Am I really on belay?

Buffet of belay devices, all with it’s pros and cons.

Today marks the dawn of a new era in Singapore Climbing and another first to be recorded in the history of Singapore, who always did strive to be the first at everything.

Major indoor climbing gyms across Singapore announced a transition into only using Assisted Braking Devices (ABDs) from now till *tubular devices are fully banned from usage in June 2017. With this new policy or measure, comes free and new verification process and transitional courses for climbers to learn how to belay with ABDs.

*Edit requested due to phrasing issue on 12 Feb 2017, 12:10pm.

After looking at all the outrage over the internet over this matter, and personally ‘harassed’ over 3000 messages on my mobile phone, and thinking this through, I decided to write this.

Numbers Speaks

The British government, in 2009, comparing the risks of various activities, assembled these statistics:
* Maternal death in pregnancy 1 in 8,200 maternities
* Surgical anesthesia 1 in 185,000 operations
* Hang-gliding 1 in 116,000 flights
* Scuba Diving 1 in 200,000 dives
* Rock climbing 1 in 320,000 climbs
* Canoeing 1 in 750,000 outings
* Fairground rides 1 in 834,000,000 rides
* Rail travel accidents 1 in 43,000,000 passenger journeys
* Aircraft accidents 1 in 125,000,000 passenger journeys

To be honest… These numbers above freaks me out. There’s a higher risk in being a mother than being a climber. Respect for those mothers who are climbers!

Many are asking for numbers, but sadly, there are none properly recorded in Singapore. But at the same time, the lack of incident reporting in Singapore never cease to amazed me. For those who still do not know, American Alpine Club publishes an annual called ACCIDENTS in North American Mountaineering which costs about USD10, that reports on major accidents that happened in the past year, and even has an online database where you can research on accidents that happened.

Sorry to say, it is my best reference books to learn the mistakes that I personally don’t want to make. Check it out here: http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/

A poor craftsman blames his tools

There are so many devices out there in the market.
Technology advances, systems improve, gears definitely will move along as well. Climbing has been an age old activity, only a little older than a century as a sport, recognised since the late 1880s.

In my short number of years in climbing, I’ve seen many devices passing by, one taking over another and replacing them totally as well.

From the Yates Link, to the Salewa Stitch Plate, to the introduction of the 1st generation ATC invented by Yvon Chouinard and then they just kept evolving to be smaller, lighter, more features, safer…

Yates Link circa 1960s
Salewa Stitch Plate circa 1970s

But what we as climbers need to see here is, that tradition is good, great in fact. Because back then after the days of hip belay, these devices are invent with the very basic theory of increasing friction and reducing damage, both to the rope and to the belayer. Gone were the days of having abrasion marks around our hips.

With the safety standards getting better in the belay devices, we should all welcome them with an open heart. Why? All devices invented, marketed and sold are good, they are our friends that prevents us from kissing the ground at 10m/s. But as outdoor enthusiasts, we should take the stand of self reflection, on why do we detest them? 
Have we rationalise the relationship between us and our devices? 
Do we understand them? 
Have we weigh out the pros and cons of each individual device and understand how they work and when do they not?

My stand has always been the same, how safe the devices are, is how safe the handlers are. Give a kid a blow torch and be prepared to have your house burned down. If your have poor workmanship, do not blame the tools.
If you can’t sing, even if someone hands you the million-dollar Mariah Carey signature gold plated Senheisser microphone, you will still sound strangulated.

Trango’s Cinch, Climbing Technology’s Click Up, Petzl’s GriGri 2 (left to right)

Let’s be on the same page here, can we?
Understand that:
1. All belay devices are friction devices and are safe to use.
2. All belay devices have their own way of catching the rope.
3. Keep to the recommended 5-step belay technique and understand how and why it works.
4. At all times, please do not remove both of your hand from the braking end of the rope at the same time, no matter you are using a tubular or an ABD.
5. No matter what device we use, it is only as safe as how we can be, individually, or as a community.
6. Know your knots, and use the recommended ones.
7. Check, check and double check!
8. Communicate well. K-I-S-S. Keep It Simple and Sharp!
9. Watch out for each other.
10. If you are not sure, please just open your mouth of gold and ask, if not don’t do it and subject everyone to risk.

Being safe on the walls, indoors and out is our own responsibility, it starts from within and do not leave home without.

A Whole New World

Unbelievable sights, indescribable feelings, just as what the song lyrics says.
Same for me, not knowing what to expect, not being able to see what the pilot sees, thus not knowing where this is leading. I guess that is why this sends everyone into a panic, and reacting to it badly. But as you all can see, this transition has its plus and minuses.

Pros…
1. Gyms are manually eliminating the chances of ropes not catching to zero whether your hands are on or off the ropes.

2. There is really zero accident ever reported in Singapore for belaying with ABDs, and of course the famous Ashima’s fall, is in fact not counted as it is not in Singapore.

3. More sales for the gyms and retailers, coz we all have to get new belay devices. (I’m being transparent here) Maybe some trade-ins or discounts might follow. Yeah!

4. Hey FREE course on how to use recommended ABDs. Don’t go complaining that no one gave you a chance to learn the devices properly.
Even SNCS Level 1 and 2, as instructors we are supposed to demonstrate and introduce the use of them, for your information. (More stuff for use to teach, sorry for those who took your certifications previously.)

Cons…
1. I feel sorry for those who just bought new tubulars and are raring to have a go and show off your belay skills. But now they are going to be banned. Now you gotta get another new one JUST FOR GYM USE!

2. It is kind of like a step backwards. Instructors like myself are advocates of not releasing the brake end of the rope, and even if they do it once instinctively, I would fail them and ask them to try until they get rid of that bad habit. Now, to crudely put, we will all slowly be complacent about keeping our hands on the rope because we do have the 3rd hand on the rope. (Let’s not lie to each other, if our foundations are not good at keeping our hands on the brake end no matter what comes at you, we will always have the habit to let go.)

3. Higher chances of failing your SNCS Level 1 and 2s.
Personally, some people just don’t have the rope sense to be good belayers and 7 to 14 hours of courses is just not enough for them to learn and internalise the basic tubular devices. Even more so when we are going to add another slightly more advanced device to their learning.
Some already have trouble keeping both hands on their brake end while lowering, now we are telling them to take a hand off them to release the devices. Some already have trouble transition from top rope belaying to feeding a leader, and now they have to manage a device which bites their rope if it feels a sudden jerk from the climber end.

I know there are more pros and cons many of you can come up with. But I guess these are just my two cent worth of my heartfelt.

BD ATC in guide mode on multiptitch performing top belay.

The Bottom Line

Don’t need to ask for the numbers, because when we call ourselves climbers, we are supposed to be ready to assume the inherent risk involved in this sport.

Our gyms are, yes firstly a business but, looks out for the safety for all who participate in this dangerous sport. They did their part in planning this transition for a while taking into consideration that there are new climbers joining our community daily, and more getting certified all over the island weekly, that also means there’s going to be a lot more policing to do with the limited amount of eyes, mouths and hand that are aware. I’m sure we all want a safer climbing environment and not having the chance to witness a near-death incident just beside you while you are trying to enjoy your workouts.

The gyms has put in place transitional period for bridging the community into this new era, though some might argue it might be insufficient or other countries don’t even have it. But come to think of it, even though you might have SNCS 1 or 2 from Singapore and you head to Urban Playground in Bangkok, the gym staff over there will still have to verify your proficiency as well, kind of like how the lead verification tag was introduced smoothly, just because you only need to pay a measly sum of S$10 instead of buying a new device which might cost 8 times or more.

Yes, I might not agree to the gyms’ policy of totally eliminating the use of tubular devices, and some might even suggest to have tubular verification as well, but we are all pretty selfish just looking from our own shoes. It’s kind of like you have the habit to not wear shoes in your own house, but when you go to someone else’s who requires you to wear house slippers, you just do, it is that simple. Their house, their rules. Your house, your rule. There are options all around. Go to Yishun Safra, PA Water Venture? Stick to just bouldering at Oyeyo or Kinetics? The choice is your to be subjected to these safety policies and guidelines that the gyms have set to protect both our interest and theirs.

At the end of the day, climbing as a branch of alpinism has a fundamental belief, the environment presents ever-changing situations and circumstances for learning to take place, be it adapting ourselves to the change, or understanding our shortcomings, learning has no end, and we are never expert of anything ‘coz the environment can always throw us a curveball.
The day we stop learning, is the day we stop growing, the day we die inside.

Bottomline. How safe the device is, or the gym is, or anything for a matter of fact is, is how safe we ourselves can be.

Stay safe people and let’s grow to be a tight-knitted sport community that watches out for each other’s safety!

P.S. I don’t want to see you lying beside me at the climbing gym, lest we are actually lying down to watch some fantastic, graceful climbing skills by some hot babes.

Yours Humbly,
Freddie