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.