A UK-based rock skills course to develop confidence and knowledge to get outside independently.
Sport climbing has always been my preferred style of rock climbing. I love the physicality of it and the relative low risk factor holds huge appeal with me. However, access to sport climbing crags has become somewhat limited during the last few years. The lure of the sea has brought me to reside in beautiful Cornwall where time in the water often takes precedence over time on the rock. Plus, there is pretty much no sport climbing to be found in Cornwall. Lots of long and committed trad routes on exposed sea cliffs, but nothing bolted.
My perception of trad climbing isn’t, and never really has been, an especially positive one. To me it’s a scary, unnecessarily high risk activity that requires far too much expensive and technical gear. The result is that I’ve never really gone near it!
Herein lies my problem: if I still want to climb outdoors, without having to travel 3 hours to the nearest decent sport crag, then the reality of the matter is that I need to embrace this thing they call trad climbing. And if I want to do that, then I need to start small and learn from the beginning.
Intermediate Rock Skills course with Ibex Outdoor
So, with some reluctance, I signed up for a course. I knew I needed to improve my rope skills so that, before I even contemplate trying trad, I can just start climbing outdoors more. And I knew I needed to learn that properly from someone who really knows what they’re talking about, rather than just figuring it out myself. Learn all your climbing knots at home and watch YouTube videos to understand some of the basics, sure. But YouTube, doesn’t pick up on your mistakes. It doesn’t correct that bad placement before you commit to it, and before it’s too late to try it again. Get on a climbing course and you can make all the mistakes you like in a safe and controlled environment.
Ibex Outdoor offers a variety of skills-based courses in association with Mountain Training. I opted for the Intermediate Rock Skills course. The content seemed to tick some key learning boxes for me like selecting anchors, setting up basic climbs and seconding a lead climber. Ideal, as I wanted to come away from the course with the skills and confidence to set up top ropes on Cornish rock for me and my non-climbing pals to enjoy.
The Intermediate Rock Skills course is a UK-wide course that is suitable for indoor climbers with some experience climbing outdoors. It aims to develop skills and build confidence so that indoor climbers can climb independently at appropriate outdoor climbing sites. Plus, on completion of the course participants receive a certificate from Mountain Training!
Rock climbing in Dartmoor National Park
The two-day Rock Skills course took place in Dartmoor National Park. I’ve been wandering around the moors fairly frequently for the last 4 or 5 years. I’ve clambered over the tors, leapt from rock to rock, traversed their edges and generally admired their majestic prominence in the otherwise bleak landscape. I’ve also gazed longingly at the subtle features on their faces, the deep and definite cracks, and the dramatic overhangs, and wished I’d had the knowledge to set up climbs on them, despite their lack of bolted protection. So it was wonderful to be up on the moors, ready to gain exactly that sort of knowledge. Time to get on the rock and not just look at it!
That said, we didn’t do much climbing on the first day. And for once, I wasn’t bothered. Impatient me usually just wants to crack on, get climbing, stop faffing. But with so much to learn and a small, focussed group to learn with, we actually covered a lot of ground in a very short amount of time, starting with learning to place trad gear. It really is incredible how bomber a tiny 16g nut can be. Trust it with my life? I won’t lie, I’m not quite there yet!
However, taking time to figure out what constitutes good, and more importantly, bad placements was a bit of a game-changer for me. We didn’t even leave the ground to do it. Yet one hour of trying out and analysing different placements, under the watchful eye of our instructor, helped me realise and understand just how strong and reliable a well-placed piece of gear actually is.
We also spent time learning basic anchor systems for setting up top rope climbs. Again, we didn’t even need to go near the crag to do this. There is SO much that can be learned and practiced at ground level without having the additional worry of personal anchor systems. As a result, we were all able to focus solely on choosing the best placements, the right knots and the safest angles.
Only then did we get up on the rock to put them into action.
A course for beginner trad climbers
What I didn’t anticipate, before doing this course, was how much of the content would be driven towards preparing climbers for a “career” in trad climbing.
The Intermediate Rock Skills course is designed to prepare climbers for the Learn to Lead Sport Climbs course, as well as the Learn to Lead Trad Climbs course. If I were hoping to eventually learn to sport climb then I would have liked to have felt a little more encouraged to take my climbing in that direction, with a little less of the focus being put on trad climbing. I would have also expected to have gained some knowledge on sport climbing anchors.
As it happens, that wasn’t knowledge I wanted to gain, so I was more than happy with the content we covered. And seeing as the majority of rock climbing in the UK is trad, it makes perfect sense that there would (and should) be a trad focus.
A tailored course
On day two we took a short walk into a steep-sided woodland river valley to consolidated what we had learned the previous day. After a morning of working closely with the instructors to create some solid anchors using rocks, slings, trees, nuts, cams and static ropes, we were able to choose the focus of the afternoon: seconding a multi-pitch route, or learning more about anchors.
Years ago I seconded a huge multi-pitch trad route in Squamish, Canada. It was an epic, if not rather nervy, day. But an excellent experience all the same. So although I would have certainly enjoyed learning more about seconding trad climbs, I felt like my needs would be better met learning more about anchor setting.
As such, while the youngsters enjoyed the thrill of the multi-pitch, me and another participant opted for more anchor work. For me, it was certainly a good decision. My confidence grew and grew with every knot tied, carabiner tightened, nut placed (all thrice checked, of course!), and question asked.
And I asked a gazillion questions about, well, everything! I questioned every angle, every better alternative for placements, and demanded to know and understand best practices for each new scenario we worked on. Gavin, the owner of Ibex Outdoor, was incredibly patient with me. He took plenty of time to talk over all my queries in a such a way that made everything feel very clear and surprisingly uncomplicated!
Nope, you absolutely don’t get that from YouTube!
I went into the course with a clear picture of what I wanted to get out of it. And, thanks to the flexible guidance of the instructors at Ibex Outdoor, I came out feeling even more confident than I expected, with a really in depth understanding of basic anchor systems. I also feel a step closer to understanding where I stand with trad climbing, moving forwards.
Obviously there is still lots to learn, even in the fairly limited world of top roping. But I had enough questions answered, and practiced setting up anchors in enough simulated scenarios to have me covered for my upcoming explorations. And yes, confident enough to let my less experienced climbing pals put their trust in my newly learned skills and knowledge.
Upcoming courses with Ibex Outdoor
The below courses all run on Dartmoor.