Learning Curve: In Over Your Head

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Learning Curve: In Over Your Head

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  • #3678628
    Backpacking Light


    Locale: Rocky Mountains

    The Learning Curve is a monthly column by outdoor journalist Maggie Slepian which will examine human-powered outdoor adventure through the lens of beginners. In this installment, Maggie talks about the thrills and dangers of falling in with a crowd of experts before you are ready.

    Rex Sanders
    BPL Member



    Welcome to BPL! Great tips for both beginners and old hands. Too bad your first set of climbing buds didn’t recognize your newness and teach you – for your safety and theirs (BTDT on both ends). I’m glad you are passing-on both enthusiasm and safety to others.

    Love your writing. Looking forward to future columns.

    — Rex

    Mark Wetherington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Western Montana

    Enjoyed reading this and I had a similar experience with climbing. I think a lot of folks new to backpacking/outdoor recreation have similar experiences (or risk having them if they haven’t already).

    My first lead climb was a route in the Red River Gorge that I’d top-roped once before. My “partner” (it was a fairly unequal partnership where I’d belay them while they projected hard climbs, and I’d get to top rope on the warm up or cool down route assuming it was within my ability — it often wasn’t) said it was time for me to learn to lead, so we headed to the base of a 5.9+ and I put quickdraws on my harness for the first time.

    I asked as many questions as I could think of, but not knowing what I didn’t know, I suppose I didn’t ask the right ones. It was comforting at the time, but alarming in hindsight, that most every question I asked was answered with “You’ll be fine”.

    After clipping the second bolt, my partner informed me that I had backclipped it and needed to fix it — they walked me through how to do this, but I didn’t even really understand what I did at that moment. Clipped was clipped, to me — backwards, forwards, sideways, whatever. So I wasted a ton of energy re-clipping that bolt and then climbed upward. At the fourth bolt, same thing happened (at least my belayer was attentive, if not exactly a great teacher on the front-end of the climb). I was getting tired, confused, and frustrated. Definitely was not having fun.

    When I made it to the anchors, which were a bit runout from the last bolt — with my forearms more exhausted than they’ve ever been — I got so scared about backclipping the anchors (which wouldn’t be an issue since I wouldn’t be climbing above them, but I didn’t know that at the time) that after clipping a quickdraw I couldn’t get the rope through and fell, taking a roughly 20-foot whipper. Wheee! I bailed off that route and my partner led it and cleaned it as I didn’t want to climb back up to the anchors and fall off again.

    I eventually started climbing with others that were more supportive/safety conscious and have a lot of great memories of climbing in the Red River Gorge, but that one isn’t my fondest.

    Thanks for the inspiration to take a climb down memory lane . . .

    Bruce Tolley
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area


    The annual report formerly called Accidents in North American Mountaineering (now Climbing) has lots of reports about the cause of the accident being lack of fit between skill level of the climbers and the climb, or disparate experience among group members, or all the above.

    “I finally found an adventuring community that prioritized safety and communication over ego. That should be the goal of every beginner in outdoor sports.” I would extend that to all people not just beginners venturing into the outdoors. Statistics show that almost all avalanches causing deaths are triggered by males in their 20s.


    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    Nice article.  The older I get, the more I am willing to admit I don’t know.  And ask for help.  And admit fear…

    Now that I’m too old to do quite a few things!

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