Memory in the Mountains: How Cognitive Psychology Can Improve Rock Climbing


“You can never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountain, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves.”

– Lito Tejada-Flores, Extreme Skiier, Climber and Author

            As Lito Tejada-Flores alludes, rock climbing and mountaineering depend as much on human memory as the physical environment in which one climbs.  Rock climbing is a high-risk sport where life and death hang in the balance.  Forgetting to tie the rope to a harness or misremembering how to belay can have devastating consequences for climbers of all abilities. Accidents happen even among experts in climbing environments with relatively controlled conditions.  Last summer, 12-year-old climbing prodigy Tito Traversa died after his coach failed to properly set up his equipment (Park, 2013).  The young star’s passing serves as a harsh reminder that when memory fails in the climbing world, the results can have devastating consequences.   I learned to climb and belay while on a first date; the instruction was informal and while I managed to catch a lead fall, it wasn’t until I began teaching climbing classes at a Boston-area rock gym months later that I realized I was doing things wrong.  The importance of teaching safe belaying and knot-tying techniques cannot be overstated.  Having lost a friend to a climbing accident and having known several more who have been injured, I cannot stress enough the importance of teaching beginner climbers to be safe.  The question arises then, for old and new climbers alike, how can we minimize the chance of our memory failing us when we need it most? What can we do when training or learning indoors to make sure our skills translate into fun, well-managed risk outside?

An Intro to Rock Climbing Lingo

Most rock climbers start off learning how to climb by taking a class at a local rock gym or by going to a crag with friends who already know how to climb; unlike lead climbing, where individuals have to place gear and string the rope as they go, in toproping, the rope is already strung from the ground, up around an anchor at the top of the climb and back down to the ground.  The climber ties into one of the rope ends, while his partner, the belayer, attaches the other end to a friction-based device on his harness.  Beginner classes at most gyms usually focus on how to put on a harness, how to tie a weight-bearing knot, and proper belaying technique.  Although specifics like what kind of back-up knot to use change depending on personal preference or gym policy, all paid instructors and most climbing clubs teach the same weight-bearing knot (The Double Figure Eight, or Figure Eight Follow-Through) and general industry-standard belaying technique.  While the American Mountain Association has suggestions for specific safe teaching techniques, experienced friends and paid instructors can employ the basics of cognitive psychology to better ensure beginner climbers remember how to belay correctly.

Encouraging The Interplay of Short and Long Term Memory

Evidence-based suggestions for improving rock climbing instruction can be weaved into teaching as early as the first few minutes of class or outdoors.  Usually most climbing teachers give beginners an overview of what to expect, highlighting hopefully all of the main safety points.  Each theme addresses an important safety element whose failure to remember can result in serious injury (e.g., making sure the knot is tied correctly).  As the course progresses, students learn two or three at a time; the themes serve as shorthand, corresponding to larger chunks of information. For example, the two themes on the students’ harness—double backing and harness fit—should prompt the students to check to make sure their buckles are secure and the harness cannot come off while they climb.  Although not given other harness-related themes, most students then spontaneously also check that none of their harness straps are twisted and they do not have the harness on backwards.  Prior findings that individuals can remember around 7 pieces of information at a given time (Miller, 1956) would suggest rock climbing instructors “chunk” class material into seven or fewer key concepts.  It is important to note what might seem obvious or “key” to experienced climbers, however, can be hard for new climbers to grasp.  Chase and Simon (1973) demonstrated, while expert chess players can “chunk” and later recall exact piece positions of a set play, beginner players have greater trouble seeing the connection between each piece on the board.  Chunking is only an effective recall tool if each chunk means something to the individual; for beginner chess players or beginner rock climbers, how the information intrinsically relates to each other may be difficult to identify.  Instead of having rock climbing “experts” (i.e., the instructors) chunk information for students, it might be more beneficial to require students come up with their own “chunks” to remember important themes; for example, if eight pieces of information is hard for an individual to keep in mind, but he can easily do three, then maybe he chooses to chunk the class into: a) climber safety, b) belayer safety and c) double checking the system.

Increasing Motivation To Remember

As mentioned previously, the goal of most rock climbing instruction is to prepare students for a safe experience in the sport as well as help them learn the skills necessary to pass a basic belay test.  Almost all rock gyms require new members demonstrate their competency before granting them permission to toprope.  While most instructors or experienced climbers teaching friends are aware of this, few teachers ever mention it to their students at the start of class.  Usually any information about a future test or the inherent danger in the sport is reserved for the end, when discussing future steps. Research demonstrates, however, that differences in recall do exist when people are told they will be tested on the material before learning it, than when they are not (Kassam, Gilbert, Swencionis, & Wilson, 2009).  Instructors could increase students’ motivation to remember by telling them about the belay test at the start of the lesson. Changing the temporal presentation of information could be enough to change how beginner climbers encode the information and thereby increase the likelihood they will remember it.

Invoking Students’ Semantic Network

Beyond introducing chunkable safety themes up front, experienced climbers could also help beginners remember hard skills like knot tying by connecting to students’ existing semantic networks.  Although none of the students may have tied a “Double Figure Eight” knot before, instructors could ask students to think back to any time they were required to tie knots during a backpacking trip, Boy Scouts, or while sailing; while the semantic network for “climbing” may be weak or limited to “climbing trees,” drawing students’ attention to the ways in which climbing is similar to other skills they have mastered can help them remember those skills in the long-term. Additionally, instructors could build upon existing semantic networks by connecting the skills being taught to stories or rhymes.  For example, the “Double Figure Eight” knot involves making a loop in the rope, before wrapping the rope end around it, and threading it through; following these steps in the wrong order can result in a knot that will “slip” or come apart when weighted and thereby detaching the climber from the safety system altogether.  To help students remember the correct method, instructors could describe the loop in the rope as a stick figure head and recounting the last interaction where, “You met the guy, you gave him a bow-tie, and then you poked him in the eye!” While reciting the rhyme, the instructor would complete the hand motions to make a loop, wrap the rope around it and thread the end through.  Instructors could adapt this story to their students’ semantic network, talking about a rabbit running around then down his bunny hole if they were working with children, for example.  Linking a foreign concept, like a Double Figure Eight knot, to a pre-existing semantic network, even if a bit removed from the task, could help students recall the skill at a later date.

Similar activation of the semantic network could be employed when discussing how to belay, or the rope management system used by the person on the ground.  Although not a part of most introductory rock climbing classes, talking about the origin of the word “belay” may help students better remember what it entails.  Some instructors, as taught by the American Mountain Guides Association, mention to students that the word derived from an old nautical French term meaning “to stop” or “to cancel,” and relate it to how students will be “cancelling” their partner’s fall by using the belay device (T. Woodward, personal communication, Dec. 7, 2013).  Connecting the unfamiliar term to a more relatable setting already within their semantic network could enable students to more easily recall the purpose and technique of belaying.

Interleaving skills instead of blocking

Rock climbing instructors may also not be making the best use of the time they have with students by blocking, instead of interleaving, skill practice. Most classes have students tie several “Double Figure Eight” knots numerous times in a row, wanting to ensure students perfect their “muscle memory.”  While this method may make students feel like they have learned the skill better (Kornell & Bjork, 2008), they will retain the information more if they practice tying the knot once in between practicing putting on a harness and belaying. Rohrer and Taylor (2007) found students who interleaved skills performed better at testing than participants who had practiced only one skill at a time in a large block; although the researchers were focusing on participants’ ability to solve math problems, the finding that interleaving skills leads to better performance than blocking has been replicated in the sports domain (Alpenfels & Christina, 2007).

Interleaving skills could also help more advanced students trying to strengthen existing technical skills.  Research from cognitive psychology would seem to suggest that interleaving practice on how to balance or grip different types of holds would lead to the best performance outcome. Some instructors try to teach intermediate classes by having students climb a route that has all one type of hold (crimpers, for example), wanting students to become familiar with the proper hand position.  Instead, in keeping with work by Hall, Domingues, & Cavazos (1994), instructors could have students climb a random route with more-than-usual variation in holds.  Interleaving class concepts, instead of massing them, enables better long-term learning.

The Curse of Knowledge

Another potential area for problems with student learning comes from instructors’ potential over qualification.  Most students in introductory classes or who learning from experienced friends climb between four and twelve grades lower than their instructor, meaning the holds and techniques they use look extremely different.  Experienced climbers should be aware of the potential difficulty teachers have in taking the learner’s perspective (Newton, 1990); this Curse of Knowledge can make it hard for students to access a concept so clear to someone who has studied and knows the material well.  Because humans are intrinsically bad at judging our own memory (Jacoby, Bjork, & Kelley, 1994; Bjork, Dunlosky, & Kornell, 2012), instructors may misremember the difficulty they had in grasping the concept themselves (no pun intended!).  Despite less experience teaching and generally a reduced climbing ability, newer instructors or more intermediate climbers may be better able to relate to beginner students.

Introducing Desirable Difficulties

Minimizing Mistakes with Equipment

In addition to the suggestions outlined above, instructors could also introduce other desirable difficulties into their classes.  To begin with, almost all rock climbers rely on several key pieces of equipment: their shoes and their harness.  Most beginners rent gear from the facility; because of cost, most gyms bulk order only one type of harness.  This does not bode well for student memory and learning.  One of the key safety themes requires students to check that their harnesses are doublebacked, essentially checking to make sure the webbing is secure and will not come undone.  Most harnesses produced within the last five years automatically tighten to be secure.  Earlier models, however, require you to manually secure the webbing.  For insurance purposes, most rock gyms have the more modern version of the harness and mention the older, manual version in passing.  Outside of the class, however, students may borrow an older harness from a friend or buy one unknowingly at a sporting goods store.  Failure to recognize the difference and manually double back leads to the harness coming undone while in use, a dangerous situation especially for a new climber.  To minimize the chance of forgetting to doubleback, climbing gyms could require students to use both the manual and automatic harnesses during their introductory class.

Encouraging Self-Testing

Having students test themselves and each other on the important skills in the time before the test would also prove helpful in increasing retention and learning.  While most facilities encourage students to stay after the class’ end and practice for the remainder of the afternoon, instructors could place a bigger emphasis on the importance of testing as a learning event. Because most gyms will not allow new members to take the belay test until twenty-four hours after their last safety class, students have the choice of continuing to climb that day or going home and studying their class handout.  Continuing to climb even after formal instruction has ended would allow the beginner pairs to put their recently learned skills to practice, having to remember to conduct safety checks and tie their knots properly.  The recall process would further increase the information’s Storage Strength, ensuring it comes back faster the next time they climb.  Furthermore, Roediger and Karpicke (2006) demonstrated how individuals given only one study period and three practice test trials outperformed students who had studied for all four sessions; the difference was significantly pronounced at a week follow-up, with individuals who had only study sessions recalling less than those in the test condition.  Research on the power of testing as a learning event suggests instructors could further strengthen their students’ grasp of knowledge by encouraging them to stay after class and continue to test each other.

Concluding Remarks

This post is not meant to be an exhaustive recommendation of how to incorporate evidence-based science into rock climbing.  It is beyond its scope to address lead climbing, trad, bouldering or ice climbing, as each area has their own specialized skillset.   Through rethinking the methodology of introductory rock climbing classes, instructors have the potential to reduce the severity and incidence of accidents. Memory plays an important role in rock climbing, with forgetting to tie a knot having the potential to kill; the instructor’s role is to ensure forgetting happens on the ground, in the learning phase, so errors will not be made up high.


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