One of our readers reports on a worrying trend that could have disastrous consequences
‘SAFE!’ The call rings out across the climbing gym, and the dutiful belayer responds by lowering their climber – the one who just yelled ‘safe’ – to the ground. It’s not the first time I have heard it and every time I do I roll my eyes and shake my head. Each and every person who is taught to say this in the gym is putting their life at risk if they make the transition to outdoor climbing.
For more years than I care to research, outdoor climbers (at least those in Australia and the UK) have used the call ‘safe’ (or a synonym such as ‘secure’, ‘in hard’ etc) to communicate to their belayer that they are secured into the anchor and can be taken off belay.
So just to be clear… this is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what certain major climbing gyms in Melbourne are teaching the ‘safe’ call to mean.
What could happen (and has happened) is this: a climber who learnt indoors goes outdoors, they get to the top of a route, clip the top quickdraws, and call ‘Safe’ down to their belayer, just as they’ve been taught to do in the gym. They are expecting to be lowered down to the ground, however, the belayer who has had more experience outdoors understands the call to mean that the climber is safely into the anchor and so takes them off belay. Hello ground fall.
Miscommunications between even experienced partnerships have resulted in catastrophic ground falls, add in the ambiguity of changeable calls that with one partner literally mean the opposite of what they mean with another and it is a recipe for disaster.
Want to know what’s worse? The issue has been brought to the attention of this particular climbing gym’s management many times over the past few years, and while agreeing it’s not ideal, nothing has been done. I can only assume due to the inconvenience of having to re-train staff and there being no incentive for them to do so. It seems the only motivation to make the change would be a monetary one – such as increased insurance costs if there was an Australian Standard to be complied with. Which there isn’t.
In my opinion, this has gone on for long enough (at best guess since 2014) and a change in practice must be made before someone gets hurt. Climbing gyms are part of a larger climbing ecosystem and they should take responsibility for what they teach and be mindful that the practices that they instil in new climbers have safety implications beyond their front doors.
We may be a few years away from having an Australian Standard that is accepted by all indoor and outdoor climbers across the board but it is possible to have a common-sense standard. It is incumbent upon gyms to avoid introducing conflicting messages that risk the lives of climbers who make the transition from indoor to outdoor climbing.
I am fully aware of the differing opinions around best practice in outdoor safety calls, and that the internationally recognised best practise is NOT to use statements such as ‘safe’ at all, but to use commands such as ‘take me off belay’. However, I have not addressed it specifically in this piece because regardless of such debates, the fact remains that currently using the term ‘safe’ outdoors is common and widely accepted in this country.
Also, out of the two conflicting uses of the term ‘safe’ as described in this piece, the outdoor one is technically accurate (the outdoor climber is independently safe and taking responsibility for their safety until they direct their belayer otherwise) whereas the indoor use is false (the indoor climber is NOT independently safe, they are relying on the belay system and the belayer for their safety).
What can I do as an indoor climber?
If you hear staff teaching new climbers to call ‘Safe’ when they want to be lowered, quietly raise the issue with that staff member or management. Hopefully, if it is raised often enough, someone in management may take it seriously and implement a change. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
What can I do as an outdoor climber?
Review your safety calls and communication terms with your partner or group before climbing, keeping to widely accepted standard terms where possible. Stay across relevant articles discussing international best practice. (i.e. American Alpine Club)
Stay ‘safe’ out there.
Steph, concerned climber from Melbourne.