Speaking Up About Unsafe Climbing

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


From the November 2007 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

Sometimes when I am rock climbing at the local crag I see things that I consider unsafe. I am often caught between wanting to say something to protect the people from potential harm and not wanting to intrude on their experience. As a more experienced climber and guide, what sort of guidelines or factors do you consider when trying to decide whether or not to speak up on safety issues?

- Rob Jesper (Madison, WI)


Dear Rob,

That is a great question and something that we as guides discuss and on which we never really come to a completely satisfying conclusion. We all have to act in a way that seems genuine and in line with our own ethics. I do think that, as a guide and experienced climber, I do have a responsibility to prevent accidents and increase safety if conditions allow. However, we also can't deny that some people do not want any advice regardless of whether it's valid or not.

So, what do I do? Well first I of all I don't think there are many guidelines that work for all of us - I can't recommend that someone suddenly assume a different persona at the cliffs just to act as an enforcer. We have to find a style that works for both parties. This is what I do in these situations: First, I casually say hello to the other party (to genuinely be friendly and to let them know that I am approachable). I do not try to assess or offer my opinion until I get a chance to first break the ice and see if their techniques (which may seem strange to me) are actually working for them. For example, specific climbing terms are generally agreed upon, but really what matters is the members of the climbing team effectively communicating with each other, regardless of the actual terms used. Anyway, I'll then somehow find a way to let them know that either I could offer some alternatives or that I have a great deal of experience with different solutions to some potential pitfalls with their technique. If they don't seem interested or receptive then I won't push the point and I'll let them continue. On the very rare cases where I think an accident is likely, then I'll state my opinion (in a very polite way) but ultimately they are, of course, free to do what they want. An exception is if their actions directly impact my own safety. In that case I will offer advice regardless if it's solicited or not.

Much of the difficulty of these discussion results because most climbing actions and techniques are very subjective in nature. What works for some teams does not work for others, and everyone has different levels of experience. And many techniques that may be considered "safer" often come at a cost - say, requiring more time or more gear. These techniques are often disagreed upon, even by guides and instructors. Hence, it's difficult to accurately predict if a certain technique will lead to some type of accident.

Ultimately, I think it's best to use a style that suits you and to really treat each situation in such a way that you can feel like you did the right thing. Certainly some guides and climbers are very quick to offer advice, others much less so, and I think that's fine. The main points to remember are to follow your conscience and to be kind in your delivery. Most of the time, people will be grateful for your comments.

- Mike Powers

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