As daylight hours lengthen and pandemic restrictions ease, AMI winter mountaineering and climbing instructor Alan Halewood asks, is there anything to think about before we tie-on and get back to rock climbing?

Feeling rusty after a long lay-off?

Stevie is one of those local legends that all climbing communities have. Quietly but endlessly racking up miles on rock; sport and trad and age seeming no barrier. He’s been climbing for decades and new routed into the E-grades. After the first lockdown eased I bumped into him on a sunny spring day on the rock in Glen Nevis. “It doesn’t feel the same, Alan”. “Climbing feels a bit odd at the moment”.

Some of us have been luckier than others during the pandemic when it comes to climbing opportunities. For many climbers, the climbing postcode lottery has meant getting out a lot less regularly to the crag than they have for years, or even not at all. Although social media has been full of creative climbers finding a way to get some kind of fix, most of us will feel a little rusty.

The term ‘Skill fade’ is the academic’s way of describing that deterioration in competence that comes when you don’t do something for an extended period of time. It’s well studied in aviation and medical fields. How much it affects you will depend on things like: how complex the skills are, how well you had learnt them, the variety of situations you were used to applying them in and how long it has been since you used them.

Adverikie Wall approach
Adverikie Wall (HS, 180m) climbs the continuous slab just right of centre in the photo.

It’s easy for experienced climbers to assume that they do things so automatically that they will just slip back into the groove and be able to perform as usual but even the most experienced should be aware that a little random interference can potentially derail the habits of a lifetime. Between lockdowns there were a spate of accidents in climbing walls. Many of those involved what we would class as experienced climbers. They just made a mistake or failed to do something they knew perfectly well how to do. The kind of things that might cause problems (especially when several of them are combined) include:

  • Differences: Different ropes, belay devices, climbing partners (think weight and habits), rock type (and what kind of protection and climbing moves that leads to). Conditions at venues may have changed too (loose rock, vegetation, nesting birds etc.).
  • Distractions: From other people, traffic, or the weather.
  • Difficulty: Sometimes harder climbing acts to focus the mind, sometimes the mind is too busy to cope.

How do we combat this? The answer is to control the variables. Don’t let too many things mount up and cause a break in your performance by ensuring you notice and remove issues as they appear. So:

  • If things are different, remove distractions and control the difficulty.  
  • If things are distracting you, try to retain focus, remove the distractions you can (this may need some polite conversations) and make sure things are more like your normal climbing situations.
  • If you want to push your grade do it when there are no distractions, on a familiar rock type with a partner you know and trust well. Build up with mileage on easier routes initially and pick routes of a type that suit you and are well protected.

Other things that can help might include:

  • Using visualisation or ‘pre-mortems’: thinking through carefully what you are planning to do, what might occur and what your reactions could be.
  • Returning to past mantras and checklists, like climbing calls or mnemonics (such as IDEA—independent, directional, equalised and angle for belay building), that you thought you had outgrown.
  • Immersing yourself in climbing again by checking out some of the many videos AMI members have put on social media or reading an up to date British climbing textbook to brush up on the techniques that work in our trad environment.
  • Give yourself a break and don’t be too hard on yourself. Expect things to take a little time, to have ‘high gravity’ days but to use the opportunity to take it easy and just enjoy climbing again.
  • Simply the act of being aware that you aren’t infallible and double checking and (vitally) performing an overt partner check adds another layer of protection to your climbing.
Racked up and ready to go.
Racked up and ready to go.
Lochan na h-Earba stretching away below.
Lochan na h-Earba stretching away below.

If you are feeling rusty is your climbing gear rusty too?

I love laying out all my gear. Checking, sorting, cleaning my rack. Is there a bit of the gear geek in all climbers?

But when was the last time you looked your cams over? Did your Wallnuts get damaged from being hit with an axe on that route in the brief flash of Lake District winter we had? Or (hang your head in shame) was all your kit left in your sack at the end of last season and hasn’t been looked at since?

Pre-season it always makes sense to check your gear. After all, your (and your partners) lives may depend on it.

I’m pretty zero tolerance on this. Endless arguments are possible about whether damaged or modified equipment is ‘good enough’. But even the most expensive item of equipment on my rack doesn’t compare in value to my life. When in doubt, there is no doubt. If it doesn’t look and behave normally like a good example of that type of gear it gets retired. And after all, who doesn’t love a ‘new gear day’.

In the ‘Documents’ section for each product on the DMM website you’ll find the user instructions with details of some of the correct and incorrect methods of use plus maintenance and care e.g. for Wallnuts. [Note: We’ll be producing some videos on how to inspect and maintain your kit].

    Pulling over the overlap of Adverikie Wall pitch 5.
    Pulling over the overlap of Adverikie Wall pitch 5.
    A bit of local knowledge always helps.

    Climbing in a post lockdown environment.

    Whatever your personal beliefs and how you feel about how the UK and devolved Governments have handled things we can’t ignore the fact that the world, including climbing, is different from how it was pre-pandemic.

    Whilst most sources seem to agree that the outdoors is a place with a relatively low chance of transmission of the virus there are a few simple things to consider:

    • Give people a little space. Physically can we maintain a good distance between ourselves and others? Isn't it worth having a face covering to hand in case it becomes hard to maintain distancing?
    • Many of us have found the pandemic mentally, socially and financially traumatic. How can we show a little compassion and recognise that other people also have opinions, needs and pressures and may not react to situations in a manner we expected in the past. Making allowances for how other people feel may lead to them doing the same for us, even if it means parking your own opinion or desires in the short term.
    • Respect the local communities where you climb as visitor numbers ramping up again may take some adjustment after being so quiet.   
    • Whilst many sources seem to point towards fomite transfer (touching surfaces) of the virus as posing a minimal risk hand hygiene is still in the Governments guidance and a good general habit. Sanitiser and hand washing remains ‘a good thing’.
    • Travel regulations may mean increased pressure on venues and parking. What can you do to ease this? Perhaps have several options for the day in case your preferred venue or route is busy. Have you checked out the next nearest parking and allowed time for an extra walk in case the most popular parking is full?​

    Need a climbing MOT?

    AMI members love climbing. They’ve been trained and assessed on how to help others with their climbing too. If you need some help, want a general check up on your habits or have become overloaded with opinions from friends and social media about the ‘rules’ of climbing then consider getting one of us to spend some time with you to share our knowledge, experience and opinions and to help you feel more confident in what you do. You can find out more about the Association of Mountaineering Instructors and its members on our website or find us on Facebook

    [Thanks to Glenmore Lodge for the day out on Adverikie Wall. They are preparing to to re-open from the 26th April]