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The Gumby Guru: The Forever Noob

Perhaps more than any other sport, climbing is a constant learning process. Accept the immortality of the inner noob.

One thing no climber wants to look like is inexperienced. Strength is a point of pride for all climbers, sure, but technical knowledge and technique are far more coveted in our sport. 

The old guy who leads 5.8 but has been climbing for forty years around the world has more rep than the strong kid who climbs 5.13 but doesn’t know how to tie a knot or place a piece of pro. The embarrassment of falling off an easy problem or route is nothing compared to having your gear placement critiqued as shoddy and unsafe. Many climbers would rather flail on a V1 over and over, in full sight of the entire gym, than be caught tying a knot incorrectly or committing a social faux pas like wearing a harness into the boulder cave or socks with shoes. 

As a teenage climber, I was desperate to learn as much as I could about the sport as early as possible, to climb through the newbie phase and into the comfortable “intermediate” phase, where you know enough to pass as an experienced climber. I was obsessed with absorbing everything there was to know about climbing, from the style to ethics to technique. 

Of course, this isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but if I’m being honest, that obsession was born as much from a desire to fit in and be recognized as a “real” climber as it was from a desire to improve my climbing knowledge for my own benefit. As a beginner climber, I would have rather climbed on a self-built sketchy anchor all day than be humiliated by someone coming along and telling me exactly what was wrong with the anchor I built and why, even if their guidance could’ve potentially saved me from an accident. 

You might shake your head, but I don’t think I’m alone. I see people get indignant when their knots or placements get critiqued all the time. I’ve watched people defend the whackest looking anchors to their last breath, even when you could see in their eyes that they didn’t know what they were talking about and were going to binge-watch a slew of YouTube tutorials when they got home.

Last week I did a Q&A with Brittany Goris for Climbing. An outrageously strong climber with years of experience, earlier this year she joined the slender ranks of women who have sent 5.14 trad. Surprisingly, throughout her long career of hard climbing, Goris had never climbed a single big wall route, not even a well-trafficked classic like the Nose. Goris, one of the strongest female climbers in the world, was a complete big wall noob.

Then, a week before our Q&A, she freed the Salathé (VI 5.13b), which is perhaps Yosemite’s most iconic big wall line. “I’m used to only having one pitch to worry about, not thirty-five pitches,” she told me of the experience. “I’m used to cragging … Before this, I had only been backpacking twice in my life, both of which were horrible experiences. To project the wall, I had to expand my comfort zone in SO many ways, from sleeping in new places to incredibly long days full of endless physical labor…” and so on. You get the idea.

The point is, even many pros, people at the pinnacle of the climbing pantheon, are newbies when it comes to some aspect of climbing. Climbing, perhaps more than any other outdoor sport, is a complex and multi-faceted practice, with a vast array of diverse disciplines, many with very little overlap where skill and technique are concerned. 

A climber can easily be both a veteran alpinist and a novice boulderer. Someone who can send twenty-five pitches of 5.10 on gear in a day without a fall may be stymied trying to decipher the unique body positioning required to send a single thirty-foot 5.13 in a gym. Climbers born on the slippery slopers of Horse Pens 40 come out to the sandpaper rock of Joshua Tree and feel like they’ve never bouldered before in their life (i.e. yours truly).

The climbing learning process is constant, inevitable, and endless, and it’s one of the most incredible things about this sport. There’s no one who knows it all, and if there is, I don’t really want to ever meet them (they’d probably be a bit of a nob).

These days, whenever anyone tells me something I don’t already know, whenever anyone has an opinion about my gear or my anchor or my climbing style, I do my best to chill out, listen, take it in, and grow from it. Sure, there are a lot of wankers out there who will, if given the opportunity, lambast your climbing with meritless critiques for no real reason other than to satisfy their own arrogance… but it never hurts to hear someone out. It’s one of the reasons I almost never tell anyone I climb with that I contribute writing to Climbing and Gym Climber, because once I do, they tend to assume I’m some sort of automatic climbing guru (nothing could be further from the truth) and they rarely, if ever, offer me any advice.

Failing to acknowledge that inner gumby inside all of us isn’t just poor form. It stagnates our growth. We can’t continue to learn unless we acknowledge, both to ourselves and others, that there is more learning to be done. 

Once I realized that climbing is a constant learning experience, both for climbers of six months and climbers of sixty years, I started to feel more comfortable asking a lot more questions, and I learned a hell of a lot more about the sport. Accepting that I’d always have a bit of noob inside me has made me a much more experienced climber.