What Areas are Blind, Hidden or Unknown to You?

When I was in south america working for the MTS. I had to teach some american teaching and outdoor education strategies one of them below was called the Johari Square. This isn’t some fancy foriegn name, but the first bits of the names of the two people that came up with the model. Joseph and Harry, they design it to explain how self-disclosure by you, and  telling by a supported person, as well as joint discovery and observation by other we can find out more about ourselves, and perhap those around us.

The Johari Square

What has this got to do with rock climbing? Well at the very least we need to know as much about our performance, and some of that will be blind to us, as we can’t watch ourselves, hidden from us as we can’t know how other people find us or unknown because we simply haven’t relised that we don’t know somthing about us. This is were peer coaching or a professional coach can help.

Why it is important to know as much about yourself and maybe your climbing partner. Well research is starting to explore these dyadic (two people groups) relationships. What seems to be emerging slowly is that when people know more about the each other they form more cohesive teams, with greater levels of confidence in their joint ability. An example of this might be when a belayer that really knows how you climb, and knows how to encourage you when the going gets tough, or may actually recognise when you are climbing into a serious position and response with positive feedback. You might even know whether or not your climbing partner is feeling on form today, simply because you know each other inside out.

So if you want to know what is Blind to you – ask for feedback from a coach or climbing partner….

…if you want a belayer or coach to be able to understand you better, then you need to reveal you Hidden Side through disclosure

…if you want to find out just what you or anybodyesle doesn’t know about you, engage in some discovery together together, and through observation by others and yourself you might be able to find out new things about your performance.

Teaching Leading: Soft Skills, Risk Management and Decision Making

I recently put a post up on the hard skills of using a fixed line to ascend next to the student. Having written the piece on my presonal thoughts and expriences, I have had quite a few comments on the post on UKC, one from Dave Hollinger from Peak Mountain Training about softer skills, so here I want to discuss those skills of making that decision to get a client lead climbing or not, and what we can do to minimise risk and facilitate learning.

I guess first we should look at what happens when it goes wrong, and it certainly can. In particular there was a very interesting case of Pope Versus Cuthbertson in 1995. If you google search this you will no doubt reach this website mountain-client, but reader beware, this site spends much of it time skewing facts in an anti-guiding manner. It does however offer a counter point which is interesting. I also found this an interesting read in a new law journal, although it only touches on Pope vs Cuthbertson.

Essentially a guide Cuthbertson had taught a client how to climb over an extended period, and was then allowed to lead a pitch whilst Cuthbertson belayed, he fell and seriously injured himself. On trying to sue the judge effectively suggested that he had been trained in the equipments use, understood and accepted the risks involved and by choosing to lead the pitch had taken responsibility for his own actions.

What I have taken from this is, that I will never teach someone to lead on my own, I have done so with friends in the past and even then it is terrifying, as I am stuck at the bottom belaying they are totally on there own. So as a rule I refuse to teach leading on a one to one basis. Although I have found that sports climbing can loan itself to what I would refer to as bottom coaching, if the route is appropriately bolted.

So in essence when we are going to teach people to lead, we need to make sure they can use the equipment, make sure they understand the risk and make sure they are willing to shoulder that responsibility. Essentially, what we are trying to do as instructors and coaches, isn’t so much avoid the legal problem of being sued, for me it is the moral obligation of keeping someone safe, whilst doing something that is inherently unsafe like lead climbing.

Mostly I teach people to lead towards the end of a two or even better 5 day course. My first job is to get my clients to a place where I am happy that they can achieve the three most basic skills, which are putting a harness on, tying in and belaying (lead, second and top-rope). Sometimes on improver course I won’t teach these skills, instead I will observe how they cope on there own. If it is an intro course then I need to have them bottom rope for a day, top rope for a day, and then on the third day follow me, so they can practice lead belay when I am on the sharp end, and during those early days, I consider myself to be soloing until I am happy they have grasped the skill.

The progression from single pitch bottom and top roping, also allow me to start working on a students technical ability to climb well. I often get them to climb one handed, no handed, slowly, silently or in other distinct ways that help improve there efficiency. You can find more of these technique drill in my book ‘How to Climb Harder’. One of the most important exercises I do though is get them to find as many hands off rests as possible. When they find one I get them to do one of two things, clap there hands or move a quickdraw from one side of there harness to the other. My aim is to get them to recognise places they can rest, and take a hand or two off, so they can do so easily when they start to lead.

By using a single pitch venue I can also teach them about how all the equipment works, and get them to place runners at the top of the crag and tie into them, and then importantly lower someone down the crag and belay them back up. I will always back up the belayer, as lowering someone from the top of the crag, is a lot harder than lowering on a top rope, as in belaying someone up.

I can also carry on with the technique, placing runners and building belays when on a multi-pitch crag. I find the most effective way is to deliberately choose good ledges to place runners, and often climb past the actual belay making one higher up the pitch, allowing me to keep the whole stance free for them to make a belay under my watchful eye. I have sometimes left space for some runners so they can place them whilst seconding me (often referred to as simulated leading) and trailing a rope to the second student, but I am in two minds whether this is effective, as the runners can’t be check by me so they might not be as textbook as you would want. I will also try and get them seconding me on routes above the grade that I am going to get them leading on, as this gives me a good idea as what might happen if they are pushed physically and a little mentally.

In essence though for a introduction to climbing, at least three days are spent on teaching and assessing the students ability to put a harness on, tie in, belay in a variety of ways (bottom, top and lead), place gear and tie into that gear to form a belay, whilst at the same time they are learning to climb efficiently. Only when I am happy with this do I then even think of introducing lead climbing, and when I think they are ready I have what I call a little chat.

It goes something like this, “Well guys, I am really happy with what I have seen over the last X days, I have seen you belay a leader and second, I have seen you place runners and then tie into them to make a good belay. I personally think you are ready to make the next step and get on the sharp end. However, and this is a big however guys, you need to accept a certain level of responsibility for yourself, in that I am going to be on a rope next to you at all time, I will check your runners, help you route find and pick a route that I am totally confident in your ability to climb without falling off. On my harness I will also have a leash, and if you utter the safe words, “I’m a celebrity Get me out of here!”, I can clip you into that leash making you safe. The big however is that if you slip, it will happen this quickly <I click my fingers at this point>, and with the best will in the world even I cannot react that quickly, and if you do slip then even though I have checked your runners, there is still a chance that you might injure yourself or worse. By tying into the rope, racking up and leading a route I am taking that as your personal acceptance of those risks, if you think you need another day working through these skills then its not a problem, you just need to say now”.

I am very conscious that this can be a rather solemn talk, I will sometimes say it infront of a whole group, and definitely in front of both clients simultaneously. If for no other reason as to have another witness, you may have noticed I haven’t buttered this up either, I really want the clients to understand just what risks and what responsibilities they are taking on. I know it seems like a lot of things to cover, but if you think about Pope vs Cuthbertson then there is a lot of ground you need to cover so that a client can make an ‘informed consent’, and without that back ground work someone without the experience of leading simply can’t make an informed decision to accept the risks you are putting them in.

All this has happened before I getting someone on the sharp, this to a large extent has help shift the risk to an accepable level, as I have started ticking boxes on that skills checklist. What needs to happen next is perhaps the most important decision you will ever make, and that is the route you choose to put someone on for that first lead. In my mind there are two major points, it needs to be easy and well protected. In my mind there is only one way you are going to know this, and thats by knowing the route through experience of climbing it, and yes that means you really need to know a lot of different easy rotues in a lot of different areas that you work in. To be honest its normally Diff’s of VD’s that I teach the first leads on.

I do this for more than just the reason of it be easy for the client, so making a fall much less likely. I also do it because fear occupies the mind, and if fear is occupying the mind then this interupts the learning process. I have mentioned this in more detail in this post on Coaching in Adventure Sports.

Having decided to get my clients on lead, I then teach them to rack up and plan for the ascent. I have some lessons in racking up in my book, but basically teach people to be and stay organised. Once they have racked up, I then talk them through planning an ascent. Typically this includes breaking the route down into managable chunks, each chunk links to a place they can rest and place gear. So first off, I ask them if they can see the first place they can stand and rest. When they identify it, I ask if they can see any cracks, and therefore gear. After doing this from ledge to edge for the whole pitch, I then invite them to climb up to the first ledge and place some gear.

Where I position myself is important, as I can spot from below if neccessary, or to the side. Either way I really need to make sure that me and the rope don’t cheeswire or knock them off in anyway. There are exception to this, as if the start is difficult or the first gear a long way up, I can at times place that first runner. When on multi-pitch routes I either place the first runner myself or get teh client to place an early wire close to the belay explaining that it is to avoid factor two falls onto the belay and belayer.

After that I am pretty much alongside the climber, asking them what the plan is for the next chunk of the route. Often simply asking for the next runner and next rest they can see. This way I get them to become involved in the planning process, and often a client will then continue to plan out loud there next move, and when they place a runner, all I have to do is check it, if its good, then I will tell them its good. If its bad I will use that as a teachable moment to show them why its bad and how to improve it.

When they get to the hardest looking part of the climb, I will get them to try and identify this from below, and change their tactics as they approach it. Here I will get them to place as much gear as possible below it. Constructing a small cluster of runners from a good rest. I then get them to go through the options of how to climb the section, where it eases off, where the next runner is and whether they should stop to place it or simply move past it, and if they were to move past it what might happen if they fall.

What I want them to do is start coming up with the answers for themselves, and making there own decisions. It may seem early to start this on a first lead but when in context it is quite amazing how sensible the answer can be. The key reason behind this is having seen enough novice climbers (I do hang out a lot at beginner venues), climb themselves into dangerous situations simply by not looking at the big picture or planning ahead. It happens so easily as well, when someone gets scare they forget to process the whole scene and instead focus on something that offfers them immediate safety, like a wire placement mid crux or a ledge in the distance. That wire they waste all there energy getting badly might have cost them the route when if they were to look only move two moves higher they would get a good rest and a good placement. Similarly that ledge in the distance might lead them past loads of good gear, but they are so focused on the ledge they miss all the obvious placements.

It is this point that I leave for the end of teaching leading, the fairwell message. This is a lot like the little talk at the beginning as it can be rather sobering. In this I explain that in climbing it is very much US the climber who puts themselves into stupid positions, and that through using all the skills we have taught them like place gear, planning & breaking down a route and choosing appropriate routes, they will avoid climbing themselves into a dangerous situation. I try and leave them with the message that until have gain much more experience in lead climbing that they need to be able to answer the following questions, Where can they next stand in balance, and where can they next get some gear, if they can’t then the time is not right for them to move upwards into the unknown.

The other big difference between having an coach hanging next to them and not is massive, when they place a runner and they think its good, no guardian angel is going to peer across and say yes or no. This has a massive effect on there confidence, as all of a sudden there is no one there to address any self-doubt, and the higher up they get the more that self doubt grows, and the more they will find themselves very alone in a place they might not want to be. So above all, they need to go out and climb routes easier then the ones I have put them on over the course.

Finally I tell them that if they don’t use these skills then they will lose them. We will forget 90% of what we read, 80% of what we hear, 70% of what we see, 50% of what we hear and see and 20% of what you experienced. That is in just a month.

Finally I tell them I don’t want to hear they have smashed themsleves or worse had to call me out on rescue because they have deiced to push themselves too much, or failed to answer those two questions. It is for me a really worrying thought that after my instruction I might have effectively given someone a licence to kill themselves. I have in the past simply told clients that I felt simply weren’t ready for leading on themselves to book back on another course, as I didn’t think they are ready, and give them the reasons why.


  • Making sure they have the Key Climbing skills prior to Leading
  • Can the Belayer safely belay a leader
  • Have the clients been made aware of the risk and given by at least actions an “informed consent”
  • Choose an appropriate route you know
  • Teach them to rack up
  • Teach them to plan and break down the route
  • Check there runners
  • Consider placing first or key runners, especially on multipitch routes, gritstone edges or below cruxes
  • After the course make the clients aware of the risk and differences when they are on there own.

Failure: Is Not an Option?

I was once at the scene of a very distressing top out after a friend of mine was at the top of a really hard and difficult route. A route that still puts the fear of god into me even hearing its name, Even more now after Caff dragged me up the route and it started to rain as I was seconding the top final and utterly desperate in the dry top pitch.

The route was VOID, and the distress was that my friend was in floods of tears because they had fallen on the route, and seemed to think that it was a personal indictment of their inability to climb anything hard. It was as if the world had for lack of a better metaphor, shat all over them. They were in the words of Bill, in Kill Bill: Vol 2, inconsolable.

I have seen this a few times in climbing, and feel that some people no matter how good or bad they are really take failure badly. When I say badly I am talking ex-girlfriend killing your cat, then smashing your car before returning to your house to cut off one arm and one leg from every piece of clothing you have. Another climber who is fairly well known was great at having proper hissy fits, and quite literally throwing all there toys out of the pram, or off their harness and into the undergrowth at the bottom of the crag.

Hopefully you don’t take any failures as badly as the above examples, however your interpretation of any failure is important. In a way it comes down to looking at these failure through different perspectives. At its worse it can be that failure on the route is seen as failure in live and everything else that you do or say. In this case the isolate failure to that route, on that day, in those conditions has become an inappropriate metaphor of your life. In other words we can distort the reality to be universally applied to everything we do.

On the complete opposite of this spectrum is the person who sees the failure as one of those things, it only happened on that route, on that day and in those conditions. It has no reflection on them or their life. Whilst our first example is the archetypal pessimist, the other is the Eternal Optimist. Whilst being extremely optimistic is perhaps less troublesome for day-to-day living, it still has it pitfalls.

For instance if you are always optimistic and see problems as coming from external sources and are just one of those things, then maybe, just maybe you are missing the point that you might well have a weakness in your performance. As such you may be totally blind to it, and it you are how can you possible address it, and improve your performance.

It is of course not as bad as someone who sees’s a climbing failure as exploding out across his or her whole life and existence. There is a basic framework in counseling that can explore how to breakdown this global failure. So you might think that you are a complete failure in climbing because you fail on the route that you really wanted to, hope to and even dreamt for months of on sighting. So that failure means that “ALL of my Climbing, and LIFE are USELESS”.  This form of response is seen as transferring one part of your life’s experience across to ALL of your life experiences.

If this remotely covers how you have felt or feel at times, then consider throw that assumption back at you as a form of question “ALL of My CLIMBING and LIFE?”. Now try and answer that question, is it really ALL and EVERYTHING? The chances are that it is not, it is something specific, and not general.

For me though failure is something, it is a lesson that I can learn from, as I have often found that mistakes and failures tell you a lot more about you actual performance than success. In fact I love to fail on routes, it means I am actually trying and trying hard. If I can be rational and look within that performance on a route, and ask not how I failed, but why then the lessons become even more powerful. I personally would hate a world where I successfully climbed every route. After all what would the point be if I knew I was going to be success 100% of the time.

So just remember if you find yourself saying everything about my climbing, all my climbing or any other phrase that globalizes the performance to every aspect of your climbing to throw that statement back at yourself in the form of a question, and answer it!

Similarly, it might not just be one of those things, it might be something that effects a part of your climbing. What you need n both cases is a rational approach to failure. Often when we fail we are literally too close to the failure emotionally, as such if we ask a friend or a coach about that performance we can get that rational and consider response without either our positive or negative emotions becoming involved.

Coaching Evaluation

In response to a question on UKC, on how a coach goes about giving an evaluation after assessing a client, I gave my thoughts on the subject. This was very much based on my experience teaching mainly outdoors, although I have done a reasonable amount of coaching indoors as well.

Anyway, in the answer I talk about sympton versus cause, and give a quick example.

It maybe of interest to any coaches or instructors looking to give feedback or analyze a clients performance. Find UKC thread here.

Teaching Lead Climbing Set Ups

I saw a post on UKC asking how MIA (Mountaineering Instructors) set up to teach leading. There are a few suggestions in the Red MLT Handbook, I have to admit to never using any of them exactly how they have them rigged. There are several reasons for this, which at the very least I feel should be out there for debate, afterall if you are going for your MIA or you have passed, you should be able to read and understand my arguments of why I use various techniques over others. Although the changes I make are minor, I happen to think that they are making the system safer.

Basic Lead Climbing Set Up, with a DMM Revolver to reduce friction, this can be just any locking carabiner
Using a Mallion to attach the revolver - This is because the revolver can't fit through the jumar fixing point.

This first set up is extremely standard for reasonably steep slabby ground or featured vertical terrain. The other advantage to using this jumar and gri-gri, is that I can if necessary descend on the gri-gri a short way, leaving the jumar behind, before reascending back up to it. As it is set up the friction is OK, however if you are doing day after day of teaching with this method, then the friction can lead to repetitive strain in both elbows and shoulders. To be honest if you are going to only do the odd day then this method is fine, I have at times done about 10+ days of this work in under a month, and need to help make it more efficient.

I have two ways to do this, one is using a full weight pulley and the other is using a DMM revolver screwgate, however you need a mallion, as the revolver doesn’t fit through the bottom clip point of the Jumar. I really like this second method, as its lighter. Similarly, if you are going to be doing this day after day, consider swapping hands round each day, by alternating between a left and right facing jumar (Yes they come in left and right, my preference is for a left handed jumar)

The Same basic lead climbing set up with a pulley to reduce friction

The next big discussion I have had with several people, is where to put the clipper leash that we can use to make a client safe if they get scare or are about to fall. I call it the “I’m a celebrity, GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!!” leash, in that I mainly aim through route selection to make a falling or freaking out climber extremely rare. This is in part due to fear destroying the clients ability to learn. Another really important point is that you as the instructor should know the route, this allows you to manage risk in a few ways, first you can help the client break the route down and route find, and secondly you can reduce the risk by choosing routes with appropriate gear (having a client running it out on chop routes is just stupid!) and thirdly you can judge better the suitability of a route that you know against the ability of the client.

In the Red MLT Handbook, and on my MIA training course I have seen the clipper leash put on the top jumar in the set up that I have shown above. This is something that I actually disagree with, in that if you talk to anyone involved with IRATA or testing jumars in dynamic falls then you will know that these two things don’t mix. In that a jumar will fail at the equivalent force of about 450kg of weight, that kind of force is extremely likely in a dynamic fall. What’s even more alarming is that rather than failing the rope can be ‘chopped’ in a dynamic fall onto a jumar, and given you are attach below it, and the consequence that may arise from it, I simple avoid the chances of a dynamic fall onto a jumar.

The Client Clipper leash - Captivated between the harness and the gri-gri on the Back Bar of the carabiner

Of course the other argument is that you should not under any circumstance let a climber take a dynamic fall onto the chicken leash, for this very reason. However if the leash is needed they simply may not be enough time to take the slack in before a client falls. Similarly the leash needs to be clipped direct to the belay loop on the climber harness, and not used as a runner, as this effective doubles the potential load.

I have taken now instead to clipping my leash into the carabiner that attaches the gri-gri to my belay loop. The reasons I do this is that a gri-gri is designed to safely take dynamic falls. When I do this I make sure the sling is trapped on the back bar side of the carabiner, meaning the carabiners gate will never get loaded.

Other top tips when fixing a line is to re-belay every 25 metres, this reduces the amount of stretch in the system, especially if you are jugging next to clients on dynamic ropes. Always take a small rack with you, and some quickdraws incase the client runs out of certain size of gear or quickdraws. I like having long quickdraws with me to help them straighten out the gear to reduce lifting of gear and reduce rope drag.

On really steep ground, where this method can be made easier by adding a foot loop to the top jumar. This effectively gives you a solid foothold to push up on. I think I have only resorted to a foot loop a couple of times in my working career, as most clients simply can’t learn skills on steep, sustain and difficult terrain. If they want to get into this climbing, I often revert to using sports climbing, as it reduces the need to worry about gear, but allow the clients to realize the extra physical effort it takes.

Other set ups that have there place, is the single jumar. This is great on very easy angle slabs. I tend to only use this on Tryfan Bach in North Wales. Again IRATA people will shit a brick with the idea of only one jumar. However these route are extremely easy, and I am more using it to prevent a slip becoming a fall. Similarly on this terrain, it is extremely unlikely that the client will either fall or get scared. If they do get scared the chance are they can stand there long enough for you to get the slack in.

A single Jumar set up for teaching leading - Yes I have larks footed the sling to my harness, the weakest link is still the jumar by a considerable margin!
A snap gate used to keep the rope in teh jumar, you should use this perferably with both set ups illustrated (I know I didn't show in on the re-direct gri-gri), It is however vital on the single jumar set up.

I have seen people recommend using a French prussic to back the jumar up. Again I have never used this, as the main worry is the jumar cutting the rope, and it is simply not going to work as an effective back up. This method does have a place in our work, but an extremely limited one. Another big disadvantage is that moving down is extremely problematic.

To make your life easier, I often have a gri –gri clipped to my harness and the jumar extended on a 120cm sling. This way I can quite get my gri-gri on the rope, and detach the jumar to descend.

My main points are:

  • Avoid using a jumar for the chicken Leash
  • Avoid taking dynamic falls on Jumars
  • Re-belay every 25m at max
  • Think about reducing friction if you value your shoulders and elbows
  • Consider switching hands to avoid repetitive strain injuries
  • Pick suitable routes for clients to lead

MLT: National Governing Body Qualification Courses

If you follow this blog and thought that you’d like to become qualified as a climbing, hillwalking or mountaineering instructor, then I should point you in the direction of my other blog LITV, where I have just published some dates for forthcoming MLT award courses. These courses are run by Andy Newton, who is a registered provider of Mountain Leader Training courses.

These courses include Climbign Wall Award, Single Pitch Award and Summer Mountain Leader award. These are all industry standard awards for managing groups within specific terrain, like a climbing wall, a single pitch climbing venue or any UK mountain in Summer conditions.

Weight a Minute

I have recently seen a post on one of the UK’s lead climbing coaches website Dave Macleod, and if your following this blog then you should definitely follow his. As not only is he a great climber but and excellent coach as well. If you know anything about me and coaching I have  tendency to be slightly bias towards people who have a background in the science behind the term coaching. Neil Gresham for instance might not have a MSc in a related feild, I would suggest however he has a wealth of experience equal to or greater than the sum of knowledge one could accumulate in completing a academic course. Dave has both the academic and applied experience.

Both of these coaches have a vested interested in high end coaching, by that I mean they have both performed to the very limit of elite climbing in there choosen field(s). This blog however is really aimed at the ground up, my expereince comes from mainly coaching beginner and intermediate climber, and help them to improve through increased efficiency rather than strict training regimes.

As such I have a view about weight lose that is based on the that end of the climbing spectrum rather than the elite end. In his recent post Dave reviewed a book about competitive weight lose. I guess boxers would call in getting down to fight weight, whilst runners call it their racing weight. If a climber wants to lose weight then a book like this might well help them to lose weight, but not lose the edge.

My problem with the book, is that if a competitive weight strategy is promoted too early to young athletes than there has been links in research of form based sport and activities like professional dancing and gymnastics. That have shown a link between a coaches attitude towards weight lose and the development of disordered eating amongst their athletes. Whilst I feel that if someone is above 18, although this type of problem does most commonly span into the early twenties, then they are making that choice as part of a lifestyle as an adult. Below that age I as someone who does operate in the elite areas of climbing, feel that weight should not be an issue, as there are very real health implications involved. I can’t help but remember some very w0rrying pictures of recent times of young national standard climbers barely filling there lycra leggings and looking unhealthly thin. (My Previous post on weight loss)

I bet however that a section of Dave’s website demongraphics are in that particular age range where weight problems and disordered eating could be triggered. So when Dave says He Must Get Light, he is referring to his own weight. To achieve that as sensibly as possibly he has brought a book that covers the science behind it. I personally would have liked to see a caveat with his post, however we can’t simply write a blog post for everyone, remembering that there are children out there who will fooloow and read his and possibly even my blog avidly.

So hopefully you can see from my blog post that I don’t disagree with Dave about the review of his book. Instead I just wanted to add a caveat about the risk of promoting a weight lose programme to young athletes or climbers. In a way I think it is great to have a point made by Dave about how he personally has looked at losing weight for a hard redpoint at the limit of what he finds possible, so its probably at the limit of anyone capabilities, and in a sensible manner. So adults diet away, children eat sensibly!