Climbing "shades of grey" - Dealing with conflicting advice


Short version: A vast majority of climbing techniques are not black or white, right or wrong, but exist along a continuum of subjectivity and best practice. If you receive climbing advice that differs from what you already know, ask "Why do you like to do it this way, and what might happen if I do it differently?"

It’s day one of climbing school. You’re out at the local crag with a handful of instructors and a few other eager students. One instructor, over the course of an hour or so, shows you how to belay and tie a few knots. You take a break, rotate to another instructor, and they then proceed to tell you a different method to belay and a different way to tie the same knots.

Aaaaaarrrgh! Your head is a fog of confusion and frustration as you try to sort through this conflicting advice.

Sound familiar?

Just about every climber can think of situations in their climbing education where they received wildly different advice on a particular topic or technique. Your climbing mentor tells you to belay with your palm up, but the "Freedom of the Hills" instruction book suggests belaying palm down. There seems like a dozen different ways to tie a butterfly knot and everyone wants to convince you their way is the best. You get the idea. When you’re learning, it sometimes seems like everything is like this!

(And let's not get started on YouTube, where Reinhold Messner himself could post a climbing instruction video and even then some yahoos would rip his "incorrect technique" apart in the comment section.)

After you have some experience under your belt, you may be better able to interpret conflicting advice like this, but it can be especially confounding for the newer climber.

New folks are doing their best just to get their heads around the foundational skills, while underneath it all, anxiety is amplified because we all know we are doing a sport that can get you killed in an instant if you do something critical the wrong way.

Here are two approaches to hopefully cut through this fog. One is to understand that climbing techniques exist along a sliding scale. Two is to remember a back-and-forth dialogue needs to happen when you hear conflicting advice.

Let’s dive into each of these.

One: sliding scale

It’s part of human nature to want to put things in a binary box. Is it A or B?  Am I right or wrong? Are you liberal or conservative? Is this restaurant great or terrible? This worldview takes less mental energy than trying to weigh the nuances of real life.

But, we all know that most things in life exist along a continuum, a sliding scale of ambiguity between one extreme or the other. The same is true in climbing.

There are actually very few climbing techniques that we can call black or white, set-in-stone, always-do-it-this-way-or-you’re-gonna-have-serious-consequences. I’m giving this a very subjective number of about 10%.

What are some of those black and white rules? Try to think of a few right now.

  • Never glissade with crampons on.

  • Never take your brake hand off the rope when you're rappelling or belaying.

  • Always check your partner's harness and knot before they start to climb.

  • Always double back your harness buckle.

You can probably think of a few more, but there really aren’t a whole lot more than that!

That means the other 90% of climbing techniques exist along a continuum somewhere in the middle. You could divide these into five general categories:

1 - Never do it this way, you're gonna die or get seriously hurt. Example: Glissading with crampons.

2 - Outdated technique that has a few problems, but you’re not gonna die. Example, using 1-inch webbing for everything.

3 - Completely up to you, flip a coin.  Example: using loose chalk or a chalk ball.

4 - Generally preferred modern method, best practice: Example: belaying directly off the anchor in fifth class rock, as opposed to off your belay loop.

5 - Pretty much everyone agrees you should do it this way: Example: Tying knot(s) in the end of your rappel rope so you don’t zing off the ends.

So, this means that the vast majority of climbing techniques are fairly subjective and generally up to your personal preference. Good news, if you do it a different way, you’re probably not going to die! Hopefully this is comforting to the beginning climber who's trying to sort out all this well-intended advice that often comes from different directions.

So, that tells us that this climbing game is not as black-and-white as some people might lead you to think. What's the next step of sorting through the advice? How to decide what you want to absorb and what you want to discard?

Bruce, that's terrific advice, but as new climbers, it's hard to decide "what is useful and what is not". How do we do that?

Here's how. Simply ask, “What could happen to me if I do it differently than what you just showed me?”

Two: Reasons and Consequences

For the giver of advice (instructor): when you offer advice or suggestions, try to follow that up with your rationale(s) for doing so, and the potential consequences of doing it another way.

For the receiver of advice (student): if you hear something that's different from what you already think is correct, try to ask two questions (in a respectful way and ideally at a time that doesn’t interrupt the teaching flow.)

  • The first question is: “Why do you like to do it that way?”

  • The second question is, “What might happen if I do it another way?”

(Of course, this is much easier to do when you’re face-to-face with someone, as opposed to reading a book, magazine, or web post).

“Why do you like to do it that way?”  If the person offering the advice can immediately answer with a few tangible reasons WHY, then you might well think: “Dang, they know their stuff and have clearly thought this through. It’s different than what I’ve learned, but I’m going to consider this alternative method.”

On the other hand, if your instructor person shrugs their shoulders and says “Well, I dunno, I’ve just always done it like that and I think you should too," then that’s not a very compelling argument for their technique.

“What might happen if I do it another way?”  If the answer is "Ehhh, not much", then no problemo, you can pretty much choose whatever method suits you. But, the answer is "If you do it differently than what I taught you, there's a good chance of serious consequences, which are X, Y and maybe Z,” then that's something you should probably pay attention to.

I think you get the idea. Subjectivity is an essential part of climbing, and it's not nearly as black-and-white as many instructors make it out to be. Do your best to embrace the “shades of grey” and develop your own techniques and style within the sliding scale of accepted methods.