Safe Climbing – An informal note from the IMC Committee

A few helpful tips for beginners to climbing.

One of the things about the climbing community is that it doesn’t impose rules, other than in the field of climbing ethics. There’s nothing to stop a couple of novice climbers heading off and tackling a hard route armed with their mum’s washing line and youthful enthusiasm. If they survive that and are eventually let out of the house again, they might start thinking about learning how to be safer. The club organises beginners’ and improvers’ meets with the aim of helping people learn to climb more safely.

Your safety depends upon many factors. Are you tackling a route that’s within your capability? Will the weather be ok? Do you know how to get out of trouble when everything goes wrong? Do you have the experience to evaluate the objective dangers, such as loose rock? Will you know when to turn back?

Quite a lot depends upon learning a range of basic skills, such as tying-on, belaying, setting up anchors, etc.

Climbing single-pitch climbs at a popular Peak District crag, for example is rather less daunting than a long multi-pitch climb in the mountains. This is true both for climbers in general and for experienced climbers leading someone less experienced on a formal club trip.

Judging your own level of ability and experience is difficult, but here are a few pointers.

  • Do you have to think about all the mechanical skills needed in normal climbing – tying the right knots, setting up a belay, etc.? It should be like tying your shoelaces – (although that particular knot isn’t recommended when climbing.)
  • Will you be able to organise a safe retreat if things go wrong?
  • Can you judge the quality of protection – will that nut hold, will that cam walk, will that block break off when loaded?
  • Are you confident that you know about the objective dangers – rockfall, avalanche, etc.?
    Is you confidence well founded?

The last two or three questions will depend more on experience than anything else,

Climbing with an experienced leader on a formal meet gives you an opportunity to learn a bit and to gain a bit more experience. It isn’t a binary thing – you will not learn everything there is to know but you should be a little bit better prepared.

When choosing a destination, consider how serious the climbs will be. Generally, popular crags with straightforward belay anchors and easy descents will be the least ‘serious’, but even then, don’t go falling off them. And above all don’t pick a fight with the ground.

And a few guidelines for more experienced climbers when climbing with beginners

A few key safety points relevant to climbing with novices are noted below.

  • Choose objectives well within your own competence in the conditions, particularly in situations (e.g. multi-pitch climbing) where your own failure to complete the route could put the whole group at risk.
  • Have regard to your own safety and climb well within your own ability. In particular, don’t lead climbs close to your limit with a novice belayer.
  • Check the following each time until you and your novice climbers are confident they can reliably get it right. These points may seem obvious but they can be easily overlooked. Get into the habit of doing a “buddy check”.
  • Check that novices’ harnesses are properly adjusted and that they are correctly tied into the rope.
  • Check that novices understand the climbing calls and know what to do before they are ready to climb if you will be at the top of the pitch. An assistant leader may be able to help with this.
  • Check that novices are properly secured at any intermediate stance, and at the top of the climb until they have moved back into a safe position.
  • Before novices belay at the top of a pitch or at an intermediate stance, check that they are in a safe position, attached tightly to sound anchor points, with their dead hand able to lock off.
  • Don’t let novices belay unsupervised until you and they are confident they can do so effectively. Before this, always ensure that you or an assistant leader tail the dead rope or are in a position to take over the belay quickly.
  • Don’t encourage novices to lead traditional climbs unsupported until you, and they, are confident they can place runners well and accurately assess their quality. For early single pitch leads use a method that allows you to check the placements. Either pre-place crucial runners yourself, or climb or prussic alongside on a fixed rope. Competence in leading single pitch climbs should be well established before beginners lead on multi-pitch climbs.

The above is not an exhaustive list. For detailed guidance the IMC recommends that all club members are familiar with the Mountain Training handbook “Rock Climbing – Essential Skills and Techniques” by Libby Peter. In climbing, there isn’t a simple set of rules that fits all situations, and experienced climbers may approach things differently according to the circumstances, but when introducing beginners we should try to ensure that we do things consistently with the guidance in this handbook.