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The Double Standard

Author: jmaher
Date: October 27, 2003
A number of recent graduates of tree climbing courses have been taking issue with their instructors over the exercise of an apparent double standard that exists between instructors and themselves. In other words, the instructors are requiring certain safety standards from the students that they are not practicing themselves. Examples would be such things as instructors telling students that they are never to climb above their anchor point, while quite regularly violating that same rule themselves. Another would be advising students to never climb on a limb less than six inches in diameter, then going out and rigging their own rope on a three inch limb. Instructors, it would seem, are their own worst rule breakers. Why is it all right for an instructor to make a rule, then not follow that rule?

A year or so ago there was a report of a climb involving a number of very experienced climbers, who, on a beautiful autumn afternoon went out into the woods and had themselves a fine climb in a very large old-growth poplar that was hollow on the inside for most of the length of the trunk. The tree was alive. The top of the tree was covered in greenery. The limbs on which the climbers were anchored were all quite huge and quite strong. There was no reason the tree could be considered unsafe. Yet these climbers were taken to task because they were climbing in a tree that did not meet the standards that they had stressed while teaching their climbing course. Why was it OK for these climbers to be climbing in a tree that did not qualify as a safe tree for their students?

There are quite a few experienced climbers who quite regularly go off by themselves into the woods to do solo climbs in the wilderness environment. Why is it OK for them to do this at the same time that students in their classes are being told not to do this?

Are these people unsafe? Should these people not be doing this? Are the students missing something here? Let's have some explanation.

First, students should consider the issue of liability. We live in a very litiginous society in which people are forever suing each other over every accident that occurs, whether big or small. Instructors who do not impose strong safety rules on students are taking the chance of becoming involved in a lawsuit if an accident should occur. If a student is told that it is OK to climb on a three-inch limb, and the limb breaks, the instructor could be liable. If the instructor says that it is OK to climb above your anchor point and you should do so and take a fall, the instructor is again in a position to be held liable. Same with a hollow tree; if the tree should happen to fall, the instructor could again be liable. Instructors, therefore, are in the position of having to impose tough safety rules in order to protect themselves from lawsuits. No instructor is going to tell you that it is OK to climb above your anchor point, to climb on a three-inch limb, to climb in a hollow tree, or to go off into the woods alone and make a climb in a previously unclimbed tree. Nor are you being told here that it is OK to do any of this.

Instructors, as opposed to students, have usually been climbing for a while and have gained a level of experience beyond that of students. The instructor is not doing something that is dangerous, the instructor is simply doing something that expertise and experience can overcome.

Then there is the issue of adventure. Most recreational climbers perceive tree climbing as an opportunity for an adventure. Adventure, according to at least one definition in one popular dictionary, is any activity with an uncertain outcome. Instructors do not want you to have an adventure; they want you to experience the perception of having had an adventure. The last thing they want is for your climb to have an uncertain outcome. They want to be certain that you are going to be safe and the very last thing they want is to be uncertain about your safety. Instructors, and many very experienced climbers, on the other hand, are usually the type of people who take the issue of adventure seriously; they quite often place themselves in situations that find them close to the figurative edge of things. But when they do this, they are very much aware that they are placing themselves in such a position, and they understand and are willing to accept the consequences of such action. And they make the decision to do this in spite of knowing that at some point in their training they were told that this was not what they should do. But they do it anyway, because that is what adventure is all about. The trick is to remain inside the limits imposed by experience and competence.

So the next time you catch your instructor breaking one of the rules that have been imposed upon you, consider, before you criticize, whether he or she is working within the parameters imposed by their skill and expertise.

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