New to Climbing: Wise Words from Billy
Updated: Jan 20
Sportrock Instructor Billy has seen MANY new climbers come through the gym over the years. In fact, climbers from all over Metro DC area are lead certified thanks to him. I’ve worked and climbed with Billy for several years now. I’ve watched him lead summer campers outdoors, teach dozens of people to lead, and coil ropes using techniques that I can’t pronounce the names of. I could think of no one better to offer some wise words to new climbers as we enter the new year. As it turns out, Billy had quite a bit to share, and not just with our new climbers. His wise words serve as a nice reminder to all of us. So as we enter the new year and many of us continue our favorite New Year’s Resolution to climb more, I can think of no better time to share his Wise Words. Here’s what Billy has to say.
New Year, New Climbers
Take a stroll to Endless Wall at the New River Gorge on a long weekend and I bet you will see a lot of similar things. First, that there is a vibe that seems to follow crowds of 15 year-olds that crush 5.13, and second, that there are a lot of people that have no idea what they are doing.
Climbing is a beautiful sport as it is almost completely unregulated at a recreational level. No, you can’t just start sewing your own harnesses and selling them at REI, but once you get a rack pack of Black Diamond quickdraws and a rope from a “garage day,” you’re pretty much set to throw down in any outdoor sport climbing area in the world.
There seems to be a myth, or false sense of safety, when people take a sewn quick draw and clip it to a bolt. Perhaps being surrounded by people at the crag who are all doing the same thing gives you the impression that you can’t mess up. Reading through Rock and Ice’s accident reports, you will be hard pressed to find a story of a sport-climbing bolt ripping out of a wall (I’ve only ever seen one). But count how many stories you read about user error as a result of lack of experience (I’m talking countless stories). The number of people that get hurt outside because they were overconfident in their abilities is shocking.
I often preach to my classes about having a rational fear of climbing. There needs to be a balance of skill over risk in every aspect of climbing. Sport climbing, at face value, is less risky than traditional climbing, but the percentage of participants that have low skill is high enough to where accidents are far from rare. If someone is fully aware of all that can go wrong in sport climbing, then they should be rationally afraid of the consequences. I’ve never heard of a climber getting hurt because they said, “Hey Dan, I took a 3 hour sport climbing class in the gym, and I will not be able to hear you 70 feet up. So how about you put down the kombucha and take the sharp end, because I don’t know how to clean.”
A simple test I like to perform with my students is this:
I tell them, “The next time you are out climbing at a crag ask yourself, ‘Am I the most qualified person in my group?’ If the answer is yes, then ask yourself, ‘Do I know more than one way to do what we are about to do safely? Or do I just know the vague way in which I learned it on youtube last night.’”
Knowing one way of cleaning is fine, but teaching a less experienced friend how to clean, while standing at the base in Bubba City is not a good look. Overconfidence and lack of skill is a recipe for disaster. So take a step back and have a rational fear of climbing because one day it may save you or your buddy’s life.