Climber Confessional: On Belaying Communication

It was a hot summer day, and I was on pitch two of my first major multi-pitch: Cosmic Lazers Space Dust, nine pitches of bolted moderate quartzite in Utah’s oft-overlooked Rock Canyon. People call it choss, and they’re not entirely wrong, but it’s adventurous, not heavily trafficked, and it gets morning shade—a must since we were climbing in early August.

My partner led the first two pitches, which brought us up to a wide, dusty meadow. We walked in our rock shoes across the grass and, after some quick exploration, located the bolted start of the third pitch. Our feet were still firmly planted on the ground, and after the last pitch’s hanging belay, this felt like something familiar—even though we were 200 feet off the ground, it felt like cragging. We clipped our personal anchors into the bolts and shared a candy bar, and then we started getting organized for the next pitch.

I was a competent lead belayer, but the stacked rope, the anchor system, and all the rest of it was a little overwhelming, and I was struggling to think clearly about what happened next in the sequence. Regardless, I clipped my ATC to my belay loop and put my partner on belay. He checked my device, and then unclipped his personal anchor.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m on you.”

I can’t remember exactly why it happened—I might have been adjusting my stance, or messing with the rope, or doing something with the backpack, but I remember saying,

Um, hold on, you’re not on belay,

and taking my hand off the brake. After all, we were standing comfortably at the edge of a meadow. I just didn’t think about it.

My climbing partner, normally a pretty low key dude, turned very serious.

“What? No no, you can’t do that,” he said.

My hand bolted back to the brake strand.

When you’re climbing multi-pitch, you can’t ever take me off belay once you put me on. When you say on belay, that means I’m on you. Just because we’re both standing next to each other doesn’t mean I’m safe.

I nodded, chagrined, and gripped the brake strand a little harder. The next seven pitches, I was studious about my belay. And honestly, I’ve been studious about it ever since.

What I learned

In some ways, this is a simple lesson—nothing bad happened, no one was injured, and it’s sort of an obvious concept. But as someone who learned to climb in the gym, the concept of “on belay” can sometimes be a little loose. When you’re pulling on plastic, it all just feels so chill, and when everyone’s feet are on the ground and a buddy walks up to chat before your partner starts climbing, the sequence of commands can get a little gray.

I see other gym climbers transition to outdoor crags and take the same blasé attitude towards communication—skipping safety checks, failing to clarify commands beforehand, or simply not using them at all. Especially as a newbie at multi-pitch climbing, the life-preserving seriousness of a good belay doesn’t feel quite as intuitive when your partner is standing right next to you.

This moment on Cosmic Lazers Space Dust changed how I communicate when I climb. I’m more precise with my commands, and I’ve corrected other friends at the crag, who say “on belay” and then take their hand off the brake strand to adjust belay specs or tighten a helmet.

The short version of the conversation goes like this: when you’re belaying, it matters. When you say “on belay,” you better mean it.

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