Climb On!

In rock climbing, there is a technique called belaying. It is a system often used between two people, the climber and the belayer, and is used to keep the one climbing from falling very far should they loose their grip. As one would imagine, any system involving such a level of trust also needs to be supported by clear communication. When I was a young man, I did a fair amount of climbing, always using this system.

One day, I was on belay at the top of the rock face. Top belay is a bit atypical but not unheard of. It’s a bit more risky because the one belaying can’t really see the one who is climbing. Therefore, the one belaying must work off of the tension of the rope and the standard call-and-response communication system is even more important. And thus it started.

“On Belay!” I heard from far below. It was the climber, letting me know that he had the rope secured and was awaiting my response.

Now, a side bit about this particular climber. He had worked very hard to get here. He had battled a life long fear of heights. If asked, just a couple of weeks prior, if he could ever see himself climbing a boulder, let alone a six story rock face, he would have shuddered in fear at the thought alone. That said, he started with a boulder and overcame his fear with each new challenge, each one a little bit higher than before. I was incredibly proud of him. Now he stood here, having placed his trust in me, and in the system, ready to tackle his biggest challenge yet.

“Belay On!” I called out to him. In technical terms it means that I have checked all of the equipment on my end and my setup and am personally prepared and ready to protect the climber in case of a slip or fall. To lock off the rope. In simpler terms, I’ve got his back. I’m ready.

Now, at this point, the one who is belaying expects to hear “Climbing!”. And only then expects to give the reply, “Climb On!”. Thus giving permission for the climb to begin. This is the system. These are the rules. It is the only way.

I never heard it. I never heard “Climbing!”

Therefore, I know damn well I never said “Climb On!”

Yet, at some point, the climber decided to start the climb.

Perhaps he said “Climbing!” and, due to the distance, or the echo of the canyon, or the voices of fear and uncertainty already in his head, he thought he heard me give the O.K. Whatever the reason, here I was at the top of the rock. Waiting. Not feeling tension in the rope. Not pulling the slack. Not really expecting to.

After what was likely a few minutes but seemed like forever, I heard a scream and suddenly the rope went tight. I could almost feel what had happened before I actually knew for sure. And, as I went off belay and peered over the ledge to the bottom, there was the climber, lying on his back at the bottom of the cliff, still attached to the rope surrounded and being attended to by the others we were there climbing with.

What happened? Why was he climbing? Why did those below allow him to climb? There was a system! A trust! I never said climb on!

These were all things running through my mind as I set up a repel, threw it over the side, and made my way down the face. As I reached bottom, he was beginning to sit up. He had not fallen that far. Ten feet. Fifteen at most. So I was told. He was shaken and sore but nothing seemed broken, on the outside at least.

The inside was another matter. The courage he had built until that point was shaken and his confidence was broken. He never climbed again. Not even a boulder. And, it was a long time before I could feel comfortable belaying. And even when I did I was extra loud and clear and specifically requested others to be the same no matter their climbing experience. In a strange way we both fell off that rock that day. If I was ever going to get back up there again, I was going to make damn sure I was not alone in my understanding of what was expected.

When working the edges of life and the obstacles we all must climb, one needs at least one partner (Ideally, you need several) and a system built on clear communication and trust. It must be understood clearly by everyone involved. Regular status checks are mandatory. Because, ultimately, you need those who are going to have your back and ensure they will keep you from falling. You also need those who will help you with the communication needed to keep you safe. Done differently and you risk pulling those tasked down with you when you fall. Done well and you all tackle the edge together.

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