Unbelayvable: The Worst Belayer Ever?

Scary (and true) tales from a crag near you

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.

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.



Previous Comments

Dark Shadows(8), Red Rocks. A woman on rappel, without a prusik, was dealing with a tangled rope. She would untangle a section and then slide down a bit further, repeat. She was 10m above the next rap station and about to lower, when I noticed one end of the rope, with no knot, at her foot. She was so intent on the tangle she failed to notice she was about to rap off one end! I yelled at her to stop. She did, built and anchor and balanced the ends.

Brian - 11/28/2014 11:17:45

I just spent the weekend at a campsite for my bro's bachelors. The venue had a climbing wall. The top of the wall is reached by a large cargo net. The anchor (no lead bolts) was placed in the middle of a wooden crossbar about 1m above the top of the wall. The only vertical supports for this crossbar are about 4m apart on opposite sides of the bar. There is no vertical support at all in the middle. It was raining most of the time I was there, so I didn't get a chance to inspect the top anchor, but it was a single point attached to the log with a single locking biner through it. I have a feeling that if someone of 50+kg fell 1m, there is a good chance the leverage from the 2m on either side would cause the log to fail.

Jonathan Newman - 11/24/2014 12:19:11

I climb on the wall at my school because we don't have any gyms near me. I only started this summer so help me if I don't use the correct terms. My school uses "build your own" harnesses, at least that's what I call them. You have to spend like five minutes figuring out how to "make" the leg straps, and connecting the harness onto your body. There is one guy who has been going to the wall a lot recently, and he wanted to find a new way to make the wall more challenging. The belayer's idea (who by the way used to climb in competition)? Tie a weight (used for barbells) into his harness. After multiple tries, they figured out a "safe way" to do this, and the boy started to climb with a 40 pound weight connected at his lower back. Not only is it the dumbest thing I have yet to see because it could fall out and his the belayer, but the climber fell and he went down at least 15 feet because the belayer couldn't hold his weight. Did this stop them? Nope. I'm sure I will go tonight and see an even heavier weight tied into that harness.

Olivia - 10/29/2014 9:51:35

@schwag I don't know what gym you climb at, but I've seen more crazy things out at the local crag than anything in the gym. Yeah, there are foolish people everywhere, and we need to make sure we're mentoring newer climbers on how to do things safely.

Joshua - 08/28/2014 2:20:54

Schwag! I guess you came out of the womb pulling down on rock? How bout joining the human race and not being such a dick. You're probably one of those assbags who leaves a dump at the base of the crag so others can't enjoy it.

Akpup - 05/16/2014 8:36:53

This is a tale from friends going up to the Gunk's, NY. They had gone and while walking they saw two climbers lead climbing. As he leader got to a good ledge for there hands the belayer proceeded to ask: "are you solid!?" Climber: "yes I'm solid!" The belay processed to unclip the belay device to get a drink and a snack as his climber was shaking out...terrifying...

nj climbing staff - 05/14/2014 6:52:49

Cool schwag, But what about the other people that may endanger in the future? Speak up!

Blamo! - 05/12/2014 5:59:55

@schwag It's easy to dismiss these people as idiots, but remember: we all had to start somewhere. Where would any of us be without the help of more-experienced climbers to show us how to climb safely?

Climbing Staff - 05/12/2014 4:39:26

"I do believe we’re all connected. I do believe in positive energy. I do believe in the power of prayer. I do believe in the putting good out into the world. And I believe in taking care of each other." ~ Harvey Fierstein I would definitely tell someone if he/she is in danger. Where is the compassion?

love climbing - 05/12/2014 4:29:05

Climbing gyms have created a new generation of "idiot climbers!" When I see chuffers doing sketchy stuff outside I only say something if it is going to endanger myself or other climbers at the crag. I don't care if they want to earn the "Darwin" award, just not on my time... I will walk away and let those idiots kill themselves.

schwag - 05/12/2014 2:41:51