On the Rock

Teaching Kids to Climb
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Climbing in its purest sense is a ballet on a vertical rather than horizontal surface. Economic yet dynamic movement reign supreme, strength is subtly but obviously unleashed, poetry and pain coexist, and a complete and overwhelming sense of satisfaction, both physical and mental, is obtained from sequential movement.

That's a pretty nice description, no?

Achieving that feeling comes down to one thing: technique. Here we'll be getting into how to use climbing equipment, what the children need to know about moving on and over the rock, and how to make sure you're doing it safely vis-`-vis your offspring. If I err, rest assured I shall err on the side of safety.

One essential point. Have your child demonstrate to you that they have, indeed, absorbed what they are being taught. Rule one here is to correct any and all mistakes as they are made, before they form a routine error. Don't lose patience. Remember, fun, fun, fun. . . but make sure they can do what they're being shown, and are not just agreeing with you. I know. . ."my (son/daughter) always tells me. . .." No, they don't. That's why your spouse/relative/neighbor causes you to do a mental back-pedal when they hit you with one of those"I didn't know that Johnny/Jane is (insert whatever activity they're engaged in that you were unaware of)."

Keep this particular facet in mind while teaching your child to climb.

The order of the day is top-roping, a category of climbing that mandates the top of the climb be within less than half a rope length away. A 165-foot rope would therefore translate to a climb or pitch of not more than seventy feet in height. A pitch is the distance between two belays — in this case, from you on the ground to the anchor. And, yes, I realize half of 165 is 82.5. So leave some slack, okay?

Because technical climbing starts at the 5.0 grade, you're looking for a climb that's rated from there on up. The youngest climbers will find plenty of challenge at the 5.0 level, some may start around the 5.4 grade or higher. You know your child's ability, but remember to start easy. My children's first climb was a 5.6, a slight bulge at the beginning of the climb formed the crux (the hardest part of the route). The remainder of the route was pocked and studded with excellent hand and foot holds. I let them try the crux to illustrate the difficulty, then showed them an easier alternate route (the start of another climb some six feet away). They got their first exposure on the rock, and both insisted on trying the crux of the route several times, including one last time before we headed home. Their willingness to confront the problem was a sure sign that there futures would include climbing.

The particular section I chose for their first outing had four routes, all topropes; two 5.9s and a 5.6 within twenty feet of each other, and a 5.1 scramble that ran up the side of the climbs to several well-used anchors. Regardless of earlier admonitions I have never said I was a perfect parent. I had considered using the 5.1 scramble as the site of their first climb but actually thought it would be harder than climbing the face of the 5.6 without the crux. Use your judgment regardless of ratings.

This particular area met the requirements for an ideal top-roping site. It had an easy means of access for the instructor/belayer — me;. The climbs were one-crux problems; the remainder of the climbs were easy for their ratings and close enough for the children to be allowed to pick and choose the route up; and all three climbs were just over fifty feet long.

The location of an often used toprope site is easily found in most cases. They'll usually be a crowd climbing already, but if not, will probably be marked by any number of used, faded, degraded runners, wrapped, entangled, or otherwise permanently embedded in or around the anchor. Do not use any old, unknown runners. Use your own.

If you're not blessed with an area that's easily toproped, use a portion of a multi-pitch climb, but leave any first-come-first-serve ideas at home. If you're using the first pitch of a multi-pitch climb and other climbers come along who wish to do the full climb, fairness would dictate that you discuss whether they would mind doing another climb. If not, move to either a pure toprope climb or a less desired multi-pitch one. If you do give up the climb, do not climb behind them after they've cleared the first pitch. A cardinal rule of safety: one set of climbers on a route at a time. Even a pebble or small rock dislodged by a climbing party and hitting one of your children can cause a nice day to become an early"I wanna' go home" day.

If an anchor (natural or bolted) exists on the climb, feel free to treat the climb as a toprope, but remember, you're the one that's going to have to set the anchor, which may mean a solo to that spot. This is one place where a non-climbing spouse can get into the action, because they can belay you to the anchor if you're not confident enough of your solo skill. Unless you're dealing with a youngster whose weight approximates your own, forget about having your son or daughter belay you at any time. There is a method of self belay that is beyond the rhyme or reason of this article, but can be found in climbing books.

If there are no natural anchors to be had, you will require the use of some of that hardware you couldn't resist purchasing, as well as the knowledge of how to use it.

A variation to the pure toprope climb involves the belayer running the climb from the top. A top belay necessitates having access to and egress from the climb, and is essentially free climbing in nearly its purest sense. You, the belayer, have"finished" the first pitch of the climb and your child, the "second," is now climbing.

While this allows for a longer climb (your rope is no longer going up to an anchor and back down), it does require the child to be left alone at the base. A second adult can supervise the tie-in procedure correctly, and the presence of two climbing adults, will also enable you to safely bring your child onto multi-pitch climbs.

If you try this method with you and your child, remember that you've got to anchor yourself in at the belay stance, just as you would while climbing with a regular partner, regardless of the fact that your child weighs "tons" less than you. This entails the exact same methods as setting up an anchor for top-roping, except you, the belayer, are tying into the anchor-protection to sling to harness.

Rigging the Toprope

The key to any toprope anchor is the object it's attached to. Whether it's natural (rock or tree) or manmade (bolted), the anchor should be solid. If you use bolts, make sure the nuts are not rusted or loose. The bolts should also be a minimum of 3/8" in diameter. If you use a rock or tree, they should not be hollow-sounding or loose.

Another of my endless qualifying notes: we're setting these anchors up for climbing with your children, so make the anchor as bombproof as possible. Some of this information may seem overly cautious to those of you who climb, but when I take my children climbing "overly cautious" becomes a redundancy. What I do while climbing with my partner is another game — I'm supposed to know what I'm doing and be responsible for doing it. Children depend wholly on the correctness of their parent's judgment for their safety.

There is a simple test to give an anchor to determine whether it's rigged correctly and safely. If you took an imaginary knife — and please note, I said imaginary — and cut one of the slings, runners, or whatever you're using to hold the biners that are holding your climbing rope, and the rope would fall or move from its position because of this one failure, the anchor is not set safely, it isn't bombproof.

For the sake of illustration we'll return to the live tree at my children's first toprope site as an ideal anchor point. The tree, about 7" in diameter, is set about three feet back from the edge of the top of the climb.

Take one of those runners you purchased, or so lovingly tied, and loop it around the tree. Doesn't quite make the edge, does it? Now what? Take another runner and join it to the first. You can back this knot up with a biner if you desire. If it still doesn't quite have enough length to droop over the edge, involve a third runner in the sequence. You've now got enough length that the runner is lying over the edge. Remember; the object of a safe anchor is to avoid having the rope run over any sharp edge.

Bombproof the anchor by double-rigging it; use another set of runners and follow the above procedure.

If the anchor point is located at, or nearly at, the edge of the route, you can loop the runner around the anchor and through itself so that it hangs over the edge of the climb. This method should also be backed up.

What happens if there is no fixed anchor point? Hardware time. I'd like to reiterate that if you're not experienced in placing protection, stick with top-roping from fixed anchors until you become comfortable, skilled and confident in your ability to place pro. Learn this on your own with your climbing partner, and don't decide you've got what it takes until you've got what it takes. Although I'm a firm believer in learning from books, nothing replaces cold, hard experience, especially when it comes to climbing safety. Lord knows we have little enough hard experience in raising the little ones, but at least those mistakes are kept at ground level.

To establish an anchor position for a toprope climb, equal amounts of force in the direction of the fall (which, as Sir Isaac so ably demonstrated, is straight down) must be anticipated and absorbed equally by at least two, and preferably three, pieces of separate protection.

The closer together you can place the protection, the less likely one or more pieces will fail. In a vertical or near vertical crack, your pro pieces can even be placed in a row, each having its own runner of a different length that terminates at the same spot where the rope will be attached to the three biners. This equalizes any fall-force on all the anchors.

In a horizontal crack, or when using several different locations in placing the pro, the load can be distributed in a wider pattern, as long as the runners form an angle of, ideally, less than ninety degrees.

The use of three (you can place more if you wish) pieces of protection insures that if one placement fails, the load can be distributed over the remaining two. If there's a question as to how solid the placement, find another place to climb.

On well-used toprope climbs you may often encounter bolts and sometimes even pitons. Watch any old Hollywood movie about climbers, and everybody's pounding little metal things into the rock — those are pitons — that appear fixed in place. Once again, we're climbing with our kids, so avoid tying into pitons no matter how solid they look, and back up any bolt hangers with additional protection. For more on anchor systems, check out Chockstone Press' Climbing Anchors by John Long.

Whatever anchor you have set up, it is now time to join the runners together. The runners are joined using three biners, each hooked to the runners with their gates facing in opposite directions, the gate openings at the bottom. D-biners can occasionally bind up the rope when hooked this way, so if you've purchased oval biners, use them.

Next, thread or clip the rope into the biners and toss it down. Get the kids used to using climbing commands at this point, and yell "Rope." I'm assuming that you've already explained that "Rope" means a rope is coming down, and they are not to be standing at the base of the climb.

You have the option of hooking in yourself and rappelling down ("That's neat! Can I try?") or hooking the rope in at its halfway point, letting it fall to the ground, and climbing back down the way you went up.

Okay, you've rigged the toprope, and you're back on ground level with the kiddies. Let's get the little suckers up there.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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