A few Sundays ago, my friend and I arrived at the climbing gym in the early afternoon. Mike, who had been recovering from an injury, was finally given the green light by his physical therapist and we both agreed that a little indoor gym session was the perfect way to wrap up the weekend.

I had just finished tying into the sharp end and Mike was about to put me on belay when I whispered to him: “Am I an asshole for saying something to that man over there?” I nodded my head to the couple climbing a toprope route directly behind me.

The gentleman who was belaying his female partner was using an older model Grigri. As his partner ascended the wall, something caught my attention. I noticed that his right brake hand remained in an upright position, allowing the rope on the belayer’s end to stand upright as well. The rope never saw a downward position, and his brake hand came off to pull in the slack.

My very first time out climbing, I was toproping ice at the Ouray Ice Park with my then-boyfriend. His father told me to never remove my brake hand from the slack side of the rope, and the importance of this became deeply engrained in my brain. In fact, unable to eradicate thoughts of accidentally dropping my boyfriend, I became so terrified that I wouldn’t even do it for several trips.

With both time and experience, I’ve belayed a few people since then, and have even been known to give a soft catch or two. When I climbed on the east coast, I had no problem approaching what appeared to be a new climber in the gym when I saw something amiss. Sometimes it was just a comical case of a climber wearing their harness upside down, but on occasion, it was bad belay technique. I would approach the climber, asking them if they were having a good session. I would then mention their belay technique and ask if I could I show them a better way to do it.

I offered a friendly hello and took the same approach that afternoon. Immediately, I was told that it was none of my business. Shocked at his gruff response, I raised both my eyebrows and walked off, muttering: “Please don’t kill your climbing partner.” I kept an eye on him and ten minutes later, I decided that it wasn’t something I could continue watching. It was a safety issue that made me uncomfortable, and ultimately was a liability for the gym. I let the front desk staff know and after careful observation, they approached the couple.

Unfortunately, they didn’t receive a much better response. The gym employee, who had politely introduced herself and kindly explained that their technique was not safe and why, gave them a visual for the proper technique. The couple exploded. The woman complained that the employee’s introduction was “bullshit”, that she didn’t need to be so fake nice, and that they were adults and they should just be “straightforward” with them.

Before canceling their gym membership and walking out, in one final huff, I overheard the gentleman say: “I’ve been climbing for forty-five years! Don’t tell me what I’m doing is wrong.”

Forty-five years a climber, and not only was he unaware of the risk that he put his climbing partner in, he assumed that it was impossible for him to be subject to a wide margin of error. Caught in the clutches of his ego, there was an unwillingness to consider that he might be wrong.

Was it wrong to ask a veteran climber to get jiggy with the times and correct his poor belay technique? If we expect new climbers entering the game (or at least our climbing gyms) to be competent and knowledgeable, shouldn’t we expect the same of those who have been doing it for years?

With the amount of new research published in medical journals, doctors in current practice attend conferences, read new journals, attend hospital clinics and practical skill training courses in order to keep their knowledge up-to-date. It isn’t easy (and is sometimes unrealistic) for busy doctors to keep up with the constant flow of new medical information, but as a clinician, it’s absolutely a part of their patient responsibility. What about climbers’ responsibility?

Much like medicine, the sport of rock climbing has evolved over the years. We no longer use the American Death Triangle, as it is known for its lack of redundancy as well as increasing load forces on fixed anchors. Before dynamic ropes came into play, climbers used twisted nylon ropes. We no longer belay with plates or (unless in a pinch) munter hitches. And today, the mainstay of traditional climbing equipment is nuts and cams; pitons have long since been replaced. As time continues to change, inevitably gear and technique will along with it, and for the better. There is always room for improvement.

The underlying problem is not necessarily the aging of climbers or the overall evolution of climbing as a sport, but perhaps the ego behind climbers in general. Yes, that word pops up a lot in rock climbing. Most of us will do anything to avoid being wrong by unconsciously getting stuck in that feeling of being right. It’s because being wrong often feels like being right, and we don’t know any better unless we are open to the possibility of wrongness.

But that can be a hard and bitter pill to swallow.

My old climbing mentor told me a story:

“Once, I was climbing on something several routes over from Limelight. A party was coming up at the first pitch making a racket, despite having walkies! As in they would yell to each other through the walks. When the leader reached the GT ledge, he girth hitched the sole dead branch of a small, dead tree. Aghast, I feared for his obvious newb second. I thought a while and then called over to him, mentioning the sweetness of the climb and whatnot and remarking that I really missed that tree, because it USED to be a great and convenient anchor. I thought that was rather smooth, but no. He ranted about having used that tree for over twenty years as an anchor…that made sense to him.”

It made sense to him (just like it made sense to the gym climber) because he didn’t have any internal cue to let him know that he was being unsafe until it had been pointed it out to him. Perhaps he had realized that the anchor was not suitable but it was embarrassing to admit that he had made a mistake. It isn’t just admitting, “Hey, maybe I am wrong.” Admitting a mistake feels so awful because we quickly assume that there is something wrong with us.

The moment when someone delivers you a huge hit to your ego, you are given a choice. I want my ego to be as big as it possibly can be when I’m on that crux pitch and I’m about to pull a hard move—that’s when I need it the most. That’s when I will pick it up and tell myself that I’m better than everyone else, that I am better than the climb. But when it comes to the well-being of your partner, you have the choice to put it down.

Rock climbing will continue to thrive; there is no doubt about that. And with its undeniable attraction, the surplus of new climbers entering the scene will grow parallel with it. With every passing year, grades are pushed, gear improves, and older methods become outdated. Understanding these changes and implementing new knowledge is a climber’s responsibility for both old and new.

12 thoughts

  1. There is a couple at Evo and the older gentleman belays the same way, albeit with an atc, at least with the GriGri there is the possibility that the device may catch if he stops holding the rope. Basically from what I can figure, it’s due to the fact that holding the brake strand up is how you lock a munter, and because that’s how these people learned, it is what is ingrained in them to do. People have told him several times what he is doing wrong but he insists about how long he has been climbing and continues doing what he does. I think it just comes down to pride and his ego, because us young folk don’t know what we are talking about.

    1. “People have told him several times what he is doing wrong”

      Looks like you’ve fallen into the same binary trap of right versus wrong as the older gentleman. For him it’s “right” and for you it’s “wrong”. A better model might be a continuum of safety whereby his technique is more safe then no belay but not as safe as your technique.

      1. Well the correct technique for belaying using an atc is to pul down to brake, and the reverse for a munter. So maybe I should say that people have pointed out that he is using the incorrect technique for the belay device

  2. As an old guy, here is my take on the guy that was belaying incorrectly. I see and hear people my age complain about their experience not being appreciated by younger people and being spoken down to.This isn’t what happened in this instance. There is also a resentment that can build up in older people about being talked down to which might lead to someone losing their temper. I don’t think this couple was being talked down to. In addition, there is a fear among older people that what they know isn’t valued by younger people and that the younger people who know so much more about technology etc are condescending towards older people. Change can be scary and people can react irrationally to change that they fear.

    So, what to do in this type of situation? If there aren’t any other older people around, then what you did was the right thing to do. If there is an older person around, then I would suggest talking to that person and have them approach the older guy who isn’t using a safe technique.

    One reason that I began climbing a year ago this week, was I wanted to learn a new sport. So pretty much everybody in the gym knew much more than me and were a lot younger than me. I’m okay with being the world’s oldest gumby. That said, I made it a point to ask a lot of questions and still do and guess what, with the exception of my cousin, everybody I talk to is a lot younger than me. That makes me feel a little younger too, ha ha. Some older people are too afraid of change to deal with it well. I would hope that if I was doing something wrong and someone pointed that out, that I would accept the suggestion and think about what I was doing. You and the gym employee did the right thing.

  3. I regularly see people at the gym/crag using incorrect techniques that could potentially endanger them or their partners. I’ve found there are two ways to approach these climbers: “socially”, by introducing myself, chatting with them, and asking if I can make a suggestion; or “confrontationally”, by jumping right in there to tell them they are doing something wrong. Almost always the first approach is more effective, and rarely results in the other climber(s) getting worked up. With that said, I usually do not approach other climbers unless I see them putting themselves or their partners at imminent serious risk, in which case I consider it my obligation to say something, in whatever fashion is required to get the point through. For example, if I see climbers toproping from bolts using a single sliding-x sling and single locking carabiner, I might not say anything, since their anchor system is not at imminent risk of failure (although far from “best practice”). However, the same sliding-x with a single, non-locking carabiner is patently unsafe, and I would speak up. Subtle? Perhaps, but there are so many gradations along the slope of “what is safe”, and so many novice climbers out there, that to approach every climber I see doing something “wrong” would distract me from my own climbing altogether. In a word, it isn’t my personal responsibility to teach every novice (or 40-year veteran) I meet “best practices”. Climber’s egos are complex, and regardless of how one may approach others, there are those who will not take kindly to your intrusion on their day- regardless of how wrong they may be. When one of these climbers tells me to “mind my own business”, I tell them it is my business, since it will be me dealing with their broken bodies.

    1. A single locking carbiner can quickly become a single unlocked carbiner as it travels across the face of the rock sliding in the ‘X’ as it moves with the climber. I’ve seen this happen on multiple occasions. Best practice is to use two carbiners opposite and opposed; even better if they are both lockers. 😉

  4. How a climber reacts to constructive criticism seems to be a function of the number of years they have been climbing and how big their ego is to begin with. In this situation I would start by pointing out to the belayer and climber that the device isn’t being used according to the manufacturers recommendations. This usually leaves them in a position in which they are no longer able to argue for, or justify, their poor technique.

    If I’m at my gym, I intr myself as an instructor/employee and try to correct the error. If I’m at a gym I don’t work for, I also let the front desk staff know first, often it’s less embarrassing if only one person try’s to correct them and only an employee has the power to send them packing if they choose not to comply.

    When I’m outside I politely introduce myself and explain what they are doing wrong in front of their climber. You’d be surprised how many climbers are completely unaware of the poor technique that their partners are using. On more than one occasion I’ve had the climber jump in and back my argument and they’re ussually pretty heated when do because they realize the danger they were just in.
    If neither party is responsive, I simply recommend they pick up a couple of books, do some research online, or take a class to refresh thei skills before turning to my partner to say “Let’s go somewhere else before we spend our day doing a rescue or administering medical services, I want to climb today.”

  5. I had a recent situation with a veteran climber and regular at my home gym. He no longer speaks to me because I tried to provide some feedback in a light-hearted way. I lost a friend. But it was worth it to know that he and his sibling are safer because I pointed out a safety issue.

    I agree with your decision to speak up. When something becomes overly routine, that’s when you let your guard down and mistakes can happen. Would they have been hurt that day? Probably not. Would they have gotten hurt in the long run? There was a possibility. Better to bring awareness to the issue than let it slide. And, despite the anger, hopefully the awareness of the safety issue will stick with them.

  6. Wow. I really appreciate this article so much! I was corrected a few months ago for a belay technique I’d been using for years. It’s awkward and I felt like a dummy, but honestly, thank God they called me out on it. I don’t want to lose a friend to something silly like that! Thank you so much for saying something and for writing this piece. Would you mind if I reblogged and pinned it? : ) Thanks!

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