Is Mentorship Dead?

Kent Jennings – head routesetter of CityROCK Johannesburg – shares his musings on the state of climbing mentorship.

By Kent Jennings

“Many climbers spend a year or two in an apprenticeship phase of traditional climbing, and this is the method that is recommended. Climbing is full of more fear than actual danger for the average climber, but, that said, the first two years of climbing can be the most dangerous.”

The Great American Dirtbags by Luke Mehall

The explosion of new climbers has rocked the scene in South Africa (at least, that’s what I’ve noticed at my home crags) and if the rest of the world is anything to go by, the growth of our beloved sport isn’t slowing down any time soon. Having watched many a beginner enter the climbing world (both in the gym and at the crag), I can’t help but reflect on my own beginnings…

Of all my climbing experiences, there is one memory that has remained crystal clear through the years: learning to fingerlock in preparation for my second ever outdoor climb – a pretty line named The Hourglass (17) in Tonquani Kloof. “You slide your hand in like this, and twist like so, then load it.” Over twenty years later, I still remember that sentence and – more importantly – the technique, patiently taught by one of my mentors. I repeated their words in my head over and over as I locked my way up that second pitch, which is primarily daunting splitter crack.

Vintage Kent mentoring his friends in the Drakensberg (or are they mentoring him?)

Having had such valuable experiences with my mentors, it saddens me to see that the climbing mentorship system has all but disappeared. The age of instant gratification has caught up with us, and it’s easier than ever to pull up the old YouTube and learn in five minutes what took me months to master. But is this really learning? Or is the new age of information and instruction watered down and disconnected to the point that it becomes futile?

Read more about the importance of a continuous pursuit of knowledge

My schooling was done out on the rock, learning through experience under the watchful eye of seasoned veterans who offered invaluable guidance, and yet also allowed me to make those small mistakes that act as crucial teaching opportunities for the gurus to pass on their hard-earned lessons. Lessons rooted in principles and insights passed on to them by their mentors, later compounded by gruelling experience to create a dense conglomerate of immovable wisdom. 

Kent sharing his knowledge at Rock Valley

Something I have always appreciated is that my mentors encouraged me to ask why – “Why do I need to know this?”, Why do it that way and not this way?”, etc. I never heard “because I said so”; it was always explained to me in a way that I could dissect, and further questions were welcome. The back-and-forth not only cemented an understanding of the concept, but also offered me increased flexibility and creative licence. Having my mentors as sounding boards allowed me to plan adventures and explore the mountains in my own way, combining their experience with my daring. It almost felt like I had a rite of passage to walk, which in turn prepared me for the epics and gave me a hearty respect for the process.

I do worry about the effect of today’s easily accessible, largely online knowledge base – will the new generations maintain the respect that the mountains so deserve. To the rocks and peak, we are insignificant specks. Braving the great outdoors with the proper humility and respect goes a long way in protecting you from the consequences of your own stupidity. Though leading by example, mentors open the doors of opportunity and imbue essential knowledge, ethics, and values.

Unfortunately, with the changing times, the number of willing mentors is dwindling drastically. After all, amidst today’s fast-paced chaos, who can afford to invest such time and energy into a hopeful noob? Mentorship requires sacrifice, and those who take up the charge are a rare and selfless breed. Only time will tell where the climbing community is heading. All I know is: if you have knowledge to share and the capacity to invest in a promising young adventurer, you won’t regret taking the leap.

Find a mentor or take an up-and-coming climber under your wing by exploring our Community Forum and Beta Buddies pages: