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Am I a Beginner?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Dan H, Jan 25, 2022.

  1. Dan H

    Dan H FNG

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    This question came to mind from another post, and rather than continue to muddy the waters of that post I thought it was time to give this question it's own room to breathe.

    Am I a beginner? I think I know my own answer but would like to hear your opinions, and this is probably a healthy question to ask yourself as you prep for a new year and scout new canyons.

    I have 20 years of casual climbing experience. That means weekend warrior type sport climbing. I've only ever followed trad climbs, and only 4-5 pitches. I had professional climbing instruction in the beginning, but that was a long time ago. I get out my ascending kit at least once a year to refresh my technique and struggle up a couple hundred feet of rope. I spend much more time researching canyon and rappel techniques online then I ought too, and I practice rappelling as it's own skill before going to a technical canyon. I plan my canyons around my limited skillset and only chose canyons that are well within what I consider a safe threshold. They are usually short, with few rappels that have well documented simple anchors. If I can't convince my wife that it is a simple safe anchor then I can't use it, so nothing buried.

    I've only completed around a dozen technical canyons, and only one or two with experienced canyoneers. I believe in tom's beginner statement "don't be a beginner leading (or being led by) a beginner," but I worry that every time I take my family down a short simple canyon close to home, I am breaking tom's rule. Am I lucky, or is knowing my skillset and choosing canyons appropriate for it move me out of beginner territory in those canyons? I have led my family safely and successfully through the subway, high spur, and several other very short canyons requiring one or two rappels. What are your thoughts?
  2. Rapterman

    Rapterman

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    Hi Dan!
    You will know you are no longer a beginner when: (others please chime in)
    you have lost count of the number of canyons you have done
    you own over 10 (20?) pieces of rope now too short to rappel on. Dog leashes? Tow rope?
    You could wardrobe an entire end-of-the-world movie with your shredded clothes/pads/canyon armor/gack.
    Your helmet has more stickers/graffiti than a hippie bus. You do use a helmet, yes?
    It no longer occurs to ask the question.
    :D
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  3. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Awesome. Thanks for bringing this forward. And "good on ya" for exercising caution and judgment.

    "It is not an adventure until something goes wrong" - Yvon Chouinard.

    What happens if something goes wrong?

    We have been seeing, and have always seen, people who choose the wrong canyons for their skillset, sometimes resulting in death, sometimes not. Shirlz's most recent podcast has one of these. I remember many years ago, someone running into a group of noobs in The Squeeze (San Rafael Swell, Utah) doing it as their first canyon. "We wanted to start canyoneering, and this one sounded awesome! The other ones sounded kinda lame." (They survived).

    But what happens if someone gets their hair stuck on rappel, or their shirt gets sucked in? With small kid, even fingers can get sucked into the device. What happens if there is not an easily gotten anchor? What happens if you get your rope stuck or damaged? What if a rock falls on you and breaks your arm? What if some cretin removed all the webbing and rapides in the canyon?

    What seems to be more dangerous is beginners who don't know that they are beginners. "We'd been climbing a couple times, so we have the skillset to do canyons." - do they though? (see podcast)

    Tom
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2022
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  4. Craig

    Craig Feeling My Way

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    Most people have a hard admitting that they are beginners. Either they don't think they are beginners or they try to not act like a beginner in order to be accepted into a group.

    I've been in canyons with people that had twenty years of climbing and canyoneering experience and I will never go with them again. They were beginners at being part of a team, could not be relied upon to help improve the safety of anyone other than themselves, and had no ability to recognize their own limitations.

    I've been with people doing their first canyon that were beginners in the skills needed to get through the canyon but experts at teamwork, self-awareness, curiosity, and the desire to learn.

    At some level, we are all beginners and when I find people that know that and aren't afraid to admit it, I try to hang onto them.
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  5. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    "What happens if something goes wrong?"

    This was an honest question directed at everyone, but also specifically at you, Dan.

    Tom
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  6. Jon Adams

    Jon Adams CanyonSlacker

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    While I don't have 20 years of canyoneering, and can count the number of canyons I've actually done, and have only a couple ropes, and no stickers, it's thinking ahead to the usual things like Craig and Tom mention above. Do I have a plan for each of those? Is the plan practical? Do I have the tools/methods/skills in place to implement those plans? Am I able to fall back to a Plan B or C in case Plan A goes pear-shaped? When with others, how reliable/durable/solid are they? Physically, mentally, and emotionally? Are they all dependent on me? Does everyone have the basic safety training and actually uses their gear? Who can take over if I fail?

    Can't think of every scenario. I'd be frozen. There are things that are truly catastrophic, like a grave injury to me or my companions. Do I have the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing? Whatever that is? The old "divert the trolley car, save 5 lives, sacrifice one?" Sure, it's nearly never that dire, but sometimes it's pretty bad. Do I have spares of all the important kit?

    I could list all the ways I know I could fail, for the want of a bit of kit I didn't procure. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn't get into the situation that would make me wish I had that.

    In a very different yet generally familiar way, I'm planning a multi-day off-road journey in Utah in June. The current truck doesn't have the 42-gallon fuel capacity of the old Suburban. It's perhaps not quite as bulletproof. I know that I'll need water, food, and good boots. I have amateur-radio-service two-way radios, some other two-way radios, and my truck beacons my GPS location every 60 seconds. So long as my radio signal makes it to Abajo Peak, Navajo Mtn, Mt Ellen, and maybe a few other tall ones, the Internet will know where my truck is. What if I fall and hit my head? A note in the truck saying when I'm due back, and let the rangers know I'm out there. I have a second spare tire, hi-lift jack, two 5-gallon steel fuel containers, 6' long aluminum ramps, a shovel, 12 gallons of water, and more. Is that enough? What if the truck breaks? No longer possible to carry spare parts for all the possible things that can go wrong. Well, I've got a credit card for that, although I'll be at least $2k poorer afterwards.

    As long as I know the basics and I have my head on right, I never believe I'm a rank amateur, but I never would claim to be the quintessential professional, either.

    Cheers - Jon

    (p.s. It's funny, but I have a fancy electric jack and torque wrench set. Works really well. Lifts the truck up, pops loose the nuts on the wheels, all good. But, the manual jack and a 24" breaker bar are also in the truck, taking up space, just in case...)
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2022
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  7. Kuenn

    Kuenn

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    :thumbsup::thumbsup:

    What is a beginner, especially in this sport? I'm not sure I have a good definition. Quite sure any one of you could put me in a canyon you've mastered and make me look fawn-ish.

    Skill level is somewhat measurable but not always the ladder to expertise. Tom's quote from Chouinard is so very pertinent. Well applied situational skills combined with good judgement is what separates the advancing from the novice - IMO. We all add a notch in our collective resume' when our applied knowledge and skill resolves dilemmas.

    I can't find the quote, but if memory serves I believe it was Chouinard that said (paraphrasing) "In climbing and other endeavors, you don't know how good you are until you fall. That becomes a defining moment. You now know what you need to work at to get better."

    (I read a few of his books in the 80's when it became painfully obvious I wasn't ever going to be a very proficient climber...
    I guess I didn't fall enough. ;))
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  8. Dan H

    Dan H FNG

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    I try and prepare enough ahead of time to minimize risk of something going wrong. I'm taking my family into these places so my risk tolerance threshold is pretty small. Our first tip through high spur we bailed half way because we were slower than expected and didn't want even the chance of running out of daylight. My first attempt at the subway I hiked down to the creek at the right fork trial head just to get an idea of flow. It was too much and I made the call to abort. We practice rappelling and ascending in controlled environments before going to a canyon. I learned about long hair being tied back as I watched a girl get her hair stuck in a rappel device in the middle of corona arch back when ropes were still allowed there. She hung for 20 minute before rescue came and gave her a haircut.

    What if something went wrong? The biggest risk I am working on mitigating now is what if I died mid canyon? Could my family finish safely? I am trying to educate them on anchor evaluation and rappel setting. I am trying to teach them first aid and explain more of my own risk evaluation and mitigation methods. I spend way more time researching this kind of info on the internet than I should. I'd love to do more canyons with more experienced canyoneers but the scheduling and time demands I'm up against preclude most opportunities, so I end up doing short local canyons that we know well and have straight forward anchors.

    What if something goes wrong? My main strategy is to prepare. I listen to the pod cast, I watch YouTube videos and give my own mental critique on anchor choices and everything I see. I acknowledge that from an experience stand point I am very much a beginner, so I try not to be one when it comes to knowledge and practice. I think it is important that we all think of ourselves as beginners in some ways. You may not be a beginner canyoneer, but in a new canyon you are a beginner in that canyon. Hubris is just as dangerous as inexperience. That's what keeps you experienced types coming back to this forum, watching out for us newbs and keeping your own knowledge fresh.
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  9. Yellow Dart

    Yellow Dart It's only hubris if I fail.

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  10. Jon Adams

    Jon Adams CanyonSlacker

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    Sounds like you’re doing things well and thinking ahead. At the end of the day that’s all you can really do. Something bad happens, you’ll always find plenty of reasons to kick yourself. Sure enough everyone else will always armchair QB things. Continued good fun!
    Cheers - Jon
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  11. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Good decisions come from experience and experience comes from bad decisions.

    I think there are two criteria that should be used to classify someone.

    # 1 Is the number of canyons done. Just spending a lot of days in canyons, particularly a wide variety of canyons, adds up. Lots of things you only do rarely and so you may have never done or seen them if you haven't done lots of canyons.

    # 2 Is the skill set. Things like being able to ascend a rope, set up a guided rappel or haul, how to pass a knot, how to safely deploy and test a sandtrap, pickoffs etc. One can get a very complete set of skills without having done that many canyons and one can do many canyons without ever getting a complete set of skills.

    I think it's also important to point out that leading a canyon is very different from being along for the ride. An experienced participant has only a very limited set of skills that have to be mastered. However, leading people, especially people without a complete set of skills is a very different ball game. You're the leader, now it's your job to make up for their lack of skill or just sheer bad luck. If it doesn't scare you to lead a group of newbies down a technical canyon you're definitely still a beginner. It should scare you because you know all the ways things can go wrong.

    A dozen canyons? Yes, you've probably got a competent participant skill set at this point but it's unlikely you are a competent leader. What often happens at this point though is that you find some friends all at about the same level and go together and nobody really ever becomes a competent leader. A combination of going with your family and with your buddies is what will probably make you more competent honestly.
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  12. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    a few comments on your comments ---

    #1: yes, but... there are people who have done a lot of canyons who are still beginners in a lot of areas. If I was hurt in a canyon, I would want Ram to be there because he is an excellent organizer/people manager/think aheader - but we would not let him touch a rope. We hopefully have other people for that. People come in a variety of flavors - some develop good skills and judgment quickly, and some slowly, and some never.

    #2: I also think it is important to get out with a variety of people. Again, a variety of flavors. If you just canyoneer with a few select friends, your breadth of skills and understanding will be limited. Getting out with a lot of other people expands your view of canyoneering and your view of skills.

    #3: (mostly in response to: "My main strategy is to prepare. I listen to the pod cast, I watch YouTube videos and give my own mental critique on anchor choices and everything I see. I acknowledge that from an experience stand point I am very much a beginner, so I try not to be one when it comes to knowledge and practice.") I have a hard time considering you 'well-prepared' without hearing about formal classes including WFR (even if you are an M.D. or equivalent). I was a climber for 25 years before I started canyoneering, summitted El Cap twice; and I took canyoneering courses and they blew my mind. Some people, falling in with a highly technical crowd, do not really need the formal training; but for 95% of the canyoneering populace, formal training is very, very valuable. Context.

    Tom
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  13. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    It is possible to learn from other people's bad decisions...

    (Just to be clear)

    Tom
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  14. Nuss

    Nuss

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    Well I’m also a beginner myself. I’ve led a few simple ones like Subway and Pine. Only thing I can add to this is the approach you take. Every time I do a canyon I think about everything incessantly(wether this is good or bad) and I always take time before canyons and especially after to analyze and think. It helps me make improvements and list things I’d like to do better or places where I carried too much or too little gear etc. etc. To quote Dr Cox from Scrubs “I hate my body” in reference to how to keep in shape (). I’m never satisfied with my current skill set(hopefully in a healthy way). There’s always something or someone or a situation to be learned from. And to be honest there are things I won’t mess with since I don’t feel comfortable yet. Maybe ever. Who knows?

    For example I’ve never rappelled on a sand trap and won’t until I go with someone experienced/ a guide and learn how to properly do that. Even then I may still borrow one and practice on my own a couple times knowing myself. I like living and not making SAR rescue some dumbs**t who didn’t do his homework.

    Also can’t agree more with the passengers vs leader mentality. First canyon I ever did I went with someone who claimed like 20 canyons under their belt and yet I was the one instructing them on how to properly rappel and rig things since I’d spent like 3-4 months “practicing” with a rope and Critr and webbing etc. to learn as much as I could before going into a canyon. I’ll never go with that group again because they felt too much like passengers. Just not the type I trust in a tricky spot. Especially when I expected to learn from them as a complete newbie. Luckily my friend leading was competent enough….

    Hope that makes sense.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
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  15. Jenny

    Jenny

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    I am a beginner. Yep, and I am proud of it!

    Though I've been descending slot canyons since the '70s and have played in hundreds and hundreds of canyons, I go into each one with a "beginner's mind". That is being open to learning, observing all, speaking up, being confident, not hesitating (as Hesitations is usually a thief), choosing canyons and partners with a discerning eye, moving with the head before the heart, leaving the Ego behind with the first click of a buckle, take care of your partners and ask for help, never turn down a helping hand even though you can "do it" yourself, etc. Okay, enough. I don't want to sing a simple chorus to a knowledgeable choir.

    That state of mind has saved my skinny butt on multiple occasions and perhaps saved other folks from injury/death as well. I find that it is most often from our mistakes that we learn (and the mistakes of others as Tom said and Canyonero implied).

    Words of wisdom from this beginner:
    Take risks, but ones that don't make you everybody else's problem.
    When skills run out, it is nice to have good Luck.
    Also, those who walk away, live to adventure another day.
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  16. Jon Adams

    Jon Adams CanyonSlacker

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    <quote>Take risks, but ones that don't make you everybody else's problem.[/QUOTE]

    I like this one especially
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  17. Jon Adams

    Jon Adams CanyonSlacker

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    I followed this rule yesterday in our little adventure in Shenanigans. I'm not sure where I was at the time (section 2 narrow?) but did a poor job of managing a 10-12' elevator drop, and tweaked my left ankle. Discretion being the better part of valor, I bailed at the top of the final slot (narrower) and x-countried back to the truck. Everyone else continued on, and all was good!
    My ankle is not happy :furious:, but I am :wavespin:

    Thanks to Tom for his leadership, and to Jon, Sarah, and Tyler for choosing to bail with me, so at least I had company on the long trod back to the truck.

    Cheers - Jon
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2022
  18. brokedownjeep

    brokedownjeep Incureable Adventurer

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    Every time I think I ve got this, and I m no longer a beginner, it bites me. And I mean every time. From being overly confident in beta, to overly confident in the group I m going with, to being overly confident in the skills I haven t practiced in a long time, or my ability to navigate across canyon country. The important part for me is learning from my mistakes (and the mistakes of others). I will never forget how I felt when I led a group of inexperienced friends down a canyon I had never done. A difficult overhanging start to a rappel had children and adults alike in tears and me in a panic over how to get everyone through. It was a situation I had never anticipated. I was perfectly capable of leading through this easy canyon. Or so I thought. I never want to feel that way again. I have adjusted the way I do things because of that and many other events. I have learned a lot of lessons and hopefully I m better for them. I still make mistakes, and I continue to learn and grow from them. I do a lot of research and practice, to try and avoid or mitigate problems I haven’t experienced yet. I ve done more canyons than I can recall. I have dozens of short ropes, tattered old equipment and a lot of stickers.(and I m proud of all of them) I am still a student of canyoneering. Hopefully I always will be. If that makes me a beginner, I m ok with that.
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  19. stefprez

    stefprez

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    Great discussion thus far! For me, I'm very much a beginner canyoneer, but not a beginner climber. And in helping introduce many people to climbing, as well as mentoring them and helping them learn, I have also learned a few things that I think are applicable to canyoneering and the discussion here. Of course, none of this is specific to canyoneering given my beginner status. :)
    1. Attitude and perspective make a huge difference in how much "experience" you can acquire from a given outing (as if experience were somehow quantifiable and comparable). Understanding the inherent risk of the sport and taking the time to learn and understand the techniques used, and how to safely apply them will help you grow far more quickly than blasting on in with an attitude of invincibility and lack of awareness. Even if the outcomes are identical in terms of the objective achieved, the inquisitive mind and observative participant will absorb far more experience compared to the aloof and passive participant. Put differently, experience isn't about what you do, it's about what you take away from it.
    2. Be aware of the "Dunning–Kruger effect", which put succinctly is the cognitive bias in which beginners overestimate their skills. Below is a helpful chart visualizing the path that learners often follow as they gain more knowledge and experience in a given skill.[​IMG] The important part of understanding this is tempering your confidence such that your individual "Peak of Mt. Stupid" is not so high that when you fall into the "Valley of Despair" you or others get injured or killed. Put less poetically, don't let your budding wisdom and overconfidence put you into a situation which you cannot escape from unharmed. Moving along the X axis is something that is a slow and steady process. Moving along the Y axis is something you can control if you understand yourself and the dynamic of your partner(s).
    3. Knowledge does not equal experience, and vice versa. When you don't have experience, it is helpful (and sometimes anxiety reducing) to arm yourself with lots of knowledge. But just because you've read the How To book cover to cover doesn't mean you have experience. And that's not a bad thing, but it's an important thing to recognize and understand. Because understanding what you don't know and don't have experience in is how you get past the "Peak of Mt. Stupid" and into the "Valley of Despair." But more importantly, this is how you more effectively evaluate and assess risk and make informed decisions about what may and may not be a good idea. Sometimes you will need to push yourself out of your comfort zone a bit, but it's first important to understand where that line truly ends so you can push it an appropriate amount.
    4. Finally, when you are considering an outing that you think is outside your comfort zone, consider how many aspects of your comfort/knowledge/limits you are pushing. My recommendation is one at a time maximum. A common growth framework I reference for the beginner trad leader in climbing is "Of the areas: mental, physical, and safety; only push one at a time." For those that aren't climbers, what this means is for someone learning how to place gear safely for their first time, safety will always be a consideration and area they are pushing. As such, they should be getting on climbs that are well within their physical and mental limits. I am not sure of what a good canyoneering version of this would be, but I'd love to hear suggestions if you think the framework applies well. Some things that come to mind are route finding/navigation, rope/vertical skills, water skills, and weather/temperature exposure. I have been applying this to my learning process in canyoneering to make sure I am being intentional and reasonable about the risk I am taking on a given outing.
    All of that to say, there is no line in which someone is no longer a beginner and is now "not a beginner". If there was a line, it's probably to the right of the "Valley of Despair" somewhere, but that's really not important. What is important is progressing in your canyoneering career such that you and your partner(s) can continue to explore tomorrow, and that the beautiful places we get to explore remain beautiful.
  20. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    Great post. The peak of Mt. Stupid is exactly where the "Beginners leading beginners is the most dangerous thing in canyoneering" comes from.

    I would actually draw it differently in that nobody ever gets back to the confidence level they had at the top of Mt. Stupid.
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