What To Do When An Undisciplined Climber Won’t Shut !@#!!!??en Up!!!

We've all been there: an undisciplined leader with no pride pitches a fit like a little child. Gear Guru knows what to do then.

Photo: Stevie Lewis

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Question: This past weekend, I was climbing in Muir Valley at the Red River Gorge. As the crowds grew, we found ourselves next to a party of older guys at Tectonic. One dude kept failing on the start of a 5.10a and got incredibly frustrated with each failed attempt. By his third or fourth fall, he was screaming and cursing for a straight minute each time, so loudly that I couldn’t hear my climber’s commands. This continued until he finally got his move. Should I have asked him to chill? (There weren’t any kids nearby, so I just let it go.)

—Chris, Madison, Wisconsin

Gear Guru says:  I don’t know when the air went out of the self-respect gas bag, but I do miss the old days (up to about the mid-1980s) when climbers bottled up their agitations brought on by failure and general shiftlessness, and purged themselves alone in the suds of an OldE or on a ropeless night mission up Nutcracker. In a moment of dire pain, a stoic might let a whimper escape—followed by a glance askance to determine whether anyone had born witness to said lapse in strength—but that was about it.

Perhaps the Lycra-tights phase of the mid 1980s made us less inhibited (have you seen a full-frontal photo of a male climber from that era?) and so we began to expel words to express our feelings—loud words, even, sometimes. Curse words!

Yes, blame the Lycra.

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Yet even today, and even as skin-tight Lycra has made a resurgence, most climbers are still punctilious, displaying respect for the shared aural space at the cliff. Notice, however, that I said most climbers. As ever, there will be an undisciplined few who, as you experienced, intrude upon our Walden Pond by vomiting uncontrolled sound, to draw attention like an adolescent shrieking at a birthday party or because of a sense of cliff ownership or because of anger issues—or whatever. I have to wonder if these same man-children throw tantrums when they experience moments of greater import, such as when a shoelace comes untied or they burn their toast.

My instinct in these situations is to tell the person to sit down and shut up. But meeting aggression with aggression can escalate the situation since most people get defensive when approached this way.

You’ll find folks like this at nearly every bustling crag, and they’re rarely the ones pushing the sport’s envelope. They’re usually angry because they’re failing to meet their expectations for themselves, whether these are rooted in an inflated sense of self (read: narcissism) or a childhood in which their parents neglected to guide them through the temper-tantrum stage of diaperhood. Regardless, people have fits when they can’t cope with negative emotions, such as those that bubble forth when they fail over and over—which, as we all know, is common in rock climbing. We all get frustrated and want to curse the unkind rock, but most of us are able to calm ourselves and experience a learning moment that makes us better climbers, and maybe better people. But again, that’s most of us.

Honestly, my instinct in these situations is to tell the person to sit down and shut up. But meeting aggression with aggression can escalate the situation since most people get defensive when approached this way. So, what’s to be done? I think your best solution would have been to ask the belayer to ask the climber to keep it down. Assuming the belayer has a friendly relationship with the climber, this is a good way to for you to sidestep the line of fire. I’ve found, however, that the belayer is often embarrassed by their partner’s behavior and unwilling to intercede, or is used to the wobbling and doesn’t see the problem. But at least you would have tried.

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Offering beta is another tactic. The climber is obviously flummoxed by the moves, so perhaps you can unlock the sequence for him. A friendly, helping hand—“Put your feet on the footholds and your hands on the handholds”—might do the trick. Then, there’s Ben Franklin’s old technique of asking for a favor. Could the climber hang your draws, or does he mind if you give a burn on his rope when he’s done? Even if you don’t actually want these things, asking for them establishes him as the alpha, and the ego stroke will likely cause him to settle down and just climb—you’re counting on him!

Final step is to pack up and go somewhere else. I hate conflict, so this is my MO practically every time. And, guess what? It works every time. Gear Guru has spoken!

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