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Communication for Winter Climbers

By Keith Ball

Effective communication with your climbing partner is essential, not only to ensure your day goes smoothly but also to keep yourselves safe. I am sure we have all been at a crag and witnessed leaders and seconds shouting instructions to each other above the wind or seen seconds begin to climb before they are on belay. Keeping in touch with your partner whilst winter climbing can be even harder than in summer.
Wild weather, long weaving pitches and rustling hoods all contrive to frustrate even the most attentive belayer. A long established partnership has often devised coping strategies to deal with these situations but for those new to the winter scene the ideas below may be of some use. So to avoid both you and your partner standing shivering waiting for the other one to do something....

Start Early

In order to have a good day out and avoid a mini epic it is important that you both have a similar expectation of the day. If you have only just teamed up with your partner then chatting about options for routes early on is a good idea, preferably over a beer, rather than on the walk in to the crag. This needs to take into account the weather forecast and avalanche report as well as the experience and aspirations of each of you. Are you after a plod up a grade two gully or a full on steep mixed experience? Remember to keep your plan flexible though.
Make sure that you have all the kit you will need between you. It is very bad for morale to arrive at the bottom of your route and realise that you have both carried a full rack up but only have one half rope between you! Dont forget things like map and compass, first aid and emergency kit.

On the Route

Communication for Winter Climbers

The classic climbing calls are well established in the climbing community and work well if used appropriately. The theory behind a standard set of climbing calls is that when you climb with a new partner you already have a common set of terms that you both understand and apply. These work well if you can easily hear each other. In order to make it easier to hear it may be possible to adjust the length of your pitches.
If you can actually belay in a position were you can see your second, communicating becomes a whole lot easier - this is often harder to achieve in winter than in summer.

The Climbing Calls

Leader: "Safe" - the leader has set up a belay, attached themselves to it and no longer needs safe guarding by the belayer.
Second: "Take in" - the second removes the rope from the belay device allowing the leader to take in all the slack rope.
Second: "That.s me" - indicates that all the slack has been taken in and the rope is tight on the second.
Leader: "Climb when ready" - tells the second that they are on belay and being safe guarded by the leader, so the can dismantle the belay and begin to climb
Second "Climbing" - confirms to the leader that the second has heard and is starting to climb.

Reading Between the Lines

With experience it is possible to predict and anticipate the calls by reading what the rope is doing. How much has been fed out, how fast is it going out, has the leader been stationary for a while and how long is the pitch?

As a leader you can help this process by being consistent in how you set up your belays. Once you have set up your belay, clip your belay plate into your rope loop, change your gloves and put a jacket on etc. before calling "safe". This means that once you have taken the rope in you can put your second on belay straight away. If there has been any misunderstanding you have the second on belay as soon as possible rather than holding the rope in one hand and trying to clip the belay plate with the other. Keep the rope snug on the second at the start of the pitch and be attentive to the slack produced when the belay is dismantled. This reinforces your calls and encourages the second to start climbing.

Additional Calls the Climber Might Use

Communication for Winter Climbers

Whilst leading or seconding it can be useful to keep in contact with your belayer, if only to make sure that they are still concentrating on you! "Slack"- I need some more rope "Take in" - I have too much rope "Watch me" - maybe on the crux when you want the belayer to pay particular attention "I'm off" - I have fallen of!! Obviously this can all get a bit confusing if it's new to you or it's over used and again it will only work if you can easily hear each other. Avoid variations such as "take in the Slack"as this gets particularly difficult to understand. The one word "slack" is much easier to differentiate from the two worded "take in", even in the wind.

Personalise It

If the crag is busy it may be worth personalising your calls by using a name as well. Other techniques may involve whistling or even yodeling, ultimately the noise you make does not matter as long as the other person understands its meaning. In particularly wild conditions it is good to anticipate any communication problems and come up with a system that will deal with it before you leave the belay.
Simple things work best and all the above calls could easily be ineffective on your average winter day out.
A system of pulls down the rope may be your only option. Three sharp tugs from the leader to say they are safe and three more to let the second know they can start climbing. Make sure that your second is clear that only the leader sends pulls down the rope, not the second, this avoids being plucked of your route by an over enthusiastic second.
Once you get used to climbing with each other even the pulls may become redundant, as you get used to reading the rope.

Its a Team Thing

Little snippets like "what is that gear like" and "how does it look ahead" can have a big influence on the psych of a leader about to head off on the lead of their life. Get used to reading your partner and knowing when to encourage and push them and when to give them a get out clause.


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