Making a Climber

Started dating a non-climber? Aaron Lowndes offers this handy tutorial on how to bring them Into the Light without traumatising them forever

WORDS: Aaron Lowndes, IMAGES: All uncredited images Simon Madden

So you want to take your significant other out climbing for the first time? Unlike climbing with your already-hooked-on-rock-mates, there’s more to it than you think. But you don’t have to blunder through it alone. Here are a few tips so that everyone enjoys themselves – and you come out a hero.

The Passion
Here’s the scenario: you’re a climber, you love it. I mean, REALLY love it. ‘When do I get to climb next?’, is your most frequent daytime thought. Climbing is is an integral part of who you are… and it always will be.

But there is (or was) something missing. Deep down you know climbing is not the be-all and end-all of life. Other things are important. Some other things could definitely weigh at least as heavily on your mind. Yep, you know what I’m talking about.

When you are introducing your partner to climbing, we suggest you don’t get them to belay you on your project.

When you are introducing your partner to climbing, we suggest you don’t get them to belay you on your project.

The ‘Other’ Passion
While you’ve been having an amazing time on the rock, you’ve also been searching for a life partner and hey guess what! You’ve finally found him/her! And he/she’s great! But there’s one major flaw, just one little itty bitty crucial-no-I-mean-not-crucial annoyance:

They’re not a climber. (dom dom dooooomm).

The Conflict Within
It’s not that important for them to be a climber, right? And besides, there’s plenty of time ahead, who know’s how their interests will change over time. Maybe they would be a climber if only they’d had someone to show them how amazing it is. Now there’s an idea – you could be that someone!

So, you’ve decided to take them out for their first foray onto real rock. You have the whole weekend planned, it’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the awakening of a hidden passion, the birth of a… ahem. You’ve got the camping gear, the cooking, good food and great wine. Fantastic evenings under the stars. And during the day – just the two of you out on the rock with nothing but a rope and a rack between you.

But what if they don’t like it? As their first experience it should be magical, as magical as you know climbing can be. Confronting the fear of heights but pushing on anyway… feeling the surge of adrenaline… overcoming the mental and physical challenge… getting close to the top… the conquest! In your mind you see your partner at the top of the cliff, looking out over the landscape from way up high, tears welling in their eyes and wondering why they’d never known that this feeling existed?

But it could go the other way. You’ve seen beginner climbers get scared before. They whimper, shut their eyes, beg to be lowered down. And once down, they never return. They are scarred for life. Instead of being a hero, you’d be the cause of trauma. And they were only one pitch off the ground! On a grade 14! Shit, that’s kind of worth worrying about.

Well friend, here I am to tell you where you went wrong. Or, better yet, to stop you from ever going wrong in the first place.

Provide the right experience and your partner won't be able to resist climbing… or you. Image by Simon Mentz

Provide the right experience and your partner won’t be able to resist climbing… or you. Image by Simon Mentz

What grade is appropriate
Your first mistake was choosing a hard climb. Grade 14 might be an okay challenge for a beginner’s first time at an indoor climbing gym, but outdoors is a completely different situation, with none of the climate-control-paid-staff-cushy-mats-creature-comforts that exist inside. And if you were on a multipitch at that grade, then you lose extra points.

In my home state of Victoria we have the unique Mt Arapiles. There, you find very high quality single or multipitch routes at practically any grade – and I mean ANY grade. We’re talking amazing three-star routes starting at grade four. Many of them. Too many to do in a weekend, or even in a year. If you don’t have Mt Arapiles in your backyard, your local climbing area will generally have one or two really good easy climbs.

The point is, for your significant other’s first foray onto real rock, they shouldn’t feel any ‘hard’ moves. Take the lowest grade you can imagine enjoying, and knock five grades off. Actually make that ten, especially if you are multipitching. Think ‘Very Easy Adventure Outing’ not ‘Scary Test Route at My Best Guess of Their Top Ability’. If there’s literally nothing at an appropriate grade to be fun but not scary or hard at all, find a guide you can ask, or travel to a better beginner-friendly area.

Should I change my behaviour?
You have been a climber for a long time. So long that you can’t remember what it was like to not be a climber. That’s a bit of a problem when it comes to how you view climbing. You have gained mastery of your fear of heights, can think clearly in hairy situations and you have faith in the safety system and equipment. None of this is true for your partner to whom the situation and the equipment are completely foreign and probably disconcerting. To them, the rope could spontaneously snap, or the rock could come loose, the cliff tumble down, their harness snap, the ‘biner snap. All of which are summarised using the only words your partner has, ‘what if I fall?’

The root of the problem is that your newbie cannot see the whole safety system like you can. They don’t understand that many parts make up an incredibly robust system, how each part is carefully designed and engineered to be strong and/or redundant enough to keep both climbers safe with a near perfect predictability.

Over the years – and as part of my guiding training – I learned many handy tips to help alleviate generalised newbie fear. Here are a few cool facts about the equipment that I work into the conversation at some point during the day. Of course, it’s up to you if you want to arrogantly mansplain it all in one go, after all who am I to give you dating advice?

  • The rope is not the sort of rope you can get from the local hardware shop. Climbing ropes are expensive (insert retail price here), made in places with high quality control, and can hold a car off the ground, which means it probably won’t have a problem holding their puny weight. That last bit is a nice touch and it happens to be true, probably1.
  • Explain the construction of the rope at some point – the core is strong and stretchy like a bungee cord and the sheath, while it does contribute a small amount to the overall strength, is mainly a protective layer to ensure no damage can happen to the core. It is quite easy to tell if you have exposed the core because it is bright white, at which point all climbers know to replace the rope immediately. (For extra dating points: the name Kernmantle is derived from the German words kern and mantel, which mean core and jacket. Not quite as sexy as busting out some suave French words, but use what you’ve got.)
  • Point out the strength ratings on carabiners and the tags of your slings and cams. Tell them what a kN means, and why the strength of equipment is measured by weight like this and not by the mass it can hold. This testing and certification system is why you aren’t using seatbelts and shoelace as part of your climbing kit.
  • Pretty much all of the climbing safety system is designed to be either redundant (meaning there is a backup in case something happens) or simply too strong to fail. Some parts have a sort of redundancy built in to their construction (examine your belay loop closely, read the bit about ropes again), others don’t need it because they’re simply too overwhelmingly strong (your belay karabiner).
Just because you are out in the bush doesn’t mean you can’t provide a gourmet eating experience; Jess Davis enjoying a crag classic, the tuna and avocado open sandwich.

Just because you are out in the bush doesn’t mean you can’t provide a gourmet eating experience; Jess Davis enjoying a crag classic, the tuna and avocado open sandwich.

Ready to set off
You and Nervous Newbie Partner have arrived at the bottom of your route. Nervous Newbie Partner has been walking up the track, with the wall growing in their vision, looming ever higher in their sight and mind. Make no mistake, NNP is nervous. But the silence tells you that, for now at least, they trust you. Or that they’re just puffed from the walk.

Now you could treat them just the same as an ordinary climbing partner, by assuming they can take responsibility for their own fear and state of mind, but that’s not the point of this whole exercise. You are acting as a guide – physical as well as mental and spiritual – and you want your partner to enjoy the experience. You are taking on the extra responsibility for their wellbeing. To do that, spend some time directly addressing some of the biggest concerns they likely have even before you start.

Here’s the standard explanation I go through at the bottom of any climb. The whole thing takes no more than ten minutes whether I’m with one person or four, and it always makes them feel better about the coming unknowns. Plus, it fits in smoothly with the setup process itself so that at the end, you’re practically ready to go.

  1. Start by walking a few metres AWAY from the bottom of your climb, to the left or right if you can. Then get out the harnesses and put them on. Since you’ll be a bit faster at this, you can also get your rack out. I’m going to skip telling you to do things like fit helmets and check buckles here – you should know about safety stuff already2.
  2. Unpack your rope and flake out a few metres, leaving the bottom end free, you’ll need them to tie into that. Since you want your partner to feel valued and part of the team, you can get them to flake the rest of the rope leaving you free for the next step.
  3. Take a nut and a cam off your rack and put them into the wall at about chest height, a couple of metres apart horizontally, between where you are setting up and the bottom of your chosen climb. It’s just a demonstration so they don’t need to be bomber (but bomber helps). Put a quickdraw on the nut so it’s ready to clip. You can then continue racking up, clipping the nut tool to your partner’s harness. If you’re on a sport climb, put two quickdraws on tree branches nearby, or, if you have no other option, lay them on the ground with a weight on them to hold them still.
  4. Once the rope is flaked, tie yourself and your partner into the ends. Oh dear… I’m struggling here… no don’t say it… ah fackCHECKTHEFUCKINGKNOT! Ah… sorry, that just came out. Won’t happen again, promise.
  5. All right, pay attention now, because here’s the best bit, the explanation, the proof that you are in full control of what you’re both about to do. Point out that you and your partner are tied to each other with the rope, and that you’ll stay tied in like that until both of you have finished the climb, way up there. So since you are tied to each other, and either one or both of you OR the rope is attached to the rock somehow at all times… then you are both attached to the rock and therefore neither of you can fall and hit the ground – that’s teamwork, that’s a System. That’s also a bit oversimplified, but hey. So all of the rest of this equipment, belay devices, gear, and other stuff hanging off you is all just making sure that the System stays put. It’s also why you should go to the toilet down here and not halfway up.
  6. Demonstration time. Put yourself on belay using your partners belay loop. Give them the quick lesson on letting out the rope and keeping it locked off. Keep this short, you don’t want to overwhelm them with scary thoughts like, ‘If you don’t hold this bit here I might fall and die and it’d be your fault.’ Oh, you don’t trust their belaying seeing as they’ve never done it before? That’s very smart, but there are still a couple of tricks you can use – either put them on a brake-assist device3 like a Grigri, or have someone else backup belay (if the backup person is a beginner have them slide a prusik along the brake rope so that they literally can’t let go) and, lastly, don’t plan to fall. Another good reason why you’re on a grade five and not a 14.
  7. Pick up your end of the rope, pretend to lead climb to your first piece and clip it. Explain how you’ll continue up the climb, putting in gear and clipping it as you go. Now you’ve clipped both pieces and you’re standing a few metres away, which happens to be at the bottom of your chosen climb. Explain that somewhere up there you’ll have stopped climbing and you’ll be taking a few minutes to attach yourself to the rock with a big ol’ anchor made of many solid pieces. You don’t need to actually do this, just wave your hands around to emphasise ‘big’ and ‘solid’. Your newbie shouldn’t do anything until you call down (insert your preferred call here), at which point they’ll take you off belay and call up the answer (get them to do this and say this or else they’ll forget). They won’t be able to climb yet because there will still be a pile of rope at their feet. Pretty soon they will see the rope being pulled up (demonstrate by pulling it towards you, flaking it at the foot of the chosen climb), until finally it will look more like ‘this’ (quickly finish pulling and flaking until it is tight on their harness, OR achieve the same thing by quickly unclipping the two pieces, walking over and grabbing the flaked rope, bringing it back to dump it at your feet and clipping their end back in before saying ’…this’).
  8. Just because the rope is above them now, they absolutely cannot start climbing until you have finished doing some stuff (demonstrate stuff) and they hear you call down that they can climb. Now get them to ‘climb’ towards you while you pretend to belay. Have them remove the two pieces as they go, pointing out the nut tool etc. When they get to you, say that they will be standing right next to you and you’ll be able to tell them what to do next, so there’s no point in going through it now.
  9. Then you’ll start again, using the same process again and again (if on a multipitch that is), until you’re both all the way at the top of the cliff.

That’s it. The whole system clearly summarised, in less than ten minutes. If you take the two pieces back from your partner and re-rack them, you’re pretty much ready to go on belay and start climbing immediately4.

But there’s perhaps one more thing you can do before you head off. After asking them if they have any questions, point out a few friendly ‘what ifs’ you have the answers to, like this:

  • While they are climbing you will almost always be in direct line of sight, so you will be able to see if anything is going wrong before they do.
  • If they get tired at any point, they can sit in their harness and have a rest, you can easily hold them from above.
  • If they really can’t do part of the climb that’s not a problem at all because you have a special device (point out your prusik or mechanical rope-grab) that means you can pull them up past a hard bit – yes you really can pull their whole body weight up, it’s not a problem at all.
  • If they get scared, stop and try to remember to breathe deeply and evenly like in yoga, or childbirth.
  • They can take as long as they like to do the climb, nobody is in a rush here and they are definitely not slowing anyone down.
  • And finally, at any point on this whole climb an abort is totally possible and absolutely allowed. They have every right to ask to go back down, and they can always try again another day. This might not be ideal in your but-I-want-them-to-be-a-climber mind, but think about it the other way – if you push them too hard, you are pushing directly towards a traumatic experience’, and there’s no coming back from that one.

That about sums it up. Is there anything else? Well obviously on the climb itself you need to actually do what you say you will do – i.e:

  • Set or extend the anchor so that you can see your partner as they climb.
  • Have your hauling system ready.
  • Know your retreat and rescue plans.
  • Give them the time to figure out the moves for themselves (nobody likes a beta spray, even beginners).
  • Know the walk-off and descent route.
  • Generally try to make the whole process easy and comfortable for them, maybe even carrying a bit more of the snacks/shoes/water/jackets/head torches/first aid kit yourself if you are feeling extra chivalrous.
  • Most importantly, try not to give off the vibe that you are scared or stressed at any point, by climbing smoothly and efficiently (you have done this route before, right?), not recklessly fast nor overly slow – just smoothly and safely and in control.

And finally, stay happy! Try to have fun showing your significant other how amazing your sport is. You are a confidence-inspiring, heroic climber and you have an ethereal glow about you right now. Well done, you are on your way to creating a brand new climber!

Good luck, fare thee well, try not to kill your life partner in a horrible accident..

Footnotes
1 Ropes hold about 8 to 9kN of force typically, and a small car like a Mitsubishi Mirage weighs about 920kg, about the same amount of force once you do the math.

2 However, I will say that your NNP has probably seen some pictures somewhere of beginners climbing, and has noted the presence of helmets. It might make them a bit suspicious if you’re a gung-ho-who-needs-a-helmet-anyway kind of climber. If only for the sake of making them feel like you’re competent with beginners, fit them with one eh? Safety lesson out.

3 Note the term brake assist instead of auto-locking or similar. Such devices do not guarantee catching a fall, because for most of them the brake rope still needs to be held down in order for the braking action to engage.

4 Depending on how you handled the rope you might have to re-flake or swap ends of course.

Aaron Lowndes has more than 20 years experience in rock climbing and has taught hundreds of students over the last decade. He is fully qualified with the Australian Climbing Instructors Association and regularly rock-climbs for his own enjoyment. This year he has thrown caution to the wind and started Melbourne Climbing School – check them out at www.melbourneclimbingschool.com.au to see available courses.

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