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The other night I went to the climbing gym, intending to look for a climbing partner once I got there. (My usual gym climbing partner isn't available to climb as often as I want to.) The gym provides a whiteboard where you can write your name if you're looking for a partner.

A woman came up to me and offered to climb. She said she was there with a friend, but the friend didn't know how to belay. This was my only real clue that she herself might be inexperienced as a belayer -- probably the two of them were mainly there to boulder. I checked that she had the card tied to her harness that the gym gives you if you've passed their belay test. I belayed her on a climb, and then she belayed me. The belay device was a grigri.

When I was ready to be lowered after finishing the climb, she initially dropped me about half-way down the wall at very high speed, then suddenly stopped me and lowered me much more slowly the rest of the way. When I got to the bottom, she was very embarrassed and apologetic. She apparently hadn't understood how to control the speed when lowering with the grigri, and had probably just pulled the lever back all the way and let go with her hand on the brake strand. She left immediately after this.

Does anyone have suggestions on how to screen potential belayers in a situation like this, and what to do if they seem inexperienced? The best thing I'm coming up with so far, other than checking for the belay card, is to ask explicitly how experienced they are. (A lot of people seem to ask, "How long have you been climbing?," which is probably a nice neutral way of getting this kind of information.) Then if they say they're inexperienced, I can give them a quick mini-review.

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Asking things like "how long have you been climbing" or asking them if they want to trade belays with something like "thanks for the catch, I'll give you one in return when I'm finished. What level do you climb?" is usually what I hear in the gym. That gives you a decent notion of their general skill level, at least. But it wouldn't be rude to just ask them straight up "thanks; I've never been belayed by a stranger before; are you kind of experienced with belaying?" – TylerH Mar 22 at 2:47
    
What part of that don't you understand @Mr.Derpinthoughton? Seems pretty straight forward to me. – Liam Mar 22 at 13:33
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Call my paranoid but I wouldn't let someone I've never met belay me (full stop). Belaying is 90% trust. – Liam Mar 22 at 13:35
    
@Liam Me neither, that's the whole point – Mr. Derpinthoughton Mar 22 at 14:17
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@Liam I wouldn't call that paranoid, I totally agree but lots of people don't and let random strangers belay them, even outside. I'm sure some are made up, but there are plenty of scary belay stories on the Unbelayvable blog for me to change my mind. I've had several bad experiences first hand. – Chris Mendez Mar 22 at 15:44
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Be observant

If you go to the gym often take note of who the regulars are and their general abilities. You aren't going to know everyone's name but you might get a rough idea of their capabilities. This will give you introduction lines like:

I haven't seen you around here very much. Are you new?

I noticed you mostly stick to bouldering. Last week this lady almost dropped me. Do you mind if we run through a quick refresher together?

I noticed you have been working XYZ route with your partner. Just incase you haven't seen me belaying people do you want me to demonstrate my belay technique?

Experienced doesn't mean experienced with a GriGri

I climbed for quite a while before I handled a GriGri. Instead of asking if they're experienced, ask if they're experienced with a GriGri. In the comments David Richerby nicely expanded this idea:

Asking "Are you experienced in [this specific skill]?" rather than "Are you experienced in [this general area]?" is excellent advice for almost any situation. Don't assume that somebody who is generally experienced necessarily has experience with the specific thing you need.

Ask to join a group instead

Scout a few pairs and notice how comfortable they are on belay. When you're comfortable with their abilities explain your situation and ask if you could join their group. This strategy admittedly works better if you're moderately social so you aren't walking up to them completely cold. I know I'd help out a friend in that situation.

Hi Erik and Ben, my partner couldn't make it tonight do you mind if work this route with you guys for a little bit?

Look at their gear

You can tell a lot about a climber based on the gear that they wear. Does the person have really worn shoes, and a brand new harness? Either the person just got a new harness or they've been mostly bouldering. Does the person have a harness with nut tool dangling on the back? Odds are the person is doing some trad climbing outside of the gym.


Roflo also added a comment about weight disparities.

I'd like to add that I've seen long-time belayers struggle when faced with a climber that's considerably heavier than they're used to. I even recall one guy saying something like "be careful, I'm heavier than I look" to every new belayer he met.

If you think you're a deceptively heftier person than the average you might want to consider mentioning it. Ideally the belayer would be extra vigilant for those kinds of things with a new partner, but that obviously isn't always the case.

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A Pragmatic way to approach this is to suggest a 'warm up' where you both have a couple of goes at deliberately dropping off the wall just above the ground and then go to a few metres.

This will give you some sense that your partner knows what they are doing and is in any case a perfectly sensible way for both of you to get your eye on the ball and gain a sense of each other's weight which not a bad idea no matter how experienced you are.

I have certainly had problems belaying a random climber who just shot up off the wall simply because I had no feel for how much they weighed and they decide to fall off 3m into the route I was perfectly able to catch them but its was a bit abrupt because it was a reaction to the fall rather than a premeditated assist.

similarly you want to tell people that you want to communicate when you are attempting something difficult and might fall as opposed to cruising up an easy bit where you want plenty of slack.

The other side of this is new partners who magically expect you to know both when they want slack and also be able to catch them instantly if they fall off.

It is also fair to say that partners who don't know each other well won't have the same sense of when the climber is likely to get into trouble and need more or less slack quite apart for actually falling off so a controlled practice before any serious climbing makes perfect sense.

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Interesting answer, +1. I'm not sure I buy the idea that belaying is so much a matter of knowing your climber. However, practicing catching a fall is a great idea, and it's something I've done in the past with belayers I've been unsure about. – Ben Crowell Mar 25 at 1:16
    
This is true but it is a diplomatic excuse to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page in terms of what is required for belaying without being confrontational in terms of your respective skill and experience and it is a good way to get useful communication going, – Chris Johns Mar 25 at 2:19
    
I always do the "warm up" if I'm with a new belayer. And I do full checks no matter who I'm climbing with. – foobarbecue Apr 5 at 23:30

When it is about new climbing partners you need to be very careful. This is not paranoia, simply necessity as you will be trusting them with your live. In any other situation, you wouldn't take that lightly either.

I found none of the options like asking them how often or since when they climb, looking at their gear, etc. conclusive, as many will overstate their abilities to not scare you away as potential climbing partner and anybody can and does buy great gear. So what to do:

Explain politely that you just want to observe her/him belay once first and of course offer the same for you. It usually is not that hard to find some additional person to climb a route while you two belay them. Then observe how the belaying goes. If you know the belay device your potential partner is using, this is extremely telling. You see clearly whether he/she is comfortable with it and whether he/she has dangerous habits. If you point out an error factually and nicely he/she might correct it promptly and you both gain something.

So do not climb with anyone you do not know or that is now vouched for by somebody you know to be absolutely trustworthy unless you have seen them climb. And I would recommend not to count some "certificate" from a course, that may be a one hour of instruction, which is not sufficient to make a proficient belayer.

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I fully agree with not placing faith in the "certificate." Those always felt like checking a box for insurance/liability reasons more than anything. – Erik Mar 22 at 14:42
    
+1 for the helpful answer, although this would not be practical for me. This would probably be more practical if you're in a meetup group that is all climbing at the same time, and you don't know them all. – Ben Crowell Mar 22 at 15:04

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