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The Choss Pile: The Death of the Mistake

Is learning how not to screw up becoming obsolete?

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I was recently doing some research on a climbing gym for an article, and I saw in their policy that they did not allow tube-style belay devices (Black Diamond ATC, Petzl Reverso, etc). A GriGri or other mechanically-assisted belay device was required to climb in this gym. I called up a buddy who is more active in the indoor scene, and he told me that this is actually relatively common.

I found this somewhat surprising. I can probably count on fingers and toes the number of times I’ve used a GriGri in thirteen years of climbing. I don’t even own one. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, and if I was more of a sport climber or spent more time in gyms I’d probably use a GriGri often. They’re convenient and the safety benefits are fantastic.

Making them mandatory is another thing entirely.

Gyms and clubs and camps do what they want, of course. They’re private entities. But they’re also the breeding ground of beginner climbers in 2020. The skills and techniques they teach are the foundation for 99% of climbers coming out to the crag today.

As climbing has evolved, so have the tools and techniques we use in our sport, both from a performance and safety perspective. I get why gyms require mechanically-assisted belay devices. It’s safer. It’s much less likely that a belayer will make a mistake and drop their climber. But making it mandatory to learn to climb exclusively on a mechanically-assisted belay device is taking a step down a problematic path.

For one, it’s really easy to get the notion that belaying is a passive activity. Obviously, all mechanically-assisted belay devices should be backed up by a brake hand (yes, yes, the GriGri isn’t autolocking), but if you’re using a GriGri 24/7, it’s easy to start slacking without consequences. That’s why almost every time I go into a gym I see someone “no hands-ing” a GriGri. You sometimes see it at the crag, too.

Safety is a great thing. Stronger ropes, more durable pro and harnesses, that’s all great. Mechanically- assisted belay devices are great, too. But when you start to eliminate any possibility of human error with tech and then gyms and clubs go a step further and require people to use said tech, it doesn’t just promote potentially bad habits like “no hands-ing,” it also takes away something intrinsic to climbing. Namely, that you need to focus completely on the task at hand, whether you’re tying in, belaying, or climbing. It’s a bad way to learn our sport.

Will there soon be a day when no one needs to know how to tie in at all?

Some camps and gyms already require climbers to use a carabiner clip-in when attaching themselves to the rope, instead of tying a knot. That’s fine for summer camps or birthday parties, where most of the participants aren’t actually going to learn to climb, but making it mandatory at gyms, for people who are trying to learn how to climb, is another thing.

It doesn’t seem like that day is too far off.

The possibility of making a mistake with repercussions is a beautiful thing. It’s what separates climbing from sports like yoga or golf or tennis. Requiring a modicum of concentration to prevent mishaps is part of the appeal of our sport. It’s intrinsic to any “adventure” activity.

More and more people are climbing, and it’s more and more difficult to vet who is roping up. Gyms are no longer insular, tightly knit communities, they’re public playgrounds. Gyms want to prevent accidents as much as possible, so these rules make sense. An inattentive belayer with an ATC can lead to injury or death. If a GriGri was used in the same situation with the same inattentive belayer, the climber would likely be saved. That’s why GriGris are used, of course.

Still, there’s a difference between increased safety from an equipment perspective (making ropes and harnesses stronger, helmets more protective, etc.) and increased safety from a human perspective (making it harder and harder for people to make mistakes).

My feeling is that we lose something—even while we gain something else—each time we take away the possibility of human error. We shouldn’t want it to be easy to make a mistake, but we don’t want it to be completely impossible, either. The possibility of mistakes increases vigilance.

If folks want to use a mechanically-assisted device for their entire climbing career, that’s totally fine. If they only want to climb on auto-belays, that’s fine too. But at least teach the principles of belaying and climbing with some measure of consequence. If you can’t operate a tube-style device safely, you really don’t need to be belaying someone in the first place.

Rock and Ice is committed to a diversity of ideas. The opinions published here do not necessarily reflect those of Rock and Ice.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarkeis a freelance writer currently based in Puerto Rico. He is a columnist for Rock and IceGym Climber and The Outdoor Journal. He also writes for Friction Labs and BAÏST Gloves.

He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.