“Off belay!” “That’s me!” “On belay!” “Climb when ready!” Paired with a name, these become some of the basic verbal communications used on the wall between climber and belayer. Other than the rope and a couple pieces of protection, communication is the next most important thing to keep between each other. Communication on the wall is more than just simple commands barked back and forth. There are also important non-verbal signals and planning steps that you should be familiar with. After all, it’s not only your life on the line but one of your best friends too (or a random stranger that happens to have a fat rack you need to use).

Briefing before climbing
Myself and Will covering the basics before heading out.

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance

Known as the magic 5 P’s of success. Planning can mean life or death in the mountains. Most of the time, climbing is glamorized with photos and films of people hanging from walls and summiting grand expanses of rock. The planning process and all the time that climbers spend beforehand huddled over maps, books, topos, and weather charts rarely makes the cut. Whether you’re doing a grade III or grade VI, you should still do some planning the day before. Bare minimum, you should know the answers to these questions before you head out: :

  • How is the approach?
  • How much water do you need?
  • What gear is needed for the ascent?
  • How are you getting off the wall?
  • How much food is needed?
  • Who gets to climb what pitch?
  • What time are you going to start?
rock climbing thailand
Just hanging out in Thailand

After you have the basics covered, waking up and grabbing your gear is simple. You can get some breakfast and start your trek in no time. Obviously, if you are doing a grade VI climb there is a lot more planning. But if you’re doing a grade VI climb, hopefully, you don’t need the internet to tell you the importance of planning and communication.

Brief at the Base Before you Belay

The 4 B’s of briefing, some alliteration I just made up. Though I made up the whole 4 B’s thing, briefing at the base of the climb is beyond essential. Before you even shoe up and tie-in, you should know EXACTLY what is going on. If there is one thing I learned from too many years in the military, it’s brief, debrief, and communicate. A couple basics to cover:

  • Who is climbing? (obviously)
  • Linking pitches?
  • Swinging leads or leading in blocks?
  • What if you lose the ability to hear each other?
  • What if something goes wrong? (injury or off-route)
  • Do you have the required gear for an emergency rap or rescue?

These are just a few of the questions you want to make sure you have the answers to before you get on the wall. Some of them were probably covered the night before, but it’s still good to reiterate.

170402_Joshua_Tree-71
Breakfast of Champions, 2-pitch 5.8, Joshua Tree, CA

Be weary linking pitches, rope drag is always an issue and you’re venturing into territory where self-rescues are more difficult and dangerous. Keep in mind when swinging leads that you can use the rope as an anchor, but if you’re leading in blocks you’ll need to use cordelette or slings. And setting up nonverbal signals (such as rope tugs) beforehand can save you a LOT of pain and stress in the future.

Cramming Cracks with Cord Creates Conundrums

North Overhang (5.9), Joshua Tree, California. A classic roof with a perfect hand crack that juts out of the side of the history-rich Intersection Rock. My climbing partner (Will) and I decided that we would climb it in two pitches. Pitch two starting right before you have to dedicate in a hand crack and pull the super fun crux around the roof.

After successfully pulling the roof and anchoring off at the top, the wind was whipping in my face. I yelled, “Will, I am off belay!” at the top of my lungs at least times three times to no avail. “Hmph, I guess he’ll get the point after I start pulling all the rope, no worries.” I get a couple pulls on the rope and it stops. Maybe Will is taking me off of belay?

Wait.

Try again.

Nothing.

Ahh, the rope was carelessly pulled into the crack about five meters below me, right where it meets the roof, perfect.

Unkown climbers north overhang
Unknown climbers on North Overhang

I’m on the top, probably 8-12 meters away from Will, and for the life of us, we can’t hear shit. The wind, coupled with the giant roof he was under, created the perfect recipe to cease our communication (both verbal and non-verbal). Does he know I topped? Am I on belay? What’s he even doing down there? Long story short, I had enough rope pulled through to safely downclimb off of a clove hitch to the anchor, establish communication through a third party, and work the rope out as a team. Will followed and we rapped.

Will and I were still blooming in our climbing “careers” at that point. We didn’t have much (or any) training for emergencies and that was the first time we’ve ever lost full communication with each other. We had no brief and no contingency plan in place. With proper planning and briefing, we could have:

  • Read up on the route and did it in one pitch 
  • Identified the potential of the rope sucking into the crack
  • Established a method of non-verbal communication when we lost verbal
  • Brought useful gear (walkie-talkies) for high wind communication

Shit will hit the fan!

The more you climb, the more crazy shit you will have to deal with. Things will go wrong. That’s the nature of the beast. A lot can happen: ropes getting stuck, rock fall, inclement weather, injury, or even just the inability to climb a route. What you have to do is remember what was planned, and keep your head on straight. Good climbing partners excel at this.  

The difference between a good alpinist and a great alpinist can be narrowed down to decision making

Solid decisions will save your life on the wall and It’s easier to make solid, quick, and precise decisions when you’re properly communicating and well prepared. From time to time, it ’s smart to take a step back from all the fun and respect the danger involved. But never forget that it’s ultimately about having fun.

Summit of tahquitz

4 thoughts on “Climb Safe: Planning and Communication on the Wall

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