Communication in Rock Climbing

Communication in Rock Climbing

October 25, 2023 fmg-adminGuides' Tech Tips Rock Climbing

Communication is an essential component of rock climbing. For decades now climbers have been using a system of commands to manage the inherent risks of climbing. Paul Petzoldt a legendary mountaineer and founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) developed this system of voice signals sometime during the mid 1920’s to 1930’s. He had come to the realization that it is difficult to understand and hear the human voice in mountainous terrain. So, instead of trying to use sentences, Paul came up with a system that is brief and utilizes syllables which can be counted. For example, “Tension” vs. “Slack.” Tension has two syllables while slack has one. So, even if one can’t hear the words clearly, they should be able to distinguish the syllables. While this system works well, it still has its limitations. Additionally, climbers have developed other commands over the years which can be unclear in their meaning and aren’t cohesive with Petzoldt’s syllabic system. It’s also important to recognize that climbers may have differences in dialect, may not be able to hear, speak, or see, yet they are still able to communicate. So, for this blog we want to explore a communication system based on principles instead of a specific set of commands. 

The Principles of Communication in Rock Climbing(CAP):

Contract

The team should have an agreement on what commands will be used and the actions they indicate. 

Action

All commands being used should indicate a specific action or the completion of an action.  

Precision

When communicating, climbers should keep the communication simple and precise.

Contract

Some people say “take” while others say “tension” or even “up rope.” While all these commands are familiar to most climbers, they each can have their own meaning. Therefore, it’s important that the entire climbing team has agreed upon a set of commands they will use as well as the actions they define. While it may seem inconvenient to establish an agreed upon set of commands with new partners, the time it takes is diminutive compared to the confusion and increased risk you incur for not.    

Action

I’ve heard many climbers say things like “I’m in direct” or “I’m safe.” These phrases tell the belayer that the climber is attached to the anchor, yet they don’t communicate that an action needs to be taken. So, it is imperative that the phrases we use to communicate imply a specific action. For example, we use the phrase “off belay” to indicate that belay can be removed from the system. Because the action of removing the belay has high consequences often the response to “off belay” is “belay off” which lets the climber know that an action was taken. 

Precision

Along the same lines of communicating specific actions, we should also be precise with how we communicate. Often, people confuse good communication with more communication. I’ve heard many climbers narrating what they are doing. Instead of saying what you are doing, ask for what you want. For example, a climber arrives at the top of a pitch on a multipitch climb and says, “I’m in direct.” Instead, they should communicate that they want to be taken “off belay.” Another example is when a leader is clipping the rope to a piece of protection, and they say “clipping.” Instead, they should just ask for “slack.” Words and phrases such as “clipping” or “I’m in-direct” are either redundant, ambiguous, or both, while the terms “slack” and “off belay” have precise meanings.  

CAP in Action

Let’s look at an example of how a team climbing at a single pitch crag puts CAP to action: John just led a single pitch sport climb and his belayer Mark is going to follow the pitch and clean the anchors. Mark ties into the climbing rope while John puts him on belay. Mark then explains to John that he wants to remain on belay while he cleans the anchor. They agree upon Mark using the commands, “slack”, “tension”, and “ready to lower.” Before leaving the ground, John and Mark do a thorough partner check and then Mark asks John “On belay?” John replies with “Belay on.” Mark then asks “Climbing?” and John replies “Climb on.” Mark begins climbing removing the quick draws as he makes his way to the anchor. Once at the anchor, Mark secures himself and asks John for “slack.” Mark threads a bight of rope through the anchor rings, ties a bight knot, and clips it to his belay loop with a locking carabiner. Mark asks John for “tension” while he inspects his new system. Mark then unties his original tie in, cleans up the anchor, and tells John he’s “ready to lower.” John affirms Marks command by stating “lowering.” John then lowers Mark to the ground. 

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In this scenario you’ll note that Mark and John developed a contract and agreed on what commands they would use before Mark left the ground. The commands that were used were both actionable and precise. They kept communication to a minimum which in turn minimized confusion. If the two were at a busy crag it’s important that they add each other’s names to the commands and affirmations. For example, when Mark arrived at the anchor and asked for slack he would say “John, slack.” By using each other’s name, we can reduce confusion for other climbing parties nearby. 

Climbing will always be inherently risky, and one of the reasons we all do this sport is to engage with those risks in a way that gives us fulfillment. However, to continue to climb for years to come we must take responsibility in managing the risks of climbing appropriately. Communication is one of the most important risk management tools we have. So, it’s vital that we can communicate well. The next time you go out climbing try to utilize CAP. Develop that contract or agreement with your partner and make sure that the commands you agree on are actionable and precise. And don’t forget to have fun!    

Forrest Stavish
AMGA Assistant Rock Guide, Ice Instructor, WEMT-B

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