Becoming a Modern Climber's Mentor

Rob Pizem, Sterling Athlete Dec 20th 2018
  • Climber Rob Pizem

I went to Zion National Park to climb with two new partners over the Thanksgiving week of 2018. Our goal was to establish a new multi-pitch climb deep within the Zion Narrows along the Virgin River. The funny thing about our trip was that my two partners didn't know each other, me, or most importantly anything about establishing new rock climbs.

We came together because I wanted to share my new routing knowledge and help them with their goals of one day establishing climbs. In other words, I wanted to mentor them on one part of their climbing journey. It seems today that with the increase of climbing media and gyms that it may be difficult for a new climber to find a mentor who has the experience and knowledge. I feel that I have had great mentors over the years and that it is my duty to share what I know with others. Here is a short summary of our 5 days together.

  • Piz, Mathis and Drach posing for a selfie.

Pre-Trip: Make a plan.

I sent out an agenda and a plan, so that my new friends would know what they were getting into. In addition, I sent out a required gear list, so that they would be prepared for being able to contribute as much as they could.

The agenda is always a good decision when bringing a team together toward a common goal. If no one is on the same page before the trip, it is likely that they won’t be during the trip. Then you will be spending trip time trying to make decisions that could have already been made while you were still at home. This is an essential step in order to keep things rolling smoothly. There will always be surprises during your journey and it is best to find ways to only have to deal with as few as possible.

Day 1: Know the limit.

I took the team on a wild hike through the Narrows with all of our gear. Along the way, I spent time testing each member in various situations to see how they would deal with a few odd challenges. It was a sneaky way to do some team building, build trust and find out what my new friends were willing and able to do.
I find that when taking someone on a new adventure, it's best to get a feel for what is in their field of play. If you take someone totally out of their comfort zone right off the bat, you are in for a world of surprises that you may not want to deal with and you may lose your partner(s) for the objective.

  • Mathis and Drach psyched and geared up for their approach hike.

Day 2: Laying the groundwork.

After teaching a few of the basics of going ground up on a new climb on Day 1, everyone was excited to continue trying out the new skills that they had learned and practiced. When mentoring, you can’t just be the “sage on the stage” the entire trip. There is certainly plenty of time where you are sharing new information with your mentees, but you also have to step back and let them try. With each success they build confidence and with each failure they learn what not to do and you can correct the issue.

Patience is key to this portion of mentoring. It is really a time for you to step back and let them lead you on a small portion of the journey. Time can not be a factor even though haste needs to be addressed, otherwise you will never get anywhere. Once they have made some progress and eventually get stumped, you can take over and put the team's train back on the tracks and move forward a bit more.

Day 3: Getting over the hump.

The grind begins to be an issue at this point. Three days into serious work people get tired even though they are still very excited. It is important to know when this is happening and take advantage of this potential lull and use it as an opportunity to teach more new material. This slows down the work, gives them time to breathe a little and focus on the new material and not on the fact that they are getting fatigued.
I took this as an opportunity to teach cleaning and bolting the pitches we had climbed so far. It was awesome to see the team gel and just get to work. I was able to see how they were doing and they felt the autonomy of doing their newly learned chores with their newly learned skills. I have found that while mentoring that you really need to let your mentee go for it and make choices on their own. The greatest growth comes from these moments as the lessons that were shared get to sink in. At the end of the day, I can evaluate each of those decisions and provide feedback as to why or why they didn't choose correctly.

  • Mathis and Drach losing their stoke after long days, hikes, and cold weather.

Day 4: Reiterate the plan.

We completed the last pitch while rehearsing potentially challenging sections of the climb. It was time to prepare for the send attempt which was the following day due to the forecast showing rain in two days. The weather is always a factor, we had a clean forecast until it changed and we lost our rest day before the send attempt.
While mentoring, it's always worth reiterating the plan and why it is what it is. This way everyone understands the why behind the upcoming hard decisions. Everyone knew that after our attempt that the trip was basically over due to the fact that the rain was going to soak the sandstone that we were climbing on. That allowed more questions to be answered about the task. Again, it was time to share more information and leave time for it to sink in.

Day 5: Freeing the creation.

Establishing a new multi-pitch climb is one task, freeing your creation is a whole different challenge. I knew that my partners were destroyed from the huge river approach that we slogged through each morning and evening. We were literally the first people in the Narrows each freezing morning and the last ones out each night. Climbing the route after all the ascending fixed lines, hand-drilling the anchors, cleaning and brushing the route and hauling gear in and out of the canyon was going to be a monumental task for each of them without a rest day.

  • Mathis and Drach giving it their all on send day.

This is the hard part, each of my partners gave it their best effort and each fell short on the crux pitches. They climbed well on the majority of the route, but left without the send. I didn’t need to teach them how crappy that feels. Walking away from something that you put your blood, sweat and tears into is difficult. Afterward, while talking about everything that they had just learned throughout the week it slowly became easier for them to accept not sending the new climb. A new fire was lit and it wasn’t about to burn out. They needed to practice up and come back in the spring while at the same time think about where they want to establish their own climbs.

The door had finally opened for them. They now had the tools and the basic knowledge to follow their dreams of new routing. I can’t wait to see what they do.