The Minimum

Photo Credit: Grand Teton National Park Commercial Guiding


By Derek DeBruin


Within a year of beginning to climb, I was enrolled in the Single Pitch Instructor course, a program for aspiring climbing instructors. In three short days the curriculum made quite clear how little I actually knew about climbing. Something as simple as belaying from above directly off the anchor blew my mind. I had a lot to learn.

A few months later, with my first season of rock guiding under my belt, I took the Single Pitch Instructor exam. By that point, I had a firm grasp on how to belay from above directly off the anchor. But when the examiner asked me why I’d used a “rabbit runner” system with a static rope to build an anchor, the best I could do was stammer about needing to connect three pieces that weren’t very close together. To be honest, I’m not sure I even knew at the time what other options I might have used.

That didn’t matter, though—I passed the exam. Somehow, I’d managed to go from having my mind blown to knowing everything in a few months. I failed to grasp that regurgitating a few basic technical systems on command was not the same thing as good guiding. Soon, I found myself at a hanging stance atop a single pitch of climbing attempting to coach a client to rappel through a tangled mess of ropes. It appeared that at least some of the time, I didn’t even really have “regurgitating a few basic technical systems” dialed. 

Luckily, the lesson of tangled ropes was not lost on me and I worked rapidly to tighten my systems up. I poured hours into anchor building, rescue drills, rope management, reading, and research until I could employ almost any obscure technical system as desired. What was a weakness had become a point of pride. Unfortunately, there was another lesson that hadn’t quite hit home.

My client had struggled mightily to the top of that pitch, struggled again at the hanging stance I’d used, and struggled further to rappel through my mess.

He probably didn’t get too much out of that rappel lesson. Nor did he ask to learn that skill. What might have been value-added was a major distraction not only due to inadequate technical skills, but also poor application of those skills even if I’d mastered them.

On a later rock guiding course, this point finally coalesced. I led our party of three up a pitch of vertical crack climbing. The instructor climbed first, as is often the case, and I told him he could remove any gear that would be convenient for him. He was pleased by this as it made his life much easier. During our debrief of the day, he mentioned that the technical skills I’d demonstrated seemed solid, but real craftsmanship grew from using technical skills as a client care tool. I’d recognized that directional protection on the pitch of crack climbing was irrelevant and had used this knowledge to make the climb easier for my follower. He encouraged me to apply this paradigm—technical skills as a client care tool—as often as possible. My clients wouldn’t always be able to figure out why, but they’d have less fatiguing, more enjoyable days (and maybe even tip accordingly).

Armed with this new knowledge and a positive appraisal of my technical skills, my next problem was consistent temptation to employ rope tricks unnecessarily. One of my students in an anchor building clinic was clearly well-read and had some experience placing gear, so I expected him to do quite well. However, he kept missing the mark just a bit. His anchors were unnecessarily complex, which caused him to make errors. I finally made the connection with my own work. While a mountain professional should have a number of tools in the box, the simplest, most common solution is simple and common for a reason. The Pareto principle or “80/20 rule” would guide me forward. A small set of techniques (perhaps 20% of the tools in the box) would solve most problems most of the time (80% or more). This fundamental point was underemphasized in my training as a guide. We learned a host of technical skills, but rarely was it made clear that while we should probably be familiar with 20 or 30 different transitions, we’d normally use the same 5 or 6 day in and day out in our work. In reality, there was a minimal set of skills worth the most effort to master.

This idea of minimal skill set was made clearer still when I began to teach the Single Pitch Instructor course that had once expanded my horizons so considerably as a young climber. I gave a lesson on protection and anchors to the students on the course. During debrief at the end of the day my co-instructor and mentor methodically disassembled my lesson. What did these students really need to learn if they were going to be solid instructors? Teaching them how to place a cam was irrelevant since it was a prerequisite skill. If the students hadn’t already mastered this, that was their fault, not ours. What they needed to understand was the full suite of anchor building options, when to use them, which ones would be used most often, and which ones to teach students of their own. With limited time and attention to devote to any given lesson, I needed to learn to teach the minimum. Reducing a lesson to its most essential components meant more time spent on the most important topics, more hands-on practice, and students who would actually retain knowledge.

John Long has asserted in a few of his climbing “how to” books that an entire climbing career can be made from the knowledge of a very minimal set of knots. He’s not wrong. I’ve certainly been happy to have the right knot for the job many times, but there’s some hyperbole in the idea that an autoblock and a prusik are really so different. If I had to boil it down, a climber can get by with just five knots and hitches: the figure-8, the overhand, the clove hitch, the munter hitch, and the prusik. The figure-8 secures the rope end to objects (such as a harness). The overhand family is used to join rope ends for rappelling and clipping the middle of the rope to a carabiner. The clove hitch creates adjustable attachments. The munter can be used for belaying and rappelling when other tools aren’t available. The prusik is an incredibly reliable rope grab. There may be more elegant solutions in some cases, but this small set of knots will get the job done, even in complex multi-rope transitions or challenging rescue systems.

This is the challenge I consistently struggle to master to this day: the minimum. Additional material in a lesson results in wasted time and attention from students. Inefficient route finding results in wasted breath from clients. Nonessential equipment in the pack results in undesirable extra effort. Unnecessary transitions on a climb result in wasted time. The path to mastery is defined by ruthlessly shedding anything extraneous. Once it’s clear how little is needed, what remains can be honed to perfection of the craft.


About the Author

Derek DeBruin is an American Mountain Guides Association Rock Guide and Assistant Alpine Guide with experience throughout the United States climbing rock, ice, and snow. He is an owner of Bear House Mountain Guiding near Salt Lake City, Utah.