The Perks of Being a Capable Novice

Ryan Tripp
8 min readMar 31, 2024

I lay sprawled on the snow, once again startled by the suddenness of becoming tangled in my new unwieldy accessories. Picking up my glasses, I regained my bearings and began the awkward process of standing up on slippery, freshly waxed cross-country skis. After taking a moment to catch my breath and take in the frosted trees surrounding me, I continued down the trail.

For now, these falls are synonymous with my Nordic skiing experience: inevitable and a part of the learning process. With the addition of this weeklong Dartmouth Outing Club trip to West Yellowstone, I have around 40 days of Nordic skiing under my belt. I feel like I’m “getting the hang of it,” so to speak. My skiing still looks like a duck waddling back and forth, but I’m shifting into what I’ll call the “Capable Novice” phase.

Pizza-ing my way through Yellowstone

As a rower, the word “Novice” has unshakeable associations with the sport. In other contexts, “novice” implies near-complete inexperience and can be borderline insulting. But in rowing, one’s “novice year” is simply the year spent learning the basics along with a group of other beginners. It’s probably the most “fun” year of rowing, when everyone leaps into a new activity and bonds over the triumphs and mishaps of a new sport. Because of this association, I qualify myself as a novice in almost every activity I pursue.

Outside, though, being a novice is risky. There are practically infinite stories of inexperienced outdoorspeople hurting themselves or otherwise ending up in dangerous situations (Think Jerry of the Day). That’s where the “capable” part becomes important. Climbing, for example, can be extremely dangerous without proper knowledge. Indoor climbing gyms — where many people learn today — can foster a false sense of ease about one’s ability to climb safely outdoors. While gyms are a wonderful and accessible way to start climbing, they minimize the unpredictability and risk of climbing, leaving beginners oblivious to real-world hazards. Outside, it’s not enough to learn a few knots, watch YouTube clips, buy some ‘draws, and send it.

I’m fortunate to have worked with skilled climbing partners and had more formal climbing education, both of which have given me the foundation of safety (i.e., capability) on rock, from bouldering to trad multipitch. I haven’t done a crevasse rescue or used an aid ladder, but I know enough to keep myself and others with me safe at a basic level. The reality of climbing outdoors is that no matter how sturdy your anchor, you’ll still die if you get hit by a boulder the size of a car. But given the factors within my control, I feel sure in my ability to move on rock and manage risk to a level that I’m comfortable with.

Pushing the bounds of risk and reward is seen by many as an important and gratifying part of the climbing experience. For me, though, reducing risk to a comfortable level frees me to focus on the other aspects of climbing I love, like the tactile joy of fingers finding purchase on rock or bonding with others outside. My most cherished climbing memories are not the times I battled through a chossy climb or skipped clips. Instead, I picture the excited approaches, times spent with partners on scenic belay ledges, or decompressing over tea in baby Nalgenes back at camp.

The thing is, by the standards of climbers, I’m not actually good at rock climbing. But I’m capable enough that I can climb outside and not be a danger to myself or others. To me, that’s enough to set the stage for a joyful outdoors experience, freeing me to focus on the inherent pleasures of an activity.

Cleaning, Unaweep Canyon, CO

I’m content with my capable novice status, which is key for me to enjoy my experiences. My younger self did not think like this. I expected to rapidly achieve a high skill level and would quickly grow frustrated with anything less than that. (I can still remember the visceral rage during one of my tennis tantrums after shanking one too many balls.) Isolated, this impatience and drive for improvement isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In my life, I’ve found enormous fulfillment through pursuing high-level rowing over the past near-decade — moving well beyond the capable novice level — something that requires facing challenges with intensity and consistency.

The downside of this approach is that it detracts from the jouissance of an activity. When evaluating whether a rowing training session was “good” or not, I factor in all sorts of physiological and external metrics and compare it to my goals and standards, thereby relegating the sensory experience to the backseat. The all-consuming self-judgment of measuring progress clouds the ever-present positives of beautiful, rhythmic, and invigorating exercise. Working towards mastery has its own set of rewards, but I try to prevent this approach from infecting other inherently pleasurable activities.

In no rush in Acadia, ME

In his book Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard writes, “I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different.” Having surpassed 80% within rowing, I don’t think I want to again dedicate myself so fully to one specific thing when I can just enjoy a wider range of activities at a lower level of competence.

I don’t mean to say that I avoid challenges outdoors altogether, but the outdoors is my escape from the cycle of challenges central to my frontcountry life: it’s a venue for activities that I enjoy regardless of the sense of accomplishment that might follow.

Outside, my embrace of complacency frees me from metrics and expectations, allowing me to focus on the experience itself. Unless something goes drastically wrong, I’m practically guaranteed to enjoy an outing: a day outside is a good day simply because I got outside.

With some of my badass skier friends, Swan Range, MT

At times, being at Dartmouth puts pressure on my joy and satisfaction outdoors: I’m surrounded by amazing, outdoorsy people whose skills far exceed mine, sometimes making it hard to avoid feelings of jealous comparison creeping in as I’ve learned in competitive sports. While my friends’ relative ease can be intimidating or invite unfavorable comparison, the reality is that they’ve done these activities for years while I’ve prioritized other things — making any sense of inferiority a bad reason to not enjoy an outing, much less being emblematic of some personal shortcoming.

The wonderful thing is that, across many disciplines, I’m at the point where I can keep up with my friends without hurting myself. This baseline capability lets me join the wonderful outdoors community — even if I am not pushing towards the outer limits of skill — and surround myself with fun, encouraging, and inspiring people. This is the perfect zone: enough skill that I can enjoy time with companions and not slow them down too much, but also not so good that I begin to set expectations or compare myself against them. In this way, as a capable novice, I reap the social benefits of being outside without the costs of high-level pursuit.

Backpacking in Hyalite Canyon, MT

Last December, I reached out to a friend of mine to see if I could tag along on a surfing trip. In the newfound agency of his early 20s, he was teaching himself to surf, and I was curious to try it out myself. I’d only surfed once or twice in the distant past, but knowing surfers’ devotion was enough to ignore my inexperience.

Conversation flowed as we drove across the rippled south face of Mt. Tamalpais, eventually arriving at Stinson Beach and its predictable, beginner-friendly break. Once out there, I got pounded. Swallowed whole by a few waves. Leashless, I had to swim back to shore a few times after losing my board. Sure, eventually I got up in a sort of kneeling position and rode the wave a little. But that’s not the important part, not what was special about the day, nor why it felt worth doing.

I loved being outright bad at something. Being repeatedly humbled, nature reminding me firmly who’s in charge as I was tossed through the washing machine. There was no conquest here, no summiting peaks or setting personal best times.

There were delicious moments of calm, too. Sitting on our boards out past the break, bobbing as the rollers passed beneath us, grinning in awe of what we were experiencing. Gazing wordlessly up at the hillside above us, the cold salt seeping into our skin, it didn’t matter how awful I was, or how much seawater I had swallowed. My heart was full, bulging with friendship and the feelings of total immersion.

On the south side of Mt. Tam

Days like that are reminders of the wonderful potential to come: I have my whole life ahead of me to surf, if I choose to. As I transition away from rowing over the next few years and focus more on various outdoors pursuits, I anticipate that I will at times struggle to maintain my lack of expectations. My abilities will doubtless improve, which could threaten my enjoyment. At that point, I could follow Chouinard’s method and shift to something new. I have hope, though, that even as certain skills pass the 80% threshold, I’ll still be able to center the fulfillment and intrinsic joy I’ve found as a novice. I don’t know what the next stages of my outdoors journey will bring, but I am determined to enjoy it as best I can — I simply need to remember that a day is a good day because I got outside.