Unbelayvable: The Worst Belayer Ever?

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Kevin Corrigan
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Every Monday we publish the most unbelievable stories of climbing stupidity submitted by our readers. See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition, online or in print. For more Unbelayvable, check out the Unbelayvable Archives.

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The front-runner for Worst Belayer Of The Year. Photo: Dylan Kunkel

>>Witnessed this mess at Poke-O-Moonshine in the Adirondacks. The guy was belaying his presumed wife up the first pitch of Gamesmanship (5.8+). He had a block of cheese in one hand and Opinel knife in the other. The knife was pointed at him, and he was cutting toward himselfat least it wasn't toward the rope! Belay device was upside down, no eyes on the climber. The moment he put the knife down, she fell past her last three placements. She proceeded to explain that her foot slipped and it was very unexpected.—Dylan Kunkel, via email

LESSON: Repeat after me: No sharp objects near your climbing rope. Ever. This is such an important rule that rope manufacturers recommend you don't use scissors to open the packaging of a new rope. Your rope is your life line. You should take every precaution to keep it intact. This means extending protection and anchors to keep it from running over sharp edges, using a tarp to keep abrasive dirt out of the sheath when belaying, and keeping knives away from it, no matter how hungry you are. A rope under tension can be cut fairly easily. But even if you didn't care about your climber's safety, this scenario also presents significant danger to the belayer. Lead belayers experience fairly chaotic jolts during a fall. If you're holding a knife, you may not be happy with where it ends up after a catch. Beyond that, this belayer needs to relearn the basics. Always pay full attention to your climber. Use gear as the manufacturer recommends. And NEVER take your hand off the brake strand. Most falls are unexpected. If you don't have a hand on the brake strand, you're not belaying; you're watching your climber free solo.

>>I was at Mickey's Beach, north of San Francisco. It was windy and hard to hear. From where we were, we could see the leader and belayer, but they couldn't see each other. The leader was sketching out with sewing-machine leg for a while at the crux. The belayer assumed he was at the top and took him off belay! We all yelled, and they both freaked out but lived to climb another day.—Joe Gorm, via Climbing.com

LESSON: Never assume anything when belaying. The best way to avoid communication issues is to plan ahead. On an especially windy day, it might be best to climb shorter pitches and stay in visual range. Other options are to carry walkie-talkies, or work out a system of communicating via rope tugs before you start. Your lead line won't always be sufficient due to rope drag on wandering pitches, and your own movements can add to the confusion. It's best to use a separate, light line tied to your haul loop that you can use exclusively for communication. Already in a bad situation? Don't just guess! Employ the help of a bystander to be your eyes away from the cliff. As a last resort, you can briefly put some slack into the system to back up from the wall and assess the situation, but be quick about it. That extra slack gives your climber the potential for a bigger fall, and you more potential to be yanked into the wall.

>>While climbing with a friend in the Gunks on a popular moderate, we decided to trail a second rope up on his harness. It was late in the day, so we  planned to rap off the climb in one rappel. While I was leading the second pitch, a large party decided to set up a toprope on the first pitch. The girl they nominated to put the rope up was making it very clear that she did not want to lead the route and was not capable of it. They berated her into doing it anyway. When she did fall, instead of taking the whipper, she grabbed the rope trailing from my partner and hung on for dear life.—Joe, via Climbing.com

LESSON: Don't climb anything you're not comfortable climbing! If you're climbing partners pressure you into doing things you don't want to do, then you should find new climbing partners. When you do fall, it may seem counter-intuitive, but the safest thing to do is to take the whipper. Sit into your harness and brace for impact by keeping your legs and knees soft. Don't grab any mystery ropes that happen to be hanging beside you. Don't grab anything at all. Climbers have lost fingers grabbing their own rope in mid-air and getting tangled before the catch. Don't grab for pro, either. There are some nasty pictures of carabiners sticking out of people's hands that demonstrate why it's a bad idea. The bottom line is that, if you're going to climb, you need to be comfortable falling. Go to a gym and practice taking lead falls until you are. Climb up to a bolt high enough that there's no chance you'll deck, then fall. Then climb up a foot higher and fall. Repeat until you're comfortable falling from the bolt above the last one you've clipped.

See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print. Got an unbelayvable photo? Send it to unbelayvable@climbing.com.