Leader Reflections from the Field: Rock Climbing-Moving from Indoors to the Outdoors

Rock climbing in the Whites
Rock climbing in the Whites

You are heading out for a day at the crag with some local participants, most of whom have never climbed on real rock before! It is an exciting time but there is a lot to consider including: Are your skills up to date? (For current training & learning opportunities with the AMC, click here.) How familiar are you with this rock? What options exist for anchors? Do you have the gear you need to set up a safe top rope site? Do your participants have the necessary gear? Do they have belay experience?

As leaders, when providing a rock climbing experience for others, we cannot rely on their knowledge of indoor climbing to translate to the outdoors, especially in more remote areas. Below are some tips to help you lead a successful outdoor rock climbing trip.

Know Your Participants
Understanding the climbing experience of those you take out will make it much easier to provide them with an enjoyable time. Knowing their physical capabilities, as well as their comfort level, can help you gauge what level of climbs to offer and help everyone find a little triumph in the day. Some good questions to ask participants are: What grade do you climb at: 5.5? 5.7? 5.9+? Are you afraid of heights? Do you know how to tie a figure eight knot? This information will help you plan your day and determine what routes will best fit your group. Maybe there is a top rope site that can facilitate multiple climbs or two sites which can offer a range of difficulty to up the climbers’ game! Make sure everyone has a harness, proper shoes and a helmet to protect what matters most!

Emphasize Communication
Before you get on the rock, it is important to review with your climbers some of the commands that allow for clear communication between climber and belayer.

Before climbing
Climber: “On Belay?”
Belayer: “Belay On.”
Climber: “Ready to Climb.”
Belayer: “Climb On!”

When the climber returns to the ground
Climber: “Belay Off.”
Belayer: “Off Belay.”

Using additional commands, such as “take” or “ready to lower,” clarifies who is ready for what, and helps create a safer climbing environment. Without those commands, a climber may be lowered when s/he is not ready. This could throw the climber off balance, resulting in unnecessary scrapes and bruises, while also reinforcing any fears. Clear communication reduces risk and creates a sense of security and confidence for participants.

Promote Challenge by Choice
What someone is capable of doing might not be what they are ready to do. Climbing requires a lot of trust. It also asks people to face some of their fears. As a facilitator, it is important to remember our interpersonal (i.e., “soft”) skills: Be encouraging and do not put pressure on a climber who may be afraid of heights. Remind climbers to trust their gear and their feet. Perhaps have a participant do a practice fall at a lower height to get a feel for the security and strength of the rope. This is a “challenge by choice” scenario which may require providing folks with a little time to build up to taking the next step! Top rope climbing is a great way to ease a new climber out of his/her comfort zone and onto the next personal challenge. Help can come from a belayer who makes a climber feel confident and safe.

Knot Knowledge
Making sure everyone is tied in with a figure eight and double-backed is essential, but for those climbers who are eager to learn, teaching knots such as the autoblock knot and how to use it is a great way to enhance the experience. Setting up a rappel and giving participants the knowledge of how an autoblock works and how it can keep them safe will provide that extra layer of comfort and control over their experience (For some knot knowledge, visit here).

Back it Up!
When working with a group, redundancy is never a bad idea. Choosing to use a wider static rope over a cordelette for an anchor will make the system that much more secure. Remember to use backup systems such as a backup belayer to hold the rope for a newer or smaller belayer or a fireman’s belay to add an extra brake if a participant lets go. Educating participants about these techniques will help build their confidence in the safety of the sport and create a general awareness of best practices to keep it that way.

Taking these extra steps with your group can help ensure a successful day of climbing for everyone. Remember to post your trips on our Activity Database!

And, when you’re out there with your group, don’t forget to enjoy the view at the top!

Samantha Willsey is the Leadership Training Assistant at the AMC and has enjoyed living and climbing in the White Mountains for three years. She is a Wilderness EMT and has guided in Maine and the Adirondacks and was a trail crew leader in the Pacific Northwest.

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Samantha Willsey

Samantha Willsey has lived throughout the U.S. while working for various outdoor programs. She landed in the White Mountains for the past few years and worked as the AMC’s Leadership Training Assistant in 2017. She is also a Wilderness EMT and instructor for SOLO. She is preparing for a move to the Bahamas where she will practice medicine in a remote environment. Stay tuned for blog posts from the tropics!