NICAS - The National Indoor Climbing Achievement Scheme

by Sarah Stirling May/2009
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UKC Articles, May 2009
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Do you know your MIA from your SPA? UKClimbing.com has a new series on mountain instruction awards.

In this new series of articles we will explain each mountain qualification available in the UK. We'll also explain how they all fit together, and how you can get qualified.

Each set of articles will be accompanied by a live Question and Answer session in the UKC Forum, so if you have any questions, you can ask an expert.

Here is the first article in the series: NICAS. What is NICAS?

NICAS is a UK-wide scheme designed to promote climbing development and accredit achievement on artificial climbing structures. Its main purpose is to provide a safe introduction to the sport for young people aged seven and upwards.

What does that mean?

NICAS is a series of certificates achieved through indoor climbing. It is mainly aimed at young people. It is a bit like earning your swimming badges, but for climbing.

Guy Jarvis, who designed the scheme, explains how and why it works. 

“The reason NICAS came about is that, unlike most other sports, rock climbing didn't have a national structure of development and accreditation for climbers to work towards. I could see climbers and instructors getting bored and climbing lessons not progressing. 

Some instructors and climbing centres were making up their own ad hoc climbing schemes. However, there were plenty of anomalies. We wanted to standardise the system by introducing a nationally recognised scheme. 

NICAS is aimed at youth in particular: the majority of participants are in the age bracket 10 to low 20s. There are five levels, and you join at your own level then work your way through a log book at your own pace. It is skills based rather than time or age based. As you progress, your skills are signed off by an instructor and, at the end of each level, you get a certificate. 

NICAS has been very popular because it satisfied a need. We created a structure and gave learning climbers something to work towards and something to show for their progression. It's important to state that the scheme doesn't intend to have a knock on effect on the ethos of climbing.  

We ran an 18 month trial of the scheme before introducing it, and consulted with the BMC, Plas y Brenin, the Association of British Climbing Walls and mountaineering councils. 2,500 youngsters trialled the scheme across ten major climbing walls and there were lots of debates along the way.” 

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Claudia Hesleden earning her NICAS
© UKC Articles, May 2009
NICAS Levels 

  1. Foundation Climber - an entry level aimed at novices
  2. Top Rope Climber - aimed at promoting good unsupervised practice in climbing and bouldering
  3. Technical Climber - focuses on developing technique and movement skills
  4. Lead Climber - concentrates on the skills required to both lead climb and belay a lead climber
  5. Advanced Climber - Focuses on improving performance and understanding of climbing systems within the wider world of climbing 

Teaching the scheme 

If you own or run a climbing wall you can apply to become an Awarding Centre for NICAS and run the scheme. If you are a qualified climbing instructor but don't work for a climbing wall you can be inducted to deliver the scheme through an Awarding Centre. You will have to operate through the Awarding Centre so that they can moderate your performance and that of your candidates.  

Claudia Heselden, age 13, has completed the NICAS Scheme 

“I started NICAS in 2005 and completed the scheme in 2007. I found the scheme really good because it gives you a goal and encourages you to progress your climbing. I started climbing at Bristol Climbing Centre six months before Guy Jarvis asked if I'd like to trial the scheme. I said it sounded like a good idea. 

I'm not sure I would have got into climbing so much without NICAS, or progressed so well. It works you through a series of skills, and tests you, so you know that you know things and feel more confident climbing. I just wanted to keep going back to the centre all the time! 

There are five levels and the last thing you do is a written test on general knowledge, like climbing injuries, or 'what is a dyno?' You also have to do a project on a climbing topic. I did mine on a deep water solo DVD. You also learn how to tie knots, which has been useful now I'm getting into climbing outdoors. And you have to do 50 boulder problems at different grades. So you get a broader view of what climbing is from NICAS, too. 

I climb at Bristol Centre three times a week now. I go straight after school. I do national competitions and I won the BMC Youth Climbing Series two years in a row. The BMCYCS is on at the minute but I'm not competing because I've got inflammation of the tendon through too much climbing! At least I learnt from NICAS how to treat climbing injuries!” 

Claudia lives in Yeovil.

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