Education is the Best Offence!

March 22, 2012

Heather Reynolds
Climbing and Outdoor Rec Program Coordinator
Dalhousie University

It was an overcast early spring day in 1992. My partner and I were on a weekend road trip to White Horse slab and Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. We’d just completed two full days of climbing and would be soon loading up the car for the twelve hour drive back home. Despite being ardent sport climbers, focusing on routes no higher than fifty feet, we decided to do an easy long multi-pitch route. This means the route would be multiple rope lengths — in the hundreds of feet. I had some experience with this traditional style of climbing, but my partner had none. Off we went. When we had gone about 3 pitches, it started to rain. When it gets wet, a rock face becomes like a skating rink, particularly in climbing shoes. Eventually we decided going up was no longer a safe option, and rappelling down was the only way to go. Our problem was we only had one rope and each anchor point was almost a full rope length away. We could do it with one rope, but it would mean leaving some gear behind. In the end, that didn’t happen since we were not the only climbers in this predicament. We joined up with another group of climbers and used our ropes together to get all five of us off the wall – wet, but safe and sound.

This was an incredibly humbling experience. Despite being a seasoned climber (and a pretty good climber too), this experience introduced me to the realization of how much I didn’t know. Here I am years later, running a climbing wall and taking risk management courses and still learning some new things. I have been a certified outdoor top rope instructor for almost 20 years, , I have trad climbed, sport climbed and bouldered. I have traveled the world climbing and even wrote a book on training for climbers (Climbing Your Best, 2001 Stackpole Books). And through all of these years, I continue to see more and more people making assumptions about the inherent safety in climbing rather than the inherent risks.

I have met people who know nothing about climbing, but went climbing once and then decided to open a climbing gym because it had been such a powerful experience for them that they wanted to share it. I have met people who clip only one bolt at the top of a route because really, why do you need two? I have seen countless people trust that an auto-locking belay device will stop a climbers’ fall. Even more people trusting that whoever is running this gym must run a safe operation. But probably what scares me the most and where I see the greatest potential risk is with someone like me who has so much experience, I assume I already know everything I need to know. I also take for granted that others can see and understand when something is not safe.

The risk inherent in climbing should not take away from the joy experienced in climbing, but to this end, it becomes incumbent on gym managers and owners to provide inspiring and fun opportunities for people interested in climbing to learn more about how to stay safe. The following are some ideas on how you as a gym owner or operator can achieve this.

  1. FREE (or incredibly cheap) CLINICS
    This seems pretty obvious, providing an opportunity for education and connection with your clients or potential clients. The tricky part is that generally you will only get those who know they need to learn. One way around this is to invite some of the experienced folks in your gym to teach or co-teach.
    Like a book club, this can be a great opportunity for climbers of all levels of ability to get together and share experience and knowledge. I see this as an evening get together with a goal: re-set the gym; a slide show or talk; a shoe demo. Then turn the conversation around toward something educational.
    In our gym, The Rock Court at Dalhousie University in Halifax, we offer a number of youth programs after school and throughout the summer. To this end we created a badge program in Bouldering, Rope Safety and in Outdoor Climbing. For completion of the badge requirements, we focus on a number of skills in which youth must achieve competency and fitness. Given that there are currently four levels, they quickly learn there is much more to learn.
    The best way to educate your clientele is to educate your instructors and choose employees who are passionate about sharing that knowledge and then support them with education on how to teach and engage clients. Even as they welcome folks and monitor their safety, they will take very opportunity to share their knowledge with others.
    As a person who went through more years of University than I care to remember, I can say that most people learn by doing or need to move to learn. Demonstration doesn’t work so well for these folks. Reading a very detailed and intricate instruction manual doesn’t help them grasp the concepts. For many people, they need to do or move. Ensure that all opportunities to learn whether it is about rope safety, haul systems, belays, or climbing technique provide opportunity for movement and doing.
    One of the best ways for a person to learn is to try to teach it to someone else. Allowing people the opportunity to teach to another person really forces them to grasp an understanding of the concepts.
    Often times people are resistant to suggestions, however asking someone to explain something to you creates an opportunity for them to teach and we all like to be the one who knows. Asking a question like, “What do you do when it rains and you are on a multi-pitch climb half way up?” provides an opportunity for that person to consider what they know and how to apply it.

With all things in our life, we don’t know what we don’t know and it is only when we must figure it out that we learn. Hopefully this article will encourage you to become a better instructor and manager, with safety education being a key component of your overall teaching strategies.

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