The Gumby Guru: The Craigslist Belayer
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“Anyone who needs a belay, please come to the front desk. Climbing partner needed at the front desk.” We’ve all heard this announcement over the loudspeaker, at least if we’re members of a moderately large gym. It’s like climbing’s version of “Owen Clarke, please come to the front of the supermarket, your mother is waiting for you at Aisle 7.”
As climbers, we often climb with the same people for years and years, learn their belay style, their climbing style. It’s not really intentional, it’s just how it plays out. For the first seven or so years of my climbing career, 90% of the times that I roped up were with one of two partners, good friends of mine from my hometown. After I graduated college, however, and started moving around a lot. I lost my regular belayers and had to find belays where I could.
I was frequently posting and responding to “Climbing Partner Wanted” ads, awkwardly standing around by the front desk of the gym with my hands in my pockets while some gym staff guy wearing a Prana shirt a few sizes too small, sporting a tattoo of a carabiner on his forearm, spoke into the intercom: “Climbing partner needed at the front desk. Climbing partner needed at the front desk.”
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It isn’t always convenient, or comfortable, to climb with someone you don’t know. Sometimes it’s dangerous, if they don’t know what they’re doing. Still, I would never trade any of my experiences climbing with randos. Roping up with strangers is like climbing’s version of hitchhiking. You could get killed, yeah, but you’re almost always going to have a story to tell.
I climbed for a while with a Taiwanese guy named Philip, who I met at Santee boulders in San Diego. Philip was barely over five feet tall and wore button-down shirts when he climbed and spoke in strange, fragmented sound bites. He also had arms like train pistons and could send just about any crack line. Philip would text me “Climb?” at the oddest times. 5:00 am on a Tuesday. 6:00 pm on a Friday. I was never quite sure what he did for work, but he said it was something involving nuclear reactors.
I belayed a 65-year-old female schoolteacher who was just getting into the sport. I spent a couple of weekends teaching a 13-year-old boy how to climb. I belayed a group of Chinese tourists who had come to the gym on a whim. I’ve met tons of friends around the country by responding to “Climbing Partner Wanted” ads at gyms, many of whom I still occasionally climb with today.
Climbing with random people, or getting/giving a “Craigslist Belay,” as I like to call it, isn’t just a way to make new friends and have a few fun stories to tell. It improves your climbing, too. It keeps you honest. When you climb with the same person for years, you start to learn each other’s styles and fall into patterns, which can lead to forgetting the fundamentals. When you rope up with someone for the first time, it’s like turning over a new leaf, starting from square one. Yeah, safety is always a concern, and accidents can happen when people climb with folks they aren’t familiar with and one party is out of their depth, but this can always be mitigated by careful, responsible communication, which is something many of us forget to do with our longtime climbing partners anyway.
All I’m saying is, if you’ve been climbing with the same guy or gal for years and years… maybe try and change it up every now and then. Go respond to a few “Climbing Partner Wanted” ads. Try giving a “Craigslist Belay,” here and there.
You never know what might happen.
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Puerto Rico. He is a columnist for Rock & Ice, Gym Climber, and The Outdoor Journal. He also writes for Friction Labs and BAÏST. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.