10 Mistakes I made as a Rookie Climber

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture? (photo: wanderingink.com)

Looking back at my beginner days, I shudder at the mistakes I used to make as a beginner. But, that’s kind of what being a beginner is all about: not knowing what the heck you are doing! And sometimes you only realize later the things you did were, maybe not wrong exactly, but not exactly recommended.

Mistake #1: Being an inattentive belayer.

When I was a beginner climber, I remember being overly concerned with belaying the leader, making sure I gave enough slack, as well as not too much. But after doing it over and over I became less concerned, and even lax about belaying. Especially when I graduated to using a GriGri instead of an ATC, with the sort of understanding and confidence that a GriGri gave me with its assisted braking it seemed as if the worse case scenario was a tad more distance dropped, but nothing catastrophic as a deck.

Petzl GriGri

So, looking around bored as the leader gets stuck on a problem, having an in-depth conversation with the person at the next belay station, checking FB, and other distracting activities, seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

Later, though, after a few unexpected catching of falls over less than ideal conditions (near the first or second bolts, a low angled cheese-grater wall, leader backstepping the rope…) you get to understand how it becomes your responsibility, and even your fault, if something bad happens during a fall. Being and having an attentive belayer becomes a must.

Mistake #2 Spiking the leader

Here’s another Beginner mistake: spiking the leader. This happened in the gym where the lead climber was on a roof route and fell. Instead of letting the rope lift me up I sunk down in the mistaken belief to keep the leader from falling further. But since the leader just progressed from the wall to the roof, by sinking down instead of going with the pull of the rope as he fell, I violently pulled, or “spiked” the leader into the wall. If I just did a little hop as the rope went taut then the leader would have just softly dropped down instead of sideways into the wall.

Classic beginner mistake!

Mistake #3: No gloves while belaying

In my early climbing days, I was taught by a sort of old school climber, who seemed to believe that unnecessary suffering was a part of climbing. And while I now appreciate cold weather climbing, lugging a bag of heavy trad gear, and long approaches, some of his ideas were not just “get tough” guy climbing – it was outdated and somewhat unnecessarily dangerous.

2 things that cause the most accidents and deaths are belaying and rappelling. And one of the problems is when something goes wrong while belaying with an ATC.

Black Diamond ATC

If you are inattentively belaying (see Mistake #1 above), while using an ATC or tube style device with a loose brake hand, or worse if your hand is not on the brake hand at all, if the leader falls and you make a grab for the swiftly reeling brake side of the rope you can feel the rope is suddenly a serpent that can bite!

My partner at the time said, “Ahh, it’s not that bad, I would be able to stop it!” Yeah, that’s what we ALL think: that our goodwill towards our fellow climber would extend to a super-strong death grip – burning and cutting rope be damned!

The truth is that our biological reaction to a hot rope cutting a burning path through our palm is the feeling of extreme pain which makes us – let go.

Black Diamond Rappel Gloves

It’s called an autonomic reaction because it bypasses human thought. Pain doesn’t just happen, and we think about it awhile to decide the correct sort of reaction. The autonomic reaction is to immediately retreat from the source of the pain.

It’s not a thought, it’s a reaction.

Now, I almost always wear leather belay gloves, and like for my belayers to wear them, especially if they are using a tube style belay device rather than a GriGri.

Mistake #4: Cheap shoes

I can understand wearing rental shoes for the first couple of times you climb, but after the first few times if you discover, like I, how great climbing is, do yourself a favor and get a good pair of climbing shoes. I’ve noticed that oftentimes the REI folks in the climbing section tend to direct beginners to the cheaper, less aggressively downturned shoes. Perhaps because they assume that the person may not continue with climbing.

La Sportiva Solutions

Now, technique can compensate for less than ideal gear, but as a beginner, once I got a decent pair of shoes I felt ten times more confident in going for higher grades. In fact, I climbed a grade (or two) harder in appropriately sized, and slightly more aggressive downturned shoes. And the sharp edge on supremely sticky rubber of a more expensive shoe didn’t hurt either.

And, as  a beginner, confidence in your footing is important to climbing better.

Mistake #5: Backstepping the rope on lead

When I just started to sport lead, I remember being fairly gripped, thinking of only getting to the next bolt to clip. I paid zero attention to how the rope trailed behind me. But after seeing a lead climber flip backwards after a fall on lead (with no helmet!) I make sure both on lead and when belaying to make note of backstepping, and either clear my foot on lead, or tell the leader what they are doing wrong.

Sterling Evolution BiColor dry rope – My Favorite!

Mistake #6: Not wearing a helmet while belaying

Not to be the helmet police, but frankly I think it’s more important now to wear a helmet while on belay. I think it’s more important than wearing while when on lead – at least you are keeping  yourself protected enough to lower an unconscious leader in that nightmare scenario.

Here’s the thing: most climbers don’t wear a helmet on belay until a rock explodes on the ground next to them. This happened to me while belaying at the Canal Zone, and a fist-sized rock landed next to me. It sounded like a grenade going off!

And it was then, not before, when I started wearing a helmet.

Mistake #7: Not wearing a helmet while on lead

I admit, when I am on a single pitch sport route, with no additional pitches above with no walk-off and little chances of a person walking by and kicking down debris – I may decide not to wear a helmet.

I sorta feel that way on the more well-travelled single pitch routes at Shelf Road, where there is not a walkoff at the top, and most of the choss has been trundled off – I may decide not to wear a helmet.

But, I am fully aware it’s a rookie mistake.

Black Diamond Half Dome Helmet

I ask myself: how often do I encounter that scenario of perfect no-helmet conditions? And, can there still be rockfall in those conditions? The answer is “yes”, but, as can be seen by all the photos of the pros climbing without a lid on extremely difficult routes – the wearing of helmets is still not a consistent standard.

But, while listening to some members of Rocky Mountain Rescue talk about the importance of wearing helmets, accident statistics and fatality reports – it started to penetrate the reptilian depths of my tough-guy hindbrain, that maybe, just maybe, wearing a helmet may be a small price to pay to ensure a long and lustrous climbing career.

I started to wear a helmet more regularly.

Heck, even Alex Honnold has been spotted wearing a helmet!

Mistake #8: Safety Checks

I was told a story once, where my friend was climbing with an old-school climber, and she asked him to turn around so she could check his knot. His response?

‘We’re all adults here,’ he said, and started climbing.

Which was a dumb response. It would take all of 2 seconds to check that his knot was correct, and for him to check that her belay device had the ‘biner locked and that the device was fed correctly.

2 seconds!

In his case, he was not a beginner, but what he was making was a rookie mistake. Every activity that involves an element of risk, whether that be scuba diving, or sky diving, or what have you, involves safety checks. I would never descend into the ocean for scuba without making safety checks with my partner.

And with climbing, neither should you.

Mistake #9: Rappelling without a backup

I have a couple friends who seemed to not get the memo that rappelling is one of the most dangerous of dangerous climbing activities. But whether out of ignorance, or casual defiance of the facts a couple friends I know refuse to use a backup knot, such as a prussik or an autoblock.

I think this might be more related to how people feel about helmets, where it seems like marginally safer but also a hassle. But letting go of the brake hand while on rappel has also been speculated as a cause of accidents and fatalities while climbing.

Sure, putting on a prussik backup on rappel can be a little of a hassle, but this is something I do diligently. I know the statistics, and rapping also just feels more dangerous of an activity in the universe of dangerous activities done while climbing.

Sterling Hollowblock

But, the no-hands aspect of having a prussik or autoblock has other benefits than just increased safety. You can stop and retrieve gear, take a photo, untangle the ropes below – with both hands!

And the rule is: we do what we do repeatedly. We are creatures of habit, and most of the time while not climbing we use both hands. Having a backup on rappel on the off chance we get into a situation where we let go of the brake hand is, in my opinion, small insurance.

Mistake #10 Not communicating about the lower

This is a classic beginner mistake, and one in which I am sometimes still guilty: Not communicating with the leader or belayer what the lowering intention is: lower, or rappel. I think we can get into the habit of figuring it out when we get to the top – and just call down our intentions. But, what if you are not within earshot?

I remember one time in my early climbing career when I was belaying my partner. He nearly always rapped. It was at a long route at Highwire, where he was at the top, but out of site. If you took my sworn testimony after I would have sworn to you he shouted “Off belay!”

He didn’t, he said “Give me slack!

So, I unhooked him, yelled “off belay!” and “on you!” and walked off to go drink some water, unbeknownst to me he was rigging the anchors and was effectively unroped. Luckily he looked down and saw me sitting on a rock before unhooking his safety, and leaning back for a nonexistent catch.

Rookie mistake! Which could have been alleviated with a simple conversation prior to the leader climbing.

Conclusion

Climbing, as with any activity, has a learning curve. The key for climbing is to survive the learning curve. Being a rookie, we often don’t even realize what we are doing is dangerous until we see the danger in action. That happened to me several times, such as a rock falling while on belay duty making me more aware of wearing a helmet.

And climbing with rookies carries it’s own dangers – like when we didn’t communicate about the lower before the lead went up. As the mentor, the lead should have been more diligent about telling me what he intended at the top of the climb. But that would be pale comfort to me if he would have fallen while I was his belayer.

The key is to learn by paying attention to simply learning the proper safety protocols, without needing to see the consequences of the trial and error method, where an error can not only be a learning experience, but fatal as well.

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