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At least in comparison to other adventure sports, rock climbing is a fairly static endeavor. That’s not to say it’s not dangerous, but it’s not a sport that occurs in fast motion, like surfing, snowboarding, mountain biking, or whitewater kayaking, to name a few.
Climbers, particularly ones trained on indoor walls, tend to think of safety decisions as things that are made in advance, and for the most part, they are. If all goes well, you may never have to make split-second decisions. The safety calls you make as a climber are made from safe positions, such as from a belay ledge or the ground or the mats in your gym, or perhaps from the car when trying to decide how much gear you want to lug in. Even when placing gear on lead, your body is stationary, locked in on handholds and footholds.
My knots are tied. My belay is on. My harness straps are doubled-back. The rope is flaked. My helmet is buckled…
Okay, I’m safe. Let’s climb.
But not every aspect of safety can be lined out in advance. When you’re climbing, you’re constantly at odds with gravity, whether on the side of a Himalayan ice face or five feet up a boulder problem at the gym. All the safety systems in the world can’t mask that fact, and when you’re at odds with gravity, things can always change on a dime. There are plenty of split-second decisions you’ll have to make as a climber, and you’re fooling yourself if you think fast calls aren’t sometimes necessary in a gym, too.
When you’re 10 feet above your last bolt and you cut loose from the wall and there are other climbers on routes on either side of you… how do you naturally fall? Do you flail like a lunatic or do you fall clean, knees bent to brace?
When you find yourself thirty feet up a route in the gym, pumped as heck, and realize you bungled your tie-in knot, what do you do?
Do you downclimb? Climb up a few feet and clip yourself into a bolt until you can retie your knot? Lock-off with your left hand and use your right hand to finagle a one-handed bowline? Yell for a gym employee to help you? Jump, shrieking like a banshee trying as best you can to land on the stack of crash pads in the corner?
We can never really know how we’re going to respond in a given situation, but a little forethought and practice in advance can go a long way.
Besides climbing, another hobby I’m fond of is motorcycle riding. It’s the opposite of climbing, in that everything is in motion constantly, and all decisions have to be made in an instant. Riders (good ones, at least) train in empty parking lots, practicing maneuvers like countersteering and leans and progressive braking so that they become second nature, so that they become instantaneous reactions to external stimuli.
Part of becoming a skilled motorcyclist is training to make those split-second calls, preparing your body to know the right way to respond on instinct. When a tanker truck swerves into your lane on a mountain road, there is no time to evaluate and plan and mull over your options. There’s often no time to even become conscious of the danger, to give voice to it in your mind.
Your reaction is instinctive. Either your body naturally knows how to respond or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you’re a pancake.
As climbers, whether indoor and outdoor, we would all do well to take a few lessons from moto riding here. We may not be faced with a 12-ton tanker truck bearing down on us at 70 miles an hour, but there may be times when we’re faced with frayed tat, broken holds, shoddy bolting, big runout, reckless fellow climbers, rockfall, inclement weather, or any number of other obstacles that require a rapid-fire, instinctive response.
When those situations loom, often there’s no time to consult with comrades… sometimes there’s not even time to consult with your own mind. Either your body knows how to respond to keep you safe, or it doesn’t.
Next time you rope up, don’t just think about your safety systems and the route ahead, think about what could go wrong, and try to prepare yourself to make the right move if things do head south.