About A Belay

The non-Assisted Belay Device (ABD) ban by our beloved climbing gyms was clearly unexpected by the climbing community. The subsequent furore was probably just as equally unanticipated. The usually laid-back climbers were up in their over-sized, muscular arms over the ban, and the gyms have come out to defend their stand, explaining the safety concerns and highlighting that change is inevitable.

As I read both sides of the argument I realised that the gyms are misunderstanding the underlying reasons of unhappiness of the climbers, and the climbers are misdirecting their unhappiness.

Contrary to what the gyms think, this isn’t about the technological advantage ABDs have over non-ABDs, nor is it even about safety. In fact, most climbers acknowledge that ABDs are superior and were designed to minimise human errors, which is the root cause of all of this. What the unhappiness is really about is the unilateral enforcement and presumption that all climbers are unsafe with the non-ABDs. Sweeping statement, you may say, but that is what a ban is all about — complete and without exception.

Implementing a ban is interpreted by the climbers as a high-handed attitude of the gyms, something that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, considering we see everyone in this community as friends. Collectively, the gyms involved in the ban receive the majority of climbing patrons in Singapore. This ban leaves climbers with few alternatives, effectively forcing them to comply or stop climbing altogether.

I have always enjoyed this communal sport and am perturbed by how divisive a matter like this is. As a climber, I respect the gym rules, and I believe many others do the same. But in return, we also expect the gyms to respect the intellect and ability of the climbers. For the gyms to take such an initiative is saying that all climbers, regardless of experience, must do as they are told.

Which leads to my second point of their unhappiness. Call it ego or pride, but telling someone they are doing something wrong is a sure way to get them fired up. Particularly if they remain unconvinced of the reasons for the change. The initial statistics quoted were flawed and did not stand the test of scrutiny, although this article that was shared by Halil did help shed light on this topic.

Furthermore, throwing in the “change is inevitable” argument is as good as telling the other party to just grow up and get on with it. In the end, the gyms came across as authoritative and inflexible.

What is the real problem?

On the other hand, climbers may not be aware of the circumstances leading up to this decision. It all boils down to popularity, education and enforcement.

The popularity of climbing has skyrocketed in recent years, almost tripling in 6 years to more than 50,000 now. This works out to more than 300 climbers each weekend at the gyms. Even food bloggers blog about climbing. Nothing is more hip than climbing (can we have the hipster cafes with a bouldering wall already?) This will only accelerate when climbing is introduced to the Olympics in less than 3 years.

Secondly, it may not be known to all, but the gyms themselves do not issue the Singapore National Climbing Standards (SNCS) certifications. While the gyms conduct SNCS certification courses, the certification is done by the Singapore Mountaineering Federation (SMF) and their approved instructors. The curriculum of the courses are determined by them. As Halil noted, one can easily get a Level 1 or Level 2 in a day. The relatively lax approach to certification means we have all seen our fair and increasing share of belaying mistakes.

With that growth, the gyms are clearly unable to cope with the traffic. We all know how long we have to wait to get into some gyms or to wait at lanes for the previous climber (who is happily hang-dogging) to finish the route. Guilty as charged. The crowd means enforcement is more challenging. Faced with mounting number of incidents and challenge in enforcement, the gyms had to take action for the welfare of climbers. Hence the ban.

How to do it better?

Certification

We can all agree that it starts with education. I am sure the gyms have tried to influence SMF to introduce better higher standards and have probably been unsuccessful. Even if ABDs were part of the belaying curriculum, lax standards of certifications will still mean human errors will occur. If we are truly concerned with the incidents that have been occurring with the non-ABDs, we as climbers should direct our energy to those who can make real change to the certification process of the courses.

Enforcement

I’ve said earlier that the gyms have had a hard time enforcing compliance. While it is easy to say that the gyms should hire more to cope with the traffic, this means additional manpower, processes and costs. A better way to do enforcement is for all of us to play our part. Kindly pointing out a belayer or climber oversight when you see one and correcting their mistake before an accident happens goes a long way. Alongside the gym staff, we can make climbing a safer sport.

Implementation

This is where the gyms could have done it better. Even though ABDs are here to stay, they are not absolutely safe either. As such, ABD enforcement does not eradicate the possibility of accidents happening.

Instead of announcing an outright ban, the gyms could have started with an awareness and education campaign about the benefits of the ABDs over the non-ABDs. Such campaigns can build familiarity and sub-conscious acceptance of the idea. At the end of the campaign, climbers can then have the choice to continue using their non-ABDs after acknowledging the risks involved.

If one argues that this campaign takes time and money, consider the fact that most of us who choose to switch will have to buy ABDs from one of these gyms anyway and the profits made from the sales can be used to cover the campaign costs. I’m sure the gyms don’t want to be seen as profiteering from this either.

I also like the idea that some gyms have volunteered familiarisation courses and am supportive of the practice. Other progressive initiatives could be for the gyms to provide free ABDs for loans during a transitional period.

There are many avenues to take this forward, but more crucially, they should respect both sides of the problem and allow the final choice to sit with the climbers.


One thing is for certain, until something better comes along, ABDs will be the belay of the future. Accelerating its adoption is a prudent strategy to ensure a safer experience for the flood of recreational climbers but there can be clearly better ways of doing it than a unilateral decision. This community is a great one, let’s keep it that way.