Belaying: pay attention!

Posted by Colin Struthers on 02/07/2015
Are you paying attention?

Colin Struthers reckons you have a bad attitude.

Let’s talk about belaying. Not about particular techniques or new-fangled devices. Not about the rope jiggery-pokery that clutters up instruction manuals. No, let’s talk about bad attitude and its inevitable consequences - crap belaying. And I know what I’m talking about, with my trashed ligaments and compressed spine.

Consider the sort of people that us climbers are. It’s an oft-repeated maxim that climbing is an “inherently dangerous activity”. And climbers, aware of this fact use the skills and knowledge they have acquired to manage the risks. Some of the satisfaction that we derive from our sport stems from the feeling of power and control that we get from climbing safely.

We are proud of our ability to survive. So whilst we accord respect to the strong, to the stylish or the bold amongst us, the quality that we revere most highly is that of competence. And we’re all competent, aren’t we? I mean, I can mock my friends for sloppy footwork, for lunging at holds, or cocking up their runner placements and I’ll probably get a smile. But tell them they can’t belay for toffee? I don’t think so.

It’s this pride, or rather misplaced pride, that’s the root cause of bad attitude. And bad attitude manifests itself in many ways. For example, I like to know that my belayer has attached the belay device and rope correctly. I want to actually look at the thing before I leave the ground. Sometimes this means I have to ask them to turn round or move their arm so I can see. This feels awkward. Why? Because to do this implies that I think they are capable of making a basic error. And in fact I do - we can all suffer from a moment of inattention. But it’s our bad attitudes that make this difficult. Mine for feeling awkward about checking, theirs for feeling put out that I want to. Of course, none of us actually express any of this. It’s, “sure, have a look, it’s always good to be safe,” but the face often says different, “are you questioning my competence, or what?”

And the bad attitude persists after we’ve left the ground. On the two occasions that I’ve been dropped, my belayer was deep in conversation with other climbers at the point when I fell. Not surprising then, that I now want to feel that I have their full attention. However, a terse shout of, “hey shut up, and concentrate on what you’re doing,” often elicits a chorus of, “woo, get him, stressy or what?” But discussing last night’s football, checking out the talent on view, daydreaming or anything else for that matter, whilst protecting my life is not the kind of multi-tasking that I approve of.

And how often do we hear leaders about to commit to the crux saying, “watch me here”? This rather begs the question - just what was the belayer doing before you got to the crux? Reading a book, chatting, even watching the world go by? Shouldn’t we expect our belayer to be watching us - all the time? I do.

There are many other times when I’d like to feel at ease explaining what I want from my belayer - be it smooth clipping on a sport route or inch-perfect rope management when making moves close to the ground. I want to be able to say, please stand at the foot of the route or scramble up here to a better belay position. I want to be able to ask them to back up a belay or to put in a piece for an upward pull. And I want to be able to do this without them being offended or me feeling like a wimp for asking. And in truth, that’s what I do these days and sod anyone who doesn’t like it. It’s my life.

However I’m not convinced that this is how it generally works. Cast your mind back to the last belaying abomination you saw. I’ll bet it wasn’t that long ago either. Was the other climber happy about it? Did they actually say anything to the belayer? Did anyone else? Did you? Climbing culture, particularly the male aspect of it, rarely allows for this degree of directness. It’s almost as if some of us are more scared about causing offence than injury. We’re too touchy even though we shouldn’t be. Our own lives are, after all, at stake.

Happily, there is a solution, and it lies in a change in attitude. Amongst the group of people I climb with some of us have started to say what we really think about each other’s belaying. This has actually been amusing. We’ve introduced a system of penalty cards (not literally, we aren’t that sad). A yellow card is awarded for generally crap belaying, red for seriously dangerous behaviour. When someone awards a card to their belayer the rest of us tut-tut disapprovingly or enter into a discussion about whether the card was merited.

Interestingly, not only has this led to an improvement in belaying standards, but the sharing of ideas about what constitutes good practice has introduced us to different and sometimes better belaying techniques.
In truth, for us, this doesn’t amount to a cultural step change - the “slag-your-mates-off-rotten” ethos that prevails in our group persists. It’s too deeply ingrained and too much part of the pleasure of a day out to give up. What is different however, is that we’ve now incorporated belaying technique into the range of acceptable subjects for which a person may be ridiculed.

We’ve even gone so far as to accept that what a leader wants is what they will get and that belayers should, at least for the time that they are holding the rope, consider themselves as some kind of servant of the climber and take instructions from them with good grace. I like to think that as a consequence we are all that bit safer than we used to be. And hopefully, that we are all still friends - rather than friends who are still. 

Colin Struthers is a BMC member who’s been climbing for 20 years. He’d like to thank Sydlette and Porkus Pexillius for help in researching the effects of being dropped by a crap belayer. (Names changed to protect delicate identities).



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1) Anonymous User
08/02/2014
well said colin,as a ex pro jockey and trainer in the horseracing industry for 40 plus years I can relate to the safety issues and the attitude issues myself.we need a few more prople like you speaking not only at climbing talks etc but risky sports in general.well done again.
peter salmon.
2) Anonymous User
05/07/2016
Great post Colin. Will definately be sharing this with all the people on our climbing group.
3) Anonymous User
24/11/2016
This is great post, it's so scary when I think your life is in some one else's hands, I've seen to case's of climbers being drop on indoor walls, so when meet some one new to climb with be very careful, they need to have the climbers attention at all times .

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