The “New” Rules of Belaying, or: How Not to Be a Jerk

Recently, Andrew Bisharat posted an article called The New Rules of Belaying.  The title was something of a joke – these have always been the rules of belaying.  This article did the rounds on my Facebook feed, and as I read it, I found myself getting a little defensive.

“I talk while I’m belaying, I guess,” I said to myself, “but I always keep an eye on my climber.”  And it’s completely acceptable to interrupt a conversation on the ground to talk to my climber.

“Of course I wear flip-flops when I’m belaying,” I think.  “It doesn’t affect my ability to move around.” And it doesn’t – or it hasn’t, yet.

I think of belaying the way I think of driving in the snow – the more experienced you are, the more likely you are to be dangerous.  I’ve seen people who claim they know everything there is to know about snow-driving…who then proceed to recklessly barrel down the street, because they “know what they’re doing”.  I know you’ve seen these people too.  And they’re scary.

Bad Driving | Peak Experiences

Handy Metaphor

Of  course, some folks are perfectly competent winter drivers, but after years of being frightened in a snowstorm because of the over-confident people around me, I’ve stopped giving anyone the benefit of the doubt.  So it is with belaying – I don’t care how long you’ve been climbing; unless I’ve seen you catch a fall, I’m not tying in with you.  There’s a point at which people know just enough to be cocky – and dangerous – but haven’t yet had a near-miss or witnessed an accident.  I don’t want to be a teaching aid. Don’t be offended – it’s not you, it’s me.

Seasonally relevant metaphors aside, Bisharat’s rules are all sound ones, especially if you do a lot of leading outside.  They may not be equally applicable to the gym – the prohibition against flip-flops, for example, is less crucial when there’s no roots or rocks to trip over – but each gym has its own standards, and some of them may seem even more stringent than Bisharat’s baseline rules.

Following the rules | Peak Experiences

Check out that killer form.

I was at another gym recently, and belaying with the same method as I have for the last thirteen-odd years.  One of their staff politely asked me to use a different method, which is taught at most gyms these days.  It was not unfamiliar to me, but it was hard to change my movements mid-climb.  We had a nice chat about why they prefer that method, and how it compares to the methods I’ve learned, and industry standards in general.  I’m a nerd for that sort of stuff, and so is he.

Not everyone enjoys those kinds of conversations, though, and not everyone is particularly amenable to being told what to do. It’s frustrating to try to communicate the rules of my gym to someone who’s convinced they know better than me, for whatever reason. I’m bound by the restrictions set by my boss and by our insurance company; I’m not trying to harsh your buzz by asking that you follow our rules.  Attitude and/or assurance that “you know what you’re doing” doesn’t help either of us.  (This is “you” in the general sense, of course; I’m sure that you, Constant Reader, are a delight all the time.)

Angry Climbers

They cry when you yell.

As you travel this holiday season, and visit new climbing gyms, remember that gym employees aren’t trying to ruin your day.  (We do have better things to do.) They’ve got a job to do same as anyone else, and they’re almost always answering to a higher authority when they ask you to belay a certain way or follow certain guidelines.  Insurance companies and lawyers are ultimately in control, and they certainly don’t care how impressive your tick list is.


About Peak Experiences

Love rock climbing? Me too. Peak is a giant box of climbing and fun, located in Midlothian Virginia, and has been around since 1998. Stronger Than Yesterday is our online resource for all things climbing, in Richmond and out in the wider world.
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1 Response to The “New” Rules of Belaying, or: How Not to Be a Jerk

  1. Jake Jones says:

    I feel obligated to respond (but I also enjoy it) since no one else ever cares to- although I’m sure there are other readers. I’ve been at gyms that required no belay test, and I’ve been at gyms that require some form of test, but that were fairly complacent about it. By far Peak has had the most comprehensive, stringent, and common sense belay standards that I have seen among the 4 gyms I’ve visited. I don’t feel as though I’m biased, because I learned to belay from non-Peak instruction. I think it’s an important distinction, and one of the reasons that Peak stands out as a quality establishment.

    I know that some places require different methods, but if you’re really well versed in acceptable and solid methods, it seems to me that you could be asking for trouble by demanding someone use a different method if there is nothing inherently wrong with the one they happen to be using. That’s the way it goes though, I suppose. In the end, it is the establishment’s call, so if you want to climb bad enough, you conform. If not, you don’t. Fortunately for us at Peak, our routes are so good, and our practices so chock-full of logical and practical reasoning, that people want to conform because they want to climb.

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