Returning to Climbing
In any sport, breaks in participation are commonplace. Sometimes you have to pause to recover from an injury, you may experience a change in personal priorities, and sometimes, things are completely out of our control – like during a worldwide pandemic. Regardless of why we take breaks, most of us will return to the sports we love, so in this article we’ve focused on the things we think you should be considering when returning to climbing after a break.
When returning to climbing, you’re likely to be rusty (though we really hope your gear isn’t). Now might not be the time for big adventures, your limits will likely have changed, whether you realise it or not.
We encourage caution, until you’ve got your eye back in and a feel for your current limits. Above all, we hope you stay safe and have fun!
Where You Do It
The last thing you want to be dealing with on your first trip back to the crag is an epic.
Consider starting back on some low-severity crags and routes, before getting back on those ground-fall routes, high-ball projects or XS adventures!
The severity, or ‘seriousness’, of a venue or route is a massive consideration for instructors, guides and rescue team personnel, as it is recognised that some venues or routes have greater objective (uncontrollable) hazards.
Consider starting off at less remote crags before venturing further afield (or a-rock).
How far is it to the nearest road? Are you walking or climbing in an area that is known as a phone signal black spot? Can you get help?
We’re not suggesting that you should climb exclusively at roadside venues, but bear in mind that if you require medical assistance or evacuation and you’re not easily accessible by ambulance, you will be depending on specialist personnel, and/or a helicopter for help.
How You Do It
Bouldering, sport climbing, trad climbing, mountaineering, and scrambling all have a level of inherent risk. Ranking them in order of activity is not realistic – ultimately, it’s not what you do*, but how you do it, that defines how dangerous it is.
There are variations within each activity that involve lesser or greater risk, much of which is dependent on your personal ability to manage it.
When returning from a hiatus, you will likely be at increased risk of sporting injury, especially if you immediately try and go as hard, or as often, as you did before.
We suggest starting with lower risk variations and increasing your management strategies – consider avoiding high-ball problems, make sure you have a spotter, think about reducing your grade and generally take it easy!
* Our considered exceptions to this are free soloing/deep water soloing (two elements of climbing we don’t get professionally involved in - hmm, I wonder why?!) and Alpine mountaineering/winter climbing (where the levels of objective risk are naturally higher due to the environment.
It’s just like riding a bike - once you’ve learnt you’ll never forget, right?
Well, sort of... what most people don't consider when they use that phrase is that they spent many, many hours learning to ride that bike, usually at a time in their lives when they were highly effective at trial and error skill acquisition and were able to absorb lessons and information to the point that they now feel truly unconscious.
In reality, it is unlikely that after a break in climbing you will have forgotten “everything” or that you will no longer remember a specific skill or system, as long as you spent enough time learning and practising those skills before your break.
The more experience you have the slower skill-fade occurs... but it does still happen.
You forget the most rarely practised things first... for climbers, this is often the emergency skills you don’t often use but really do need to know!
When returning to climbing after some time off consider ways to assess the skills you will need, when you last used them, and how you could refresh your memory in a safe situation before you need them for real.
If your time off has been due to injury, or you are/have been prone to recurring injury, it’s even more important to return and build back up slowly.
Be sure to follow the advice of your doctor, physio or coach. If you don’t have one, get one, and follow their advice!
The Decisions You Make
Competence & Confidence
This could apply at all times of course, but given what we’ve said about skill-fade, it’s especially important when returning after a break. You may not know what skills have faded until you really need them.
One of the common themes we see as instructors, is that those with less experience are less able to self-assess their own abilities, yet they can also exhibit an almost reckless self-belief that their way is the best or only choice.
Lack of knowledge prevents us from making good assessments of our own competence (which is why in any professional workplace we are rarely asked to check our own work).
“You do not know what you do not know”.
This is why young drivers are so often involved in accidents soon after gaining their licences – their confidence is high, their experience is low, and their ability to self-assess is limited.
How can you re-assess the relationship between your competence and confidence? Perhaps in conversation with your climbing partners, or through a more formal mentoring or coaching process.
The Affect Heuristic
Fun psychological facts!
Heuristics are mental shortcuts we use for quick day-to-day decision making.
Given that they’re “shortcuts” they can lead to unconscious biases or errors in judgement...
The affect heuristic is influenced by the emotion a person is currently feeling, which often means that people making decisions in a positive, happy or excited state are more likely to focus on the benefits whilst downplaying the risks of the outcome of their decisions.
When returning after time off, remember that there is nothing wrong with being excited, but make sure your enthusiasm isn’t impairing your logical mind!
Above all, we want you to return to climbing safely and enjoyably. We appreciate that some of these tips may appear obvious, but we believe they’re all important considerations.