Lessons from a Safety Walker

CityROCK Joburg Gym Manager Kirsty Noome shares the biggest lessons learnt while walking the floor.

By Kirsty Noome

Most people that walk through the doors of a rock climbing gym can’t help but be awestruck. Taking the outdoor sport we all love and conjuring a new form from wood and plastic – it’s just fantastic. But gyms take on a massive responsibility when they open the world of climbing to a bunch of eager (yet inexperienced) beavers. Particularly when these beavers then head into the great outdoors with big pointy rocks everywhere. Rock doesn’t care if you pop your shoulder moving from that sketchy gaston crimp to the teeeeny micro edge at the crux of your proj. It also couldn’t give a honk if you load the GriGri backwards or backclip 15m up. Neither do the plastic holds that offer you solace after a long day at work. But your friendly crotch-watching safety walker does! Those creepy staff members who awkwardly watch you from the corners are there to keep you safe and make sure that you are having an amazing experience. And if we are annoying you… you are doing it wrong. Here’s how to fix that.

I have been working at an indoor climbing gym that offers both bouldering and sport climbing for roughly 5 years. In that time, I have seen some horrendous things. I’ll be taking you through small things that climbers should keep in mind and put into practice. One of the most dreaded comebacks I hear all too often is “I have been climbing for the last 30 years, I know what I’m doing”. In fact, it’s usually the climbers that have been climbing for a number of years that I worry about the most on my safety-walks because of the complacency or bad habits that they have picked up on over the years. And that’s not to attack anyone; it’s important to talk about this stuff even if it’s uncomfortable. Let’s unpack the four main issues that I’ve seen in the gym and outdoors – these are the little things you may forget about (even if you remember the big checks and precautions) as you grow more confident on the wall…

Just a friendly reminder of what can go wrong when we start to let the safety essentials slip….

Back Up Your Buddies

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in protecting your climber as best as you can. I often see belayers and climbers perform a quick, half-hearted scan of each other’s set up before starting a climb. Too many times have I launched myself across the gym to stop a climber whose belayer has loaded the device incorrectly or put their harness on upside down. Why buddy-checking slips down the list of priorities baffles me. I would never let a friend of mine get on the wall before I have 100% confidence that (a) their harness is on correctly and double-backed, (b) their knot is tied correctly, (c) we are on the right anchor, (d) the ropes are not twisted, and (e) they have checked me (i.e. is my carabiner correctly loaded, belay device loaded correctly, harness is good to go). Every belaytionship should be rooted in a commitment to protect each other’s safety. It is not ‘uncool’ to care – check your buddy!

Lend a Spot

Spotting should be done whenever a climber is bouldering or starting a  lead climb (you should spot until they clip the first bolt – you can sling the rope between your thumb and forefinger to make it easier to transition to belaying once your climber is safely clipped). Spotting a boulderer you see poised for a nasty fall, even if you don’t know them from a bar of soap, is some good community work that we need more of. Bouldering is a very social sport; get to know people, watch how they spot, ask them to teach you if you need to brush up on your spotting skills, and lend a hand! Being able to spot confidently is essential – if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll most likely get in the climber’s way while not protecting them at all. This would be one of the few times I would advise someone to watch YouTube climbing videos and learn from them (there are a lot of dodgy safety skills videos out there). 

Perfect Your Belay

I have seen some things on my safety walk wanderings (DUH DUH DUUUUUH). Holding the dead end of the rope so that your thumb is basically part of the belay device is not a good habit. Belaying while holding the rope right next to the device is even worse. When belaying, you should keep your hands a sufficient distance below the device to avoid getting pinched in the device and subsequently letting go of the dead end. Another safety-walker pet peeve is the belay technique which favours taking in slack 2cm at a time instead of waiting for enough to accumulate to properly take in. This bothers me because the belayer ends up letting go of the dead end and switching hands more than actually having a firm hold on the ropes. “Oh, but it’s an auto-locking belay device” is no excuse – no device is foolproof! Think about how that side of the rope got its name… you let go of it, and your climber is pancaked. It’s not cool or glamorous to throw safety aside – be attentive and give your mate a golden catch!

Cut Back On the Slack

I had to make this a separate point because it’s a whole debate on its own. Watching belayers paying out meters of slack to give their climber a “soft” catch or to avoid short-roping them is equally as dangerous as the above-mentioned belaying gripes. There are times when a large amount of slack is needed, but so often I see the ropes dangling with no need. To give your partner a good and safe belay, try to keep the rope in a gentle curve above your hips. 

The staff members that keep interrupting you are doing it with nothing but good intentions. Remember the little things, keep safety front-of-mind, and become the best climber you can be!

The face you make when you see someone bouldering in a harness