The Decline of Mentorship in Climbing
By Scott Sampietro
RMF Director 2013 - Present
I have only really been climbing for about 17 years. It started with a chance encounter during an avalanche education class in New Hampshire where I sorta lied and said that I had been climbing before. When I said “had been climbing before” what I actually meant was that I survived some backwoods excursions with my father and older friends in high school. Dad didn’t really know what he was doing, but I had showed some interest in the sport after watching a cheesy Hollywood movie and reading about (I mean looking at the pictures of) Conrad Anker climbing the Great Trango Tower in National Geographic. So, needless to say, when I was presented with this opportunity to go climbing with this guy that seemingly knew his shit, of course I said I’d climbed before.
Seventeen years later I feel I’ve learned a thing or two and have definitely seen some stuff that gives me pause. It seems the approach that I took to learn the sport is becoming less and less common. Where have all the mentors gone? With the popularity of films like Free Solo and Dawn Wall, the ubiquity of climbing gyms, and climbing becoming an Olympic sport, more people than ever are giving it a go. Many of the new and seasoned gym climbers turn their attention to the outdoors, but where are they turning for information on how to lead on gear or even set up a toprope? It used to be that you’d talk to a seasoned mentor about these questions, but now, not so much.
Where can climbers turn for instruction and best practices…
Because of my fortunate meeting in New Hampshire, I landed a knowledgeable and patient teacher to help bring me up to speed. I logged many, many hours following routes, observing gear placements, asking questions, and learning. I was introduced to other climbers who also had things to offer, and I took my time honing my craft. Like most others at the time, these experiences and relationships served as my introduction to climbing outdoors. I had one old copy of Freedom of the Hills and people who knew what they were doing and took the time to show me.
Now, admittedly, I have only my personal observations and conversations to back this up, I see more and more climbers starting in the gym and moving outside without much (or in some cases any) guidance. While the transition of leading in the gym and leading sport outside can be a smooth one, setting up top ropes, rappelling, and leading on gear come with some serious risks. Where can climbers turn for instruction and best practices if a knowledgeable mentor isn’t available?
One of the best ways to make the transition from gym to crag is to hire an accredited guide. The American Mountain Guides Association, or AMGA, has rigorous standards, which guides must meet in a variety of terrain. They must also hold various levels of wilderness first training. Climbing with a guide is a great way to get qualified instruction that is backed up by a respected organization.
You could also get involved with a group like the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). There are local chapters that run trips to various crags. They are usually led by more experienced climbers who may or may not have some formal training. These groups are welcoming and excited about the sport, and they are an excellent place to ask questions in a friendly environment.
If these options don’t fit into your climbing lifestyle, there is a wealth of information in books and online, but you need to proceed with caution. Just like for your high school history paper, you need to evaluate the source. Guide services regularly post tech tips on instagram and other social media platforms. Books can be a good reference for anchor building and other basic information, and of course there is the YouTube rabbit hole. Bottom line is there is quality material available for the interested climber, but you need to do some digging to find the good stuff.
And finally, for those reading this who remember being a new climber, unsure of things, and like me, who sought out obscure cliffs to avoid the judgment of others, consider offering advice to new people at the cliff and maybe become a mentor to an eager noob. I still believe that the mentorship approach is the best and that it doesn’t have to be dead in the digital age. We just need to be willing to share what we know and show the kind of patience with others that we ourselves received so climbing can be as rewarding for them as it has been for us.