On Belay: Guard My Life with This Climbing Rope

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By CTT Contributor Ian Carroll

When was the last time your friend saved your life?

For climbers, the answer is pretty easy. When was the last time you said “On belay?” For anyone else though, they’re likely to think for a minute. They might not even have an answer.

In the modern world, we don’t often think about our own mortality. Even when we buckle into our friend’s car and they drive us across town, we don’t think, ‘You saved my life!’. Probably just, ‘Dude drove me across town.’

But if you think about it, the risk is comparable. They had their hands on the wheel and if they made a mistake, they could have killed you both. Giving you a belay catch is essentially the same thing, but our awareness of consequences is much more immediate when climbing.

The pact

As climbers, we are used to trusting one another with our lives. I’ve met many people in my short life by handing them a rope and essentially saying, “Don’t let me die”. It seems weird when you put it that way, but when you say, “On belay?”…it is totally normal.

By becoming a climber, coming out to the mountains and tying in, you enter into an unspoken pact, which we all share. Have you ever thought about this concept? You would never intrinsically trust a non-climber to belay you. You would be sure to teach them methodically, test them on what they’ve learned, and then climb carefully. But just knowing that someone else climbs is enough for you to hand over the rope with no more than the words, “On belay?”. That’s a lot of trust to hand to anyone, let alone a stranger. So why do we do it, and what does that do to us?

Such a complete form of trust, given so readily to someone you’ve just met, often changes you. Even when you’re climbing with a trusted friend, there’s something intimate about those words. And it’s a type of intimacy we rarely share with anyone else. Not with our lovers, or our friends, or our parents. It is reserved for climbers – for the bond we share in the knowledge of immediate risk of death.

The risk of life and death connects climbers on the most basic level. We all know the risks, accept the consequences, and take responsibility to do our part. As a result, we share qualities of respect, altruism, camaraderie, vulnerability, and collaboration. You don’t get into this community for free. You give consent when you tie in. As you hand over your life, it’s like your partner is reading your rights: ‘The belay is on, you may climb when ready.’

Respect

Like so many other climbers who started climbing in the last decade, I started in a gym. I went along with a couple of my roommates. None of us had climbed before and we were all curious about this new spot that had just opened up. It’s called Vital and it’s a 24-hour bouldering gym. I paid for a day pass and two hours later turned that into a monthly membership. I’ve been climbing ever since.

I loved the challenge and the physical movement of climbing, but I stayed because of the community. At the time, Vital was less than a year old and, already, I could feel the potency of the people in that room. They were inviting; they were diverse; they exuded a powerful sense of respect for one another. When I tried my hardest, they encouraged me and when I asked for help, they helped me. Now, having traveled more, I’ve come to realize that with very few exceptions, this is the atmosphere at most climbing gyms, not just Vital.

Climbing is the only sport I’ve encountered where the strongest athletes are repeatedly the most humble, friendly and respectful. I didn’t have words for it at the time, but I could sense it. I was captivated by this mysterious world where everyone seemed to be living life to its fullest, and laughing along the way. I wanted in.

Altruism

I’d just gotten to Moab and found a cafe with good coffee and good WiFi. I chatted a bit with the barista while he pulled my espresso shot, ‘Where you from? Whatchya doin?’ stuff like that. As I sat down with my coffee, the guy in front of me turned around in his chair. He looked to be in his twenties. He was scruffy enough to be a dirtbag, but kept enough to have it together. “You say you’re from Washington — What part?”.

He invited me to come climbing with him and his crew in the Creek the next day. I’d just pulled into Moab the day before with no partner, no guidebook, and no idea what I was getting myself into. Now, I had one of three ticks off that list.

That was Andrew. The next day I bought a guidebook (second tick on the list) and drove out to the crag he’d been talking about, Way Rambo. I met Cody, as well as a bunch of others they’d met since they’d arrived. They were Seattle boys, from just an hour south of my hometown, and they’d been in the Moab area for a couple of weeks already.

Normally, a set of two would be content to stay as a pair. After all, that means more climbing for everyone. Three is a pretty awkward number, especially in the Creek where all the climbing is single pitch splitters. But they were psyched to have me along and give me catches even though I got thoroughly worked by all the climbs we got on. I don’t think anyone looks good on their first day in the Creek though.

They invited me to camp with them that night. And basically adopted me from then on. Turned out that, not only were we all three escaping the Northwest winter, but we were all three escaping failed relationships too. Guess we’d all had a similar idea: ‘Screw it, I’m going climbing!’ Not only had our paths led us to the Creek, but we all had our sights set on Potrero Chico in northern Mexico, too.

So Andrew and Cody invited me onto the team without thinking twice. They saw it as one more dude to share the journey with. To me, it was the first of many acts of altruism that made daunting new places feel like home. It was like a family going out of their way to invite me in. When you live alone on the road, nothing feels better than that.

Camaraderie

It happened over and over in Moab. People going out of their way to offer me a crew to climb with, sharing beta on good climbs and free camping, or just being friendly to a stranger. By the time Thanksgiving week rolled around and my time in Utah was coming to a close, I’d figured out what I was doing. Third tick off my list.

One morning, I found myself cooking breakfast in the Super Crack parking lot. Andrew and Cody had already rolled on to Potrero about a week ahead of me. I’d just started thinking about finding a climbing partner for the day when two Chilean dudes walked by. In one hand the leader had a shiny new guidebook, and in the other hand, a shiny new rack of cams. Weird…

We got to talking as I fried leftovers into eggs. Turns out, these guys had never trad climbed before and they’d come here to figure it out. Felipe was an experienced sport climber, but his cousin, Christian, had barely climbed at all. Now, they weren’t stupid. They knew they were getting in over their heads but they were road tripping the States in a van and they weren’t going to skip Indian Creek. Just so happened that it would be their first crack climbing experience. I immediately decided it was my turn to help someone else.

We wound up climbing all day. I taught them about gear placements, tape gloves, and hand jamming. They were rad, ready to learn, and ready to fight for every inch. We camped and cooked together that night and climbed together again the next day. That morning, we grabbed two more strays in the parking lot, Emma and Zach, and the crew expanded.

My buddy Mark, who I’d met a month prior in Smith Rock got to town, and again, the crew expanded. By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d formed a funny little tribe of misfits and oddballs. We were all at very different points on our own climbing adventures. We had widely diverse experience and skill levels. But we were all open minded, we were all humble, and we were all psyched to have met so many cool people.

That  night, I cooked up Thanksgiving dinner in a pot with stuffing, turkey, and gravy. We passed around our one-pot turkey dinner, laughing, and sharing stories. It was our last night in the Creek together. Mark was heading to the airport. I was getting ready to head south to Mexico. Emma and Zack were both preparing to make moves. Christian and Felipe stayed a little longer before continuing north.

It was my first ‘Creeksgiving.’ I didn’t wind up at the wild parties with bonfires and naked dancing all night. I didn’t go to the desert highlining festival in Canyonlands. There were so many pockets of community all around me. It just happened naturally that we formed our own little community of strangers become friends. We’d pushed our limits and faced fears together. We had shared stories, food, and camaraderie. And although we all went our separate ways at the end of the week, we all stay in touch. After all, we’ll run into one another again.

Vulnerability

So what makes climbers so kind?

I’ve been asking myself that question since that first day I walked into Vital. These days, our lives are filled with all types of competitions. Who’s prettier, who got better grades, who makes more money, who can throw a ball through a hoop better. Climbing competitions are the only ones I’ve been in where competitors you’ve never met will help you win and cheer you on to success even at their own expense. It’s actually pretty weird.

In a lot of ways, climbing reflects the journeys we all go through in our own lives. Struggle, defeat, perseverance, success. And in the gym or at the crag, climbing is a journey we go through together. I realized early on in my time as a climber that I was going to have to try my hardest in front of everyone. It was also abundantly clear that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be as good as a lot of the other climbers in the gym.

That’s just the name of the game. This is a sport where everyone in the community gathers around and watches while you try your absolute hardest on a climb that many of them can probably do easily. If you fail, you fail in front of everyone. If you succeed, everyone celebrates with you. To the average person, that sounds like a horror story. I mean, self esteem isn’t exactly at a surplus in modern culture. Climbing has a way of putting you in pretty vulnerable situations.

So you might ask why climbing creates such a positive culture in spite of all the ways we could judge one another. Yet, maybe it’s actually because climbing is so exposing that the sport is so inclusive. There’s something about vulnerability that forms deep bonds of trust and respect.

Back when I first started, I was so concerned with what the other, better climbers thought of me. But now that I look back years later I realize that it’s actually the beginners who hold the most judgements.

Maybe something about years of climbing strips us of our judgements and deflates our egos. Maybe it’s because we’ve been defeated too many times to still think we’re all that great. There’s something deeply humbling about fear-crying all alone high up on a hard pitch. No one there for you except the alpine wind. Maybe I’ve had one too many near death experiences to still be concerned with who climbs at a higher V grade. Who knows, maybe it’s just that I remember being a beginner and can appreciate the journey we all go through. I mean, five years later, I am still no expert. I am certainly not the strongest, nor the smartest climber. I don’t know even a fraction of everything and I’ll be the last person to judge another climber for where they’re at on their journey.

I don’t know if those reasons are just my own, or if they speak to the deeper reasons why we all get along. I may never know why climbers are so kind to one another, but I know that you can always count on a climber. They’ll help you, they’ll share with you, they’ll encourage you. When you fail, they’ll be there for you. When you succeed, they’ll celebrate with you. Most people search their whole lives for community like that.

Collaboration

“Does the creek go through the winter?” He asked the question without turning from the screen. “Yeah, but it gets fucking cold. I wouldn’t climb there in the winter.” That was the other guy at the table. They seemed to be putting together some sort of list of climbing areas up and down the west coast by season. “What about Hueco?” The first guy again. I could tell from the way they were talking that these two knew their shit. They weren’t two young hot heads dreaming up their first climbing road trip. From the sound of it, these guys had been around.

That’s when I pulled out an earbud and leaned over to join the conversation. Having just come from El Paso, Texas and beyond I felt I could offer at least something of value. Plus, I was just too curious what they were working on by then.

In no time, John, my neighbor was showing me the website he was designing content for. I was spitting ideas at him about the Northwest’s climbing season and the level of springtime psych currently buzzing in Squamish. (That conversation is actually the reason I’m writing this article right now. But more on that another time.)

If you’ve done much traveling to climb, you’re probably already familiar with how small the climbing world can feel. After all, there are only so many rocks out there. The best cliffs call to us and we swarm like moths around a light. That’s why it’s not uncommon to run into the same climbers in different places over and over. That’s the reason these guys were going over the various climbing seasons up and down the coast from Smith, to Yosemite, the Buttermilks, J-Tree and as far south as Hueco.

As each of these areas come in and out of season, climbers tend to wind up in the same places at the same times. That’s why I ran into Andrew and Cody when I did. Winter had fallen on the Northwest so we, along with many other Northwest climbers, had hit the road. The Creek is famous for it’s Thanksgiving crowd, and Potrero is a common place to wait out the winter.

What this does, is it brings together a community that stretches all around the continent and it gets us all in the same places at the same times to work on the same projects. There are no Facebook events, no group chats, no schedules beyond the swirling pressure systems of mother nature. You just go climb where the weather’s nice, and you meet everyone else in our little community along the way.  We camp in the same sites and climb on the same walls. Together we tell the same stories from each of our own unique perspectives.

Pretty soon, even strangers are just friends by one or two degrees of separation. You both climbed with that one dude in the desert, or you’re both friends with the same group of crushers up in Squamish.

It all comes back to community

When I left home last fall, I knew it would be hard to make enough money as I went and hard to stay on budget. I knew it would be hard to live in a car for a year, without refrigeration, cooking on a single-burner camp stove. But what I was most nervous about was meeting people and putting myself out there in the community. It felt so hard to roll into somewhere completely new and make friends. Not only that, but to find climbing partners who I could trust and take falls with.

But from my first stop to the last, I’ve been meeting friendly climbers from all over the world who are down. Down to meet someone new, down to welcome me to their crew, and down to explore the world and try new things. I’ve made lifelong friends everywhere I’ve gone and I’ve never been without a climbing partner. What I expected to be the most difficult part of my trip turned out to be the simplest, and without a doubt the most rewarding.

My climbing community used to be the size of Bellingham. It was a good crew, and a good community. We all climbed at the same gym, went to the same crags, and knew the same people. For the most part, everyone really embodied the types of principles that drew me to climbing in the first place; respect, altruism, camaraderie, vulnerability, collaboration.

But when I finally got in my car and hit the road, I discovered a much bigger community, a national, even a global community was out there. And they were all doing the same thing. We all come from different backgrounds and hold different ideals. We went to different schools and learned different languages. We climb different styles and achieve different grades. Even though there’s so much about us that’s different, the things we have in common are what count.

We all want to see the world, to be out in nature, and to have an adventure. We all know that life is short and there’s no time to waste at home on your couch. We all know that there’s a lot of things that don’t matter in life and we all choose to spend our time on what does. We all know what it feels like to try something and fail, and we all know that if you do that enough times, you will eventually succeed. We’ve all had times when we needed help, and we’ve all had times when we lent a hand. We all signed the same pact when we first tied in, and it’s a promise you keep. “The belay is on. You may climb when ready.”

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