Unbelayvable: The Art of the Callout

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Two hard points good, one belay loop bad (when choosing how to tie in).

Two hard points good, one belay loop bad (when choosing how to tie in).

There is a crag just outside of Marquette, Michigan called Suicide Hill. Being a twenty-minute drive from Northern Michigan University in a state with very few outdoor climbing opportunities, it is a popular spot among newbie climbers. Early this summer I’d gone with a friend to get some pitches in at Suicide. To my dismay but not my surprise, there was a group of ten college students present at the small crag when we arrived.

My partner and I went about our business, got geared up, and as I was flaking out the rope I couldn’t help but overhear one of the girls in the other group ask:

“Should I tie in through my hard points or through my belay loop?”

“Tie in through your belay loop,” a boy climber responded with conviction.

Up until this point, I was under the impression that it was common knowledge that you always tie in through the hard points of your harness—that is what they are meant for. But in a world saturated with incoming climbers, I guess no knowledge can be taken for granted as “common.” I felt as though I had to correct the mistake.

“Actually,” I spoke up, “you’re going to want to tie in through your hard points.”

My contradiction of the boy’s previous statement somehow insulted his manhood. He grit his teeth and hissed.

“I said to tie in through your belay loop!” he insisted.

“When you tie soft-goods to soft-goods they wear out faster,” I explained to the crowd. “Imagine sawing a length of rope across another length of rope versus sawing a length of rope across a carabiner. Which do you think would sever the rope first? That is why the hard points on your harness exist.”

I continued: “Todd Skinner—one of the most-legendary climbers of all time—died in Yosemite while rappelling because his belay loop failed. Todd was notorious for girth-hitching his slings directly to his belay loop instead of his hard points. It caused the belay loop to wear out and a 500-foot fall into a talus slope.”

A hush fell over the crowded crag.

Finally, the girl spoke up: “I’m going to tie in through my hard points.”

Thought so.

—Jack F. via email

Lesson:

This is a conversation I’ve had with many of my climbing partners: What do you do at the crag when you see someone doing something blatantly wrong? Though many of my friends would prefer to avoid conflict at the crag and feel as though it isn’t their business to correct people, my stance has always remained firm—call them out.

I used to work at a climbing gym. I have taught literally hundreds of people how to tie in and belay and countless other basic climbing safety skills. I now write for Climbing Magazine. It pains me to say it, but on a regular basis I have to write obituaries and accident reports on climber deaths—deaths that could often have been prevented. I don’t claim to be a climbing guru, but I do know a lot about both safety and accidents. If you are a climber with such knowledge, you should use that knowledge to help people, even if they resent you at first.

It’s no secret that the advent of climbing gyms caused an influx in young climbers and a lack of proper mentorship. There’s nothing wrong with that—I myself was a part of the gym rat revolution. But there are certain skills that have traditionally been passed down from generation to generation that are now getting lost in the mix.

If you see a climber doing something so obviously incorrect at a crag, it is likely because they don’t know any better. If you know for certain that what they’re doing is dangerous I believe it is our duty to call these people out, even if you risk offending them. I don’t go to the crag to make friends, I go to climb and to come home at the end of the day without blood on my clothes. The way you went about it is a good methodology: explain why what they’re doing is wrong and provide an example of an accident. Hard to argue with that.

Would that girl at Suicide Hill have decked had she tied in to her belay loop? Likely not. And I’m sure it would’ve made the vibe much less awkward at the crag if you hadn’t called out the angry young man. But would she have decked over years of tying in to her belay loop and no one correcting the mistake? That would’ve made for a much more unpleasant day at the crag than a little rift between boys.

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