3 Week Beginner’s Climbing Course

9 12 2011

December 2011

This might not make for the most entertaining post but could well be of interest to anyone thinking of taking up indoor ‘wall’ climbing…

I’ve just completed a 3 week indoor climbing course at my local climbing wall. I had to take the course for two reasons: one was in order to be able to climb independently at the wall, i.e. without the use of the instructors – a saving of around £13 per hour; the other was so that I could then get some outdoor climbing lessons with them – the beginners’ course is a pre-requisite for that.

On the day I was due to start my course and do the all-important first lesson, I came down with a bad case of a flu-type virus. That meant that I wasn’t really eating and was very weak and exhausted. I knew I had no choice but to turn up and just hoped I didn’t infect the others – as they turned up looking fine the next week I gather I didn’t.

As you may have seen elsewhere on this blog, I’d already had 3 one hour ‘taster’ sessions at the wall, one was to learn to abseil as I need to be able to do that to ‘compleat’ the Munros on Skye – in fact, this whole climbing thing is all working towards making me more capable and confident on the serious and scary Skye peaks. That meant I was already the most ‘experienced’ beginner on the course – I found I certainly wasn’t the most able though!

I turned up at the centre bright and early and found there were only going to be 3 of us on the course. The others turned up and I found my companions were a guy (Ian) who mainly wanted to learn belaying techniques as his young son was developing a keen interest in indoor climbing – the other was a young female teacher who just thought it looked fun.

We ended up having three different instructors for our three week course, the first was a very young guy who started us off leaning the required knots. He was pleased to find that we all mastered the knots within twenty minutes or so and we quickly moved on to belaying technique. This again was quickly picked up by us all and before the first hour was up we headed round to pick the first climb of the night.

The lady teacher seemed a bit nervous but the guy seemed really confident – surprisingly, on the third week, he admitted to being scared of heights and nervous – he really didn’t look it! I felt a bit like an old hand by now and have long since lost my nerves – a big contrast to my first session when I was literally shaking and terrified!

We did about four or five climbs each of around grade 3 (the easiest) or 4. I was glad I was being belayed by the guy in our group as the teacher wasn’t really gripping the rope properly and was attracting a lot of attention from the instructor who was more or less doing the ropework for her at this stage. With around a 30 foot drop above a concrete floor, you can’t really afford to have anything go wrong!

For the last ten minutes of our two hour lesson, we went into the bouldering room where I found my arms had completely given out and I could do nothing at all. I half-heartedly did two short routes and was a bit shocked to find that, at the top of the first one, I’d forgotten I wasn’t roped up any more and was just about to lean back and crash fifteen feet or so to the deck – not something you want to do with osteoporosis, not even over a crashmat!

After getting changed I went out into the cold night and got into my car and found I was almost incapable of steering at all (my cars are mostly non-power steering) and was too tired to concentrate. Luckily, by the time I left the quiet estate and reached the main road I was coming to a little for the 20 mile drive home across the high moor.

The second week soon came along and I was still very weak and pathetic with the after-effects of the flu-type virus. I was also stone deaf! Not the most helpful state for a climbing lesson – I spent a lot of the lesson trying to lip-read from 30 feet up! I think the instructor thought I was making excuses in advance for being such a pathetic climber… Our second week’s instructor was an older guy (still much younger than me of course) called Anthony. I found him very good in that he was extremely thorough and pretty strict and he sharpened up the lady teacher’s belaying in no time flat. I was extra glad about that as it was my turn to be belayed by her…

As the lesson went by, it was clear who amongst us showed promise – clue – it wasn’t me and it wasn’t the teacher, although she made huge improvements in her technique. I always had the feeling I wasn’t going to be promising as a climber really. Anthony was clearly impressed by Ian and showed him quite a few advanced-looking techniques and also took him off for a few minutes to watch some of the experts climb.

I have to admit that, no matter how many ‘new techniques’ I’ve been shown so far, I don’t seem to take many of them on board, subconsciously preferring to stick to the techniques I’ve used for years now on various tricky crags on the mountains I’ve climbed. I guess it’s just a case that I’ve developed thoroughly unsound technique over the years and it would take some breaking. I certainly have a tendency to hug towards the wall, despite being constantly reminded to lean out and hang on relaxed arms more – I’m pretty sure this is because of the situations I’ve been in outdoors, i.e. not roped up and with a huge drop below me! As I haven’t managed to move up yet from a grade 4, any thoughts of me making any kind of climber are pretty remote unfortunately.

This second lesson was the one where we had to experience ‘falling off’. This caused a flurry of nerves in my compatriots but strangely, I didn’t seem to care either way – I think I’ve finally learnt to trust the rope… Anthony took us to a slightly overhanging climb and told us to climb until he told us we’d reached sufficient height and then he told us we could fall off ‘when we liked’. Of course we weren’t supposed to make it obvious when that would be as the objective is as much to ‘surprise’ the belayer as it is to get experience of what it’s like to fall off the wall.

I was belaying Ian and he climbed to around two-thirds of the way up the wall and then ‘surprised’ me. I was chuffed to see that I handled his fall promptly and efficiently and he didn’t fall any distance at all – merely dangled. It was then my go. I noted later that I’d had no nerves at all – I just found I was concentrating really hard on not giving any clues and surprising my belayer – she also did a brilliant job of arresting my fall before it even started and I found the whole thing very tame and anti-climactic really. It was then her go…

Unfortunately, while she may well be a brilliant teacher, she was no actor – every part of her body language told us exactly when she was going to let go. The instructor told her to try again and try to surprise us. Again, there were many clues and we were again unsurprised – but this time it was her turn to get a surprise. The instructor had a quiet word in her belayer’s ear and suddenly they twice dropped her around 6 feet – she squeaked a bit!

When I turned up last night for my third and final lesson, I found there were just going to be two of us as the teacher had hurt her ankle and had to cancel. Of course, this meant we were going to do an awful lot more climbing work – not good news for Ian as he’d just been bouldering for an hour with his young son. Fortunately I was now feeling completely recovered from my illness and my hearing had come back. We had yet another instructor (we must be very bad!) – this time a young lady called Hannah. She added to my feelings of inadequacy on the wall each time she gracefully stepped up onto it to show us techniques and just flowed up it.

We warmed up with an easy slab climb (sloping away rather than vertical or overhanging) and we sailed up it easily trying to concentrate on good technique. Hannah then picked us another ‘easy’ climb on the vertical 35 foot wall. Despite this climb being graded easy (I think it was only a grade 3), I found it the hardest climb of the night and got pretty stuck for a while in the middle!

Hannah had by now noticed my worst fault of hugging the rock too much and not hanging out on relaxed arms and spent a lot of time reminding me to ‘relax!’ She said towards the end of the lesson that my technique had improved but I wasn’t sure it had really, although the constant reminders were good. She was also a very good instructor in that she shouted up a lot of helpful advice and encouragement on each climb. My next few climbs were grade 4 and 4+ and I was surprised that I sailed up them without any difficulty at all.

My course compatriot was climbing as well as ever and we were both belaying beautifully so Hannah decided it was time for us to move up a notch. She picked a grade 5 on an overhanging wall of around 50 feet. I didn’t hold out much hope for my chances of getting very far but decided I had to be determined and go for it. Ian went first… he got stuck for a short while a couple of times but got to around three-quarters of the way up when suddenly he fell off. I was chuffed that, despite me really not expecting it this time, he again just dangled and I held his fall perfectly. He felt he couldn’t continue so I lowered him back down. My turn…

I gave myself a brief mental talking-to and told myself I must really pull out the stops and try to at least equal his climb. Unfortunately, only just over a third of the way up the wall, I didn’t like the very rounded and small-feeling holds and felt very insecure. My arms decided they’d completely had enough, possibly because I was hanging around so long trying to get past my bad bit and because I’d again tensed up. After a few minutes I shouted down to say I was going to have to let go. I was dangled in mid air and Hannah told me to hang my arms down and shake them about. After a few minutes I said I’d have another go and pulled myself back onto the wall. I maybe reached the next set of holds up and then again couldn’t continue. I felt extremely inadequate but had to be lowered down. It was galling to later watch following climbers sail up the wall past all the difficulties.

Fortunately, to make us feel better, we returned to the grade 4 climbs and managed to overcome some difficult problems on our climbs and again reach the top. We then looked at our watches and saw we still had around 20 minutes left but both admitted to having no further energy or muscle to contribute. We asked Hannah if we could stop now please and she agreed but suggested we go to do a bit of bouldering before giving up. I found on the first route that I could no longer hang off my arms at all and just told her I was stopping for the night.

Soon after Ian gave up too and we went to get our life membership cards and £10 voucher towards gear (all included in the £72 course fee 🙂 ) and I went to buy myself a nice pair of rock boots. I was pleased to see there was a large range of vegan boots and bought one of the cheapest pairs as I don’t see me really taking up rock-climbing as such – I’m sure I’ll give up when I get the Skye peaks out of the way. After I’d bought them I realised I’d bought lilac ones and remembered my harness was lilac – Richard says I’ll look like a real poser who worries about whether her gear is colour co-ordinated!



8 responses

10 12 2011
Scotlands Mountains

You done the correct thing in buying the lilac boots MC as it is very important to look the part when on the hill 🙂
Old railway walls are brilliant for learning how to use your feet.Just traverse back and forth a few feet above the ground.They are usually just off vertical and if you are using your arms you won`t last longer than 10 seconds.You`ll soon learn to balance with your feet 🙂


10 12 2011

I don’t think it’s that I can’t balance with my feet, I think it’s that I’m used to trusting my handholds too much as those are the bits you can grip onto in terror – you can’t do that with your feet. I’m very reliant on my hands when I’m anywhere tricky, often using them well before I really need to on anything scrambly!

I’m glad I made the right call with the pretty-coloured boots 😉


10 12 2011

I think you might be less of a mountain coward than you think you are. 🙂


10 12 2011

I’m definitely not – but you are pretty safe on a rope on an indoor wall…


9 12 2011
Paul Shorrock

Hahaha….. Lilac harness AND rock boots?!! You havin’ a larf?!! 😀
I think you are a secret adrenaline junkie, who probably solos grade 7c to get to the top for a base jump 😉
Seriously though, your dedication and determination to complete the Munros, including the one that so many miss out (In Pinn), is really impressive. How many left to do? And what next, after the Munros?


9 12 2011

Hi Paul,
The lilac thing was an accident, honest!

I’ve got 38 to do, 10 of which are the harder Skye peaks 😦 I’m not as worried about the In Pinn, where a rope is obligatory, as I am about the other ones where I’m going to have to convince the guide that I’d like to be roped up for the bad bits!

After the Munros, I’m not sure yet but am going off the idea of collecting all the Corbetts rather than just the ones which interest me. I think I might do more bothying and do some of the long glen routes, like the whole of Glen Tilt through to White Bridge and the 2 Lairigs.


9 12 2011
mark eddy

Sounds to me like you’re rather enjoying this climbing game 😉


9 12 2011

Well the indoor stuff isn’t at all scary… but I’m sure I’ll find the outdoor stuff a completely different kettle of fish! 😮

Of course, when I’ve done a little bit of outdoor coursework with the climbing centre, I’m gonna be knocking on your door for some different stuff as we only have gritstone round here and I’d like to at least try other rock types.


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