The Missing Link – Finding Mentors for Modern Climbers

Ross Miller Route
Morag Stewart not in the Blue Mountains, but somewhere on the Ross Miller Route (21), Glasshouse Mountains.

On the first day of 2017, Morag tentatively led a sport route at the Dam Cliffs in the Blue Mountains. When she clipped the chains, it was her first ascent of a Grade 20, but it wouldn’t be her last. She claimed another onsight of the same grade the following day, and had also climbed her Ice Cream 19 a couple of days beforehand.

Although she’d had reservations, each route was dispatched with remarkably little drama. Given the ease with which she climbed those routes, it was clear that she was capable of onsighting these grades and probably much higher. Despite this, she was tentative about pushing her grade, even with the knowledge that the crag was softly graded for the region, that the climbs were softly graded for the crag, and that any potential falls would be both minor and on bolts.

Fast forward seven months… Recently, Morag cruised Iron Mandible (18), a pumpy and sustained Frog Buttress testpiece which demands mastery of a variety of crack and face techniques. She has also sent a handful of 19’s including the strenuous and sustained Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the thin and techy Hollywood Rattlesnake. All of this on gear, and at a crag with no small amount of notoriety for housing some of Australia’s most horrific sandbags.

So… what changed?

The Importance of Mentors

Earlier in the year, Morag met a few lady crushers, two of whom have enjoyed rather esteemed climbing careers. Although her growth as a climber can also be linked to other important factors, watching these two badasses climb was one of the key catalysts behind a noticeable surge in Morag’s confidence.

Climbing, as you well know, is not a game where one can rely solely on physical strength. Nor can one rely entirely on technical ability, nor mental acuity. Rather, it is a unique sport in that it combines all three elements in almost equal measure in order to achieve competence.

Morag is quite a technically gifted climber and has a level of physical strength which is in keeping with that of her technique. It was her headgame that was letting her down, supressing her grade. We’re all only standing on the shoulders of giants when it comes to our climbing abilities, and until recently, she had never witnessed a truly strong female climber to show her what was possible.

I have to admit that I’ve always dismissed the notion that people need role models which somewhat mirror themselves in order to foster growth. To wit, I’ve never really seen the big deal when think-pieces call for “more female” or “more ethnically diverse” or “more something something” role models to be involved in the sport. But after seeing how much improvement was fostered in Morag when she began climbing with stronger female climbers, I have to admit that the theory has legs. She’d had strong male mentors before, but the benefits had been rather less pronounced.

The level of importance may differ greatly between individuals, but it seems that mentors are an important ingredient in the growth of many climbers. Not only do mentors teach us hard skills, they also give us a source of inspiration, an aspirational target. They probably also see our flaws with more objectivity than we do, because they’ve been there and done that. They can help us grow through a combination of positive and negative (or perhaps constructive is a term more in keeping with the parlance of our times) feedback borne from the wisdom of experience.

When I look back on my growth as a climber, I can certainly see how my mentors shaped me. Some showed me what to do, and others showed me what not to do. With the clarity of hindsight, it now occurs to me that I learned (and continue to learn) the most from those with which I shared similarities… perhaps not physical or cultural similarities, but certainly ideological ones. I closely mirrored those climbers with whom I saw a philosophical compatibility, climbers whose “style” most closely emulated that which I aspired to.

At this stage, the evidence for mentorship as espoused by this article is purely anecdotal. Two data points do not a theory maketh, so let us view Morag’s and my own experience as case studies rather than as empirical proof. Luckily, I have the power of Google at my side… go forth, you trusty canine, and return with knowledge!

The data relating to mentorship in sport psychology is somewhat patchy, as one might expect of any attempt to quantify an experience which is largely subjective. But studies have shown some consistent trends, some of which are surprising and some of which are not. Among these trends, particularly those in relation to females, are:

  • That the success/example of professional athletes has not been shown to have any dramatic effect on participation or motivation in amateur sport (Mutter F, Pawlowskib T, Sport Management Review, 2014)
  • That females (in the case of this study, and several similar studies, Australian adolescent girls) overwhelmingly select female role models/mentors (Adriaanse J, Crosswhite J, Women’s Studies International Forum, 2008)
  • That females are less likely to nominate a sporting celebrity as a role model than male counterparts, instead placing higher value on relationships with peers and family members (consistent finding throughout multiple studies).

The focus on females in the above examples are not to say that matters of race, age, socio-economic status and other variables are unimportant, but rather that they haven’t been studied in any depth. I’m merely using the variable of gender as a microcosm of the idea that mentors of a likeness to the mentee are more successful.

But what has been largely confirmed by the studies is that not many amateur athletes could really give two shits about the exploits of high-profile professional sporting personalities. In reality, the true value can be found within the immediate community.

Quality mentorship can and must occur at grassroots level.

The Elephant in the Room

Back in the ye olde days, when First Ascents could be purchased at the corner shop and a handful of weird, beardy men were running about driving steel spikes into the sides of hills, mentors were easy to come by. There weren’t too many fresh-faced recruits entering the fray, and the Old Guard had enough wings to take them all under.

Given that the sport has since exploded in exponential fashion, we now have a classic supply deficit problem. The sheer weight of new participants would beggar belief for the odd bunch of misfits that kicked about the crags in the 50’s and 60’s. As John Ewbank said “If anyone had told me that climbing would become as popular as it is today, I would have thought that they were definitely a brick short of a load.” And that was in 1993… So, it goes without saying that, today, we’ve got a bit of a problem – a metric shitload of bumblies with nobody to mentor them.

I personally don’t see this as a huge drama in the context of “keeping people in the sport”. Few would consider it beneficial to keep adding and adding to the roster of climbers, ad infinitum, until our crags resemble the rides at a theme park. But the dearth of mentorship does have a big impact on safety, particularly as modern progression patterns within the sport have heavy emphasis on artificial climbing, the practice of which is not particularly useful in an outdoor context.

Before the advent of indoor climbing gyms, climbers were subject to an apprenticeship of sorts. There aren’t too many old timers who didn’t undergo this formative experience, and those who didn’t probably aren’t around anymore. Long story short, many of them would second a more experienced (and potentially wiser) climber for quite some time, sometimes for months or even years, before ever getting on the sharp end.

These days, it would seem that the climbing gym has become a surrogate mentor, though I would argue an inferior one. This is not necessarily the fault of the gyms themselves, and in fact some facilities offer courses or experiences aimed at easing the gym-to-crag transition. Rather, it appears to be indicative of a troubling mentality taking hold in the community, one in which physical strength alone has become the gold standard. This paradigm shift is fast becoming entrenched, encouraging shallow skillsets rather than holistic ones.

Again, there are many reasons why this mindset would have gained traction, but a lack of mentorship is certainly not least of these. There simply aren’t enough experienced climbers to pair with newcomers, and the laws of economics would state that in the absence of effective supply, a competitor will rise to meet demand. Indoor gyms appear to be an elegant solution – cheap, safe, convenient, and in some cases, air conditioned.

With regard to training physical movement, gyms are incredibly effective. By and large, the gym has proved a fantastic addition to the sport and has been instrumental in elevating the ability of the average climber. But as a means to teach so-called “soft skills” such as mental resilience, route finding, technical rope skills, rescue techniques and risk analysis, they are hopelessly inadequate. Nor can indoor walls prepare punters for the vast array of mediums they may encounter in outdoor terrain – exposed, unprotected scrambles, steep snow, vertical ice, or anything even vaguely dissimilar to face climbing on coloured holds. But perhaps even more concerning is the failure of the gym-to-crag mentality to pass on the ethical, cultural and environmental sensitivities that are necessary for climbing to flourish. When a rapid increase in participation coincides with an equally rapid decrease in environmental stewardship, we’re in for stormy weather.

Once again, we’re at an impasse. How should the community encourage the supply of mentorship in order to meet unprecedented demand? This has implications in our earlier problem of needing mentors that share a likeness with mentees. In my mind, the problem of not having enough mentors of a particular type (e.g. Female Jamaican Aid climbers) is a subset of the larger problem… not having enough mentors in general.

So how do we fix this?


Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet solution to the lack of mentorship in the modern climbing community, but we have to acknowledge that the era of effective informal mentorship has passed. Whilst it will always have an important place in a largely unregulated sport such as climbing, it can no longer meet the growing demand alone.

Historically, the implementation of more robust organisational systems has always been a necessary ingredient in the rise of communities. When faced with the need to more accurately account for agricultural harvests, the Sumerians didn’t just say “Yeah, nah, she’ll be right”… they created writing. But we’re actually not reinventing any wheels here… several structured educational and mentor programs exist and provide a much needed service in the community.

The problem is that the climbing community has traditionally placed little value in these programs. It has instead championed the freedom of the hills, insisting that the newcomer can gain the necessary skills in a piecemeal fashion during a lengthy apprenticeship. I’m here to tell you that this ship has sailed, my friends.

We need to kill the notion that education is a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have. This is not a matter of legal mandates, it’s a matter of social norms and expectations within our community. These expectations are powerful, often more than we think. As climbers, we should be encouraging formal education for newcomers and veterans alike. Knowledge is power, and in my opinion a greater understanding of climbing techniques enhances the freedom of the hills rather than diminishing it.

Again, we’re talking about grassroots change here. The onus is on the individual to improve the climbing community by engaging with it in both formal and informal contexts. It all comes down to that trite, old adage – be the change you want to see in the world.

Educate yourself, then educate others.

There are plenty of excellent organisations out there offering courses on rope skills and vertical rescue, as well as offering structured climbing programs for continued exposure and social interaction. Unfortunately, there are plenty of not-so-excellent organisations as well. If you’re going to shell out some of your hard-earned bones or clams or whatever you call them, here are a few things to think about:

  • Does the leader/guide have an appropriate level of qualification/certification?
  • Does the organisation have the backing of an appropriate certifying body?
  • Does the organisation have adequate insurance and an effective risk management plan?
  • Does the leader/guide have an adequate level of experience/skill for the given environment?
  • Does the leader/guide have an appropriate first aid qualification, ideally WFA or WFR?

Informal mentorship is great, and it will always have a place in our sport. One method in which it can and does excel is by giving less experienced climbers the opportunity to gain mileage. By partnering with a more experienced climber, say for example by seconding them on a multipitch climb, a newcomer can learn a vast array of skills in a largely passive manner. There is no need for a lesson plan in such circumstances. Merely in the act of leading by example, an experienced climber can embody such skills as route finding, risk analysis, rope management, belay transitions, gear selection, the art of protection, and many other things besides.

But as soon as money changes hands, there is an expectation and a responsibility that certain guidelines will be met, and that these apply equally to guide companies, climbing clubs and university groups. Without these guidelines, we’re essentially back to square one. At the end of the day, however, the final responsibility lies with the individual – if you’re passing your shitty second-hand skills on to the next cohort of impressionable climbers, you’re part of the problem and not the solution.

Educate yourself, then educate others.

We all need mentors. Consequently, we all need to become mentors. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to others. As a cultural niche, we climbers pride ourselves on having a tight-knit community. Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve let this value slide a little in recent times, letting petty squabbles and tribal rivalries get in the way of the bigger picture. But we’re better than that, so let’s prove it.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
August 2017

If you’re looking for nationally accredited climbing courses or social climbing programs, here’s a list of reputable providers in the South East Queensland region:

Guided and Course Providers:
RockSports Fortitude Valley
Pinnacle Sports
Professional Association of Climbing Instructors (PACI)
The Outdoor Education Consultants (TOEC)

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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