What happens when you can’t hear your leader yell “off belay!” An understanding of non-verbal communication is a simple skill, rooted in a few simple, common sense observations, that can add a tremendous amount of safety and efficiency to your climbing partnership.
Perhaps you have learned to use 3 rope tugs to let your belayer know you’re off belay. We’ve used that as well, and found that the “tug method” can be dangerous. For example, the climber’s rope might have just gotten stuck on a flake, tangled in a bush, or caught in a crack, and they had to tug or flick it into a better spot. This can be misinterpreted by a belayer who cannot see or hear the leader.
Here are some thoughts—and perhaps a few new habits—to help you cultivate your sense for non-verbal climbing communication.
1. As the leader, when you arrive at the top of your climb, quickly build your anchor. First try verbally notifying your belayer when you are off belay. Wait a moment to allow your belayer to remove the rope from the belay device, then begin pulling up the rope so fast that the belayer has to consider how it would be possible for the climber to be climbing at such a speed. At this point the belayer can remove the rope from the belay device (often it might require the leader to stop pulling for a moment to allow the belayer to remove the belay device).
Note: When in doubt, you can belay the leader until the rope comes tight on your harness. This is cumbersome and slow, but if you are not 100% sure the leader is safely attached to the new anchor, it may be the safest solution.
2. If the leader falls, the rope will come tight suddenly, and then stop, taught on your belay device.
3. Once the rope is pulled taut to the belayer or anchor, the belayer can count to 10 (or some other agreed upon amount of time) giving the leader enough time to put the follower’s rope on belay from above.
Note: as the follower, you can verify that you are on belay with a simple observation: when you move up, does the rope go tight? The leader can also make this clear by giving a strong, tight belay, especially off the anchor. You can even make this observation before removing your clove hitch or safety attachment from the anchor.
4. Before climbing, discuss your non-verbal communication strategies with your partner. It is common to lose verbal communication on a route, especially if the wind picks up or your partner climbs around a corner and out of ear shot.
5. A technique often used by climbing guides is to stop short in the middle of a pitch if there is an appropriate belay stance. Sometimes the guide book or topo may not label the best belay stance for your climbing team or a wicked windy day. Stopping short can be a great technique for adding a margin of safety, ensuring communication, improving team morale (it’s just nice to see your partner sometimes)—and it underlines the importance of being efficient at belay transitions! See our previous videos on efficient belay transitions.
We hope you found this video helpful. Feel free to comment below with questions or thoughts!
Please remember, climbing is inherently dangerous. Climb at your own risk.