Choosing a Learn to Lead Climbing Course.......

18th Mar 2015

What draws people to climbing?  Who would, if you think about it logically, voluntarily leave the ground and put themselves at considerable risk by scaling a vertical rock face.  The attraction is hard to explain and yet it is something many people are drawn to.  We can all discuss the thrill, the physical challenge or the warm afterglow of achieving a goal, but for many climbers it is more basic.  Climbing is a parasite that's needs feeding and once the bug takes over it isn't necessary to find a reason to justify it.
In my work I tend, more often than not, to be with clients who have recently found this passion and wish to progress their skills to the next level.  This next step could be learning to set up top or bottom rope systems, to learn the intricacies of bouldering or to get on the sharp end of the rope and learn to lead climb.  Of these I would say that lead climbing is, above all else, the holy grail of most new climbers.  To set off from the ground with just your skills and some metalware to protect you is liberating and exhilarating, but for many new climbers it is also a slightly terrifying proposition.  
When I started lead climbing I never even considered going on a course.  With a group of friends and some borrowed equipment we simply learnt by trial and error.  We watched other climbers and we devoured every magazine and book that would give us information.  We experimented.  We inevitably had our fair share of near misses but we all survived and gradually gained competency.  Having said that, if I had my time again, I'd book on a course every time!  
Peak Mountaineering's 2 day Learn to Lead (L2L) courses are more popular than ever.  I would hazard a guess that we are the Peak District's biggest L2L provider and we consistently get fantastic feedback from clients.  As I write this at the end of February, although our winter courses are still in full swing, we already have several full L2L's booked in for the Spring and Summer.  There are clearly a lot of people drawn to this vertical world and introducing new folk to it brings us great pleasure.
However, a common and justifiable question is what does 'Learning to Lead' actually entail?  What turns a climber with limited experience into someone that can protect themselves on the sharp end?  The answer is that it involves a lot of things and the way it is delivered is key to a new leaders progress and safety.  If you are choosing a L2L provider it pays to choose wisely.....
Industry leading instructors
The beauty of choosing a company that delivers many courses could be that over many courses their instructors have built up a lot of experience.  This is certainly possible, but they could simply have built up a lot of experience of doing things badly.  What is important is certainly lots of chance to practice and develop but it also needs instructors that experiment, that reflect on their own practice, that work in lots of different contexts and who stay up to date with the latest developments.  It needs instructors who are active climbers and who know the areas they deliver courses in really well.  
Every client is different
A good instructor will constantly assess how participants are coping with each step of the process and tailor their delivery accordingly which means, in reality, that no two courses follow exactly the same format.  One person, for example, may struggle with placing cams while another nails it fairly quickly.  Flexibility is key.
The right venue for learning
Venues where clients can push themselves in safety. Venues where there is plenty of choice, good access (you don't want to waste a lot of time on your L2L course slogging up to a remote crag), aren't too busy and allow plenty of learning because the rock type allows opportunities to teach a range of styles (such as jamming, crack climbing and slab climbing).  It also, of course, helps if the venue is in a picturesque setting because that's a big part of why outdoor climbing is so life enriching.
Low ratios
Learning to lead climb is best achieved on a 1 instructor to 2 client ratio.  That means one client can belay while the other climbs.  Crucially, this leaves the instructor free to provide appropriate support.  This could be, depending on the stage of learning and the clients needs, by utilising an additional back up rope or it could be by ascending a rope alongside the leader to advise on gear placements or rope management.
Progressive learning
Leading safely requires a number of skills that are best taught progressively.  These building blocks include being able to manage ropes and climbing hardware efficiently, being able to place protection effectively, developing the skills to build safe belay anchors and, from that, moving on to doing this safely while on the sharp end of a rope.  Each of these involves a number of related building blocks and there are a host of other skills that we haven't even mentioned such as interpreting guide books, movement skills and crag etiquette.  It's a big package of skills and so the way it is taught makes a very big difference to the quality of learning.
What else?
An instructor that can put you at ease and yet is fun to be with.  A provider that offers further development courses in related areas such as rescue skills, multi-pitch climbing or overseas climbing opportunities if you wish to progress further.  A provider that offers good quality equipment that represents good examples of what is available in the market place and a provider that gives priority to your learning and development.
Choosing a L2L course can significantly accelerate your learning to the holy grail of operating safely on the sharp end of the rope and hopefully this guide will give you some pointers to what to look out for when choosing the best course for your needs. All the factors discussed are key priorities on Peak Mountaneering L2L courses so, if you decide we are a provider you feel you could trust your learning to, we'd really love to hear from you.
Posted by Cal