Monday, January 24, 2011

Spotting redefined

According to Wikipedia, "Spotting is a technique used in climbing, especially in bouldering, where the climbers are close to the ground and ropes are not typically used. The spotter stands below the climber, with arms raised or at the ready. If the climber falls, the spotter does not catch the climber, but redirects the climber's fall so that they land safely on a bouldering mat. At the very least the spotter ensures that the climber's head and back do not strike the ground directly. If the climber jumps down, the spotter can also help prevent stumbles and injuries on uneven ground. The spotter should stand with their fingers together (known as "using spoons") to avoid broken fingers."

In my experience, it often looks something like this...

                                                                                         Photo by Luke Anderson

Before I sound like I'm being overly critical, I should clarify that this is one of my favorite photos.  With enough pads to effectively turn the ground into a gym floor, I wasn't really in that much danger anyway, and everyone knew it.  And in their defense, they actually were cheering me on as I climbed.  That's how spotting goes, right?  If we're worried about our climber falling, we protect them.  Otherwise, we just give them a psychological boost with shouts of "come on," "you can do it," "you got this," "yeah man," and dozens of variations on the same.  Sometimes we even throw in the French or Spanish words that we've heard in climbing movies, which make us feel pretty badass until someone points out that we're just saying "come on" in other languages.  We've all been there.

Just for the sake of argument, allow me to share an alternate experience...

November 9th, 2008

A gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Boulder, and we had decided to wind down a busy weekend with some bouldering up on Flagstaff Mountain.  To this day it sticks out in my memory as one of the most perfect days of my life.  Warm sun, amazing rock, good friends, and unbeatable views.

We started off on Monkey Traverse, as many trips to Flagstaff do, and worked our way up from there.  Eventually I found myself on a problem near the top of the hill, traversing left around a corner and then up.  With my right hand securing a good finger lock in a crack, I briefly paused to consider my feet.  There was a good sized cobblestone exactly where my left foot needed to go, but as I made contact with it I realized it was loose.  I looked around and spotted another foothold nearby, much smaller, but probably good enough to hold me while I made the next move.

"You got me?" I called back to my spotter, expecting the usual response of "yeah man, go for it!"

"No, I don't," he replied.

"Hmmm," I thought, "that's different."

So I looked again where I was going, looked again at the foothold, and decided I could make the move.  I put my foot up, shifted my weight into it, and pulled myself up through the final holds to top out. 

"Yeah, onsight!" he said to me as I made my way back down.

"Sorry if I freaked you out up there," he added.  "If you had fallen there, they'd probably have to carry us both out, so I didn't want you to think you were safe and have something happen to you."

No.  I.  Don't.  With those three blunt words, he had totally changed everything I knew about spotting.  Whereas before I had seen my role in spotting to be encouraging my climber to the top or else making sure they hit the pad safely, I now realized that there was more to it.  I had already experienced situations where I was worried about the consequences of my climber falling, but had usually just acted supportive while secretly praying that they wouldn't fall.  Suddenly I knew that my support had in truth been a bit of a disservice.  Sure it had worked out okay thus far, but to be honest I was lucky nobody had ever been hurt.

It seems ironic that my greatest lesson in spotting came from an alpinist.  Or perhaps not.  In his preferred style of climbing, the risk is often much higher, and help much further away.  It requires a bond between partners that few climbers (myself included) can ever appreciate.  Part of that bond involves brutal honesty, and the willingness to openly voice doubts in order to keep the whole team alive.  In his case, it unfortunately wasn't enough.  Only half a year after that day on Flagstaff, my spotter was swept away by a torrent of snow and rock, claimed in an instant by the mountains that he had loved so much.  A heartbreaking reminder that despite all preparations, nature will always have the final word.

This may sound stupid, but since then I still haven't managed to change my picture on Facebook.  It's a picture from Sanitas, on one of the last days I saw him, and again he's spotting me on something that I was more than a little nervous about.  I kept the picture up with the idea that he was somehow still "spotting" me through life.

Mid-May, 2010

A warm day after work, and I was at Morgan Run checking out some boulders for the first time.  I was alone as usual, and soon found myself much higher than I probably should have been, and not entirely convinced that I would actually hit my pad if I missed the next move.  

"You got me?"  I asked aloud. 
"No, I don't."

I heard his voice in my head as clearly as I had heard him that day on Flagstaff.  So I looked again where I was going, looked again at the foothold, and decided I could make the move.  I put my foot up, shifted my weight into it, and pulled myself up through the final holds to top out.  Then I promptly folded up my pad and went home, promising myself I'd never get on that boulder again without someone there.

Here we are eight months later and the picture is still up on Facebook.  I still feel like he's spotting me, but not in a physical way.  Rather, I feel like he did his job so well on Flagstaff that I'm more conscious of the risks I'm taking.  But I know there will be times I forget, finding myself once again in an ill-advised situation, and I can only hope I'll hear that voice again to snap me back to awareness.

In my daily life, many people accuse me of being too trusting.  People think that I'm too nice, that I'll be taken advantage of by others whose intentions are not as good.  And maybe they have a point, but then again I'm a climber.  I'm conditioned to trust.  Every time I get on a rope, or climb a tall boulder with a nasty landing, I'm literally trusting my friends with my life, and I try to be worthy of that same trust from them.  After that, is it really worth worrying about whether a coworker will actually return my stapler?  I think not.  And I think we have something good going here.


amanda said...

I just recently found your blog, thanks so much for posting so many great climbs in the area. I enjoyed reading this entry, I like your perspective on climbers being conditioned to trust. Sorry to hear about your friend.

Robin said...

Thanks Amanda, glad you liked it, and I've enjoyed checking out some of your posts as well. Hope you've been getting out in all this warm "winter" weather somewhere!

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