As a newcomer to rock climbing, I thought climbing better meant climbing as much as possible. When I led a group of beginners for the first time, everything changed. I realized that climbing hard was only a fraction of what makes a good climber.
When the usual organizers of a weekly rock climbing “Ladies’ Night” event were absent, I found myself in charge. I’d been a dedicated participant in the informal, beginner-oriented affair since I moved to Wyoming a few months earlier. The evening sessions created a space for new climbers to learn about the sport and connect with more experienced partners.
My co-workers invited me to my first Ladies’ Night, held in the limestone crags just outside of town. They decided where we would climb, made sure we had the necessary gear and kept an eye on safety. I didn’t have to worry about much except trying to fall fewer times with each session.
Then, a few months after I started attending, I arrived to find the organizers were unavailable. There was only one experienced friend arriving to help manage the entire group of 10 to 12 women. As the person most familiar with the event, I took on equal responsibility to lead.
I was intimidated. Although I’d been climbing for more than six months, I worried that I’d mess up without the supervision of experienced mentors. Was I going to remember to double-check every knot and piece of gear? What if I tangled the ropes? Or forgot the steps to cleaning anchors and hung at the top of the route forever? Would I look like a complete idiot to these beginner climbers?
Despite these fears, not disappointing the women eagerly looking forward to this event mattered more to me. I quieted my concerns as best I could. We piled into cars and drove to the crag.
Throughout the evening, I was far from confident. I could only answer about a third of the questions asked. And I double and triple checked everything, slowing down the climbing, but leaving no risk management to chance.
Photo: Molly Herber
Despite this, I didn’t catch any skeptical looks or nervousness from the women. My willingness to say “I don’t know” or to stop and fix a mistake didn’t undermine my credibility. Instead, it reinforced the learning-oriented, relaxed atmosphere we strive for in every Ladies’ Night. Rather than hold back for fear of failure, I saw folks try routes they expected to fall on and ask for demonstrations of more advanced skills. There was plenty of learning, falling, cheering and grunting: the important ingredients to send everyone home tired and happy.
Even based on the women’s smiles alone, the night was a success.
Reflecting later, I tried to pinpoint the source of my anxiety. I climbed regularly, and my climbing partners agreed that my skills were solid. These were things that should have reassured me — but I still doubted myself.
However, after leading the Ladies’ Night, I realized my self-doubt stemmed from my dependence on others. When I climbed with my more-knowledgeable friends, they always led the routes, did chores like coiling the rope and took the next belay.
Relying on someone else made me miss opportunities to practice my skills and inhabit the role of decision-maker. I was just along for the ride so, despite how much I climbed, I never developed confidence in my skills.
When the leadership position fell to me by default, I didn’t have the option to fall back on anyone. Either I take the lead or a group of women wouldn’t climb. That responsibility was both empowering and scary. It meant that the outcomes, good and bad, depended on my decision making. It was only by putting myself to the test that I found I was ready and had the skills to take it on without compromising the safety of myself or my climbing partners.
When the usual organizers returned to Ladies’ Night the following week, I didn’t step back into my former role. I joined them in answering questions and teaching skills, stepped forward to lead routes and mentored newer climbers. I enjoyed being in this mentorship role; the more I did it, the more natural it felt.
By climbing with beginners, self-reliance, good judgment, the ability to coach and to think through problems — all essential to the making of a good climber — has become second nature. These skills may not be the kind glamorized in magazine articles and climbing videos, but they are more important than the grade I can climb.
I’m a better partner now because I participate in decision making. Teaching pushed me to reinforce the skills I learned by using thoughtful reasoning. And I’ve fully inhabited my place as a climber within the community, a person who contributes rather than simply tags along.
It doesn’t look like the typical path to improvement, but climbing with beginners was the jolt I needed to see that I was more capable than I imagined.
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About the Author
Molly Herber is a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 a.m.
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