Saturday, June 27, 2015

Mentors: The Importance of Being One and/or Having One

/'men, tôr, 'men, tər'/
1. An experienced and trusted adviser.

I find myself having this conversation a lot lately on why mentorship in climbing (and let's be honest, most life skills) is so important but lacking in our community. Mentorship cannot be underrated, yet somehow it is. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor the minute I was on a rock (my Dad and all of his climber friends), but most new climbers aren't that lucky. I will preface the rest of this post by saying that I was in no way a natural climber. Sure, as a kid I climbed on stuff but it wasn't with the enthusiasm that so many of my friends or so many amazing pro athletes had when they were starting. There was the expected amount of whining/crying from a kid (me) being convinced that climbing was pretty awesome. I was also guided by people I trusted, even when they were pushing me to go beyond that I thought possible for myself. I wasn't a surefooted (it's even questionable now) or confident kid but I had someone to tell me that I could accomplish these things and that I should trust myself. Eventually, I grew to believe these things too, the process however, was not a quick or easy one. This post might meander, but bear with me, I have a point.

My Dad and I
I see often where newer climbers (and sometimes not) get themselves into situations, where if they had a mentor (or at least someone who knew what they were doing) they might not have gotten into. Some examples include getting on routes they probably shouldn't be on as a new leader, getting hurt not using gear properly, not being spotted/not spotting properly, etc. Now while some of these situations might not be physically dangerous, being able to build your mental game is just as important. One could also argue that many a great route was discovered by people getting on stuff they shouldn't. I agree, however for the sake of this discussion, keeping someone safe is a huge part of climbing and it shouldn't be taken lightly as a climber of any ability. Not to say that there isn't some risk, there is. Also not to say that experienced climbers don't make mistakes, everyone does. The difference is a lot of time, the more you climb and the greater your knowledge bank becomes, the more able you are to truly assess your risk potential and make choices based on experience. It can save you lots of trial and error, learning from someone else's past experiences. I have made many a non-intelligent choice, many times in disregard to what my Dad was telling me. I have since learned that this is generally not the best way to go. 

I don't remember my first climb or even my first lead, but I sure remember the first time I truly felt fear. It was on my first multipitch lead, West Lark on Tahquitz, Idyllwild, I think I was around 13. The climb is a 5.5, 600' trad climb, nothing crazy but about two-thirds of the way up I really felt the exposure (and the swallows dive bombing the cliffs didn't help any either). At some point near the top I got off route by about three feet, which is really not a whole lot, but thus began my small descent into madness. I'm not sure if it was my stubbornness was due to the fact that I was generally a stubborn kid or if I was just too scared but I refused (for what seemed like hours) to downclimb the few feet, as my Dad suggested I do. This obviously would have made the experience a much less stressful one, but it was not to be. Instead, I managed to pull some bizarre 5.8 move and get through the rest of the climb. I bring up this story because I feel like if it had been anyone else with me I probably wouldn't have been able to to finish leading the climb. I also don't think that I would have felt comfortable getting back on lead the next time I went out. 

Again, everyone is different in their journey and mine was one fraught with a lack of boldness. Something that might not seem hard or scary for one person, might feel completely insane for someone else. Physically I could definitely do this climb but mentally I had to make a choice to really push beyond my fear. Fear is a natural part of learning to climb and how you deal with it can be greatly affected by a mentor and how they deal with your fear (and sometimes their own).

All new climbers can benefit from having such a person. Someone who is more experienced and can guide and give you skills/knowledge that you might not otherwise learn, or if you do, it could take much longer. There is also a sense of ethics and community value that can be passed on through your mentor. Climbing is about having fun and pushing our physical limits, but it is also about appreciating nature and being supporting of each other. As climbing becomes a more widespread sport, there continues to be more and more climbers in the gym and outside. It is important that as the sport grows, so does our social responsibility to nature and each other. Now, this should be a two way agreement in that more experienced climbers should be willing to give sound advice and also not be demeaning in our attitudes towards newer climbers, while at the same time, newer climbers need to be open to receiving advice and also respect the experience of someone who has been at it longer than they have. It's also nice to have someone remind you that climbing doesn't need to be serious all the time, and laughing a lot is good for you.

I will take time to state the obvious here and say that there are plenty of amazing climbers that might not have had mentors but turned into excellent climbers. My godfather, Dick Webster began climbing in JT in the late 1950s with his Dad, and my Dad and his friends really began climbing in JT in the late 60s as a way to stay in shape for mountaineering. There were definitely not a lot of climbers at that point, but all of those guys did some awesome stuff. An adventurous spirit and a certain amount of crazy will definitely take you far, however, climbing is much more mainstream than back then and I don't see why one wouldn't want to tap into a wealth of knowledge.

Mentorship in many ways is like finding the perfect climbing shoes, sometimes they just don't work. Even if the shoes are amazing and shiny and everything you think you want in a vehicle to greatness, sometimes once you try them on the fit just isn't right. Mentors and mentees relationships, in many ways, are like those shoes. You might need to try out a few people and see how well you work together, etc. This goes both ways, sometimes a mentor just isn't getting you, isn't inspiring you, or just feels not right. The same can be said for a mentee, who sometimes might not listen when you are advising, doesn't seem motivated, etc. Either way, there is some trial and error that might be involved in finding someone with whom you trust and can build a solid bond. It doesn't mean you can't climb with people who aren't necessarily the best mentor for you, but it means you might want to find someone else to learn from. I will say, the downside of growing up with your mentor and main climbing partner being your Dad is that when you're being particularly stubborn, the parent card gets pulled and you have to climb. 

All in all, I have come to really love climbing and the awesome people you can meet along the way. This would never have been possible without the mentorship of my Dad or his friends. Where once I was an awkward kid who couldn't imagine ever being able to teach anyone anything, it is pretty awesome to be able to share the knowledge I have learned with other people. And although I can't get advice from my Dad anymore, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a wonderful community of amazing climbers who are always willing to share their knowledge.

Jim Foote, my Dad, and Dick Webster on their way to climb some volcano

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