How to Tell if Your Partner is a Noob
While many people get professional instruction (which I highly recommend) from guide services, schools, or camps, most of us got into climbing because we knew somebody who was already doing it.
Let’s be absolutely clear, many of us absolutely love teaching people to climb. If you’re even halfway social, you’ll have no problems climbing with people whose skills are far greater or lesser than yours, because we all had to learn sometime. Instead of being frustrated by, or mocking the noob, you owe it to them as a potential mentor and fellow human being to treat them with respect.
It’s fun to joke about, but really, if you’re just starting to climb, we should all be jealous of you. You get to experience everything for the first time, and you’ll gain amazing amounts of self-confidence and win lots of personal victories. You’re also finding out about one of the most fun and rewarding activities out there, and are joining a rarefied club of pretty darn cool people.What is dangerous, however, is when you go out climbing with someone and they’ve represented themselves as knowing more than they do. Their motivations are completely understandable. They don’t want to come off as uncool, they might want to give off a macho air, they may want to seem more attractive to the person they’re climbing with, or they may be dealing with nervousness by putting on false airs. That can get people hurt, badly. If you’re going out climbing with someone you don’t know, you should ask them directly what they are and aren’t comfortable with. How hard do they climb indoors? How hard do they climb outdoors? These can be seen as aggressive questions, so use some tact and ask something like, “What sort of grades do you want to warm up on?” or, “Are you working this route, or do you think you’ll cruise it?” Do they know how to use a munter hitch in case they drop their belay device (“Hey man, do we have any HMS biners in case we need to use a munter?”) Do they know how to perform a rescue? (“Have you ever had to haul someone up a rope?”) A self rescue? (“Do you carry a prussik?”) If they don’t know the answers to these questions or if you suspect they’re just saying yes, modify your activity to something more controllable and within your abilities. That’s the responsible thing to do.
However, if you’re like me and like the circle-jerking schadenfreude associated with internet anonymity and snarkiness, you might want to sit back and watch the people around you at the crag or local rock gym and see if you can spot the noobs. They’re often pretty easy, as the noob does give off a few red flags:
Too much gear on their harness
You’ve seen this guy (and it’s almost always a guy). They’re so proud that they started leading sport routes, or maybe trad, that they never unclip their gear from their harness. Sometimes it’s the “I just bought my first 3 quickdraws because it represents my dream of leading once I’m not a broken college student,” but sometimes it’s the full-blown, “I’m a woodchuck, check out the full set of nuts, double set of cams, 8 slings, cordelette, figure-8, ascenders, gloves, daisy chain, personal anchor, and other useless toys I have loudly dangling from my back.” If you’re “training” with weight, for god’s sake just buy a weight vest – they’re cheaper than any single one of the 30 cams hanging from your harness. This person MAY take off their harness when bouldering, but will still complain about the leatherman, cell phone, pager, and flashlight in the back pocket of their jeans digging into their back when they fall on the mat. Don’t be that guy. Here’s what can hang from your harness in a gym without you looking ludicrous: A belay biner and belay device, and your chalk bag. That’s it. And your chalk bag is probably better off on its own belt anyway.
Everything is shiny
I know a guy who, when he first started climbing, would trade his brand new climbing equipment for the cosmetically scuffed gear of his buddies. He didn’t want to come off as incompetent, and of course his buddies were psyched to have brand new gear. Don’t worry, he became very, very good and has now climbed all over the world and runs a university outing club professionally, but he was a total noob at some point. Basically, if you use your climbing gear, it gets scratched up really quickly. Your cam lobes get all scuffed, your carabiners get worn, your rope gets fuzzy and dirty, your helmet gets scratched, and the bolt-end of your carabiners get jacked. If your stuff is all brand new, either you’re a rich climber (rare), you’re sponsored (lucky!), or you’re just starting out. It’s likely that unscratched cam has never been placed, which means you really don’t have that much leading experience, and you’re likely to get yourself into trouble. Beware the shiny gear!
Too many hexes
I’ll date myself here and say that when I was learning how to climb, the people teaching me were around before hexes were invented, and they still considered hexes to be an awesome and highly useful addition to your rack. I will also say that I do carry some hexes, and have been very happy to bail off a single bomber $10 hex during a thunderstorm rather than leave one of my $70 cams. Yes, hexes are light and cheap, can be pounded into icy cracks on mixed climbs, and kinda sorta have the same range as cams, but honestly you’re just better off with more cams most of the time, and experienced climbers tend to carry very few of them. Cams are heavier and more expensive, but they’re just so much easier to place!
They ask for a sip of your water
Dude? You didn’t bring your own food and water to the crag? Now you’re gonna mooch off mine? Swear to god if your crazy dog craps on my ropebag I’m going to leave you hanging, escape the belay, and force you to gnaw through the rope with your teeth. If you brought water, worked your ass off, and ran out, that’s a different story. You’re my friend and you can have my water. But if you didn’t bring water because you knew I would….grrrr.
They drop people
Seriously, this is not entirely their fault. There are far too many rock gyms with lax belay testing and instruction. But let’s just say that a certain author saw three kids (with, of course, a full sport rack on each of their harnesses) REPEATEDLY lower each other poorly, including dropping each other occasionally in freefall for the last 15 feet. What’s worse, they didn’t apologize somberly but rather laughed and blamed it on the belay devices the gym uses. They were talked to, but honestly there is no excuse for dropping someone. If you climb long enough, you may lower someone poorly at some point, but it’s a very, very big deal. You trust your belayer to take your life into their hands, and if you get dropped, that shit is like, a big deal. Like a hand-written letter and a six pack and letting you go on that date with their sister kind of a big deal.
Man, we get it. You’re awesome and you just climbed your first v3 in the gym and the second pair of rock shoes you ever tried on are obviously the best shoes ever made, and company X makes way better biners than company Z, and that left hold is super crimpy but if you gaston you can make it, but it’s super shouldery brah blah blah blah. They may not know the common etiquette that beta is upon request only. Which makes sense, because every time they’ve climbed, their buddy talked them through the moves, so they assume that their job is to stand at the bottom and tell you how to do each move. You can politely explain to them the general etiquette, or you can do what I do, which is to walk up to them, give them an exquisitely long (2 minute) bearhug and whisper in their ear how much you love being given beta by complete strangers, and how amazing they smell right now.
Now don’t be a noob.