Noise Pollution (climbing communication pointers)

I’m not talking about those obnoxious damned car alarms blaring here all summer long. Though my god, it’s like the Estes Park summer anthem. Note to tourists: while you’re getting an ice cream cone, playing mini-golf or shopping for trinkets, kindly disable that fucking thing.

I’m talking about climbing communication, which could mean a couple of different things. Of course it’s the biggest problem between couples. So painful so often. We’ve all seen it:


High-pitched reply: “I can’t, you asshole, I’m scared!”

They sort of make up, but not really, and a day of toxic passive aggressiveness follows, casting an awkward pall over the crag. Cringe.

No, I’m talking about belay communications. You know, like when you’re at a climbing area and you hear people fully shouting into the wind. What are they saying, and, more importantly, why?! It’s not that complicated. And it’s much safer to keep it simple.

Verbal Commands 

You usually only need two words, at least in multi-pitch scenarios: On and Off. People typically say “On belay” or “Off belay,” but the “belay” isn’t even needed. Sure, there’s fine and good close-quarters quiet communications, like you look sexy in that harness, sweet cheeks “OK, gotcha” and so on. And on single-pitch climbs, you need to be sure the rope is tight (something I regret not doing once), and confirm that you’re ready to lower, and then be lowered. OK, so sometimes you need more than just two words. But the shit you hear at the crags, from parties far off the ground, boggles my mind:

“Blahbuizole la blahbubbla deviceblauh gizommele elephant!”


On occasion, sure, you gotta yell a phrase or a sentence – the rope got stuck or something. But you do not need to yell down to your partner, 200 feet below, that you’re gonna grab a snack now, or take a leak, that the snap-link is now through the thick webbing thing connecting your waist loops to your leg loops, or that you’re gonna put on your jacket. And you shouldn’t.

Why not? Because it’s unnecessary and confusing, and confusion leads to mistakes. Keep it simple and safer. It’s also a helluva lot less annoying to everyone else who has to listen to you shouting like an idiot. Sometimes there’s so damned much yelling that you can tell everyone else is just waiting to get-in a single word to their partner, like “Off!”

Keep it simple. Cut the fat. As Strunk and White say (rule #17; one that, I know, I would do well to remember): Omit needless words.

With beginner climbers, I suspect there’s some comfort in excess communication when feeling scared or intimidated. That’s fine, at least if it’s close enough to the ground to hear one another clearly (if you can’t hear each other well, beware that confusion-mistake paradigm). And still strive to minimize, or even eliminate, unnecessary shouting. How?

Hand Signals

You often don’t need words. You know, that tender look into another’s eyes says more than words ever could… Ahem.

Hand signals work great, and are invaluable in windy or otherwise noisy environs. Plus, I like the non-shouting aspect. It only works if you can see each another, of course. You often can. It’s simple: one signal for “on” or to affirm something, another for “off.” Ones my friends and I often use are a big, arm-vertical-overhead thumbs-up for “on”, and a horizontal slashing motion for “off” – like a slit-of-the-throat motion, or a one-or-two armed wide horizontal slash, like a baseball umpire signaling “safe” (which is a command that some climbers use for “off,” by the way).

Works like this: you finish a pitch. Anchor yourself in. Lean out (so you can see your partner) and do the horizontal slash. Your partner maybe affirms with a thumbs-up, maybe not (it’s not essential – if you know that he saw you, you know he’s going to take you off, so you can just wait a few seconds for him to do so), and takes you off. You pull up all the slack. Rope comes tight. That’s him – it’s obvious (at least if you have some awareness of the pitch length, and especially if you can see him). You don’t need to shout, you can see. He might give a big thumbs up to signify “that’s me.” Put him on belay. Big thumbs up back to him – he’s on. He climbs.

Even on single-pitch climbs, you get to the anchor and can give the big thumbs-up to signal you’re ready to lower. Your partner pulls-tight the rope, and you can lean back and splay your arms out to the side, or even point your finger to the ground. If you can see each other, non-verbal communications work perfectly.



Rope Signals

If you can’t see or hear each other, you can do rope tugs. But combine it with some climbing intuition, because rope tugs alone can be confusing. Sometimes, like on long pitches with lots of rope drag, you can’t very well feel the tugs at the other end, and can’t tell if it’s a deliberate tug as a signal, or if your partner is pulling up slack quickly. Yikes. Thus, it’s best to do multiple quick tugs to make it clear – three or four works well. I’m definitely not a fan of elaborate tug systems, like two tugs means this, three means that, etc – huge potential for screwups (wait, was that two or three, I couldn’t quite tell if the first was a real tug or not?). Plus, with some simple awareness it’s unnecessary – you should know the expected sequence of events, and the tug confirms each event.

Of course, if you aren’t sure then air on the side of being slower and safer by keeping your partner on belay until you’re confident you can take her off. Likewise, don’t start climbing until you’re confident you’re on.

So how do you do this if you can’t see or hear? Well, the best you can do is to think, and to feel the rope. Usually the person has gone a ways – probably far enough to be near the end of the pitch. There’s a clue. Then there’s a long pause, which also tells you something – she’s probably building an anchor. Hmmm, but what if she’s just at a cruxy move and stalled out? Then she yanks hard on the rope several times. Ahhhh, signal! And maybe you hear a barely-audible shout (“Off!” Not some confusing long-assed blahbuizole – underscoring why you should keep the commands, and the yelling, simple). Yeah, OK, makes sense, she’s off. Then she pulls-up slack quickly. (If you weren’t certain she was off, now you know for sure as you struggle to play out slack super fast while simultaneously trying to pull the rope out of your belay device without dropping it.) The rope comes taught to you. You quickly tug on the rope several times and wait, giving her a few seconds to put you on. Hopefully you feel the tugs back – but again, these tugs can get lost in the rope drag on a long pitch. So maybe you then move up a few feet while still clipped-long to the last remaining piece of your anchor (of course you should have it broken-down to one remaining piece already). The rope moves up with you. Sweet, yeah, you’re on, pull that last piece and climb.

Why not Walkie Talkies?

Do the people who use these also use code names? They should – “Red Squirrel to Weasel One, I am off belay. Repeat, I am off belay!” These things are generally stupid. Too much to go wrong, one extra bulky thing to carry, and, worse, most of the people who use them do so because they don’t know regular commands. They become thusly fucked when the predictable happens.

I was on the Bastille, in Eldorado Canyon, one time when the party next to me was using these. I’d hear stuff like, “OK, I’m at a nice place to stand now and I’ve placed three good pieces and equalized them and clipped myself in, so you can take my rope out of your belay device. Over.” I’m thinking, Uhhh, you mean “Off”? Jesus. Sure enough, higher up one of them dropped a walkie-talkie. They guy had no idea what to do next. Totally screwed. He just started yelling into the wind, like the above example: “Blahbuizole la blahbubbla deviceblauh gizommele elephant!”

Followed by, of course: “WHAAAAT?!?”

“I SAID, Blahbuizole…” Well, you get it.

End Note: Learn to communicate simply, concisely, and even without words – sometimes words work, but not always. Dial it in with your partner beforehand, and, as with everything, practice. Start practicing in places where you can hear each other anyway – the gym, or a quiet crag. The stillness of a quiet crag is a beautiful thing, anyway, and the skills will help you when you’re on the Enormodome in the wind. They gym ain’t so quiet to begin with, but even if you never climb outside you can still glow in the silent satisfaction of not sounding like yet another screaming jackweed.

12 thoughts on “Noise Pollution (climbing communication pointers)

  1. I wouldn’t even encourage the second to tug on the rope to try to communicate “up stream” to the leader in a can’t-hear-can’t-see situation. Just sit tight and wait until you’re told (tugged) to climb.

    And if the second chose to tie in to the belay anchor with the rope(s), keep your eyes open: if you’re hanging on the anchor, you likely won’t feel the rope above your clove hitch being tugged by the leader, who’s trying to tell you you’re On.

    • Haaa! Yes, I meant “I’m scared” but, given that I live only an hour from Boulder, home of the enlightened goddesses, it should have been intentional. Thanks for noting it, John, typo fixed. But for those with a similar sense of humor, here was the typo John was talking about:
      –>High-pitched reply: “I can’t, you asshole, I’m sacred!

  2. …And it always seems to be the Colorado climbers yelling to all of New Hampshire about how “Super mega stoked bro” they are to be up on Cathedral Ledge…

    • duuuude, you totally should have seen me. i was like this, and then went like this, and grabbed that one hold like this and hiked my heel up…supermega stoker bra! 🙂

  3. Dude…you namechecked Strunk & White! Niiiiice… (Of course, most subscribers to your blog are likely now flipping through back issues of Alpinist trying to figure out what FA these guys put up. D’OH!)

  4. This reminds me of a simple tug system that deaf couples use to communicate in dark bedrooms where sign language would be hard to decipher. The scenario plays out as follows:

    “Why don’t we agree on some simple signals? For instance, at night, if you want to have sex with me, reach over and squeeze my left breast one time. If you don’t want to have sex, reach over and squeeze my right breast one time.”

    The husband thinks this is a great idea and signs back to his wife, “Great idea, Now if you want to have sex with ME, reach over and tug on my penis one time. If you don’t want to have sex, reach over and tug on my penis 843 times.”

    simple, concise, wordless.

  5. Humans are dogs, or at least humanoid climbers are dogs.
    Like dogs we don’t actually here words, we here syllables.

    So on, off, slack, take all sound the same with any sort of distraction like a hot gal/dude in yoga pants holding a slice of pizza. “Man would I like to get a bite of that slice.”

    So dropping the “belay” in “on belay” could lead to all sorts of confusion as the lower down belayer puts out slack, the upper belay pulls in slack, and then the lower down belay yell up, 15 feet and so on.

    So though I agree no communication is better than any communication where communication usually simply leads to miscommunication in both marriage and climbing. If you can’t keep your mouth shut, and its windy
    stick with “on belay.”

    Personally with all the issue with climbers being flakes and not knowing how to flake out a rope I just don’t understand why so many climbers climb with other climbers. My most reliable partner is I, though I have to admit the conversation in my head does lead to a lot of miscommunication.
    “I thought you said to yard on that loose block while pulling down.”
    “No I said don’t stand on that loose block till you got a good hand.”
    “Now is not a good time to do hand stands.”
    “I thought we weren’t going to argue any more?”
    “This is an argument, feels more like a disagreement to me?”

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