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My partner and I were running a lap on a multipitch route at Lover’s Leap. I lead a pitch and built an anchor adjacent to a climber on another route, who was belaying the leader. He seemed a little confused, like perhaps it was his first rodeo. His partner was out of view and hadn’t moved for a bit. When he did start moving, the belayer kept short-roping him. Then the belayer took him off belay. I realized I’d misinterpreted the short roping—they were using rope tugs for commands. It made sense. It was a windy day; communication wasn’t easy. Or so I thought. A few minutes later the leader yelled “Off belay, Jared!” The belayer looked scared and embarrassed. He waited a beat and then yelled back, “You’re off belay!”
I think we can all relate to Jared somewhat. It’s difficult to interpret your partner’s commands during a long lead if you lose sight of each other. Sound often doesn’t travel well around features and environmental factors like wind, water, or traffic can make matters worse. In those situations it’s easy to overanalyze. Was that a pika squeaking or did my partner yell “off belay?” Or like Jared, you might assume that your leader has resorted to rope tugs after yelling his voice hoarse only to find that he’s still climbing.
There are plenty of options for effective multipitch communication. I’ve written about this before with great recommendations from IFMGA guide Eli Helmuth. If you want an analysis of different communication methods, including the pros and cons of the rope tug method, check out Effective Multipitch Communication.
In this specific case, it sounds like the real problem was uncertainty. Jared wasn’t sure how commands would be conveyed so he made an assumption which lead to a dangerous situation. Jared and his partner could have discussed their communication strategy on the ground to prevent this uncertainty on the wall. Before starting up a route, it’s good to agree upon your team’s basic tactics for the day:
- How will we communicate on the wall?
- Will we be swinging leads?
- Will we be linking pitches?
- How will we handle belay transitions?
- How will we transfer the gear at anchors?
- Who will carry the extra gear if bringing a pack?
- What’s the plan for snacking?
- Will we rappel or walk off?
This list is by no means comprehensive. The more logistical questions you can answer on the ground, the smoother and safer your climb will be because you will eliminate the wondering. If you don’t have to guess, then you can’t guess wrong. And you hopefully won’t cause your partner to free solo without their knowledge.
I wonder if Jared ever told him.