Following the Lead: Lessons From a Guided Climbing Trip

Rock climbing has always been dear to my heart. In fact I still recall the first time I hopped on an artificial wall at Guide Camp, aged 10. The instructors were very impressed with my natural ability - at least that’s how I remember it!

Sadly, I’m not actually naturally gifted at climbing. But there have been times in my life when I’ve worked at it and become competent at it. I’ve become confident in my strength and technique to always be pushing the grades as well as in my ability to coach others to be better and stronger too.

In recent years, however, other things have come between rock climbing and I. I dedicated many years to playing Ultimate Frisbee — it’s a fairly huge commitment to compete at a high-ish level! Then after moving to Cornwall, trail running and surfing have also helped fill the void. But my climbing feet have started to get itchy again of late…

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Taking the lead

I don’t have many friends that climb. So if I want to rekindle my commitment to climbing then I need to lead the expeditions and rope in some novices to enjoy the ride with me.

Cue loud alarm bells!! I haven’t properly climbed outdoors for almost 10 years. What if I forget all the safety stuff? What if I physically can’t set up the ropes for my semi-enthusiastic buddies? What if I have a mental meltdown on the rock (which has happened more than once in my strongest climbing days!)?

Solution number 1: Well, you’ve got plenty of other fun stuff going on. Maybe climbing just ain’t for you anymore? Sigh.

Solution number 2: Go get some help to regain your confidence on the rock and find some climbing pals whilst you’re at it.

I won’t lie - it took me a good while to think up solution 2 despite its simplicity. But once the seed was sown, the rest was easy: I signed up to an organised long weekend for sport climbing improvers in Spain!

Read more: Tips For Getting Into Outdoor Climbing

Learning to follow

Some folk are born leaders. Whether they have the know-how or not, they’ll talk their way into holding your confidence until you just can’t help but trust them. And some people do have the know-how but lack the self-belief to take the lead. When it comes to climbing, that’s exactly where I’m at. Or at least I was, until I decided I needed to do some following before I could even think about leading.

Four days of intensive climbing in sunny Spain sure turned things around for me. And after only one day of uncontrollably shaking legs, talking myself through each move of each climb and triple checking each rope set-up and knot, I finally started to find my flow.

Climbing under the watchful eye of a guide did wonders for my confidence. It allowed me to question, well, everything! And for once I got (mostly!) sensible, logical answers back. It was highly liberating to unquestionably follow someone else’s instruction and guidance. It helped turn off the internal chatter allowing me to concentrate on the more important matters in hand — like getting to the top of that cliff in a controlled and safe manner.

But it wasn’t just the guide that helped put a spring back into my climbing legs. The other group members were an essential part of my journey from the lead to the leader. The stronger climbers spurred me on constantly, insisting I too could send that route they just flew up. The less experienced climbers reminded me how tough climbing can be, mentally as well as physically — who was I to assume it would be an easy ride just because I used to be alright at it? Their determination and focus was incredibly inspirational. Plus, talking them through the tough bits rekindled my love for helping others progress on the rock. The fire was back!

Read more: How Climbing Altered My Perception of the World

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For the love of leading

Leading” a climb means setting up a protective rope system as you climb. You don’t rock up to an outdoor crag to miraculously find your ropes set up for you, like climbing at the gym. If only! Instead, you have to place protection and attach the rope to it as you climb. In sport climbing, the protection is in the form of pre-existing bolts that are permanently attached to the rock. A lead climber simply clips a quickdraw and then their rope to each bolt as they get to it.

What makes this feel even scarier than climbing on an established top rope is that there’s no guarantee you’re going to make it to the next bolt without taking a fall. And this is totally OK. But it often doesn’t feel OK! Lead climbing requires all the skills that being a leader requires. Confidence. Determination. Courage. Knowledge. Strength. Control. Integrity. Patience.

In seeking to lead on the climbing wall, I have reinvigorated all those leadership qualities in me that I suppose I’ve had all along. I’d just forgotten how to engage them.

And I also managed to find myself some climbing buddies, too! Win, win.

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JOEY HOLMES

Joey can’t enough of having fun in the outdoors. Camping, hiking, trail running, climbing and surfing take care of her time nicely right now. And she’s also partial to cycling about the place, canoeing and cruising the ski-slopes on her snowboard.

Follow Joey’s adventures on Instagram at @coolofthewild_