Legal and Moral Dilemmas of Coaching Climbing to Under 18s

As part of being a Mountaineering Instructor I regularly have to weigh up both my legal responsibilities and moral ones. In that I am mainly talking about making a decision as to whether or not I get someone to lead climb or not. Often that decision is based on observations made whilst having clients climb on the blunt end of the rope and seeing how they move and place gear.

When its an adult there is still a legal and moral obligation to make sure those climbers are willing to take a risk. I have mentioned this in detail on some posts on the soft skills of teaching lead climbing .

In a landmark case for instructors Pope versus Cuthbertson, where Pope fell whilst lead climbing but as an adult he not only consented to be leading, but the judge considered that he had been well informed about the risk involved.

This begs the question as to what you can do in the case of teaching children to lead. I have done several weeks of teaching on a young persons climbing course for a couple of centres. Often based on mine and others experience the biggest problem isn’t a young persons climbing but there judgement and attention to risk. At times I have not taught leading all day because the young belayers simply stop paying attention to whats going on with the leader.

Each person on those courses need to have there parents sign consent forms to allow them to be taught lead climbing. Several Mountain Guides, Instructors and experienced climber send there children on these courses, as such I can see that they can make an informed decision as to what risks the child will be exposed to. However I have always thought that based on Pope versus Cuthbertson, if something bad was to happen them the level of understanding of the average parent when it comes to lead climbing would be a very grey area in court. In that how can a parent give informed consent to an activity they are unsure of.

How I and many of my former colleagues manage this is carefully selecting routes that might well be difficult but at the same time safe. I have had indoor climbers build up to E2 outside on some courses, and other instructors and coaches have got young climbers on routes harder than this. The over arching safety aspect is the coach or instructor is on a rope next to the climber to assess all the gear and make sure the climber is safe as possible. By that I mean that the climber is unlikely to hit the floor or ledge or other hazard.

I am writing this as I have just read a news item on UKC, and would like to see what other coaches or instructors think. I am not saying that in this case the coach is being negligent as I do not know the extent of the relationship or the exact circumstance. Instead I want to open up a debate as to what you think is acceptable when coaching a young climber and whats not.

Nosfertu is an E6 on grit, the first gear is over half height probably 25ft off the ground. In the video the coach appears to be on the ground belaying/spotting and don’t get me wrong the 13 year old kids is obviously extremely talented as he makes very short work of the route after top-roping it a few times. However if he was to slipped or choked the results could have been serious.

There are things that as an outside observer and instructor that makes me go through that worse case scenario. I often suggest to people I train to put themselves in the mind of a prosecuting lawyer. What would they would focus on:

  1. It was his first ever trad route lead.
  2. He had never place gear?
  3. How informed that parent consent was?
  4. Is an E6 a common thing for a first time lead climber to do? In legal speak is it common practice?
  5. The route is unprotected in the first half.

I think stood in front of a judge and jury should the worse of happened that you would struggle to justify that. No matter how experienced or obviously talented Jim Pope is(I hope he is not a relation of the Pope in the court case I mentioned!). As such I can’t help feeling that maybe there is a case of putting the cart before the horse. In that could you not teach someone to lead on easier better protected routes first and then let them push themsleves as time permits.

Like I said though, I have no idea the extent of the relationship between the climber and the coach. I am happy to receive comment either way. However to any budding coaches out there I would also add just because one coach is doing it, does it make it the right thing to do. I think the Whymper quote works well here:

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

In that think what are you going to say to the parents, the police, the judge, jury and yourself if it all goes wrong.