Jen and I took our friend Lauren climbing a couple of weekends ago. Lauren teaches fifth grade at the school where Jen teaches Kindergarten; she just got back from a summer abroad in the Swiss Alps, where did a little bouldering and that whet her appetite to climb more rocks back home in Colorocky.
It can be really fun to climb with beginners because teaching people new things is rewarding. It can frustrating because it’s hard to try to explain technical body positions and rock features using a foreign jargon that is shouted from the ground up at the patent noob.
I never had any real mentors to expedite my metamorphosis from Gumby to God of rock that I so obviously am today (that’s not a joke; I really believe I’m the best climber in the world and if I had an 8a.nu scorecard with my personal grades, I could prove it to you). Subsequently, a large portion of my climbing career was spent in a proverbial cryogenic freeze of poor fashion and wrongheaded attitudes about the sport that were engendered by reading and believing the fictions and disinformation spread through climbing forums (stay off them! They’ll give you brain cavities!)
Now, I spend all my time climbing with expert climbers, and it’s easy to take the basics for granted. But with Lauren, we started at ground zero, and I think it was as informative for her as it was illuminative for me. I’d like to share some of the things I learned climbing with a beginner to pass these lessons on to others like Lauren who are just getting into the sport.
Get your look together: Lauren, being the tres chic girl that she is, was very interested in looking the part (i.e., not looking like a gumby). Here are some things we had to help her out with right away:
Chalk bag on waist belt/string, not biner: Beginners go to REI and get a harness, belay device, shoes, chalk bag and they also pick up a couple of biners. Why? Because biners only cost $6 and, if you want to get into climbing, they seem like something you ought to own.
Problem is, beginners don’t have any real use for them yet, so they use their new biners for things like clipping shoes/Nalgenes to the outside of the pack, and, of course, clipping their new chalk bags to the rear harness loop.
First of all, this loop on the harness—called the “haul loop”—is actually a completely superfluous feature that the industry continues to install on many harnesses for no reason whatsoever. You don’t do any “hauling” off this loop, as its name suggests (and if you’re carrying up a second rope, it’s much easier to just clip it to a rear gear loop). Anyway, I’m on a tangent.
The point is it’s not called the “chalkbag attachment loop.” This isn’t just a matter of fashion, but function. Unless you have a plus-10 ape index (i.e. very long arms), trying to chalk up using a chalkbag attached via carabiner is difficult. The chalkbag sits too low on the body, and it twists, flaps and squirrels around. You want your chalkbag on a nylon belt with a plastic buckle, or just a string that you can tie using a square knot with (and this is important) minimal extra tail. I tie mine so that the belt sits very snugly over/on top of the harness waistbelt, tying the belt/string underneath the belay loop. This way, the chalkbag belt isn’t chaffing my waist/skin/shirt, and the chalkbag stays put.
Don’t clip gear to the outside of your pack: Feel free to use your pack’s cinching straps to lash down a hoody/coat or even rope, but under no circumstances is it OK to clip climbing shoes and harnesses to the exterior of your pack. Those go inside the pack. Why? I don’t know; they just do! If they don’t fit: get a bigger pack!
Learn to tie your knot properly: I don’t just mean learn how to tie a figure-8; I mean learn how to tie a knot that doesn’t have five feet of tail with a back-up knot off in no-man’s land two feet down the live end of the rope. You can always spot a beginner because their knots look like elaborate ornamental wind chimes dangling off their harnesses. You don’t want any part of your knot—including the back-up knot—to extend more than six inches off the harness’s tie-in points. Learn to tie your knot as close to your harness as you can because you don’t want your knot getting stuck or interfering with the quickdraw carabiners.
Learn to Mantel: I am going to make a bold claim here and say that on beginner/intermediate terrain, the mantel move is the single most important and useful climbing maneuver in the book. As I spent the day putting up topropes for Lauren on 5.9s and 5.10s—grades I normally don’t climb much anymore—I was not only struck by how much I was manteling, but by how little I remember manteling when those grades were hard for me. We taught Lauren how to mantel, and it seemed to make a big difference for her.
The “mantel,” at one point called the “mantelshelf,” is a move named after the mantelshelf of a fireplace, where if you were to try to stand on top of one, you’d have to press down on the surface with your palm, using your push muscles (triceps) to eventually surmount the feature. Getting out of a pool is a classic mantel.
However, the mantel needn’t always be that exaggerated. In fact, most of the time, it’s not and you can “mantel” on a route simply by pressing your palm into the wall as a way to more easily hike a foot up.
For beginners, getting their feet higher is hard (and one thing to really focus on). Normally, getting a foot higher seems to involve over-gripping two holds way above the head and then desperately kicking a foot up to a higher foothold that the climber may or may not have the coordination to connect with.
It’s really not obvious to bring your hand down once it’s grabbing a higher hold, but doing so may just be the ticket. Look for acute bends in the wall, or little features/blocks to press down upon with your hand. Use your palm, fingers pointing down or out, as a way to unweight the foot on that same side of the body (i.e., left hand, left foot). With weight now taken off that foot, you can more easily bring your foot up to a higher foothold. Now return the hand to the high handhold.
Weight shifts: Climbing rock is anything but like climbing like a ladder, where you remain square to the vertical plane. In rock climbing, you be must constantly changing your body’s orientation so that it’s not square; this concept was probably the hardest for Lauren to grasp.
It’s counterintuitive that, often, to move in one direction first requires setting your body up in the opposite direction. In other words, to move up and right, often times you need to place your right foot way out left, backstepping a foothold. Why? Because, pushing yourself toward a hold is easier than pulling yourself upward toward it.
Beginners try to pull themselves up the wall, when in reality they should focus on pushing themselves up it. You can push with your arms by manteling, as I described above, and of course you push with your legs.
It was hard for Lauren to transfer and commit all of her weight to one foot or the other, or to one hand or the other. I think a good exercise to learn how to do this would be this: Find a rock/stair on the ground; place a toe on the rock and try to commit all of your weight to standing up onto this one foot hold. Now do it with the other foot. This is the basic idea of standing up and onto a foothold: you commit your body weight to it entirely.
Or while on a route, try to “rock” back and forth between your two footholds, giving 90 percent of your weight to one foothold and then 90 percent to the other. It’s hard to learn how to shift your center of gravity way off to the right or left, but it’s an important skill to start learning right away.
Climb like a child: One of the most interesting observations of the day was made by Jen, a kindergarten teacher, who said that you don’t need to teach these things to kids, just like you don’t need to teach kids how to run properly. They just get it. Climbing, like running, is built into our genetic code. It’s a movement as natural and pure to us as breathing.
It’s funny how in some ways we spend our whole lives trying to unlearn what we’ve been taught about the world as adults. I honestly believe that living an enlightened life is all about finding ways to return those natural, wonderful childlike instincts.
When being out with a beginner, it’s easy to try to tell them too much, or give them too much instruction. Perhaps the best piece of advice is to shut the mind off, and completely let go. Strive to reach that instinctual sense of movement. When you do, the things that seem unobvious—like manteling or shifting the weight in the opposite direction—are actually the most obvious moves to do of all.