It’s common knowledge in the Scouting climbing community that Philmont Training Center offers one of the best climbing courses in the nation. Much of that reputation comes courtesy of Chris Moon, who helped create the National Camping School Climbing Director’s Course in 1999. The goal: teaching volunteers to safely run climbing programs for their units, councils and districts.
The prestigious course is still Moon’s baby today, so we asked him to talk about how he and his staff convey this vital knowledge to their participants during a week of “total immersion” activities each September.
After the volunteers check in Sunday afternoon, Moon spends a couple of hours laying out standards and expectations.
“I expect you to be a sponge and absorb everything,” he tells them. “Put down your ego shields, and don’t be afraid to ask a question. And I will stuff corks in your ears so the information doesn’t run out.”
The next day, the group plunges into a week of climbing activities. From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., they learn initiative games, climbing, bouldering, rappelling, anchor systems and a wide variety of ways to teach the various skills. The learners are placed in groups based on skill level. Moon stresses the importance of moving at an individual’s pace rather than a lockstep approach.
“I tell them there’s right and wrong and different. And different is OK,” he says. “Scouting deals with an entire country, so you see lots of differences between Maine and Texas. We’ll find a way to accommodate anyone. We’ve had people with one arm and people who are blind go through the course. Almost anyone can climb if they want to.”
When the learners aren’t actually on the rock face, they’re in the climbing gym classroom, keeping in mind that many flatland Scouters will do much of their climbing and rappelling indoors. And when they’re not doing that, they’re talking and thinking about climbing. By Tuesday night, Moon says, “the family” begins to develop, with students chatting and joking as if they’ve been friends for years.
Moon uses those moments to continue the immersion, leading debriefing exercises each night. He might invite one-word descriptions of the day (“tiring” and “wow” are typical). Or he might ask for a mental “photo” each student took that day, which allows everyone to share experiences and events they might have missed. Another night, he’ll ask people to hand out compliments to their peers.
The results? Check out the rave reviews from some course evaluations:
“The outstanding leadership of this program starts with Chris Moon and flows down from there.”
“The faculty was outstanding — the best I’ve ever seen.”
“The networking and teamwork between participants was incredibly great.”
“I learned all I wanted to learn, accomplished all I wanted to accomplish, and had fun doing it.”
Frank Reigelman, team leader of Outdoor Programs and Properties, praises the Philmont course.
“It has a powerful impact on the participants — and not only in climbing confidence and ability. It really recharges their batteries and gets people excited about Scouting and its possibilities. I’ve spent 35 years in Scouting and I’ve seen a lot of different training sessions. This one is really unique because of the setting and the caliber of the instruction. It has a very powerful and lasting impact on the participants.”
Tips for Safer Climbing
- Take “Climb On Safely” training at bitly.com/climbonsafely
- Seek qualified climbing instructors outside of your unit leaders if needed. Local COPE/Climbing Advocates are great resources.
- Make sure to have age-appropriate activities. Bouldering (climbing below shoulder height), an indoor climbing gym or a climbing tower are all great options for Cub Scouts. Climbing and rappelling at a tower will suit younger Boy Scouts. Older Scouts and Venturers can try climbing, rappelling, ascending and ice climbing at a tower or natural rock site.
- All equipment must be designed for climbing and meet all BSA standards.
- Proper belaying is one of the most important safety concerns. Always use proper techniques and backup belayers.
- Keep participants in the comfort and learning zones — and out of the danger zone.