Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Does It Really Cost to Learn Without a Guide

People by nature tend to be independent. Many of us just don't like the idea on relying on someone to tell us when we're ready to do something or how to do something. In certain circumstances this learning curve may result in some frustrating experiences but in the end we can be better for it and save some money. This doesn't apply to all circumstances. An often hear lament on climbing forums and in climbing gyms is, "I can't afford to hire a guide, it's just so expensive." Is it though? Sometimes we forget to factor in certain costs aside from money or that may cost money but are not directly related to what we're wanting to accomplish. There are also costs that are incalculable because they either cannot be priced (your life) or figuring out their cost involves too many factors that are not known or vary greatly. To better illustrate this let's look at a relatively simple task of changing one's oil in their car.

Costs of taking it to a mechanic:
  • Payment to mechanic: $15-45
  • Time spent driving to and from mechanic: 30 min.
  • Time spent sitting at mechanic: 30 min.
Incalculable costs or benefits of taking it to a mechanic:
  • Knowing you have legal recourse if the mechanic breaks your car or causes it to break and that the work was probably performed by someone with more knowledge about cars and car lubricants than yourself.
  • Some mechanics will try to upsell other services by making it sound like your car is in poor condition.
Changing the oil is a relatively simple task. Most people can figure it out with a quick internet search. I learned from my dad and for many years I changed my own oil. In the past few years though as my time has become more valuable and the cost of having someone else do it has gone down I've started letting other people change the oil in my car.

Cost for me to change my oil:
  • Oil and Filter: $40
  • Time to change oil and cleanup: 1 hour
  • Tools: $15
Incalculable costs or benefits:
  • The satisfaction of knowing you did something yourself or the joy of doing something mechanical.
  • Frustration of cleaning up oil off the driveway or time spent fixing a mistake if you forget or break something.
Now if we compare these costs and assume that our time is worth $15/hour just for simplification we have the mechanics cost at $30-$60 and the cost to do it ourselves at $70. If we assume most people own a wrench we can bring that down to $55 The costs here are pretty close, and if there is a coupon or your mechanic makes you wait four hours while they get the job done then it's easy to see where these can get farther away but where things really come into perspective are the incalculable costs.

If you forget to put the oil filter on or leave the cap off, don't remember to put oil in and take your car for a spin, when that cool running engine turns into a screaming hunk of hot metal you're car is just a piece of junk. If your mechanic does that then they're liable for the repairs. For many people that's a low probability and they enjoy doing the work so they do it themselves. For the less mechanically inclined it's frustrating, risky and it's safer, easier, and less costly to let someone else do it for their piece of mind.

We can look at hiring a guide in the same way. Some of us are bright, mechanically inclined people, who are willing to take some risks in learning a new task. Some are not but keep in mind that the cost benefit analysis is different in climbing. To make the comparison apples to apples I've kept a couple constants. We'll assume in each instance the skill learned is the same, say learning to lead single pitch trad climbs. The average price to get to a climbing destination I kept at $200. This assumes $15/hr. for travel time to and from a crag that's a little over an hour away and assumes $.55/mile for wear and tear on the car. It would be difficult to adjust for the many regional differences in distance, cost of gas, and road conditions so this is just me keeping it simple. So keeping this constant in mind let's look at the costs. Some prices I came to by averaging the cost from several companies. I didn't include objective costs that may be associated with both ways of learning a skill because it simply muddies the water. You're risk of getting struck by lightning doesn't change because of who your with, it changes with your actions which are not calculable.

Cost to hire a climbing guide:
  • Paying the guide, including $50 tip times two visits: $500
  • Driving to meet guide times two visits: $400
  • Driving to practice new skills on your own times two visits: $400
  • Time/value spent learning both with guide and without @ $15/hr for 32 hours: $480
  • Cost of gear to learn on your own (harnesses, helmetes, traditional rack, rope, slings, etc): $800
Incalculable costs and benefits:
  • When you hire a guide you have someone there who can tell you what you do and don't know, what would be good to work on, where you can improve, and the safest ways to progress and practice those new skills.
  • Unless you are incredibly good at book learning you will learn faster from a guide than learning on your own or from an experienced friend (that experience varies greatly). This is the main benefit.
  • Costs of funeral or hospital bills if you screw up. We call this sheet time.
Many people feel confident in their ability to pick something and may try to learn from books. During my courses I often recommend a few books to clients because it helps with the overall learning process. I personally learned this way and it was nearly a year before I felt confident that I wasn't going to kill myself in an accident. Hence the reason I don't recommend it. That being said, some people do fine learning this way and with prevalence of information it's certainly possible for those who are so inclined. I think even those who are good at book learning will spend, at a minimum, double the time involed in learning from a person who will provide feedback right then, and that is one of those incalculable costs.

Cost to learn from books:
  • Cost of two books on the subject: $50
  • Driving to practice new skills on your own times four visits: $800
  • Cost of gear to learn on your own (harnesses, helmetes, traditional rack, rope, slings, etc): $800
  • Time/value spent learning on your own @ $15/hr for 32 hours: $480
Incalculable costs or benefits:
  • Books don't provide feedback, if you're doing it wrong, you won't know it. This is the main problem, you don't know what you don't know.
  • Costs of funeral or hospital bills if you screw up. We call this sheet time.
  • Being apprehensive about trying something because you are not confident in what you're doing and have no one there to instill it in you causing you to progress slowly.
Now looking at the basic costs they're for the most part the same. Whether you hire a guide or learn from a book you're still going to have to drive to the crag and practice, still have to buy gear at some point. The difference in price really just comes from the difference between the costs of a few books vs. the costs of paying and tipping the guide. It's a $450 difference, about the cost of a new TV or computer. Once again the incalculable costs are where the big differences come in.

For the most part the most important, and for some, the only reason to hire a guide is for the valuable feedback they can provide that will help you understand what's going on. They can tell you safer ways, locations, and even individual climbs to practice on. They can tell you right away if you're doing something wrong and prevent you from developing unsafe habits. They can help you be confident in your abilities and try something that you'd otherwise be unsure of and they can inform you about what you've learned and what you don't know yet. Now I put sheet time under both categories. Hiring a guide doesn't guarantee you won't screw up. To err is human and hiring a guide doesn't change your genes. Although it's easy to argue that it's significantly less likely.

The final question that makes a guide such a great value is how long do you want to wait before you learn to really climb on your own and how bad do you want to get a sponge bath from that cute nurse whose nickname is Big Jim. Sorry pretty nurses stick you with needles and serve crappy hospital food, they use the dudes with muscles to lift you up and scrub your naughty parts. How much is that worth?

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