Climbing Etiquette for Beginners
The following assumes that there are two people in the climbing party and that the climb is a single pitch route. This assumption is taken on the basis that most beginners’ early climbing, especially in the first year, will be of this nature. Multi-party and multi-pitch climbing require slight variations to the following, according to who is leading the climbing party. This sheet gives the basis for all types of climbing etiquette, and is meant to allow the beginner to become accustomed to what is accepted as good climbing practice in the UK.
Preparing to Climb
Upon arrival at the base of the selected climb(s) both the leader (person who is going to attempt to lead the climb) and the second (person who is going to follow the leader) ‘Gear Up’. They both put on their harnesses, rock boots and helmets. The second then uncoils the rope (or ropes if using half ropes) whilst the leader sorts out their gear rack and attaches it to their harness or bandolier. The second ties themselves to the bottom end of the rope(s). The leader then ties into the top of the rope and visually checks the second’s knot and harness. The second attaches the rope(s) to their belay device; checks their own harness and screwgate carabiner; visually checks the leaders knot and harness; and then says:
‘Climb when ready’
This tells the leader that the second has them safely on belay and is ready to start paying out the rope(s). When the leader is finally ready to climb they will say:
This tells the second that the leader is actually ready to start climbing and they now require the full attention of the second to perform the task of belaying. To which the second replies:
This tells the leader that the second is aware that they are about to start climbing and is fully prepared to belay them.
The leader can now start to climb and will do so at their own comfortable pace. They will expect the second, at this stage, to pay out the rope(s) so that, up to the fitting and subsequent clipping of the rope into the first placement (piece of gear actually attached to the rock face), they do not restrict the movement of the leader by not allowing the rope(s) to remain slack. The rope(s) serve no useful purpose prior to clipping into the first placement.
Once the first piece of gear has been placed and the rope clipped in, the second can now take up any slack in the rope. This will only apply whilst the leader’s waist is below the level of the placement. When the leader has climbed to the point where their waist is level with and about to move above the placement, they will expect the rope to again go slack again, but not to the same extent as before. Too much slack after the first and subsequent placements is slack that is incorporated in any leader fall, and, although leaders try not to fall, it happens to the best, and the shorter the distant travelled in a fall, the better.
However, when the leader disappears from the seconds’ view, the only indication as to what the leader is doing is by the pull on the rope. Experience is the only way of telling what the leader is doing by the ‘feel’ of the rope. This will come in time, but, basically, keep as much slack out of the rope without pulling your leader off the rock.
Once climbing has commenced all calling must be done in a loud and clear voice. There are many natural causes that can impede the carrying of the voice (high wind, crashing waves, other climbers talking, children crying, etc.) which may not be readily audible to the other person in the climbing party. It is better to overstate the case and be sure that your climbing partner has heard your call by issuing it as loud as you can. Fatal mistakes can happen, and have sadly happened, due to inaudible and incorrect calls. The calls listed above and below are the recognised standard and once learnt and correctly used will guarantee you a safe and successful climb with any responsible and safe climber in the UK. Incorrect or poor use of these calls will guarantee a life of solo climbing.
Be warned, if the rope is too slack or too tight the leader will let you, and everybody else in the area, know in as loud a voice as possible!
If the leader requires the rope to be more slack they will call:
If the leader requires any slack rope to be taken in they will call:
Note: Never say ‘Take in the Slack’ this is incorrect and can easily be mistaken if the first part of the call (‘Take in the’) is lost due to high winds, crashing waves (when climbing on sea cliffs) etc., and the result can be slack being paid out instead on being taken in.
The only remaining recognised call used whilst actually climbing is:
‘Tight!’ or ‘Tight rope!’
Either of these will be used when the leader is expecting an imminent fall, especially whilst negotiating a crux move on the climb. Usually accompanied by other (not necessarily choice) words, dependant upon the severity of the situation!
The Leader Prepares for the Second to Climb
Upon reaching the top of the climb or pitch the leader will then start setting up their anchor points to be able to belay the second. The second will usually be aware of this point in time as the rope(s) tend to be pulled upward in great amounts, and requires lots of rope to be fed through the belay device. Do not remove the rope(s) from the belay device until the leader has called ‘SAFE’. At any stage during the setting up of the anchor points and belay the leader could trip over the rope(s), or a small boulder etc., and fall. Until they are secured to their anchor points there is still the possibility of falling over the edge. All too often these days leaders call ‘SAFE’ as soon as they reach the top of the climb or pitch and not when they are actually safe. This is an extremely bad practice and should be discouraged vigorously. When the leader has secured the anchor points and is safely belayed to them, to their satisfaction, they will call:
At this point the second can now remove the rope(s) from the belay device. Once the rope(s) are clear of the belay device the second calls:
This then tells the leader that the rope(s) are now free to be pulled up, to remove the slack between themselves and the second before the second can commence climbing. The leader may immediately start to haul the rope(s) in, or may re-check their anchor points, or add additional back-up ones and thus there may be a delay before they start to pull the rope/s up. When all the slack rope between the leader and second has been pulled up and the rope starts to pull tight against the seconds harness they call:
This indicates to the leader that all the slack has been successfully removed. If, for example, the rope jammed in a crack during this time then the absence of the seconds call of ‘That’s me’ would indicate that the rope has jammed, and that this requires sorting out before further progress can be made. It also stops the leader from hauling the second up the rock face! The higher the climb, the more rope resistance and rope weight there is: on very high climbs it can be hard to distinguish between rope drag and body drag, other than the abusive language emanating from the second.
If 2 no. half ropes are being used this call changes to:
‘That’s me on *****’
Where ***** is the colour of the first of the two ropes to go tight. For example, one red and one green rope are being used, the red rope goes tight first so the call would be ‘That’s me on red’, the leader would then stop pulling up the red rope and would concentrate on pulling up the green until ‘That’s me on green’ is heard. This is dependant upon the route that the 2 ropes take, but occasionally both ropes will go tight at the same time, in which case the call would be
‘That’s me on both’
The leader now attaches the rope(s) to their belay device, and when this is completed and the belay set-up and all screwgate carabiners are rechecked again, they will call:
‘Climb when ready’
This tells the second that the leader has them safely on belay and is ready to start taking in the rope(s).
When the second is ready to climb they will call:
This tells the leader that the second is actually ready to start climbing and they now require the full attention of the leader to perform the task of belaying. To which the leader replies:
This tells the second that the leader is aware that they are about to start climbing and is fully prepared to belay them.
The second now starts to climb, and will remove any running belays placed by the leader as and when they can safely reach them, clipping them onto their own harness. (preferably at the back, out of the way). When clipping any gear, which has had an extender (2 carabiners joined by a piece of tape) attached to it, always use the carabiner that is attached to the gear to clip onto your harness not the one the rope was clipped into. This reduces the length of dangling gear by approximately half and keeps it out of the way of your feet and legs. Ask for this to be demonstrated before your first climb if it has not already been done so.
Make every effort to remove gear (known as ‘cleaning’ a climb) without endangering yourself or your leader by exhausting yourself to the extent that you are unable to complete the climb. Any gear left behind is the responsibility of the second to replace with the equivalent make and size. It is your judgement of balance between attempting to remove an awkward piece of gear (and the subsequent exhaustion that accompanies this) and the cost of replacing it: some of it is very expensive equipment. As much as a leader cherishes their gear, if they believe that you are endangering yourself and themselves by struggling with a placement, they will tell you at some point to leave it. If they do, then heed their advice: it is for your safety that they are concerned. Gear can be replaced, lives cannot.
Most leaders will try to place gear so that it is easy to remove, however, as you will appreciate in time not all natural rock climbs are designed for this purpose, and some gear may have to be placed quickly or more firmly for security reasons, according to how the leader assesses the climb and their ability to complete it. Be warned: some placements come out with the upward pull of the rope(s), so do not be concerned about this. In general, the gear will have served it purpose and can be surpassed by further gear placed higher up, if not already done so. However, you should be aware that if it was the first piece placed, it will descend towards you at a rapid rate of knots, and can hurt if it hits you. One very good reason why seconds’ should wear a helmet: a No.11 Hex, or a No.4 Friend, is very large and heavy with sharp edges and can inflict a lot of damage!
When the second has reached the top of the climb they will move to a place where they consider themselves safe to be removed from the rope. They should then say:
This tells the leader that they can safely remove their belay device from the rope and prepare to disassemble the anchor points and belay system. The leader may suggest to the second the place at which they should stand where they consider it safe for them to be removed from the rope. Do not undo the rope from your harness until the leader is satisfied that you are safe. When they are satisfied that you are safe they will remove the rope from their belay device and say: