When it comes to climbing, there seems to be a variation of opinion on whether self taught or instructed is the way to get into it. For a long time, mentors with solid experience had led the way in showing their protégés the ropes, literally.
With an ever increasing population of climbers heading to the crags and cliffs, is there a growing trend that is, or should be happening?
Is it enough for individuals to learn the art of climbing ropework themselves, without forking out the cash to get it taught?
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Self taught climbing refers to the process of gathering all the required information through lessor mentors such as friends and other climbers, as well as using books and the freely available knowledge on the internet.
Being Instructed on the other hand, is paying for a specially designed course that caters to a specific or broad set of skills in the climbing discipline by an accredited instructor.
In both cases, we are talking about the ropework and safety skills, known as ‘HARD’ skills, and not about the climbing techniques, known as ‘SOFT’ skills.
Hard skills keep you safe, soft skills help you climb the rock with better technique.
WHICH IS BETTER?
Something sure to stir a debate among many, the question of which is better will vary a huge amount. Not only will it vary from group to group, but within climbing disciplines as well.
Some will say that self taught teaches more common sense, and others that instructed climbers have a better understanding of why things should be done a certain way.
So is there a clear, concise answer?
Let’s look at some pros and cons to both.
- The satisfaction from doing it yourself.
Nothing beats that feeling of figuring out and completing it yourself. As they say, you make all the little, ‘almost’ harmless mistakes, to help save you from making the big mistake.
- You understand the core concepts better because of a wide range of experience.
Some will say that you inevitably get a good grip on various safety aspects because you've pretty much avoided the epics narrowly, or learnt from them if you do have them.
- Risk management falls squarely on you, and you gain better risk assessment through experience.
Here’s a thought. Who will understand ‘rockfall’ better? The person who was taught it’s dangerous, or the one who has almost been hit by a rock and KNOWS it dangerous.
An easy one with little argument I think. Self taught will be cheaper hands down. But is it worth it?
- Potential to have a major accident.
There’s no denying it, if you miss a step in the self taught learning curve, you could be looking at a potentially major incident. Many epics may await.
- Takes longer.
You will spend a long time learning the skills that could take a short time to learn if taught.
- Quick knowledge.
Learning all those complicated rescue techniques can be a lot easier with a instructor who knows how to teach you. With examples and good teaching, you will learn things quickly and efficiently.
- Usually always the same teachings across different companies.
With regulations everywhere when it comes to accredited courses, you can bet most places will teach you well. While it will vary country to country, generally it’s all the same. Teaching quality may vary, but the content is mostly the same.
- Confidence may not last, will vary from individuals.
With a course lasting a day or several, information retention can be an issue. Many people may not put their skills into practice soon enough, and will consequently lose confidence in their abilities.
- Instruction can give false sense of security for some people.
What this means is that with a course under their belt, they may wait weeks or months before heading out again, leading them to believe they can do it, when they actually can't. And some people may not clue onto this and get in too deep before they realise.
IS ONE BETTER FOR SOME ACTIVITIES THAN OTHERS?
So we’ve got a few pro’s and con’s for each of the two opinions. But have we thought about whether different climbing disciplines can affect our choice?
We can safely say the majority of climbers will start here. I did, along with almost every climber I know. Many begin climbing in indoor gyms nowadays, so a belay course is used as an induction. Once outside, setting up a top rope, although daunting at first, is actually quite simple and safe. Simply make sure you have a safety line while working on a cliff edge, know your knots and loading angles, and then tie it all together with 2 or 3 points of protection. Most people start off in areas with simple anchor choices, like bolts, trees and bollards, so you will not need to learn how to place traditional protection like cams and nuts.
Next step in the progression chain is sport climbing. Once we feel confident in top roping, we will look at all those sport climbers with envy. As we have a base of knots learnt, we need to simply learn how to clip those bolts with quickdraws, not get the rope behind our leg, wear a helmet, learn the difference between ‘take’ and ‘slack’ and become great belayers.
After sport climbing for awhile, you will inevitably come across a trad climber. Their choice of gear, usually scratched and worn, will interest you and pretty soon you may be convinced to give it a go if you have a chat with them. The learning curve is steep. It’s not easy, and mistakes of bad gear placements do have dangerous consequences.
At some point you’ve gone wrong in the head. Mixing all the parts of climbing that are uncomfortable with exposure and cold, and a dose of questionable objective hazards, alpine climbing has a learning curve so steep, you mostly fall backwards down it.
After all that, we still don’t have an answer, do we?
Well, here is one thing you can take away.
Whether you go down one path or the other, the choice is mostly going to come down to taking a honest, hard look at your abilities. A gung-ho attitude does not work and has no place in the climbing world.
You need to be honest with yourself and your abilities.
If you want to head down the self taught path, surround yourself with experienced climbers, always get second, third and fourth opinions. You will need to assess everything you do, devour books and comb through websites, and manage your own safety and risk. Above all, common sense rules!
One other thing deserving a worthy mention are climbing clubs. These are around for recreational climbing and often universities and colleges have their own versions.
This is a great way for younger people heading down the self taught path to get involved without large costs. Usually a yearly membership covers you for all gear use and events, and are well worth looking into.
Getting paid instruction will give you a head start, but is in no way the end of your learning journey. You will still be responsible for your own safety, and will need the experience to solidify your skills.
Being instructed is often a good choice if you are not feeling confident and want some assurance you are doing it right. You will feel much better after doing a course. Just make sure to practice what you have been taught, otherwise you will lose those hard earned skills.
Mixing both choices together is also a great combination between the two.
We can complement what we lack in skills with a paid course. While top roping and sport climbing can be relatively safe to self teach for the right people, jumping into the alpine world without any knowledge will get you killed pretty quick, regardless of how much common sense you have.
In all cases, there is no one size fits all answer, and you should never feel pressured into one or the other. The choice is up to you.
And whatever you choose, remember to never stop learning. New and safer ways of doing things are always becoming available. And in climbing, we should always be seeking to make things as safe as possible.
So whats your preference? Have you tried one or the other? I'd love to know!