Australian Rock Climbing Commands: You’re doing it wrong

I’d like to address a problem I have with the sport of rock climbing in Australia, specifically in the shit state of affairs that exists within our usage of climbing commands.

Standards are pretty low across the board, for reasons which I’ll get to later. There are several distinct problems and idiosyncrasies which I don’t entirely agree with, however some of the usual suspects are:

  • “Lowering”
    Often erroneously given by the climber, rather than the belayer. “Ready to Lower” is the correct climber command, “Lowering” is a belayer command.
  • “Clipping” or “Clipped”
    Sometimes useful, but gratuitously overused in Oz. In my opinion, this overuse breeds poor situational awareness in belayers, instilling reliance on verbal commands for an autonomous action.

…but the king-shit, Number One nonsense command is the ubiquitous “SAFE”.

“Safe” is largely a British and Australian command, given when the leader has attached to an anchor by means of a personal safety device. I have two quarrels with this bullshit command and whomever continues to teach it.

The first is that over distance, from behind obstacles, in high winds or whenever clear speech is somehow muffled (to wit: often), “Safe” sounds and awful lot like “Take”. This isn’t such a big deal when the climber is in fact tied to an anchor; the belayer will simply take up slack which will shortly run out. But it sure makes one hell of a difference when the leader is about to take a 10m whip, whether on bolts or gear. The difference is that between an alert belayer (one who has time to anticipate and prepare for a fall), and a belayer who remains oblivious.

My second drama with the command is that, when secured to an anchor, your belayer has no business taking you off belay. Commands should be simple, effective and limited. Your belayer is on a need-to-know basis, and what they need to know is that you continue to remain several, if not dozens of meters above the ground. The term “Safe” implies that you are out of harm’s way – when attached to an anchor, you are temporarily but not permanently so.

I will bet my bottom dollar and my entire trad rack that the confusion created by giving this command to a beginning belayer has resulted in more than one groundfall. The scenario is easy to imagine:

  • Lead climber clips to anchor, gives command “Safe”.
  • Belayer thinks “Phew. Safe.” Removes belay.
  • Lead climber threads anchors, ties back into harness
  • Whether by omission or duress, lead climber forgets to alert belayer that s/he is “Coming off safety”.
  • Lead climber unclips from anchor, weights rope and proceeds to the ground at a rate of knots.

So what’s the solution? What do we tell our belayer?

Nothing. Don’t tell them you’ve reached the anchor. Don’t tell them you’ve clipped in hard. When you’re ready, simply give the command “Slack”.

You’ll then proceed to thread the anchor as usual. You never come off belay. Once you’ve tied back in, with your rope through the two anchor points, give the command “Take”. No mess, no fuss. NEVER OFF BELAY.

“Take” and “Slack” are established, universal, commonly used commands. What end does it serve to add extra, unnecessary commands to our arsenal? Any engineer will tell you that more parts means more things that can go wrong.

Why do we as Australians feel this compulsion to make our belayers aware of each and every movement or thought running through our head as leaders? I believe blame can be placed somewhat on the predominantly single-pitch sport climbing mentality that is largely a plague on Australian rock climbing.

This can also be seen in the common belief that one needs to hawkishly watch each and every move their lead climber makes. This is a protocol borne of narrow experience. Vigilance is indeed essential, eyesight is not. During multi-pitch rock or alpine climbs, there are many times when a leader is out of either eyesight or earshot. A practiced belayer needs to be able to interpret rope movement and pay out or take in rope accordingly, operating by feel essentially.

Muscle memory is good. It helps ensure efficient action in times of stress. Dogmatic thinking is not good. It blinds us from the flaws and foibles within our systems, stemming progress.

I don’t often get on a soapbox… Okay, maybe that’s a lie. That said, I don’t deride people at the crag for niggling complaints, but I’d encourage everyone to understand the mechanics of climbing and think critically and analytically about our practices.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
January 2016

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?