Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I - you - me - we - good - go

No matter how skilled a climber is, falls are inevitable. If we didn't want to push ourselves and try a move we are not sure we can swing, we would not be climbing in the first place. Every climber I know - and likely everyone who has ever climbed more than once or twice - owes his or her life to safety gear and the people on the business end of a belay device.

Belaying is simple. It takes about 15 minutes to learn, and once you have mastered the basic skills, anyone can belay a climber with confidence. For this reason, it is easy to forget the basic procedure climbers should follow when tying in and for a climb. The climber ties in using a follow through figure eight:

The belayer clips in and screws the caribiner shut. The climber checks to see if the 'biner actually is shut. The dialogue, officially, is to be:

Climber: belay on?
Belayer: On belay.
Climber: Climbing.
Belayer: Climb on.

After about the first half hour of belaying among friends, this entire dialogue simply disappears. The two climbers, if they really know each other, substitute a shorthand of looks and gestures intended to indicate the above.

Among Bibi, Sri, and I, the replacement is

I'm in. You?
Me? We're good.
Eye contact.
Checking of 'biner.

The critical part of the transaction is, of course, the eye contact. What is not said:

I am going up with wall now and I do not doubt that you have my back (and my ass).

I've got your back (and your ass). Think not of falling, only of climbing. Go.

I never think twice with Bibi or Sri belaying me. When things happen, (and they often do) Bibi and Sri ( and me) hit the breaks instantly. I have never fallen more than a few feet. Ever.

Many times I have been near the top of a climb, shaking and winded and about two seconds away from making a move that I know good and well I don't "have" - and have shouted over my shoulder "Yo, got me?" to whoever is on the business end of the grigri. And then two seconds later, went for it and went flying... about 2 and a half feet. (About 3% of the time I actually make the climb and then I am all giddy and shaking and exhausted and rappel down a very happy novice climber).

That is why it is difficult for me to understand how this could ever happen:

Notice that she says the equivalent of 'you, go me?" and notice that her belayer say 'I gotcha' more than once.

THAT IS WAY TOO MUCH AIR for ANY climber to catch on a fall.

And just for the hell of it, a picture of me climbing in Peru a few months ago:

Thanks, Mischa, for taking this rather artsy zoom photo of the back of my head on that very reachy ledge about 60 feet from the ground. The person belaying me was a competitive climber and on that day, our lead climber. He spoke Quechua and Spanish. I speak neither, and his English was limited to 'hello" and "rock climbing' - but the language of "I've got your back (and your ass)" is universal. I tied in. He checked the knot. I check caribiner and we made eye contact - and up I went.

About one second after Mischa took this picture, I fell, and caught almost no air. Jose said, "OK?" I said "yep." And then I latched back on and finished the climb - which is just as it should be.

For more videos of close calls and sloppy belaying, click here.