Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Belay On

One of the biggest responsibilities in climbing lies in the hands of the belayer. The belayer checks that the climber is tied in safely and ready to climb, operates the other end of the rope to help protect the climber, tells the climber if something appears unsafe, and of course catches the climber when they fall. The importance of belaying safely was drilled into me when I took a university level rock climbing course and I have found myself on the other end of the rope in numerous situations since. I am well aware of the level of concentration, safety-consciousness, and vigilance required in a belayer, and quite like the responsibility that comes along with it. It was no surprise to me, then, that I wound up belaying for the New Zealand National Climbing Competition when it came to Wanaka!

Photo credit: Nadine Cagney Photography

I had been yelled at for catching climbers too softly in the gym (letting them fall a bit further in order to absorb more of the shock and give them a more gentle landing when they reach the end of the rope) and because of that Loz, one of the guys who runs the local climbing gym, decided I would be a good competition belayer. Belaying for a competition can be a stressful job. Not only do you have to think about all the normal belayer’s responsibilities, but you have to be very cautious not to “short rope” a climber (which might interfere with their ability to climb), and you have to give them a more generous catch than normal when they fall (in order to make it clearly visible that they fell off and prevent them from getting back on to continue the climb). While doing all of this, the competition belayer also has to ignore the potentially large crowds watching the climber’s – and their own – performance.

I had never belayed for a competition before; I had never even been to a climbing competition before. The ones we had while I lived in Florida were always on the weekends when I was working, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I talked with Clay and Loz, the guys who own and manage Basecamp, Wanaka’s local climbing gym. They explained about how the different age groups are divided, and what events take place each day. They also mentioned that since it is a relatively small climbing gym, there are only a few routes set at a time for each round of the competition. This means that in between rounds, the walls are stripped and reset while the climbers remain in isolation so they don’t have unlimited time to examine the routes. I helped belay Loz the night before the competition as he stripped all the holds from the roof of the gym, then went home to get some rest before the big weekend.

Saturday morning we got right into it and there were probably 5-6 belayers who rotated throughout the day. I enjoyed having something to do, rather than standing around watching the competition, so volunteered to belay for most of the rounds. It was somewhat intimidating at first, with so many people watching, but it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of it. I just focused on my rope, and my climber, and ignored most anything else. 

I would pick up a rope in a convenient transportable bucket, gather the next climber on the list, and have them tie in. Then I checked their knot, loaded my belay device, and slipped back through the curtain to wait for the last climber to finish. When my climber was called, I walked with them to the start of the climb, made sure my additional spotters were in place, and gave them the cue that I was ready. Once they confirmed that the judges were watching, they were given a few seconds to look at and review the climb before they had to get on the wall. We were told not to talk with our climbers, but were allowed to offer words of encouragement while they were climbing if we so wished. Nobody was allowed to yell out anything resembling “beta” (tips on how to do the climb), but simple encouragement and supportive words were allowed. I chose not to speak while belaying so I could concentrate on what I was doing, and left the encouragement to the crowds.

Normally when a climber is out of full sight of their belayer they communicate when they are going to clip a quickdraw or when they are about to fall. These are cues for a belayer to feed out slack, or get ready to catch their climber, which make the belayer’s job easier. In a competition, however, the climber is not expected to do anything except climb according to the rules, so the belayer must be all the more attentive. I struggled at times to see when a climber might go for a clip, particularly if it was a new route I hadn’t yet seen climbed. I just had to focus on always having enough slack out so that they could make a clip even if I wasn’t expecting them to do so.

Competition belaying required a lot of focus, but I very much enjoyed the challenge! The climbers climbed hard, and since the routes’ difficulty increased as they progressed, the climbers continued until they fell. There were only a few times throughout the entire weekend that climbers finished their entire route and therefor didn’t take a fall. Of course I liked to see climbers succeed, but this was good news for me because catching falls is by far my favorite part about belaying! Catching a fall is particularly fun when the climber is heavier than I am because I get lifted off the ground and get to fly! Most of the climbers were teenagers, however, so I didn’t fly too much during the lead climbing portion of the weekend.

In between climbing rounds, when not assisting with making room for the scissor lift to change the holds, there was quite a bit of down time. Us belayers weren’t needed while the climbers were looking at the route or warming up in the bouldering cave, so we did a bit of hanging around at different points in the day… and apparently some of us were a bit bored at times.

I may have initiated a game of “Putting Things on Top of Other Things.” And, this may have been the result:

Another interesting part of the competition was speed climbing. I had never belayed for a speed climber before, and soon realized how impossible it would be to do so with a solo belayer. We instead teamed up in pairs for much faster rope management. I acted as the anchor, with the (figure 8) belay device attached to my harness, and my partner stood beside me, managing the tail of the rope. As the climber sped up the wall, I pulled the slack down as fast as possible, while my partner pulled the rope away from me to the side. This set up required me to let go of the rope if the climber fell, and have my partner brake the rope and catch the fall. Letting go of the rope is something, as a belayer, I learned never to do, so it was quite counterintuitive and took me a few tries to catch on! I also learned that because the rope was moving so quickly through the belay device, it created a lot of static electricity. If I didn’t touch the belay device, particularly as the climber was being lowered to the ground, I would get shocked on whatever body part touched the device afterwards. Let me tell you, this was not a comfortable surprise for a woman to experience! I did eventually learn that if I made contact with the belay device before it built up electricity, I wasn’t shocked and instead could touch whoever was near me and pass the electricity on to them. :)

The second day of the competition was much the same as the first but with different routes and some different climbers. Loz and Clay decided it was better for them to manage the competition rather than worry about belaying, so I also got to do a lot more belaying on day 2! It was a lot of hours to be on my feet and completely focused, and I was pretty worn out by the time they presented awards on Sunday.

After the awards were handed out and the competitors left, it was time to start the transformation back into a normal climbing gym. We moved the carpet squares to make room for the scissor lift to maneuver, stacked and relocated the chairs, took down the staging, and rearranged the furniture. When this was completed, the volunteer belayers had the opportunity to climb the few routes that were still in place before we stripped the walls. Sarah, an employee at Basecamp and one of the competition belayers, worked her way up a few of the routes:

Sarah reaching for the roof

I knew before I got on the wall that I was already knackered, but who could pass up the opportunity to try the climbs that we’d been watching all day? 

Me on the way up

I didn’t do that great, but it felt good to be the one people were looking up at, rather than craning my neck to watch everyone else! After the belayers, it was time for some of the local kids to join in too.

After a bit of a play, it was time to strip the competition routes and set some new ones so they could open the wall the next day. It was indeed a long night, and a long weekend for that matter!

I switched roles with a competitor and stripped one of the routes while he belayed me.

After the routes were stripped, some of the local kids, employees at Basecamp, and volunteers set to work creating and placing routes.

Sarah, looking normal.

I paired up with Justin, another volunteer, and went up in the scissor lift to set a route on the roof. It was a challenging route and I was pretty sure it would be the last time I touched those holds since I’d never be able to climb up to them.

It was a sweet view from up there, though!

At the end of the night, I was found curled up on a couch waiting for Sarah, who was vacuuming, to drive me home. The couch I was lying on was stacked up on top of another couch and located directly in front of speaker which was blasting some motivating music to encourage the finishing touches of clean up duty. I, on the other hand, was fast asleep.

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