Home > 2009.06

On Teaching Teens to Climb

Teaching a teenager to climb can be like giving your beloved family pet to a pack of jackals. You’ve cared for this pet, fed it, petted it, worried about it, and loved it even when it was indifferent to you. But the jackals don’t know that. Teacher and climber Peter Brown Hoffmeister speculates about the risks and benefits of taking young people climbing.

Teaching a teenager to climb can be like giving your beloved family pet to a pack of jackals.  You’ve cared for this pet, fed it, petted it, worried about it, and loved it even when it was indifferent to you.  But the jackals don’t know that. They don’t thank you for your gift. Instead they whine and bark and pant and pace, then invite friends over. They tear into your favourite animal and strew the carcass all over the ground. Then, to make things worse, they often have little interest in the activity afterwards.  They wonder if you might take them bridge jumping or kayaking on Class V rapids, add another rung to their adrenaline ladder.  They see no point in eating your cat again. They are satisfied and full.  Ungrateful.

OK: odd metaphor.  I’ll give you that.  But as a director of a high school outdoor program, I understand what a catch-22 it is to teach teens to climb. They have poor form, trash the climbing area, self-aggrandize, and often fail to progress. At least most of them.  It is a rare teen who turns into a traditional environmentally aware climber. Not too common. And usually he or she was already on that path long before I got involved.  I have students in my program for one year, and somehow I am supposed to teach them how to build endurance, power, tie knots, belay safely, understand historical style changes, rappel, honour mountain and crag ethics, and learn climbing technique. Small tasks.

We begin with figure-8s and belaying, top-roping in the safety of our own eight-metre-high gym. Even using third-person back-up belayers, I see horrific belaying techniques.  I start the class with, “Today, you must keep your brake hands on.”  Two minutes later I say, “Good communication. Now keep your brake hands on.”  Then, individually, “Trevor, keep your fist closed.  Keep your brake hand on.”  And, “Jenn, don’t re-grab.  Keep your brake-hand on.” I say the phrase enough times to start saying it at home.  My wife offers me a bowl of soup, and I say, “Yes please, honey, just keep your brake hand on.” Then my daughter asks me if I want to draw with her.  I say, “Sure.  Can we draw a princess with her brake-hand on?”

By mid-October I feel that the students are no longer likely to drop each other and shatter L2 vertebrae, so we spend a half-day toproping at a local crag.  The Columns are an old Basalt quarry that is now a 15-m high crack climbing area.  We bike down to the Columns on a warm, fall day, pedalling to the rhythm of my football players’ bragging.

Football player number one:  “I’m gonna like free-scale the whole thing.”

Football player number two shakes his head:  “No, no you won’t.  You’ll be so scared you’ll piss your pants like a girl.  You know what I’m gonna do?  I’m gonna free-scale like thirty feet up and then jump off.  It’s gonna be so tight.”

Tight indeed.  I hope nobody I know is there.

Contrary to pre-event bragging, the football players are not the best climbers at the Columns that day.  Instead, a 5-foot-4, quiet, junior girl who likes to draw Anime has the best natural footwork.  She keeps her hips in.  She looks as though she has been climbing for two or three years. She climbs smoothly up a 5.9 finger crack, and most of the kids watch her in awe.  But one of the football players mutters, “Whatever,” and goes off to the side to boulder in his white Nike Air-1s.  Inevitably, back in class, he will write a personal narrative about how he “tore into this 50 m cliff like it was a McDonald’s Hamburger.”  I try to find holes in my own scoring rubric just so I can give him an even lower mark.

Thinking of the Outward Bound model, I add in a service component on our next trip.  At the end of the day, we clean up garbage and shattered glass around the base of the Columns.  Watching that same football player complain while he’s picking up much less garbage than any other student, I think, ‘What am I doing here?  I could be a guide at Smith Rock and not have to deal with this crap.’

But things start to turn when we begin rappelling in our gym. We employ the medical school model:  watch one, do one, teach one.  I show myself hooking up a rappel and lowering myself down.  Then each student rappels off a ledge with me helping him set up.  And finally they help partners and rappel from a hanging anchor. It is wonderful to hear a boy say gently, “Nice job.  Now reach up with your off-hand and unlock your short-rope carabiner.” I think I hear Mozart.

The first whipper in the Lead-Climbing Unit always brings the class together as well.  The students don’t understand what “twice the distance plus rope stretch” means until that moment. Then a girl falls to within a metre of the floor, her partner popped off the ground and dangling. The room is instantly quiet enough to hear the rope creaking in its aluminum draw.  Then everyone begins talking at once, recounting loudly how they thought she was going to land on her head, how she was going to break her neck, how scared she looked as she fell, how scared they were, how messed up she would have been.  People laugh hysterically, nervously, and when I calm them down, they listen intently to my subsequent instructions.

It is during these moments, when the students are truly listening, that I understand my charge. These young climbers are the future. They may not be the future 5.15 climbers of the world, but many of them will be at the crags, working through 5.10, hanging out, camping, creating garbage, creating community, having fun.  I realize in these moments that perhaps my greatest job is to influence them to make positive choices:  Encourage every climbing partner.  Don’t deface or alter the rock.  Be courteous to other land users.  Minimize impact.  Remember Alex Lowe:  “The Best Climber is the one having the most fun.”

And then I have great hope.

On our Desert Trip, we teach primitive camping, water conservation, orienteering, spelunking, shelter building, rescues, readings from Desert Solitaire, and cave climbing.  After dinner the second night, we were bouldering down inside the mouth of one of the caves by lantern light.  There was a huge group down there, and each fall became a crowd surfing experience. The cave was twenty degrees warmer than the below-freezing temperatures outside, and we were climbing in T-shirts and shorts. We made traverses, roof routes, games of Add-Two and projects. The energy inside the cave was like metal on the tongue, tangible, electric.  As each new climber came down the Forest Service stairs into the cave, a cheer would go up.  The group rejoiced at the addition of each individual.  It was a crowded climbing space, there was no beer, and there were few adults, yet it may have been my most fun bouldering night ever.

After a couple hours, I noticed that a girl had been sitting next to one of the lanterns for a while.  I said, “Do you wanna play a game of Add-Two with me?”

Her name was Ellen May, but I called her Abuela because of her old-woman scarves.  Abuela smiled.  “No,” she said slowly, “I’m thinking I’m just gonna sit here.”

I looked at her, leaned back against the cave wall.  Comfortable.  “You don’t want to climb, Abuela?”

“No,” she said again, “I’m just watching all this now.  I’m just letting it all soak in.”  She waved her hand around.  “This climbing thing is beautiful.  And I just want to see it.  Just be here.”

I nodded slowly.  “OK.”

“Beautiful,” she said again.  She was still smiling.

I turned back towards the crowd that was spotting a boy working on a roof project.  Everyone’s hands were up together.   They were saying, “Come on, Taylor.  You can get it, Taylor.  Stay relaxed, Taylor.”  His foot slipped, and Taylor fell softly into a tangle of upheld arms.  He laughed and they set him down with pats and hugs, everyone touching him together.

I looked back at Abuela who was nodding.  Beautiful indeed.

Peter Brown Hoffmeister lives in Oregon with his wife Jennie and his daughters Rain and Ruthie.  He has taught rock climbing in the public schools for six years.  And he rarely feeds his own cat to the jackals.