Learning the Language of Rock Climbing

Learning the Language of Rock Climbing

June 26, 2017

Rock climbing is an amazing way to enjoy adventure, from the safety of a climbing wall to the exhilarating heights of an Arizona cliff face. Anyone who has been through a single rock climbing run knows that the first lesson is all harnesses and rope work. This is because climbing is crazy dangerous and climbers take safety incredibly seriously. Most dedicated climbers have been in terrifying situations in which only their rigorous safety protocols have kept them and their teammates alive, so even in a padded gym one does not mess around with proper rope safety. Because of this, there is a special patter to climbing that goes on between the climber, belayer, and fellow climbers who may be adventuring with you.

Call and Response

Your belayer is your guardian angel while climbing and you rely on her to keep you safe and be ready to catch you if you fall. For this reason, much of what is said while climbing will be you asking her for things, and your belayer responding with an affirmative when she's ready or the request is fulfilled. 

Tip: Because it can be hard to hear each other halfway up a mountain, be sure to always use the exact same words you and your belayer trained with, so she knows what those distantly shouted syllables mean and you understand her responses. 

The Basics

"On belay?" : "Belay on" - Before you start climbing, check with your belayer to ensure she and the equipment are ready

"Climbing" : "Climb" - You announce that you're ready to climb and your partner confirms that she is paying attention and ready to catch you.

"Up Rope" or "Tension": "Okay" - You have noticed too much slack in the rope and need it tightened or you are feeling unsteady and need a tense rope. In either case, your partner confirms and pulls the rope tighter in response, though "up rope" indicates you still want a little slack for maneuvering.

"Slack" : "Okay" - You request more slack in the rope, which has become too tight and your belayer acknowledges then provides a little slack.

"Watch me" : "Watching" - You are about to try a risky move and need your partner to confirm that she is ready to catch you.

"On rappel" : "Ready" - You are alerting your belayer and your team that you are about to rappel, and to watch out for loosed rocks or back up the belayer. Belayer confirms before you begin.

"Off belay" : "Belay off" - You confirm that you are completely safe and your belayer can stand down. Your partner responds by telling you when she has disengaged the belaying device.

Special Alerts

The terms so far have covered how to move around and keep a steady communication of important details between you and your guardian rope manager. However, not every climbing situation goes perfectly smoothly or plays out like a gymnasium climbing wall. Sometimes rocks (and ropes) fall, and often climbers must be aware of how much total rope line they have left to maneuver with. There are calls for these situations as well.

"Rock!" - A simple enough warning to understand and should also be used for any falling object. Even something soft and 'harmless' like a sandwich can surprise or startle a friend, and it's best to use a single warning word to avoid confusion.

"Rope" - For the many circumstances in which a climber in a higher position than their team mates may want to throw down a rope.

"Take" - Used at the top of a finite climbing course to alert your belayer that you are ready to be lowered.

"Halfway" - Your belayer is telling you that you have used half of your available rope.

"Feet Three-oh!" or "Five-oh" etc. - This lets you know about how many feet of rope you have left when you're nearing the end.

Have a Backup System

For the same reasons it is important to use the same commands for every climb, you also want to have a backup communication system (or two). When words between climbing partners are wiped out by wind or distance, many teams have an agreed-upon set of rope signals, but even these can be hard to detect in a highly windy area. Your best final backup is a set of 2-way radios and a pocket full of spare batteries.

Climbing is an amazing hobby, full of opportunities to see the world from new heights and incredible distances. Once you've mastered your first few walls, the special language of climbing should become second nature. With a little practice, you'll be planning camping trips to Yosemite with your girls in no time at all.

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