I read an article once that articulated beautifully the importance of good belayer, essentially arguing that life and death hinges on the people one chooses to hold the other end of the rope. It made a lot of sense to me. There’s a reason I don’t allow my students to belay me when we climb together: I just don’t trust them. Their wandering minds (oh, look at that guy climbing over there!), their inability to attend to details (um, your harness is on upside down), and their carelessness (don’t let go of the brake hand!) provide compelling reasons for me to decline their offers of belay.
Where am I going with this? I’m realizing more and more, as I push the boundaries of my own climbing, that a good belayer does more than catch a fall. Or rather, knowing that one’s belayer will catch the fall, thereby saving one’s life, provides the reassurance and security needed to make that big move, to attempt the crux, to try hard. I stop worrying about the whipper I might take because I know that if I fall, I am safe. And therein lies the importance of choosing one’s belayers wisely.
A little over a month ago, I headed up to Rumney with my friend Mary, and her friend Keith. Having spent a lot of time with Mary, some of it climbing-related and a lot of it work-related, I trust her fully. In turn, she trusts Keith fully. By some twisted transitive property, my level of trust for Keith started out much higher than it would have had I just met him without any context. With him belaying me for a flash attempt at 5.11a — my first at that grade — I stopped below the crux, not sure if I wanted to make that next move. Keith sensed my hesitation and yelled, “Eric, I got you. You can trust me.” Mary followed with, “He’s a really good belayer.” And with that, I went for it, stuck the hold, and sent the climb. Eliminating that fear of falling is not just about practicing falls and getting used to it. Eliminating that fear is also about picking the right partners and knowing that whether or not you stay glued to the rock face, you can trust your belayer.
And so we return to Rumney, yesterday. This time, I’m there with Matty, a guy I’ve known for a while, with whom I’ve mostly bouldered in the gym. I’ve never held the rope for him, nor he for me, and maybe it was because of this that we prolonged our warm-ups with two 5.8s (Gold Digger and Metamorphosis) before venturing into 5.10 territory (Armed, Dangerous, and Off My Medication, 5.10b). Each of us feeling good, as much about ourselves as about one another, we head over to 5.11b (Prime Climb) and Matty onsights it. This is well within his ability, and so the risk is not so high for him, but there’s no getting around the fact that 11b is hard, and anything can happen. Whether or not it’s difficult for Matty, it certainly is for me, and I start up the climb. I move well and my confidence grows, until I hit a smooth slope-y section and things start going downhill. They don’t call it the crux without reason. I fall, and fall again, and again… I lose count. But by the time I reach the anchors, I’ve probably hung at least six or seven times. I know one thing, though: I trust Matty.
I guess he trusts me, too, at least enough to walk over to a 5.13a (Dyno-Soar) that he wants to try. All goes well until he hits the crux, an extremely difficult three-move sequence that culminates in a huge dyno about two-thirds up the climb. He tries for it. He falls and I catch him. Trust is a beautiful thing. It allows us to climb. And so it goes for the rest of the afternoon. He attempts Dyno-Soar again, and falls in the same spot.
Feeling deflated from my attempt at Prime Climb, I work up the nerve to attempt another 11b (Lions and Tigers and Bears). The first sequence, up and over the bulge to the fourth clip, leaves me nervous and wishing I had stayed on the ground. But now I am 20 feet off the ground and I may as well continue. A crux-y traverse does little to alleviate my anxiety; a fall here would surely lead to a nice pendulum swing. And so I keep moving, reminding myself that regardless of the outcome, Matty had my rope. With that extra bit of confidence, not in myself but in Matty, I traverse over to some good jugs, move up a few holds, and begin another traverse to reach the anchors. Pumped, I move and rest, move and rest, taking opportunities to shake out my arms, breathe, and keep my head in the game. Falling is always a possibility, but I’m through the crux and I can’t let go now. I summon up some extra energy and complete the climb, my hardest onsight on lead to date.
Not to be outdone in any way, Matty followed my success with one of his own, sending Thin Man (5.13b), a project that has taken him several burns. There were so many places where he could have fallen, including within the first 10 to 15 feet, which surely would have resulted in a ground fall, good belayer or not. And yet, he trusted me to keep him safe so that he could focus on the climb. Moving deliberately and confidently, Matty ascended the route, executing moves that seem nearly impossible. I don’t know how he does it!
As we headed down the trail, each of us with our own victories, Matty said to me, “That was a really good belay,” which was exactly how I felt about his contribution to my send. Even as I think about the climb now, I credit Matty more than I credit myself for the completion of that route.
The long story short is that a good belayer does so much more than catch a fall. A good belayer provides the confidence and security necessary to make hard climbing possible. Thanks to Mary, Keith, and Matty, all of whom have helped me grow as a climber in recent months with their confidence, expertise, encouragement, and willingness to hold onto the other end of the rope while I climb.