Ask Answer Man: Belay Responsibly

Answer Man discusses the crappy belayer
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Answer Man discusses the crappy belayer

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of our print edition.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

The climbing gym is my haven. My soul spot. A plastic church so holy to me that every time I walk through the turnstile I face west, make the sign of the cross, and say five Hail Sharmas before closing my eyes and Om-ing my way through a stretching routine so elaborate that Bikram himself has asked me for lessons.

And then, once I’ve opened my righteous eyes, I’m confronted with the horrible realities that have befallen modern gyms. Everyone is terrible at belaying. Me, you, your mom, your boyfriend, your climbing partner, their secret climbing partner, your secret sexting partner—all of us. We all suck at it. Sure, you’ve never dropped anyone. I haven’t either. But this level of distraction and incompetence is abhorrent. How did we get to this point? In Answer Man’s dozen or so years of climbing (through college hangovers, hazy unemployment hangovers, and enough mental breakups that my partners would have been better off soloing on a Mini Traxion), I can’t remember where I learned to belay. And that’s the problem. Learning to belay, or preventing your climbing partner from breaking his legs or cratering (that is to say, potentially dying), is treated more as a formality rather than the weighty responsibility it actually is.

It’s easy to act superior when I see a less-than-equipped belayer pulling the slack straight up parallel with the rope and holding tight in that position when their partner, who likely taught them this technique in the parking lot with a piece of webbing left in the trunk from slacklining in 2005, is screaming for them to take. You can spot these people because they have temporary unlaminated paper belay cards signed by a 19-year-old, minimum wage–making, V-shaped hermunculous who just wants to be setting sick “10-bangers” and hitting the ’Milks every weekend. We expect these folks, who have never practiced making sure the climber above them doesn’t hit the ground at enormous speed, to learn on the fly, which is literally the exact opposite thing we ought to be doing.

If you think the gym is safe because there’s a padded floor, imagine falling from 45 feet up. Your leg bones, right before they shatter into smaller pieces, will punch into that gymnastic foam like a Capri Sun straw into foil. I’ve seen the craters. Fellow Climbing writer Cedar Wright made me stand in one at our local gym once. Heavy.

Answer Man gets it, though. Belaying isn’t actually that difficult, there is a lot of action in the average gym, and you’re there to climb (not belay). So the act of belaying gets short shrift. But I say this: Shut up, and treat it with the respect it deserves.

The way most of us learn how to belay isn’t good. It isn’t thorough, and it isn’t a great way to perfect a skill that we have to get perfect every single time we do it. It doesn’t help that every gym has slightly different rules for passing a belay test either. Hell, Emily frickin’ Harrington failed a belay test once and she’s freed El Cap. True story. Ask her on Twitter.

Point is, we have to be better. Smarter. Teach slowly and teach slowly more. The habits we learn early will go everywhere with us. Think about the following:

Patience

If your belayer isn’t a belayer yet, don’t rush into it. Reschedule, go bouldering, or better yet, take a class with them. I bet your technique could use refreshing too. 

Practice 

Give a new belayer the chance to learn in a low-pressure environment, say, together during low-traffic gym hours. Make sure they can belay confidently instead of blindly. 

Perfection

The goal is that they laugh in the face of belay tests. Not cower from ineptitude. Let them decide when they are ready. Keep a steady eye on them and always, always, always correct bad habits and behavior in your own and others’ belay routines—and have the humility to accept advice yourself.

Things Answer Man Won't be Covering

  • The bonus checks Answer Man gets when you write hate mail
  • Alex Megos’ (alleged) third testicle. (What are you, 12?)
  • The advantages of dry ropes (seriously, we’re tired of it)