The Challenges of Training

A couple of weeks ago I started a post with this quote by Shunryu Suzuki:

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”

Then I was writing about some thoughts on innovation, last week I thought back to that quote in a different context. On the first day of a level two Basic Tree Climbing course we were working through the required knots with the students and checking their gear prior to going out into the field in the afternoon. I was talking about the possible misconfigurations of a Scaffold/ Barrel knot when one of the students said that is how he ties all his knots.

Umm, let’s have a look then…

When I checked his gear, it transpired that indeed, he had tied all his Scaffold/ Barrel knots in this fashion – essentially leaving him climbing on slip knots.

Here is the link to the IRATA PDF, as obviously you cannot open it from the JPG above and WordPress will not allow me to embed a PDF file.

Admittedly this is not a new problem, but it did rattle me, as I am pretty clear in my mind that realistically speaking I would not have spotted the knots in the student’s gear. They were pulled very tight and looked like the real thing – BUT the ends were fairly short, on an 8mm hitch cord, so who knows what might happen in case of shock loading or in a dynamic situation. I found this very disturbing – for a number of reasons…

There are the obvious safety implications for a start, but it is also indicative of a system failure in regards to the climber’s comprehension of the knots he was trusting his life to, the way in which he had been taught to tie them and the controls within the framework of the team that he is working in.

My intent is by no means to point fingers at anyone here, or to make fun of the student, on the contrary, I was very grateful to him for bringing the issue to my attention, because as I wrote above, I am pretty sure I would not have spotted it – but it does really drive home the need for relentless diligence not only during training but also generally when considering systems that prevent a fall. We will be discussing and debriefing this incident in greater depth next week, but one obvious solution is to use stitched slings for training, also in the future I will certainly be checking Barrel/ Scaffold knots with even greater attention than I do already.


To close the circle to the Shunryu Suzuki quote, part of training is foreseeing failure modes or things that might be done wrong or misunderstood by someone with less experience. The many possibilities that the beginner sees that Suzuki mentions may make him or her more prone to unsafe actions, as some of the possibilities may be more suited to the task than others. And the few possibilities that the expert sees may in such an instance blinker him or her to possible errors.

This was definitively such a case.

It demonstrated to me with great clarity the need in such situations to take a step back from expertise and assuming that things are clear: When training, it is essential to spell everything out – step by step – even if to the expert’s eye things may appear blindingly obvious, for the beginner or the trainee however this may well not be the case!