The answer is actually pretty simple: Don’t rush things and MAKE IT FUN! Remember that addictive learning-curve you had all the way back at the start of your climbing career? Well, build up slowly and keep it fun for them and they will catch the same bug you did all those years ago.
Some people are lucky and have no fear of heights, but most will have at least some concerns about taking a fall. The only way to get over that fear is through experience. Fail to make it fun, or worse still scare them, and you will run the risk of putting them off climbing forever.
The wrong way:
A few years ago I went about it exactly the wrong way with my (then) girlfriend. We already had a trip to England’s peak district planned with friends, and thought it would be a good idea to squeeze a day of climbing in at The Roaches. We made a few trips to a local climbing centre where I focussed mostly on how teaching how to belay safely in preparation for the trip.
With hindsight I should’ve predicted that the trip would be a disaster, I hadn’t climbed outdoors myself for a while and I’d forgotten just how different the psychology of outdoor climbing is. While she was able to belay me just fine, even the lowest grade routes were too high and too scary for her. She wasn’t able to complete any routes, and we almost had an argument too boot!
The right way:
Fast forward a few years, and we decided to have another go, this time taking an entirely different approach. My (now) fiancé is a naturally sporty person, so ultimately I knew I had to appeal to her competitive streak.
We started with bouldering. We’re lucky to have an amazing bouldering centre – The Biscuit Factory – just down the road from us in Bermondsey; it’s pretty quiet in the mornings on weekends so we could get up early and cycle over for climb before lunch. Bouldering is perfect for beginners not just because it requires very little equipment, but because the heights involved are much less scary, and you can pick up new techniques really quickly by watching how other people approach problems.
To begin with she was scared to go all the way to the top of the bouldering problems, but there are plenty of routes where the crux is low down, and slowly-but-surely her strength, technique, and confidence grew in equal measures. They have a simple coding system that’s really accessible to new climbers, and it makes it easy to track your progress: I could see as she started to move up through the coloured grades this was appealing to her competitive nature.
There were definitely a few telling milestones that told me things were heading the right way; seeing her start to put in dynamic moves to reach more distant holds was one, and the day she bought herself some finger tape so she could keep bouldering for longer was another.
After a summer of bouldering – by now her technique and confidence were getting really good – we started visiting The Reach wall in Woolwich every other week to practice route climbing on a top-rope.
Again we took it slowly. I started by keeping her on a really tight belay to make sure the additional height (The Reach tops out at about 11m) didn’t really become a factor. A few times she slipped and hardly noticed because I had the line so tight. Over time I transitioned to a much slacker rope; I wanted her to take bigger falls, so that she would become comfortable with it.
The other week, as we were leaving we saw they were selling a book on climbing techniques. Catching her sat up in bed reading it a few days later was another telling sign that she’d really got the bug!
When the time came to progress to lead climbing, again we took it really slowly: either tackling routes well within her grade, or redpointing them on a top rope, to give herself the confidence to go on and lead.
We’ve just got back from our first weekend away climbing together. We spent two days at Stanage Edge in the peak district and climbed a range of Trad routes, starting on VDiff’s and graduating up to some Severes. Not only was it a great weekend but we’ve already got a Sport climbing trip to Portland in the diary for later this month. I think we’ll call that a success!