A great climber once told me the story of how the first time he came to Yosemite, full of youthful wall dreaming, he’d sought out wall climbers for knowledge there being no technique books or websites back then. One day he came across one of these granite Gods, this man an artisan of hooks and heads and rivets, his craft one of new routes and daring repeats. This future God himself stole up the courage to approach this hero and ask for advice, any advice, on where to start, looking ideally for a mentor, but if not that then just the buzz of being with their hero for just one minute. But then heroes - like Gods - are complex beings, their lives and what they’ve done and often achieved not down to be human at all, or kind. “Fuck off” came the reply, which when you think of it, was maybe the best bit of advice this God could give. This young climber — a little burnt — skulked away, but instead of ‘fucking off’, stuck it out, learnt the hard way, the right way, and in doing so found new ways that in the end eclipsed anything these old Gods could imagine.
The giving of advice to the young, to those starting out, is a difficult thing. To give too much advice is to hold someone’s hand, or worse to make them feel rubbish or incompetent. To not give enough, when you see it’s needed to help them grow - or just stay alive - is a crime against your responsibility as an experienced climber, as well as human being.
When my mate Steve Bates was preparing to solo El Cap for the first time, he’d often send me long emails full of questions, big details and small. Being slack in replying to such emails I’d often just reply with the flippant, and no doubt disappointing “You’ll figure it, dude”. And so instead of an easy way, Steve would spend hours in a local quarry hauling tires, trying out rope systems, shit scared he’d fuck up and kill his dream before he’s even left home (oh and he was also about 85% blind). In the end, Steve did make his dreams come true, soloing Zodiac over a week. When I met him at the top, he thanked me for my lack of help, my lack of advice. “When I was on the wall when things went wrong, I had no one to help me but myself” he confided, and how all those hours of blind, ignorant and cluelessness in that quarry had been the training, he’d needed.
At the same time, when you’re on a wall, and you see other climbers it’s hard not to say something, little things, like “Have you tried using a rope bag” or “Do you ever use a docking cord?”, little things that can transform your climb.
And then there’s the killer tips, the tips you feel you need to give otherwise people will die. Lose blocks, bad belays heads up stuff people should know before they set off. Sometimes the advice has to be shouted across a wall, as you see someone doing something dangerous, like clipping into an old piece of tat and calling that a belay, or setting off into bad weather without the right kit (a “minus 30” down sleeping bag IS not proof against an El Cap storm).
And then there’s the time when nothing is said.
A month ago I saw a team get a rope stuck on abseil, and one of them began to jug up the stuck line, but without tying into the rope end of the rope they had (both rope ends will always meet), meaning if the rope comes unstuck he’d fall to his death. By tying in he had the chance of just taking a big fall, but also of clipping into some gear and being on belay. But instead of shouting something out, I didn’t say anything, feeling such advice might just freak them out, be misunderstood, or just not wanted, the male ego a fragile thing. In the end, the guy reached the rope end and sorted out the problem.
But now down to my point. I’ve always loved talking to young climbers, the ones you meet who are like sponges for better ways or ways they didn’t even know there were. For example, I got talking to four climbers below Dawn Wall a while back and shared the tip that with a Monster Munter you can lower an injured partner two rope lengths, with the knot (overhand) passed easily through the Munter. “Wow, dude,” one of them said “that’s a killer tip”, and it is, that one little thing that shared could save a life, rather than being kept secret. Maybe the giving advice comes from a high place, telling people what you’d have loved to hear, maybe not, maybe it’s just an opportunity to be the alpha male - to put the novice in their place - but if so, then it’s still a win-win.
But here’s the problem I now face. The other morning, coming out the Camp 4 ‘township’, I wandered past two young women racking and packing at their tailgate. It was same old thing, brand new haul line, haul bag, jumars, shit tube and ledge, a sure sign they were Nose bound. I’ve climbed the Nose four times, as well as the Triple Direct, which added to three dozen other routes means I’ve got some things I could - and do usually - say that could avoid the all too common bail. If they had been two young guys, I’d have said the same old things, like “what you up too?”, The conversation leading to the same old advice, like ‘the crux pitches are below Sickle ledge’, that ‘if they make it to El Cap tower they’ll do the route’, to take ‘enough water to deal with being held up’ (by others or themselves), to ‘not underestimate how cold it can get’ - dozens of little things, easily given when squatting beside someone in a dusty car park, things not given - but shared - out of love for your tribe. But I didn’t. I thought instead of the world we’re living in, how people’s good intentions are now so twisted by juvenile interpretations of the most basic human interaction (which is never basic). Perhaps these women feel like they are storming the walls, two women revolutionaries against this ‘boys club’, ignorant of history (or just ignoring it as it does not fit), of all the true revolutionaries who came before them (not just the famous ones, but the Johnsons, the Freers, the Bradeys). Such people are in no need of help or patronising advice from a man, who would mansplain how to climb a wall. Yes, these toxic thoughts in my head, and to even admit them may well stir the ire in those that peddle such narratives, but they are there, even if you cannot see it, put there by people who think they’re making a better world. And so instead of stopping, as I usually do, I just walk on by.
A Kit Kat bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram