Whaaaat?!” is the word most commonly spoken on multi-pitch climbs, where river noise, wind, acoustics, and helmets and stocking caps make it difficult, if not impossible, to use traditional verbal belay signals. If I had $100 for every time I’ve watched a team wasting time or bungling things up by miscommunicating, I’d own this magazine. Though some climbers use small, two-way radios, this isn’t the best option if you’re broke or going light. With a partner you know well, the best solution is a silent communication system. This method is probably safer than yelling in crowded areas like the Diamond of Longs Peak on a weekend, as it can prevent accidents such as your partner hearing a different leader shout “Off belay!” and taking you off mid-pitch. Use the following tips to help dial in your silent-communication skills.Let the rope talk. If you familiarize yourself with the patterns of rope movement, you can climb safely without ever saying a word. Notice how the rope moves during the different phases of a climb. It will move differently when the climber is leading, with irregular speed and periods of no movement that are unlike the rhythmic tugging of a belay.
Three tugs to safety. Even the most experienced climbers should discuss the specifics before leaving the ground. Be consistent in the number — and timing — of tugs you use to communicate with each other. Use three sharp tugs for “Off belay,” and three more tugs for “On belay.” Never confuse three tugs with the leader clipping a piece or struggling with a high step. If you’re unsure, wait for the leader to try to pull up the extra rope, in which case she’ll realize that the rope is still through the belay and will respond with three more tugs (figure 1). If both climbers are paying attention, signals for “Climbing” and “Climb on” are unnecessary, because pulling on the rope will reveal the second’s movement.
The other signals. “Slack” is hard to communicate, but is still possible with sensitive hands. A gentle pull usually means that the second is stepping down and needs slack: Feed the rope out slowly and be ready to catch a fall. A fall will often be obvious (a sharp tug on the rope), but may be masked by rope drag, so don’t continually feed out rope if you’re unsure. “Up rope” is best relayed with a single hard tug, while “Tension” or “Take” are nearly impossible to communicate. If you know you’re not going to free climb the pitch, and a piece is close at hand, then just grab the bloody gear and avoid the issue altogether. It’s better to aid your way back to the sleeping bags than to hangdog all afternoon and end up sleeping on a pint-sized ledge.
While “Off rappel” seems easy to intuit because there’s suddenly no weight on the rope, your partner could be standing on a ledge hunting for the next anchor. Once the first climber is off rappel he should pull the rope back and forth through the anchors, a couple of feet each way. This not only communicates “Off rappel,” but also ensures that the ropes won’t hang up on the anchor (figure 2).