Will You Be My Trad Guru?: The Importance of Apprenticing in the Gym Climbing Era

“Wait, so you’re saying you trust the auto-belay more?”

“Yeah, I mean it just seems safer … you don’t have to rely on someone else, you know?”

“Like safer than a real, human, person belaying you?”

“Oh yeah, for sure.”

While this interaction may seem like a poorly written excerpt from a dystopian cross-over film (think equal parts I, Robot and Valley Uprising), it was only one in a slew of double-takes that I’ve found myself doing at the local climbing gym.

There’s no question that the path of the Indoor Warrior certainly makes climbing more accessible, but this ease of access, and the veritable tsunami of new climbers experiencing that ease, holds the potential for an incredible uptick in mistakes outdoors.

It’s no great mystery that the focus of gym climbing is the mechanics of the act itself; the honing of a more precise mind-body relationship that leads to harder climbing. However, the inherent lack of emphasis on technical skills, knowledge of rope systems, gear placement, and anchor building opens the possibility for new climbers to make the transition from plastic to granite with little realization that there is more to outdoor climbing than fitness and a strong will.

While I think it’s wonderful that more and more people can simply walk off the street and get into climbing, it must also be acknowledged that the shift from indoor to outdoor involves a learning curve. I would add that the addition of new risks, challenges, and, perhaps most importantly, rewards cannot be transferred by the mere osmosis of watching YouTube skills videos. Actually, I can almost guarantee that asking your Amazon Echo about the difference between pre-equalizing and self-equalizing anchors will buy you a long stay at the Pine Box Motel.

But there’s the rub: the vast amount of people getting into climbing are young, and the thing about us millennials is, we’re not interested in how things have been done before. Our generation has become famous for our inability to start in the mail room and work our way up to CEO; the fact is that we’d rather just start our own business altogether. Gym climbing culture has the potential to re-emphasize this mindset as ease of access is mistaken for self-reliance. Clipping into an auto-belay and cranking out a few routes feels empowering and it should, but there is a wide chasm of knowledge, experience, and teaching in between that must be respected in order to safely climb outside.

We need teachers. This is a fact I avoided for months after moving from Colorado to North Carolina, but the reality concerning self-reliance is that it first demands humility. Indeed, we thirst for those wild places and vast promises of the open void because we know the structures that undergird the hum-drum of the everyday—those that others built for us—to be flimsy things; dependent on little more than the whims of society which we know to be fickle. The lasting, perhaps even the ultimate, resides in a place far more inconspicuous and difficult but is that much more empowering when it is actualized. Some find it in growing their own food, building their own houses, or raising their own animals. Others, those of us daft enough to call ourselves climbers, find it through trusting one’s own body, placing gear, and building our own anchors.

***

In Colorado, I was trained on an informal ethic of apprenticeship, where you watched and learned from climbers much more experienced so that you could glean some smidgen of knowledge, whether technical or stylistic, from their expertise. This is how I learned everything from how to flag and spell “gaston” to when it was appropriate to open a beer and claim the day as a success. After graduating from Sport 101 in the Rockies, I was ready to hit the books on the Trad 200 level course in the Smokies but I knew that I needed a teacher. Knowing that my Obi-Wan would be difficult to find, I cast a large net and put this ad on Mountain Project:

Subject: Colorado Sport Climber Looking for Trad Guru near Asheville, NC

“I’ve just relocated to Asheville, NC from Colorado where I climbed sport (lead 5.10) and dabbled in trad. I’ve been in the gym since September and am itching to get outside. I’m in the process of putting a proper rack together but would like to apprentice with someone willing to show me the ways of Western NC’s traditional routes.

I’m looking for someone who has the time/interest in getting out in the areas around Asheville to show a western sport climber the glory of proper trad climbing. I have a full sport rack, multi-pitch setup, and 70m rope. Will supply ample belays, compliments, and thanks to trad guru.”

Thanks so much!

Enter: Robert.

A few individuals sent their regards or an invite for a dirtbag meetup, but I could tell Robert’s minimalist instructions to email him directly were serious. After a string of emails, we finally found a date that worked for both of us and made arrangements to meet at a grocery store parking lot. Robert just looked like a classic. It was as if one of the men from those old ski mountaineering movies from World War II had walked out of a black and white film, strode across the Ingles parking lot, and exclaimed,

Buck up kiddo! Sending temps predicted!

Clad in a button-down shirt, khakis, approach shoes, and a driver’s cap, looking more Sunday school teacher than alpinist, Robert drove us to the crag while regaling me with endless stories that were difficult to fully conceptualize. I have read a fair bit about climbing history but he had been at ground zero, the epicenter of the changes that made climbing what it is today.

Case in point:

  • He started climbing before they used chalk and people were still smearing resin on their hands.
  • He recalled ordering his first pair of “sticky boots” from Europe via a wire transfer at Western Union.
  • He described figuring out the Gunks Tie Off on the spot with an original Wild Country Friend whilst in the middle of a pitch with a buddy after they thought one of their horizontal placements “looked sketchy.”
  • When he liked something he called it “the cat’s pajamas.”
  • He remembered seeing the first Friend in Western North Carolina and professing that he knew then and there that climbing would be different forever.

He also shared his broader perspective: explaining that when he was growing up it still felt as if there were things to discover, not scientific or technological innovations exactly, but actual unknown parts of the world. He reminisced about the first summit of Everest—the first summit—when the world wasn’t even sure that this monumental act could be done. It dawned on me that his ethic of climbing had fomented in a time when there was a greater respect for the unknown; when, if you wanted to see the top of a mountain, you actually had to climb it.

Robert and I have only gone out a small handful of times but every single jaunt gives me an overwhelming feeling of clarity with my climbing. I think this springs from the continued knowledge that with every clip, piece placed, and anchor built I’m stepping into the stream of the sport’s historical narrative. It is as if the falls, the pitons, and the ever improving training regimens of past adventurers and pioneers are fully present in the simple vertical meditation I perform with my hands and feet.

I’ve already learned many technical skills from Robert about placements, confidence in movement, and how to properly curse at a stuck tricam … but the really rugged lessons that will withstand time and memory are those concerning this history.

When we fully realize that this piece of protection or knot or technique is the end result of those before us who not only pushed for their own successes but also wanted us to not fail, we become stronger.

While apprenticeship may seem like an outdated practice, I would recommend that any fledgling climber seek out a mentor in some way, shape, or form. It could be your romantic partner, best friend, coworker, or someone your grandmother’s age. Regardless, we must remember that the evolution of climbing as a sport didn’t happen through the will or know-how of one person, or even a small group. It took the passage of wisdom for us to be where we are now as climbers.

And once you do find a good mentor trust me, it’s the cat’s pajamas.


Want more? Get our awesome climbing newsletter, delivered weekly.

Explore More

Related articles you'll love

Our 40+ most popular articles ever
Today’s Best Rock Climbing Gear Deals
200+ rock climbing videos
Essay: How to Climb When You’re Not Alex Honnold
“I Will Climb, Too” — A Story on Mentorship and Responsible Climbing
Nursery Rhymes, Biomechanics, and Bad Attitudes — Why I Stopped Climbing
Essay: Developing an Ego
Everything I learned about Redpointing I learned from Super Mario Brothers
Finding Family: An Ode to Climbing Community
Essay: A Bad Month, Or, The Broken Man’s Guide to Climbing
How to Build Your First Trad Rack
Essay: Looking for a Partner, Pants Off Limits
Get daily updates by Liking us on Facebook
Free rock climbing PDFs on technique, training, knots, and more

trad mentorship
Tags from the story
Written By
More from James Plunkett

Essay: What A Long, Strangely Normalized Trip It’s Been—The Role of Counterculture in Modern-Day Climbing

Picture this: It’s 1968 in San Francisco. Your buddy invites you to...
Read More
  • Vinny

    This is a great and necessary article. I think it’s assumed that almost everyone of this gym-generation who is climbing just wants to be in the gym or at the local bolted cliff. For those of us who got into climbing to work our way up to massive multi-pitch, big wall or alpine, it’s really hard to meet mentors or even just friends who like to go outside (especially if you live in an urban, non-climbing center area). A mentor would be fantastic, thanks for calling attention to this issue.

  • kfmarshall

    ahhhhh…..the elusive mentor story!! reminds me of the Dr Suess book: Are you my Mentor?

  • kk

    I think this is such an excellent topic. Something I think the climbing community lacks is a central place to find mentors/offer mentorship. I’ve found plenty of mentors the old fashioned way (networking at the crag, gym and friends of friends) but how cool would it be to have a central place to go to find these mentors both nationally and internationally. If something similar exists then please post your suggestions! Because I know most of us love to share what we know and are excited to learn from others too!