Colloquialisms Must Live, But be UNDERSTOOD!

“Onsight, redpoint, flash, send, fifi, french free, chossy, screaming barfies, offwidth, dyno, ballnuts, cam, bigbro, nuts, stoppers, hexes, carabiner, Halbmastwurfsicherung (HMS), belay, clove, sendy, crush, dab, jugs, crimps, slopers, smear, heal-toe, handjam, fistjam, handstacks, inverts, deadhangs, deadpoints, deadman, and deathknots…”

While writing these examples, my computer pointed out about half as misspellings.  Holy confusing vernacular!  To those of us who climb as a lifestyle, these words hold value to us.  They are a sign of the culture we are a part of and serve as the language our culture uses to communicate the sport to one another.

You may assume that I am here to tell you that these terms should go.  Nope!  I use these terms and will continue to use them!  Whether literally or ironically.

However, there are other terms that are less benign.  Terms involving our systems (ropes, anchors, ascending/descending techniques) can have real consequences when we think one word, but our partners say or think another.  Let’s examine a couple in regards to ropes.

To break this down, we will separate our conversation on ropes into two categories: rope types and rope systems.

When talking about rope types, specifically the ropes we use to climb, tether, catch our falls, etc, there are 3 international rating categories: Single, Half, and Twin.  These classifications can be found on the labels of new ropes as well as on each of their ends.  A “1” for Single ropes, “1/2” for Half ropes, and “⚭” for Twin ropes.  Some ropes may have two or even all three ratings.  SINGLE ropes are designed to be used as a single strand and clipped into each piece of protection along the route.  They have the LEAST amount of stretch of all of the rope types.  HALF ropes are used in pairs and can either be clipped into each piece of protection or alternating protection points throughout the route.  TWIN ropes are to be used in pairs and clipped TOGETHER into every protection point.  Half ropes and Twins have the highest dynamic properties.  Some half and twin ropes are dual rated and can be used as either classification.  Neither half or twin ropes should be used in a single rope context except for rappelling!

Rope systems are how we use these ropes in a given context.  Half and Twin ropes are utilized together and simply called by their nomenclature.  If I am utilizing a half rope, it is just that… Half ropes.  The same would be true of Twins.  If they are dual rated, then one would say either and it would mean the same thing.  They are not “doubles”.  When climbing in a party of 2, these rope systems are a very efficient use of resources when the descent should require two full lengths of rope to connect together and facilitate a rappel of that distance.  Half ropes may also be useful on a route or pitch(s) of climbing that wander and would otherwise create significant rope drag with use of a single rated rope.  

When climbing in a party of 3+ on a pure, 5th class rock climbing route however, where the pitches cannot be broken into shorter pitches (wherein a leader could simply tie in to the middle of the rope), each climber must be able to tie in to a single rated rope.  Nobody should be tying into a singular half/twin rated rope as their sole attachment to the system.  While in a pinch this can work, they are not designed to accept the abuse a single rope can (including being able to hold fewer high factor lead falls), and their stretch is much greater, posing more risk to a follower or leader.  All rope manufacturers state that it is inappropriate to utilize a given rope type outside of its intended classification.

Some climbers may choose to utilize a tag line in leu of a half or single rated rope.  The word “tag” comes from the historical use of this tool where a leader clips their single rated rope into each piece of protection and the “tag” line is simply hauled up by the leader with it clipped somewhere on their harness (usually the rear or one of the tie-in points).  While there are a couple of “tag” lines that can hold a lead fall or two, most are merely designed to be used in conjunction with a “knot block” wherein the climbing rope is loaded in an anchor and the tag is simply a pull cord to lengthen the rappel to a full rope length.  Some tag lines are rated to be used as a rappelling rope, but be sure to know the classification of yours before taking it into the field!  This is NOT a “double” rope system either.  Even when “tagging” the line on the back or swami of the harness.  This is simply a single rope system with a tag line.  Tag lines are usually light and can get in the way, so many (including myself) typically choose to keep the line in a pack within the rope team.

So why the need to drop the term, “double ropes” from our vernacular?  Well, at the end of the day there are simply too many people with too many variations on what they mean when they use the term “double ropes”.  My reasons are merely anecdotal, however read any forum on the internet and see that confusion abounds in regards to this term and others.  One individual suggests that “double ropes” should be used for a particular climb, when what they mean is to suggest a tag line.  Another individual reads this and thinks a Half or Twin rope.  This would not be a problem in a vacuum, however problems arise due to climbers misinterpretation of rope types (half, twin and single).  In a party of three, many will choose to climb with a leader attached to a single rated rope with a follower also tied in to the same rope.  The follower then trails the second rope which is attached to the third climber (caterpillar technique), but decides to utilize a half or twin rated rope because the party wishes to save weight.  This is NOT an appropriate use of this rope type.  The greater stretch of the half/twin rope can lead to greater, unexpectedly long top rope falls, causing the follower to collide with features, particularly in traverses small or large.  

Another bit of confusion arises from how to belay in this type of rope system.  Assuming a party of 3 chooses to correctly utilize two single rated ropes for their climb, they may be confused as to how a belay should be rigged.  For a lead belay, only one rope should be belayed if the leader chooses to lead with both ropes (parallel rope technique).  While both ropes may be clipped into the protection on the way up (recommended), only one rope should catch the fall should one occur.  If belayed on two single rated ropes, a lead fall would double the impact force to the system.  This is why there is a much greater amount of stretch in twin rated ropes, so as to reduce the impact force when falling onto two ropes clipped into the same piece of protection!

Let's look briefly at another example of inappropriate use of a colloquialism in regards to descending.  The Flat Overhand is an excellent bend (knot used to connect 2 ropes) to utilize on rappel because of its geometry.  One side of the bend is flat and due to this property, will roll to its flat side whenever an obstruction is encountered, creating a smaller likelihood of hangups.  It is often and inaccurately referred to in many circles as the European Death Knot, or “EDK”.  The origins of this term are murky, but likely arise from the historical rivalry of American and European climbers finding new ways to dunk on each other.  Think “french free”, the “American death triangle” and such.  There is certainly no “death” to this bend when used correctly.  Tied and dressed well, the Flat Overhand is an ideal bend for rappelling.  Even though other bends will fail at higher loads, the efficiency in time not spent tying, dressing and freeing snags that other bends can and do frequently create gives a much better tool for risk management for 90% of rappels.  Not to mention, the loads required to cause failure (rolling/breaking) of this knot are far too high to create in rappelling applications.  The traits of this bend require it to be well dressed and ideally, have anywhere from 8-18in of tail (just as any other bend).  The greater the difference in rope diameter, the stronger the bite of the knot.  Times when this bend should be given more care are in special scenarios such as wet ropes where a simple, additional Flat Overhand can be tied above the original.

Other forms of misused colloquialisms that can lead to confusion regarding our security at the crag or in the mountains come in forms such as “tether, in-direct, lowering vs rappelling, safety vs security”, and on and on though these are topics for another time.  When we begin to dig into these words, it is easy to pass them off as simply a way in which we learned to say these things.  Indeed, I see no need to create some kind of “word police” for the climbing community.  However, I do believe that we should both inquire and clarify more often when engaging ourselves in conversations regarding these stated topics.  Things we can do is ask the person in the conversation if they are aware of the system we are discussing and what they have done in regards to the vernacular being used in describing said system.  This can give a better insight into both individual’s methods that are being prescribed and potentially avoid any miscommunications that can lead to epics or dangerous scenarios down the road.  

There will be no end to jargon and I feel that there shouldn’t be!  It’s fun in all regards to be a part of something as immersive as climbing in all of its forms and show our support for that culture through language.  The difference here is that our passion poses inherent danger to us and while there are many secure ways of doing things, there are potentially dangerous consequences for using the incorrect tool at the inappropriate time.  So let’s keep growing and laughing along with our awesome passion, but let us do so mindfully.  Like my grandmother always said to me growing up; “watch your language!”

More Tools, Fewer Rules

It is easy to have an idea that is “black and white.”  Concepts are easily digestible when there are rules to abide by.


“ALWAYS do it THIS way! NEVER do it THAT way!”


This is especially true given the mortal danger that is inherent in mountain sports. Rules often represent security to us thereby allowing us to relax a bit and enjoy the dance of climbing. These rules however, are concrete and we are not likely to rearrange or adapt them with changing contexts. Principles, however, can be sorted in different ways and allow us some flexibility when the environment throws us a curve ball. I tend to recommend a principle-based approach to climbing instead of one dominated by rules. 


There is a good reason why we learn anchoring fundamentals with acronyms such as NERDSS or ERNEST. They are systems of principles that should be met, and not a formula or prescribed method for the perfect anchor in all situations. The real world is not a laboratory, and no two environments are congruent. If you are only climbing single pitch routes using a sling shot top rope system, you will likely use a well built anchor on two bolts, trees ,or multiple well placed traditional protection pieces with two opposite and opposed locking carabiners at a masterpoint. It is then going to feel very weird when we go climbing together on a long multi-pitch route, and I tell you that we are going to shorten up our rope, walk together in this exposed 4th class terrain, and my hand and body posture are going to keep us attached to the mountain.


What changed? Arguably, it would seem that there are greater risks at foot here, so why not implement a more robust system like we do when we go top roping at the local crag or pitch it out as we have for the last 1,000ft?   Are you with a trained and/or certified guide? This is a tool common among guides in this scenario and is not one usually learned or practiced by someone who mainly climbs recreationally. I may trust someone who has at least taken a course a bit more, but one must be aware this is a guiding technique requiring a lot of experience and a high degree of consideration. Second, if you pitch out 600ft of exposed 3rd and 4th class terrain all the time on a 2,000ft+ route, you are looking at a long day and possibly night out.


 


This is not to say that there are not times to pitch out exposed 4th class terrain, but as one gains experience in this type of context, the ability to pick the safest and most efficient tool for the job will grow. This can only come with time and is not something that should be taken lightly. Use what you know even if it means missing dinner! Just avoid the knee-jerk reaction to judge someone else’s less conservative approach when you see them implementing it. They perhaps have a greater amount of experience and therefore can use a more liberal system with a greater margin of safety.


 


I have often said: “I always find that ‘NEVER’ and ‘ALWAYS’,  never happen.”


Meaning that they're simply cannot be hard and fast rules in such a dynamic activity. While we can live comfortably abiding by specifics in a given context (sport climbing, for example) they will not always transfer when we mix the bag and go try something as nebulous as alpine rock climbing. We must adapt and use the right tool for the job.


Belaying is another element of climbing that often succumbs to rule based approaches rather than taking the task on with principles.   Take the method Pull-Break-Under-Slide (PBUS) for example… I often see this taught as omnipotent dogma rather than, simply, a good tool to teach a novice with. If you see someone using a technique other than this while belaying, it is not necessarily wrong or risky. It may be that they need a different technique for the task they are tending to. As long as these three principles are adhered to, a belay system can be sufficient.


First, we always keep our brake hands on the rope. Second, we only slide our hands when the rope is in the braking position. Finally, we must always position our hands according to our natural strength. A myriad of methods for moving rope through a belay system have been used over time with great success while meeting these principles. Someone’s seemingly foreign technique is not inherently wrong, assuming it matches the context and the tool while following these three principles.


A proper body (hip) belay is perfectly suitable for belaying someone up a short section of 4th or low 5th class terrain. Likewise, the “hand over hand” method while top rope belaying a very fast moving climber is perfectly acceptable providing the hand transitions are done in the braking plane of the belay device being used. The user should also have conceptual knowledge of why they are using this technique over others.


How to protect a pitch; when to use a backup or extension on a rappel; what kind of belay technique or device to use; when to lower vs. rappel a single pitch route; what rappel knot to use… these are questions we must ask ourselves and weigh on a spectrum. Our solutions must ebb and flow with the circumstance. I will likely protect a pitch more conservatively if it is wet, I am tired, in a bad mental state, etc than if conditions are ideal or optimal. Saying that a pitch must ALWAYS be protected THIS way or that THAT knot should NEVER be used is quite fallible at best and can be dangerous at worst. While individuals should and will likely be more conservative when starting out, we should empower those individuals and ourselves to question and experiment with new methods and knowledge providing it meets safe, fundamental principles and they are discussed through the filter of professionals.


Ultimately, many of us feel that part of the allure of climbing is the freedom. We are responsible for our own decisions and must solve the kinesthetic math problem with the ultimate solution being safe and efficient success. You’re the boss of your own world, and that is truly rewarding. It then seems counterintuitive to shackle ourselves to steadfast rules when simply carrying principles with us to each new experience can open us up to greater rewards.


Of course, none of this matters if we are not making safe decisions and going home healthy at the end of a climbing experience.


When learning a new tool, it should be experimented with in a safe, inconsequential environment and discussed with a mountain professional before being implemented in the real world.


Remember; ALWAYS be safe and have fun!