Becoming a Better Climber


Dominik Lorenz cruises a balancy route in the Long Lane – photo Moriteam

Author: Jean Paul De Villiers

There seems to be a belief that a good climber is a strong climber, and by strong I mean someone who can climb 5.13. Routes this hard require impressive strength and consummate skill, and those who climb such lines inspire awe in the rest of us. However, strength and skill are only two of the many qualities indispensable to the well-rounded rock climber.

Without knowledge of self-rescue, the climber who pushes his limits might very well find himself in need of help from “lesser” climbers. Additionally, if such a climber doesn’t cultivate a little crag etiquette or belay well, he might find it difficult to find partners. It’s apparent then that there is more to being a good climber than being very strong.

I argue that a good climber is a responsible and informed climber – one who possesses a broad range of skills including movement over rock and knowledge of ropework, one who displays sound judgment of his own ability and anchor systems, who possesses knowledge of climbing culture and etiquette, who can get himself out of a sticky situation, who communicates clearly with his partners, and who can discuss the pros and cons of innovations in the climbing industry. Climbers possessing such qualities keep risks low, cultivate trust in their partners, and generally have a better time out on the rock than those who neglect to foster such qualities.

The Expert

Climbers in Taiwan respect experts, maybe more so than climbers in most other parts of the world, but few strive to become experts themselves; instead, the majority expect the expert to guide them in all that they do and thus keep them safe. And herein lies the crux.

Climbing is an inherently dangerous sport that requires constant risk assessment and problem solving, and while mentors might keep a close eye on their “students”, they cannot watch these apprentices all the time. Many of the most important decisions in climbing are made high above the ground and beyond the sight of the teacher. These decisions often have to be made by the individual on the rock. If said climber does not possess the necessary judgment skills, he is likely to put himself in danger regularly whether he perceives it or not.

I am not attempting to demean the role of experts and mentors in the climbing community. If anything, we need more people like them, but developing climbers also need to take it upon themselves to learn as much as they can. There is a world of resources out there, and one only needs to consult the internet to find hundreds of articles on topics that range from training to the development of new bolt types. Better yet, one can buy or borrow a book written by an authority on the subject. John Long, Eric J. Horst, and Andy Kirkpatrick are only a few of many accomplished climbers who have written books on their passion.


One of the many excellent climbing books on the market

It is also possible to glean insight from other climbers who have done their homework. Always be open to learning and improvement. Consider the pros and cons of any new idea you are exposed to, research it, and test it in a safe environment.

Crag Skills

Two of the most fundamental, and frequently overlooked, climbing skills are belaying and route assessment. I still see people swap hands above an ATC  while belaying. When asked why, they reply that it is the method they were taught by their mentors. Again, we should always enquire as to why a certain method is considered preferable or safer. Maybe it isn’t.

The belaying method described above was developed for use with a figure eight device, which locks off when the ropes stands are parallel, but a modern, tubular style belay device such as the ATC or Reverso only lock off when the brake end of the rope is held below the device.

When a climber and belayer rope up, they should both consider the route to be tackled. How high is the first clip and how far is it from the second to third clip and from the third to fourth clip? Would a fall while clipping result in a ground fall unless some slack was taken up? Are there any ledges? If you are unsure of how to do the math, ask someone to help you assess routes and the risk of ground falls from the lower bolts. Even if a route is well-bolted, one should give a attentive belay with a minimum of rope out until the climber is above the third or fourth draw; then allow for a little more slack in the system.

When you climb, pay attention to how you like to be belayed. The chances are that your partner would like the same treatment. When lowering a climber, go slower at the beginning, around roofs, and when nearing the ground. Continue to be attentive even after your climber has finished the route. If you practice multi-pitching, you need to prepare for the range of problems that can arise when both partners leave the ground. Learn how to prusik up a rope, haul a partner, and lower an injured climber.

In the unforgiving vertical realm, partners need to be honest about their abilities, and set realistic goals. When one partner is out of his or her depth, it puts both at risk. Good communication, then, is of the utmost importance. When roping up with a new partner for the first time, always review commands on the ground, because once you cast off it’s too late. If you intend to climb routes that will take you many pitches from the ground, consult weather forecasts and consider any recent weather patterns, such as afternoon thundershowers before setting off. Learn to identify clouds that signal rain and other inclement weather. If you plan to climb in an area affected by the water level such as Tonsai, Thailand be aware of the tides and how they will affect your retreat.

storm clouds

Stay aware of your surroundings

Crag Etiquette

If you climb at popular crags such as Long Dong, you need to practice courtesy that extends to climbers other than your partner. Such etiquette goes a long a way to ensure that everyone has a good day out even when the crag is crowded. It means not hogging popular routes, leaving the music at home, and keeping the base as tidy as possible.

Be aware that it’s difficult to lead a route when there is a top-rope in the way. If you want to keep a rope up for those who can’t lead but  suspect that another team in the area wants to lead the same route, invite them to lead it with your rope, which they can then leave up. When you are struggling to make progress on a popular route, be aware that another climber might be able to send it while you are resting.

When crags get very busy, it becomes difficult to hear, and while the gym-like atmosphere lulls everyone into a false sense of security, the risk of miscommunication between partners becomes greater. As nice as it is to encourage your friends, also be aware of other teams whose communication may be of a higher priority than yours, especially those cleaning gear at top anchors.

Don't be "that guy"

Don’t be “that guy”

Given the importance of clear communication and the competition for airtime, it makes no sense to bring music to the crag. The only climbing-related death at Long Dong has been attributed to miscommunication. We already have to compete with the sound of the surf and other climbers. Don’t make the environment more dangerous than it needs to be. If your are one of those stimulus-dependent people who struggle to go without auditory or visual entertainment for more than a few hours, learn to enjoy the sounds of the outdoors.

Another way to make a busy crag safer and more enjoyable for everyone is to stash your stuff out of the way, or at least somewhere where people won’t trip over it while trying to belay. Practice a little foresight when unpacking at the crag and anticipate any need for the space you are laying your gear out on. Unpacking your gear under the first bolt of a route at Long Lane on the weekend for example, would be somewhat foolish and inconsiderate.

Other considerations include avoiding top-roping through quicklinks, and especially through the bolts. Bolts cannot be easily replaced, and running a rope through them will only speed wear. Though most sport routes have been fitted with quicklinks, which can be lowered off of, some routes are still equipped with only naked anchor bolts. Be considerate of those who have spent their time and money installing them, and rappel when faced with such top anchors.


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