Being a climbing instructor in the United States and Czech Republic did not come easy. I was not born into a climbing family. Nobody in my family had ever tried rock climbing before me, and I found the sport myself at the age of 25. Once I started climbing, I was hooked and threw everything I had at progressing in both strength and experience. I am a pretty strange mix of introverted and extroverted. When I am around new people or in a new situation I tend to be quiet and a bit timid. Around the right group of people I can be outgoing and the center of attention. My introverted nature made it difficult for me to find climbing partners or mentors early on and meant that if I wanted to progress, it was on me to push myself. This was not without its woes or embarrassing mistakes that I will share. Keep in mind the best way to learn how to climb is by hiring guides, taking a climbing course or maybe even learning a thing or two from that old crusty climber your local climbing gym.
I started climbing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of the closest climbing areas and a great spot to get introduced to outdoor climbing is McConnells Mill State Park. It has hard sandstone that is constantly wet for some reason and has walls that get up to about 40 feet or so. McConnells Mill is not sport bolted but has some anchors at the top and many trees for setting up top-ropes. My first climbing rope lived a short life because I had no idea at the time how to build a proper anchor and shredded my rope with some terrible rope drag.
The most striking line in this area is on a formation called the ship’s prow which gets its name from its shape. I had more confidence than competence at this point (something that has mostly reversed nowadays) and was stoked to send it. My brother and I set up our top-rope and I gave it a run. I made it about 15 feet up and just started into the overhanging section when my foot slipped on the forever wet rock and it all went south. Due to the overhanging nature of the rock there was a massive amount of swing that resulted in me decking (pun intended) and injuring my legs. Luckily, I had no broken bones but I was on crutches for two weeks or so. Right after this event, my father-in-law came to visit for the first time since I married his daughter and was none too impressed with my new career path. I went back and sent the route with a smarter setup after my injuries healed. I am the person climbing the route in the mountain project photo now, so take that daddy-in-law!
Cleaning Sport Routes
This mistake is more funny and embarrassing than tragic. I have a tendency to make big climbing plans and goals, and it started early in my climbing. I somehow came across a climbing area in Lion’s Head, Ontario, Canada and decided this was where I would do my first sport route. There were much more accessible and easier to navigate areas near Pittsburgh but my stoke took me elsewhere. I semi-defend my decision as it is still one of the most beautiful climbing areas I have been to to date! I took my wife Emily who is not a climber to the area and I am lucky to still be married. In this location, you need to either belay from the top, which was way outside my capabilities at the time, or hike to the bottom and go from there. We chose the path of hiking and learned that when climbers say it is an easy hike down they mean easy for climbers. There are a few sections where you need to do a bit of down climbing, which is no real problem for a climber but Emily was not amused.
To the actual point of the story, I had learned how to sport lead in the climbing gym and felt confident I could make it up some easier routes. I had my first experience with Elvis leg here but made it up my selected route cleanly nonetheless. When I got to the top of the climb I was quite confused as there were only rings at the top for descending. In the climbing gym where I learned to lead there were carabiners at the top where you simply clip your rope in and lower down. I embarrassingly assumed all climbs were like this and it was a shock to me to find out otherwise. I didn’t know what else to do so I clipped in one of my carabiners, lowered down and left it there. I knew this wasn’t correct but it was my solution to the problem in the moment. I also knew I was not going to get Emily to do the approach a second day so I climbed a few more routes, repeating my process of leaving carabiners at the anchor and making an unneeded contribution to the climbing community.
After learning how to sport climb, traditional climbing soon followed. I purchased a set of cams, nuts and hexes and headed to the New River Gorge to try them out. At the time, I felt as if I was climbing pretty strong. I don’t really know why I had that impression as I was still a brand spanking new climber with almost no experience outdoors. Anyway, I had watched some Youtube videos and read some online articles about how to place trad gear so I was ready. I decided I would take it easy on my first trad climb and picked out a 5.9+ YDS called Jaws. This is a hand sized crack that runs up a corner and is actually quite a pretty line, not that I made it up far enough to experience it. I tied in and started up the route and quickly realized that climbing on cracks is completely different to climbing face. I placed my first ever cam in the crack and figured it met my standards for a good placement and continued upward. I didn’t make it too far above my placement before I was pumped and panicking. I started to downclimb but it was no use as my foot slipped off of the slippery corner. I fell nearly to the ground but my cam held! I was able to retrieve my cam and bailed off the route without any real incident.
It was winter in Pennsylvania, but I was thirsty for climbing and decided to do my first multi-pitch climbs in Joshua Tree National Park. Yes, I know that Joshua Tree is not specifically known for its multi-pitch climbs and no it did not stop me. By this point in my climbing I had wised up somewhat and had taken a single pitch instructor course through the American Mountain Guide Association. My skills were starting to take a more professional shape but I was pushing new terrain again.
Our first day of climbing in Joshua Tree went without major incident. I did have my first time leading runout granite slab which was a new terrifying experience. I also learned that I didn’t need to hold my pee until my bladder is about to explode and I could pee off of the wall with my harness on need be. This is much easier as a male, I am told by my female climbing partners.
On day two of our excursion we went to the Lost Horse area, and this is where my route finding troubles came into play. I love climbing, but there were times when I was starting out that my stoke to get going would get in the way of proper planning for a route. We decided to climb Dappled Mare, which is a popular 5.8 in the area. We glanced at the topo and could see the general direction of the climb so we went for it. Pitches one and two went without issue. It was my turn to lead pitch 3 so I started the short traverse with an undercling and went up the obvious crack that begins the pitch. After the crack I must have made a wrong turn, and I went up a section of holdless slab with no protection. It led me to an outward flaring crack that couldn’t take any protection. I continued upward through another protection-less slab to yet another outward flaring crack. The runout of about 30 feet was the largest I had faced at the time and I was in a bit over my head. I didn’t feel as if I could down climb and I was getting fatigued due to my hesitation to continue. I was just barely able to pull through the last section of rock, place protection and finish the route. My lax route planning put me on a more challenging rated R route which was a bit much at that point in my climbing career. I have also gotten off route on Royal Arches in Yosemite and got to enjoy a chilly unplanned bivy. The climbing rope does not make a good blanket if you were wondering. Topo reading is an important skill if you are going to venture into longer routes. Reading comments online, asking friends, or talking with more experienced climbers can help you avoid these situations.
Those looking to push their climbing to new levels often have growing pains. Especially if they are not partnering up with a more experienced climber. Learning from past mistakes has helped me make fewer new mistakes while learning how to climb in the Czech Republic. After all, I didn’t want to fall on the first knot that I placed for protection. Feel free to share a story of your climbing growing pains in the comments below. That way I won’t be the only one looking foolish.
I am a climbing instructor who moved from the United States to the Czech Republic. Here is where I share some of my adventures and talk about what it is like to climb in the Czech Republic and Europe.