Scenario 2: Multipitch Climbing
Jorge and Maria are now on a multipitch climb. They begin a pitch sharing a stance at an anchor together, so communication is straightforward prior to the lead. However, once Maria tops out the pitch, there’s a need for terse, precise, and unambiguous action-oriented communication. Belays will be deconstructed and the climbing team will be transitioning from one safety system to the next.
In their communication agreement, Jorge had two main concerns. Jorge wanted to know when exactly to start removing his belay device. He had an experience in the past when he thought the leader said “Off Belay.” On that day, the leader was actually shouting to a rappelling party, “I’m out of the way.” Jorge took the leader off belay prematurely that day, and he never wants to make that mistake again. On a completely separate outing, Jorge was taking his GriGri off the rope when the leader started pulling up the rope. The unexpected tug of the rope yanked Jorge’s GriGri out of his hands and it fell all the way down the cliff. Jorge doesn’t want to deal with either of these miscommunication problems again.
Maria and Jorge agreed that names will be less important today on this isolated climb; no other climbers are around. They’ve also agreed that when the leader shouts “Off Belay,” the belayer will immediately shout “Belay Off.” The leader will have one last chance to object, if Jorge has misheard the verbal command. Jorge agrees to wait a short second before deconstructing the belay.
Also, the leader agrees not to start pulling up rope until she hears the belayer shout “Maria, Up Rope.” It’s important for every climbing team to appreciate that Maria and Jorge could’ve agreed on a completely separate sequence here, and a completely separate set of commands to communicate that sequence. The vital point here is the relationship between prior agreement and precision; Maria and Jorge are being conscientious about both fundamental principles.
When the rope is tensioned against Jorge or his attachment to the anchor, he’ll inform his partner by saying, “That’s me.” This signals to Maria that the tension she feels in the rope is due to Jorge’s weight and not some other potential predicament, such as the rope being wedged in a crack or ensnared around a horn of rock. Maria’s call to action with this command is to put Jorge on belay immediately. “On Belay”
Jorge can now prepare to climb, secure in the knowledge that he is belayed from above. When he is ready to climb, he can inform his belayer with a simple, “Climbing!” A reply of, “Climb on!” will see Jorge to the top of the pitch to rejoin his partner.
Note that in the above exchange, Jorge does not query Maria as to whether he is on belay. There is no need as Maria will put Jorge on belay in response to the command of, “That’s me.” Further, Jorge may not be able to see Maria as she concludes her lead. Consequently, he will likely not know for sure when Maria has established an anchor and is ready to belay. In the best case, voicing, “On belay?!” will not elicit a call to action from Maria other than to say “No, not yet,” unless Jorge happens to pick just the right moment to ask. Asking if he is on belay simply introduces unnecessary, informal communication. In the worst case, shouting, “On belay?!” may be misunderstood as “Off belay!” Maria is likely to find this rather alarming if she has yet to complete her lead.
Scenario 3: Communicating without Commands
It is possible for a climbing party to communicate unambiguously without the use of verbal commands, thereby eliminating the potential for poor verbal communication or miscommunication. Provided the party can agree up on a system in advance, this is readily achieved. Let’s revisit the example in scenario 2 to see this in action.
Maria reaches the top of the pitch and secures herself to the anchor. Because they suspected the possibility of poor communication, Jorge and Maria agreed in advance to use only the necessary formal verbal commands. As Maria is secured to the anchor, she shouts, “Off belay!”
Unfortunately, Jorge is unable to hear this command. However, he knows that there are only two reasons that he might need to feed rope to the leader. Either Maria is still leading, or she has arrived at the belay stance and is pulling up excess rope. Since Jorge is unsure which is the case, he simply continues belaying until he reaches his end of the rope. As he did not hear Maria issue the “off belay” command, he has no reason to affirm this command. Instead, he skips this and simply proceeds to the next command, “Maria, that’s me!” He then removes his belay device from the rope.
Maria has pulled the rope until it is tensioned and thinks she hears Jorge shout a command to her, but she’s not positive. Regardless, her next step is clear: put Jorge on belay. She does so promptly and shouts, “On Belay!”
Meanwhile, down below, Jorge is diligently waiting to climb. Prior to starting the climb, Maria and Jorge agreed to a 30- second waiting period. After shouting, “Maria, that’s me!” Jorge waits 30 seconds and then removes himself from the anchor to begin climbing. He does this knowing that Maria will promptly put him on belay after the rope is tensioned, a task that should take no more than 30 seconds. Jorge and Maria could have agreed to any amount of time they felt appropriate; again the prior agreement is the important thing.
After the agreed upon amount of time, Jorge bellows, “Climbing!” and makes a couple moves. He has one last chance to make sure that he is on some form of belay. He’s making sure the rope is travelling up, in the characteristic progression of a belay cycle. In this sequence, Jorge and Maria have accepted that it might also be possible that Maria is not actually belaying. It is possible that she is still leading, and the team is now accidentally simul-climbing. Even though it’s scary and hopefully avoidable, Jorge and Maria appreciate that Jorge will have to climb in that scenario, even if he’s not on belay. What choice does he have?
Meanwhile, back at the top of the pitch, Maria cannot hear Jorge, but she can feel the slack in the rope he generates by climbing. She pulls the rope through the belay system and after a few feet of movement is sure Jorge must be climbing. As a confirmation, she yells, “Climb on!”
Troubleshooting Communication Challenges
Select belay stances and pitch lengths that enable communication, when feasible.
Occasionally, verbal communication is challenging or impossible. This happens most often on multipitch routes and can result from many factors, including a pitch that traverses around a corner or crosses a ridgeline, high winds, or stretching or linking pitches. The best strategy for these situations is simply prevention. Whenever possible, select stances that enable good verbal communication, or even visual communication if possible. Research the route thoroughly to know when your partner might be out of touch. Consider belaying at an appropriate stance even if the guidebook does not indicate the stance as a typical belay point.