This post is inspired in part by a photo that my friend Corie posted on her instagram feed, @insatiabletourist. The photo caption read "I guess this is how the cool kids belay nowadays". The picture showed a young climber belaying someone who was out of the frame on a route in the area known as Overboard at Smith Rock. The young man in the picture was at least 10 feet away from the wall with enough slack out that it hovered just inches above it's own shadow before lazily arching its way at a diagonal angle towards the wall, up to the presumably unsuspecting climber; What we call a Hero Loop. As I looked in disbelief I was reminded of an uncomfortable situation that happened while I was climbing in Clear Creek Canyon. It also got me thinking of other similar situations where something dangerous was happening and how sometimes I felt comfortable saying something, and sometimes I just chose to walk away.
The particular event at Clear Creek Canyon happened like this: I was nearing the end of a long climbing trip up the west coast of the United States. One of my last stops was Colorado and it happened that a good friend of mine, Adam, lived in Denver. Adam opened his house to my climbing partner and I, and offered to take a day off to show us around Clear Creek, a big local climbing area minutes outside of Denver.
After nearly 5 months of climbing on this trip with a month left to go, Adam deemed me in shape to try a route he'd been working on at an area called the Wall Of The 90's. His animated descriptions of techy edges and bear-hugging cruxes on vertical terrain had me both intrigued and terrified in equal proportions and he swore the hike wasn't too bad either. Done deal. I was up for the challenge.
At the Wall Of The 90's, I was a kid in a candy store. Beautiful lines, from vertical to overhanging, were at our complete disposal. We were the only 3 at the crag, so we had our pick of any of the warm ups before getting down to the business. After a couple of runs on some fun 10's and 11's, I was ready to be shown the project. The route was called 10 Digit Dialing. Due to its popularity, the heavily chalked holds easily spelled out the vertical path to the anchors. I remember the route not seeming very tall which could only mean that to receive a grade of 12c it would have to be pretty burly in its short distance.
I tied in and went for the onsight attempt and though I could distinguish which holds to grab, the crux near the top proved to be a boulder problem that was both hard to read and as strong as I anticipated from the ground. I remember it was just as Adam had said, "it's like wrestling with a refrigerator!" referring to some compression moves. I did not onsight the route but after a few tries I cracked the cryptic sequence to the crux and asked to be lowered down so I could rest and try again.
What an amazing line. A totally unsuspecting introduction that involved climbing over a couple low angle ledges to fun vertical terrain, slowly led you into thinner edges with more technical sequences until a surprise buildup of lactic acid in your forearms was met by a thin and balance-y crux within a few feet of the anchor. Cruel beauty.
After a good rest, and some mental preparation I was ready to try again. I sent the route on my second try, pumped about the quick victory on a tricky but aesthetic line. After cleaning the anchor, as I was lowering down, I looked back to see a pair of climbers approaching. One was tall and thin, the other, shorter and stockier. The shorter climber congratulated me on the send. He said he'd been able to see the line go down on his hike over. He'd been project-ing it for some time and thought today felt like it might also go down for him.
Still feeling the fatigue in my forearms from grappling with the ice-box crux, I sat down with my friends to watch the pair attempt the line before moving on to climb other gems in that area.
First up was our friend of shorter stature. Built a little like a wrestler, I got the impression he might be a bit more comfortable with the power moves that comprised the crux. After his silent partner put him on belay, he tied a quick knot into his harness and began gliding through the opening moves and then through the mid section of the route. He had a good, uninterrupted flow through the line; they way you do when you have the moves so committed to memory, you can do the sequence in your sleep. He fell right at the first moves of the crux and all of a sudden everything changed. Frustration immediately manifested in the form of a temper tantrum just short of kicking and pulling of hair. Though that type of attitude can be embarrassing; I reserved judgment because I know what it's like to work on something for a length of time and not get it despite your best and most perfect efforts. It feels like the very universe may be conspiring so you can fail. Rather than contempt, I felt empathy for the guy.
After a bit, he got back on, worked on the crux sequence and lowered back down for a rest. His taller, more reserved climbing partner tied in and waited to be put on belay. With a look of frustration fastened to his face, the first climber produced a GriGri and put his partner on belay. I remember they hardly exchanged a word between the two and after a brief safety check, the second climber was off on his onsight attempt.
Now at this point, the belayer had paid out a generous amount of slack, evidenced by the coils that piled up between him and his climbing partner. It seemed a bit much to me considering the first bolt wasn't very high up but sometimes it's hard to tell how much is enough and it's pretty easy to take in the remaining slack once the first bolt is clipped. What was of more concern was our new acquaintance's positioning once his partner left the security of flat land.
Rather than spot his friend to the first bolt, his hands were placed on either hip like he'd just ran a hard mile and needed to walk it off. Head down, presumably still irritable from his earlier attempt, he appeared to have zero concern for the other end of the line.
His climbing partner was focused on the task at hand and the controlled movements through the opening moves on his onsight attempt suggested he had climbing experience. I was kind of waiting for him to look back down so he could make eye contact with his belayer and possibly get him to redirect his attention back to the belay, but he clipped the first bolt and remained focused on the task at hand.
We heard the familiar click of a closing carabiner gate and that same sound seemed to call the belayer's attention back to his device. His hands quickly changed positions from hips to belay device and a silent sigh passed through me unnoticed.
With the initial amount of slack in the line, the climber had no issues clipping the first draw and continued climbing uninterrupted on his way towards the second bolt. When the belayer dropped his hands from his hips to his device, what my friends and I had expected to see was a retraction in the excess slack, which would result in a safe and normal fall should our nimble-climbing friend make a mistake. Instead, horrified, what the three of us saw was the belayer paying out an additional 5 or so more feet of slack into the system, and returned his hands right back to his hips.
I didn't need to confirm with my friends that what I was watching was reckless endangerment, but the look on their faces and silent mouthing of WTF confirmed my opinion. With the climber's attention firmly focused on his climbing, he had no idea of the unnecessary danger his partner was putting him in. There was enough slack in the rope, that he was easily able to clip the second and third bolt without the possibility of being short-roped.
Trying my best to give the benefit of doubt, I had thoughts going through my mind like, "this terrain is still pretty easy, maybe he knows his friend's skill level well enough to know he won't fall here" or "maybe they've climbed together long enough to be comfortable with that type of belaying" but I wasn't really buying into any of my own excuses. It went against things I'd been taught early on about a commitment to safety.
After he clipped the third bolt he was beginning to enter the more technical terrain and I thought, "surely he'll put him on ACTUAL belay now?" No. He proceeded to pay out another arm length and a half of slack and returned his hands to his hips in a Herculean pose of apathy.
The silent anxiety in our group felt like a herd of cats ready to pounce. At this point if the climber fell with that much slack out, plus rope stretch, plus more slack from pulling his belayer into the wall, he'd surely be looking at a ground fall from halfway up the route. Even if he got lucky and stopped just short of flat land, the fall would be hard and it would be unpleasant.
Again, hands went from hips to belay device and he paid out another 2 arm lengths of slack. His hands went back to his hips and he actually (I'm not kidding here) surveyed the land from left to right.
That was pretty much it for me. His partner was close to the crux now and I didn't (couldn't) watch any more and I knew I wasn't going to say something so I just started packing up my gear. My friends apparently thought the same because they followed suit immediately. The curiosity did get the better of me while packing up though and I looked up in time to see him grab the GriGri after his partner called for a take at the crux. We left shortly after and once out of earshot began to talk about the woulda-coulda-shoulda's.
Stuff like that happens all the time in this sport though. Sometimes it's just lack of skill and experience. Sometimes it's just plain lazy negligence. Whenever ethical situations or situations concerning safety like this happen at the crag, the part that bothers me most is when I get a feeling like I can't say something. This usually happens when I get the impression that pointing out the safety issue will be received as confrontational. To add to the issue, there's so many variables that can produce a variety of results. For example, I feel like most people would maybe appreciate it if you let them know that they may have forgotten to lock a carabiner but have you ever tried telling a seasoned old-schooler he should probably wait to roll that cigarette with one hand after his partner comes down?
Recently at Smith on Morning Glory Wall my group and I were climbing next to a well-meaning couple out for a day of cragging. One was teaching the other about climbing but within minutes it was clear neither had the experience to really be out there cragging on their own. They were both tied in to either end of the rope on 5 Gallon Buckets the same way you would if you were multi-pitching. Failing to flake the rope, they encountered an overhand knot half way through the rope while one was lowering the other. Overlooking safety checks, the belayer's carabiner was loaded backwards with the ATC being clipped to the anti-crossloading end of a Metolius Gatekeeper (meant more for a GriGri than an ATC); the carabiner was also left unlocked. Thankfully, they were really receptive to suggestions on ways to correct their mistakes but the situation left me feeling anxious. If you've ever seen someone get seriously hurt while climbing, you know the feeling.
But that day at Clear Creek, something in me told me to keep my mouth shut and mind my business. I think it happened after I saw him take a fall on his project. His reaction made me think he wouldn't take kindly to someone telling him how to belay. So, I kept my mouth shut and minded my own business and opted for calling it a day instead. It's happened a few times since then and I always feel conflicted about it after. I've discussed, at times, with my friends about the effects of good mentoring early on in your climbing career. I'm not trying to portray Officer Safety who's never done anything compromising. I often climb without a helmet, though I own one. I posted a recent photo of my girlfriend climbing on Portland Oregon Climbing Community's FaceBook page and someone commented "Helmets save lives". When I read the comment, I thought, yeah, they do. I own one, I should probably be better about wearing it. I do appreciate people taking time to point out good ethics and safety in climbing, especially when I was first starting out. They became fundamentals for me and I try and do my best to pass that on when I can. There have certainly been times when I've been lax about things like safety checks and there's nothing like climbing with a beginner who's been taught correctly to remind me not to get complacent.
It's been said many times before in other writing. The growing popularity of climbing has made it easily accessible to the masses. More than ever we have to be careful about how the new generations are introduced to the sport especially during the transitions from indoor to outdoor. Taking the time to learn the proper way to do things and to get your information and training from trusted sources can help save your life and your partner's. Teaching others when one is still very new to climbing concepts can lead to serious consequences. For those of us that have been climbing a long time, the second we adopt an attitude where we think we know all there is to know and no one can make a suggestion, we've closed ourselves off and possibly increased our chances for equally serious consequences.
I feel like the idea here is not to strive for perfection. As human beings it's guaranteed that we will make mistakes. We'll always find a reason to justify cutting a corner. It's about HOW we react when someone calls attention to a potential safety hazard. Equally as important is our approach when someone is negligent about safety. I like to think that most climbers out there are well-intentioned. It does no one any good to embarrass or chastise someone for committing mistakes. We can still make a choice to ignore or acknowledge the advice given but at least there's pause for thinking about the situation. As climbers, we are a special group of misfits with like-minded passions for community and adventure and being open to giving and receiving constructive criticism should be part of our culture because none of us want to see one of our own in a bad spot.