Unbelayvable: The Pretend Toprope

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“On belay?” I yelled up to my strong, albeit relatively inexperienced partner while climbing The Great Escape, a four pitch 5.11c in Yosemite Valley. “Uhmm…on belay!” they yelled back. Two hundred feet off the ground, I followed the crux lead, nearly but thankfully not falling. On arriving at the belay, I saw that they had tried to put the tube-style belay device in guide mode, but failed. Instead of clipping the device to the anchor via the guide hole, they just pushed a bight of rope through the device and clipping that and the wire—sort of like setting up a rappel, but upside-down. The rope went through the carabiner and they just held the other side. There was no break other than the friction of their hand. I like climbing with this person but this terrified me. When I pointed out the error, they insisted they could have held me if I’d fallen.

—Tom Williams, California

Lesson:

Good job not falling on that pitch! That would have been disastrous—you would’ve blown your onsight, and maybe died. That being said, trust is an integral part of climbing. We need to believe our partner when they say “on belay,” and that they’ll catch us if we fall. If you let this experience affect you too greatly, you’ll never trust another climbing partner and will be too timid to try hard, sacrificing your own performance. But if you neglect the impact at all, you may find yourself in a horrible climbing experience.

The way that your partner belayed you was a misuse of a belay device with a guide mode. The rope should have been able to self-brake with an additional carabiner, the climbers strand pinning down the brake strand when weighted. There are numerous illustrations of this but your partner's method wouldn’t provide anymore friction than if the rope had just gone through the anchor with no belay device.

You have a couple of options with this experience. You could never climb with this person again, or you could use it as a teachable moment. Writing off this partner is fine if you just found them in the Camp 4 parking lot. See you later, Larry! However, if you want to develop this person into a long-term belaytionship, or if you have a lot of experience with this person already, you may want to take a different tactic.

You mention that this partner was inexperienced. Climbing hard multipitch routes with a new partner can be dangerous. It’s best to have some idea of their ability to build anchors and belay before leaving the ground. If you were teaching this climber, then you should be practicing these hard skills on easy terrain, where you won’t fall. It’s also important to have a sense of personal responsibility. Though you didn’t set up the belay, you did choose to go climbing with this person. Knowing a partner’s skillset is crucial before leaving the ground. Additionally, if you’re concerned about whether you’re on belay or not, you can always test the system by clipping in to the anchor, having your partner take tight, and then sagging onto the rope.

Since this incident is now over and done with, you can use it as a teachable moment for your partner. After you descend, show him how to use the belay device correctly, how to build an anchor, and how to double-check everything. Having the conversation on the wall may be too tense. Be patient and work with him in a low risk environment. Take the time to explain the importance of setting up a belay correctly, that if they fail in the task, you die. Avoid being condescending or patronizing. They made a simple mistake. While it’s significant in terms of your life, the actual error was basic.