I have some bad news for you: you’re probably not a great belayer. In fact, you might not even be a good one. How do I know? It’s a matter of odds. Everyone thinks they’re better than average. That’s normal, but, of course, it’s wrong. Most of us are just average, as per the definition of average. And in belaying, as in working at Chachkies, doing the bare minimum just isn’t good enough. Basically, we should all be angling towards better pretty much all the time.
The Good, the Bad, and the Oblivious
Just consider: how many times have you visited a crag and seen bad belaying, and lots of it? Giant loops of slack, untended brake-ends, unlocked biners, chronic short-roping, belayers chattering obliviously on the ground while their climbers crux out high above sketchy pro? Visit the Internet and search the forums for tales of such belaying incompetence—they are numerous. Climbing Magazine has been running a weekly series on bad belaying practices and Rock and Ice has some interesting examples of bad belaying in their Weekend Whipper series. Petzl (my employer) created a video called “The World’s Worst Belayer” (see below) which exaggerates for comedic effect some of the many very real epic belaying fails occurring all across the globe at any given moment.
If you’re like me, you like to think you never do stuff like this. But if you’re like me when I’m feeling honest, you can probably recall moments when you’ve perpetrated the same sketchy acts of belaying yourself. Maybe it was only for a moment, and maybe it doesn’t happen often (or so you like to tell yourself), but that’s the thing about belaying: most days out we’ll be fine, but when those fateful moments arise and bad habits intersect with bad luck, bad things are gonna happen. Sure, we feel competent, but the hard truth is, as a species, humans are pretty poor at evaluating our own ability level at most tasks.
Consider a study conducted by the insurance agency Allstate: two-thirds of respondents ID’ed themselves as excellent or very good drivers… and then went on to admit to doing things bad drivers do, like texting, excessive speeding, and even drinking and driving or falling asleep at the wheel. Another example would be the 68% of University of Nebraska faculty who rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability. Something just doesn’t add up… .
At the crags, I’ve seen folks lying down to belay. I once watched a girl clip herself with a daisy chain to a pack full of softball-sized rocks in an effort to add ballast against her much-heavier partner (when he fell, he pulled her and the pack up, sending the whole unfortunate situation sailing over the edge of a small drop-off). At a gym I saw a woman’s rope slide from her harness loop and swing away when she was 20 feet up the wall—she’d failed to finish her knot and her belayer had failed to do a simple check before telling her she could “climb on.” I bet every one of these folks would, given a survey on the topic, rate themselves “good” belayers.
The Problem with N00bs
Cornell University psychology professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a study to explore how people perceive their own ability level in a given activity. Throughout the study, they observed that incompetent people have some common traits; they:
1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy…
As Dunning put it, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. … the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
Consider this in light of the fact that, according to an Outdoor Industry Association survey, more than a quarter of the three-million-plus people climbing in 2012 were first timers. (One can only guess how many more than a quarter could safety be classified as n00bs.) And most of these have learned to belay via quick lessons from their friends (who are probably only slightly more experienced themselves) or from gym instructors, who vary widely in teaching ability and even in belaying ability. Many new belayers, by dint of their newness, lack the skills to properly evaluate their own skill level. They don’t even know what they don’t know.
Have You Ever Been Experienced?
But surely you’ve noticed plenty of long-time climbers who give blood-curdling belays, too? Their inability to follow proper protocol can’t be attributed to lack of experience. Such cases most likely stem from a combination of hubris and lack of feedback.
Dunning has suggested that one of the culprits behind people’s poor ability to self-assess is that most folks shy away from giving negative feedback. That’s understandable—critical interaction is uncomfortable, especially with a stranger. But if accurate feedback is critical for improvement, it might be worth braving the awkward social moment when you feel the urge to step up to a guy or gal who’s totally blowing it on the belay and say:
“Hey, friend, I’m super psyched to see you’re having a great time at the crag with your buddies, but I’d just like to point out the fact that the way you’re belaying is wildly unsafe and, even if you and your unsuspecting partner walk away from this whole affair unharmed, which is unlikely, I still might die of a heart attack from having to watch you. Allow me to offer some pointers…”
It might not always go over well. Heck, you might get yelled at. But at least Droppy McBelaypants won’t be able to say no one ever warned him or her. In my experience, though, most folks of all ability levels are pretty open to a friendly pointer, when delivered in a non-confrontational manner.
Of course, if an experienced climber with entrenched bad habits refuses to accept feedback, unless they’re at a gym and you’re an instructor, there’s probably not much you can do about. As one mountainproject.com commenter put it, “I’ve left a few crags before just because I’ve seen terrible belays and I wasn’t in the mood to see somebody deck.” In the end, each climber/belayer must be responsible for him or herself.
The Good News
Let’s face it: belaying, like a lot of climbing safety know-how, is fairly complicated, with an array of non-obvious cause-and-effect calculations that can only be learned through training, practice, and real-world experience. Even with modern assisted-braking devices, there is narrow margin for error, and a moment’s inattention or a seemingly small misstep can lead to injuries ranging in severity from rope burn and twisted ankles to compound fractures and graphic brainspills.
The good news is, we can all be better. No matter how long you’ve been climbing and belaying, and no matter how we’ll you think you belay, there’s room to improve. Step one is admitting you might have a problem… or at least that you’re not perfect. Once you do that, you can work towards higher levels of competence and even someday mastery.
Dunning and Kruger identified a fourth trait among those who grossly overestimate their own abilities, which is that they: “recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.”
Simply put, most of us should probably take the time to bone up on our belay technique, learn, discuss, and observe. Check out online resources, sign up for more in-depth courses at the gym or with a guiding service, pick the brain of experienced and trusted sources, etc. Basically, ruthlessly hunt down and exterminate bad habits that could get your climber hurt. (Heck, if everyone just did the hard work of paying better attention to his system and his climber, all manner of lousy things could be avoided!)
Be open and work to improve, just like you work to improve your technique or endurance whenever you climb, and soon you can say with a much greater level of statistical accuracy that you are, indeed, a great belayer.