By Mark Magas
It would be an understatement to say that the recent pandemic lockdowns and restrictions have been largely a negative experience to most of us and devastating to some. However, there have also been some positives and I’d like to share one of these with you. I will caveat all of what follows by saying that I’m no expert, I’m just sharing my experience, and in no way am I telling anyone what they should do, how to do it, or that any of this is advice.
What the pandemic did, in this case, is to move me to climbing outside with my son Theo more frequently and to venues closer to home that weren’t as busy. The sports crags seemed packed with people relatively new to the outdoor climbing scene and it just wasn’t where I wanted to be. They had every right to be there as much as me, so acknowledging this, Theo, I, and his mum, headed to closer trad venues to get something that we felt a bit more comfortable with.
And that’s when Theo’s attitude to climbing changed, surprisingly, he asked if we could do more trad climbing and if he could learn to lead. He’d taken to it amazingly well, not phased at all by being in an exposed position and taking 10 minutes to fiddle one of my wires loose, learning the knots with a bit of old rope, and wanting to know how to set up belays. Theo is quite strong, and although only 11 at the time, was able to second routes like 'Failed Romantic' (E1, 5b) on Castle Rock, Cumbria.
This left me thinking about how I’d go about allowing Theo the freedom to do what he’d asked in a way that didn’t leave my nerves in tatters, and so we embarked upon a year’s journey to get him to the point he is at now, in 2021.
I could have said no of course, explained he was too young, or he should focus on other aspects of the sport, but that didn’t sit right with me. Because although I’d not led my first route until I was 16, Theo had been climbing for years longer and at least had someone who had an idea of what they were doing.
The journey to leading took us to various crags where we spent days placing gear at the bottom of routes, getting it out, putting it in again, seconding climbs, abseiling and setting up belays and looking at routes from the group. Then Theo led climbs with a top rope, then climbs with the gear in, then with the gear racked in order and finally to Theo’s first leads, then bigger and harder, leads and multi-pitch. I also heard about the BMC subsidised training for young people (link below) who wanted to get into leading and Theo just sneaked into the bottom end of the age group, so I signed him up and we went on the course. The course was excellent, and the instructor was superb. The surprise was that we were the only people that had signed up.
I was bothered by this; I can well understand that trad climbing may have a lot more barriers to it and may be less accessible than other forms of climbing. I knew James Mchaffie of old who is currently Youth & Equity Officer at the BMC, who confirmed the Lakes courses had been very quiet over the last few years. This got me to thinking, where will the McHaffies, Birketts, Twyfords and Taylors come from in future years? Will this shift to other, equally valid aspects of the sport amongst younger people have an effect? Truth is, I don’t know, all I know is I’d like to encourage parents to consider it as an option and to say it is possible, given the right set of circumstances, get younger people involved, earlier than some might think. There are lots of benefits to it, building resilience, assessing risk, and getting to new and unique places to name a few.
And so, I find myself here and putting down my thoughts along with some of the things I learned along the way. Here they are:
- Get some qualified instruction, the BMC run course is excellent. Check your own skills are up to date, or the friends who you are heading out with. Consider doing an outdoor first aid course as well.
- Partner up with a team; the more adult friends and family around with the young people, the easier it is to deal with any unforeseen circumstances (social distancing regulations permitting).
- Do routes that you know, at locations you know, where you feel comfortable.
- Breakdown the process: initially simply placing gear at the bottom of routes, taking it out, putting it in again, then seconding climbs, practising abseiling (use this for inspecting routes) and setting up belays. Get the child to lead the climbs with a top rope, then climb with the gear in, then with the gear racked in order and finally a standard lead - well protected and well within their ability level.
- A child of 12 will get tired quicker, both mentally, and physically, but might not show it the way an adult would. Don’t underestimate how taxing all that thinking is. Generally, leading two routes at the upper end of his trad ability is enough for Theo.
- Expect them to make mistakes.
- If your rack is old and heavy, invest in some lighter, more compact modern gear in key areas - quickdraws, pro, ropes, carabiners, etc. I’ve replenished much of my kit and found that the smaller carabiners were easier for small hands to manipulate.
- Be prepared to be stressed, if you are an experienced leader, it was strange to have my child at the sharp end.
- Have a plan of where you are starting from and where you and your child want to be. Discuss the risks with your child but be aware that ultimately you are in charge.
And to finish I'll offer a quote from Theo on why he enjoys trad climbing so much:
"I find it really satisfying getting to the top, I also like the thrill of placing a perfect piece of gear. There’s more to think about and to multi-task, which is a challenge I like."