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.