worth the reward?

The list goes on and on, but some of these are questions I would have said no to in my first years of climbing. These are really important skills among many others.

So how do you go about gaining the correct knowledge? I have always found that hanging out and climbing with several climbing partners has been a huge help, but it can also lead you astray and create some bad habits as well as good ones. Consider who your source is. What are his/her credentials? I hear from people all the time that they don’t need to back up their rappel because they are “very safe and cautious” or they use a dangerous belaying method because they learned it from a friend and have been using it for years without an incident. So how do you know what is the safest way to do anything in climbing?! Just because it has worked in the past doesn’t mean it won’t fail you tomorrow. It is tough to distinguish facts from myths.

Here is my humble advice on how I would have went about it, could I go back in time:

1) Read more discussions and research online on best climbing practices. Again, consider your source. Manufacturers such as Black Diamond, among others, put their gear through rigorous testing and then publish the results. Read these and watch the videos on how to properly use their gear. Reputable climbing magazines have countless articles and much can be learned from accident analysis.

2) Climb with many people who you respect and who have a good track record. Maybe skip the climbing day with the guy who has a history of falls, injuries, and “epics”. Climbing with multiple partners allows you to see different ways to approach the same situation and you can choose what works the best and what seems safest. Ask them why they are doing it like that.

3) Hire a guide. Yes, I know this is a blog post from a guide company, but we are here for a reason. When it comes time to learn a new skill, hire an AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) guide to teach you that skill. Usually you can learn many skills in one day and probably a lot of other stuff you didn’t plan to learn. It’s pricey, I know, but they are giving you knowledge and skills based on years and years of experience, testing, research, and more testing. If you answered “no” to any of the questions above, consider a guide to learn that skill the way it is now accepted by the industry.

4) Always wear a helmet. With all of the stories (seems to be monthly) coming out about how a helmet saved another life, not wearing a helmet while climbing is like taking up smoking when you have Asthma. My helmet has saved head injury more times than I can count. Falling ice, falling rocks, bumping my head while climbing, and many more random mishaps. Yes, it doesn’t allow the wind to blow through your golden locks, but it WILL pay off for you one day and it models good behavior for generations to come.

5) Always keep a positive attitude. Having a partner that always likes to go hard is great but I would much rather climb with a mediocre climber who is good company than someone who is a great climber but is pessimistic and cynical. Some of my best memories are the ones that include a failed attempt on a summit but with good friends. Don’t yell at your partner. This really doesn’t get you anywhere other than sitting on your couch because you now have no one to climb with.

6) Accept defeat. You won’t summit every mountain you set your sights on and you won’t send every route. Try your best and if the conditions worsen, or you become too tired… bail. Climbing should be fun. “Epics” are only fun if/when you have survived them.

7) Finally, keep your plans flexible! Try not to plan one route, on one mountain, for a set time period. You are setting yourself up for disaster. Instead, arrive at your climbing destination with many options in mind and climb what the mountain, weather, and/or route allow. Forcing routes in defiance to the signs around you usually ends badly. A large amount of accidents that happen in the Whites (and other ranges) start long before anyone steps foot on the trail. They plan their climb of say Mt. Washington for January 12th. They plan their trip from say California months in advance with a lot of money going into travel, lodging, meals etc. Perhaps they have trained for just as long. When they arrive, the weather is forecast for -50 wind chills and 90mph winds on the summit with blowing snow. Since they have put so much into this trip, they go anyway. If this same situation unfolded but they decided to accept defeat and stay in the low lands to ice climb at a crag or go skiing, things will likely turn out much better and they would likely have a much better time on their vacation.

I hope this post resonates with you and that you can at least consider some of what it has to say. I’m still not perfect and I never will be, but these are a few of the things I wish I had known and tidbits of what I have learned over the years. Climb safe, have fun, and enjoy the outdoors!