Climbers are not drawn to Nebraska’s rolling hills that span for endless miles. They’re drawn to the great walls in Yosemite National Park and the steep cliffs of the Rocky Mountains.
Despite the lack of climbing opportunities Nebraska offers, its people are still provided with all the necessary resources to make it a lifelong hobby. Climbers are able to participate in their hobby at a number of climbing gyms in Lincoln and Omaha.
Martin Brannaman and Minh Phu Hong are students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who work at the Outdoor Adventure Center located on campus. Among their various responsibilities working there, they teach beginner and intermediate climbing courses.
Climbing instructors are the first people a new climber will meet. It is their job to introduce them to an activity that people avoid due to a fear of heights. They must make beginners feel as comfortable as possible and do so by enforcing fun and safety.
“I want to show more people how to have fun climbing, show them what I love, and how to do it properly and safely,” Hong said.
All climbers must learn how to tie themselves onto the wall using a rope and harness. Instructors teach everyone how to tie a proper knot so the rope and harness will catch someone if they fall. This has the potential to be fatal if it’s not done properly. Instructors will use a significant portion of a beginner class to teach students how to tie a proper knot and will make sure they can do it successfully and consistently before they start climbing.
“The thing I struggle with the most as a teacher is teaching the knot because I have my way of doing it and when people don’t see it the way I see it, I struggle to teach it,” Brannaman said. “That’s something I’m focusing on trying to improve on.”
Strength is a requirement of climbers and is something climbing instructors can’t teach. However, climbing involves much more than having ripped, defined muscles. Teaching people proper techniques drastically improves their skill level.
Competitive climber Kaleb McQuillan explained the importance of having good technique. He is an experienced climber and has taken the same class at the Outdoor Adventure Center that Brannaman and Hong teach.
“It is hard to learn techniques if you cannot hold onto the wall and it is hard to hold onto the wall without technique, so you have to develop them concurrently,” McQuillan said. “I will say that sometimes it is worse to have a lot of strength from the beginning because you can avoid learning technique for a lot longer by simply pulling through everything difficult. Whatever you are worst at will hold you back.”
Proper technique is important because it allows climbers to get the most out of their strength and maximize their potential. According to Hong, beginners tend to overutilize their upper body which makes them tired really fast.
“Use your feet,” Hong said. “You have strong muscles in your legs and beginners tend to underutilize them.”
Brannaman and Hong teach various techniques in their class. There are often situations new climbers face where they are unable to progress further up the wall despite having the required strength. They simply don’t know the proper technique. Brannaman and Hong said they are often times able to tell students how to pass that section by telling them where to place their arms and legs and which limbs to push or pull with.
Climbing has a reputation of a dangerous sport because it can be. According to scoutorama.com, an estimated average of 30 out of 5,000,000 climbers die every year in North America alone. People die from falling, which can be the result of human error, equipment failure, or free soloing. A climb is considered a free solo when a person climbs with no equipment to catch them if they fall. A small percentage of high profile climbers see the danger and mastery it takes to free solo and are drawn to it.
Climbing with ropes and harnesses still has risks. Equipment has become safer over the years but still has a chance of failing, leading to a fatal fall. Bad weather such as heavy rain or snow can strand climbers on walls for prolonged periods of time by making holds slippery. Rocks have the potential of coming loose and falling on someone. It is much safer to climb indoors where practically all risks are eliminated.
“Safety is much more of a concern climbing outdoors,” McQuillan said. “The pads you fall onto in a gym are soft and the holds feel better. It’s really important to have the right gear and the right education if you are going to climb outside.”
For Brannaman and Hong, their most important job as climbing instructors is to eliminate human error to make climbing as safe as possible. They need to make sure their students understand how to use climbing equipment properly to catch them during a fall. A mistied knot on the harness or an improperly secured belay device could lead to injury. The belay device allows climbers to rappel down the wall slowly and smoothly if they fall.
Additionally, instructors must teach etiquette. Beginners must be taught some specific rules to ensure everyone’s safety. It’s considered improper etiquette to walk underneath someone climbing because they could fall on that person.
“The major challenge when dealing with new people is education,” McQuillan said. “New climbers generally don’t understand the etiquette that keeps everyone safe.”
Climbing involves a lot of unfamiliar terminology for new people which can be a struggle both for the student to learn and the instructor to teach. There are terms for very specific climbing moves, and equipment pieces. Instructors can’t teach every climbing term and students can’t memorize every term right away.
“It’s hard to get people to understand the terminology. You can say all these fancy words but that doesn’t mean people will understand them,” Brannaman said.
The challenges of teaching certainly come with rewarding experiences. Brannaman and Hong both agree that it’s rewarding to see someone step out of their comfort zone and push themselves to do something they’ve never done before and see how happy that makes people.
“We taught repelling my first semester here and we ended up having people repel off the top deck,” Brannaman said. “A bunch of people were really scared to do it but they ended up convincing themselves to. I was up there with them and it was really cool to see people take a skill they learned that day and push it to their max.”
Climbing is something Brannaman, Hong, and McQuillan said they all plan on incorporating into their future.
McQuillan and Hong both want to continue climbing as a hobby and plan on moving to a place where climbing is more accessible.
For Brannaman on the other hand, his future career could potentially involve climbing. This summer, he plans to move to Montana to work as an outdoor activities guide. He won’t be teaching climbing there until he has more experience climbing outdoors but will still lead people on fun outdoor activities. While up there, he plans on furthering his climbing passion with access to more outdoor climbing.
“I have a personal goal of climbing outside more and getting more comfortable on real rock and leading outside,” Brannaman said. “This summer is for me to see if I really want to do this full time, on a more professional level.”
Since climbing comes with the risk of falling, it is crucial that instructors teach proper equipment use and safety precautions. They are responsible for newcomers’ safety. Learning to climb in a gym is just the beginning. It prepares climbers for going outdoors where there are countless opportunities to climb great towering walls. Climbers must learn how to operate equipment safely and instructors must prepare people to climb outside of the gym where the risk and reward are both far greater.