Question for the climbers of Ask Mefi
September 18, 2022 1:23 AM   Subscribe

I have a question about lead belay related to a now awkward social situation. More inside.

I have been climbing for about 7 years at this point but it was pretty spotty during a lot of the pandemic and so I've kind of been back in the gym the past 6 months or more trying to rebuild my strength. I got to the point where I wanted to start lead climbing again and so signed up for the lead belay class at my gym because I don't feel confident with that anymore after not having done it for about two years and wanted a refresh.

Concurrent to this I have been going to a weekly climbing meetup run by a woman I met last summer. So we're not really "friends" per se but more casual acquaintances through this group. She's really revved up for getting into climbing more though and I was hoping to have her as a climbing partner/belayer and to keep going to the meetup. Just for context, she is much less experienced at climbing than I am and only started this year.

I was thinking about taking the lead belay class off and on for the last couple of months, but Meetup Acquaintance was planning to take it this weekend and told me about it so I signed up and we are both in the class.

I'm a tall and somewhat overweight (like 25 lbs) woman and the meetup acquaintance is also tall but not as tall and very waif-like. A couple of times recently the last few times we climbed top-rope, I fell and she ended up being lifted up in the air a bit as my belayer. Which to me doesn't feel like a big deal but caused some awkwardness. She's been using a sandbag on some climbs to weight herself down and seeming a bit apologetic about it, which I guess, is what it is? I guess I feel a little awkward about the situation myself. I've mostly climbed with tiny women climbers before who have sometimes used a sandbag which has been fine.

Anyway, flash forward to the lead climbing class today. We got through a lot of the basics and then were talking about getting on the wall, and the instructor asked everyone to state what their weight was. I've taken this class twice before previously (I guess I tend to start lead climbing and then get busy with other things) and I've never had anyone ask this. I was taken aback and feel like my weight is not really anyone's business (though I would tell someone privately if I thought it served a function) and so when they got to me I said I didn't want to state my weight in front of a bunch of people I don't really know. The instructor then went into an explanation about how a person who is at least 40 lbs heavier than another person should not be lead belayed by them. I know that weight differentials make a bigger difference in lead climbing because lighter people are more likely to be thrown around/lifted off the ground when their larger partner falls, but the 40 lb thing was never something that was stated as a rule the first two times I took this course. We didn't really talk specifically about people's weights though there was discussion about how to belay someone heavier or lighter than you. I've also probably been lead belayed in the majority by small women who are something like 75 lbs lighter than me (probably the same weight differential between me and Meetup Acquaintance) and never had that come up as an issue.

We have to do another day of this class tomorrow where the weight differential thing will become more pertinent. I already feel like the instructor is guiding me away from being belayed by the person I sort of am doing the class with. I just feel I guess a bit disappointed because I'm guessing she's not going to want to belay me now and this is going to cause awkwardness if I keep going to her meetups that she is organizing, including the one she wants to start focused on lead climbing (often the times I've done this meetup it's only been me and her or me and her plus one other person so if I was the only one who showed up to the meetup it would be awkward). I also just feel kind of cruddy because now after I wouldn't state my weight and the instructor gave that speech I feel like this is a "thing" in the context of this course.

I guess I'm looking for any thoughts on how to handle the situation and particularly the social aspects of it. I feel like it might be a lost cause being lead climbing partners with this woman now, which is fine I guess if a little disappointing ... just I feel like there is going to be at least one conversation between the two of us about this. I guess I just say, we can do whatever she's comfortable with? I really think obviously in this context safety and confidence are important so if she wouldn't feel confident belaying me or would rather not be thrown around on belay if I fall, those are valid positions and reasons for her to not belay me. I mean, I don't want an unconfident or unwilling belayer of course.

I just feel a bit peeved at the instructor for making a "thing" out of this when I haven't encountered this before. I was thinking about trying to talk to him privately and just say that I hadn't heard about the weight thing as an actual reason not to belay someone before. But that feels like I'm trying to protest what he sees as a sort of safety precaution. So right now I'm thinking, just go to the class tomorrow and do things however he wants to do them without making a thing about the weight thing.

On top of all of this it just feels cruddy to be in this situation because you might have noticed I'm somewhat sensitive about my weight (and previously used to weight a LOT more so just have a lot of historical feelings mixed in there around weight discussions).

Blah okay this was a mind dump. Thoughts?
posted by knownfossils to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Not a climber, but it seems like this question is more about relationships rather than climbing. So, from an outsider perspective, it sounds like you are valuing the avoidance of social awkwardness over safety. I would take the instructor aside and ask about the weight thing, learn from that, and prioritize that over whatever impact it might have on your relationship with your meetup pal.
posted by eleslie at 1:59 AM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've been climbing for about 6 years now, and the majority of my partners during that time have been heavier than me (by around 20-30 lb). It's something that we both have to be aware of, and we both adjust our belaying appropriately (e.g. the lighter person uses a sandbag, or braces more when catching; the heavier person moves forward with the momentum of the fall to provide a softer catch, etc).

I think being aware of the weight differential and learning how to manage it is super important - but asking everyone to state their weight and making hard and fast rules is definitely not the right way to go about it! One does not always have the luxury of climbing with a person that is a similar weight to them!

I would probably have a word with your climbing partner first, and see how they're feeling about the situation. They might be equally horrified by the instructor asking everyone to share their weight! I would then have a chat to the instructor and say something along the lines of "hey, so-and-so is my climbing partner and we've joined this course together. I know we've got a weight difference, but as climbing partners, we would like to learn from you about how to safely belay each other today."

I'd probably provide some feedback to the gym that's providing the course too - asking everyone for their weight is not the way to create a supportive and inclusive environment! So sorry you have to deal with this!
posted by goodnight at 2:26 AM on September 18, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: I completely agree with goodnight that the instructor handled the weight issues related to lead belaying quite poorly and I'm sorry you experienced that.
Also, in addition to what goodnight has said, there are tech options that can help manage weight differentials safely.
I routinely lead belay folks who maybe weigh 30-70 pounds more than me (I am really just guessing - we have never discussed our weights that way) and there are two pieces of tech, each a bit spendy, that make us all more comfortable. First, we all belay using Petzl grigri devices and second, the heavier climbers use an Edelrid Ohm assisted braking device. Together these two devices are definitely a bit on the spendy side, but they feel very worth it to me. Also, for a bit more context, I have never felt the need to use a sandbag when belaying either of my climbing partners on top rope (with an ATC), but even with the Ohm, I get pulled noticeably in and up when the heavier of my two climbing partners needs a take or falls when climbing. For the climbing partner closer in weight to me, we both get some peace of mind when she uses the Ohm, but we also feel comfortable having me lead belay her without it.
posted by ElizaMain at 4:05 AM on September 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Second goodnight's entire comment. Also even if your partner is uncomfortable with it right now, as she gains more experience she might not mind, so don't write off the meetups yet.

There are definitely ways to make it safer to lead belay a heavier partner, my husband outweighs me by 60-70 lbs and we've been leading together from the day we learned how, it just took some practice and getting used to.
posted by lemonade at 4:31 AM on September 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been climbing for years and I have never heard of a specific '40 lb' rule, nor had someone ask my weight outright. I don't think the instructor handled that well at all. Sorry.

I would second the Ohm, it is specifically designed for this purpose and as a newer belayer I'm guessing that she might feel more comfortable with that. I have used one before and they are really pretty nifty. You still get pulled up but it is just much more gentle and you don't go quite as far.
posted by geegollygosh at 5:42 AM on September 18, 2022

Best answer: Veteran climber here, and I'm gonna go all "get off my lawn" on this instructor. Rant ahead, sorry.

I've climbed with hundreds of people, very very few matched to my own mass, including 100 lb mismatches. I learned way before there were belay gloves, Grigri or any other specialized belay devices, belay glasses. I have never seen a sandbag used. And I've never dropped or been dropped.

(The bigger determinant of a difficult catch is fall factor, not mass, but that's a bit of an aside)

There is enough friction and stretch in any system to accommodate most mass differences. It's certainly not limited to 40 lbs.

I think this is some issue on the instructor's side - gym liability, maybe inexperience of their own - that makes them feel like Rules will make them Safe. I also think that by erring towards Safe, they are ultimately instilling unsafe habits. Teaching you that the device will back you up, that you need gloves, that you need a sandbag, is all teaching you that you can fail.

And as a belayer: you cannot fail. You must, at all costs, stop the rope.

You can do this with one hand and a carabiner. You can easily do this with one hand and a plate. But you must learn the core skill, and drill the instinct, that you will stop the rope. Once you do, throwing your own weight against it, whatever that is, is more than enough. Until you do, no amount of Rules and Backups are going to suffice.

So yeah, this instructor is full of shot, and that's before they asked you to publicly announce your weight (ugh).

How to deal? You have the right idea - just get through this for now. But don't take these Rules as gospel. And for God's sake, you don't want to carry a sandbag to a crag just to belay with. So don't learn to need one now.
posted by Dashy at 5:45 AM on September 18, 2022 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Actually, fall factor is something you should learn about, just so you know when to expect a hard catch.
posted by Dashy at 5:50 AM on September 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

It has been an embarrassingly large number of years since I’ve climbed. We also didn’t have super fancy expensive equipment, but did sometimes anchor the belay person in the case of large mass differences between climber and belayer. (Context: outdoor top-roping in New England where there was always a handy well-rooted tree or smaller boulder near the base of the cliff being climbed.) Quite possibly there’s some good reason not to do that that folks now know about, so don’t take my decades old experience as advice necessarily. But the instructor for this course sounds like perhaps they need a bit more climbing experience themselves, in addition to better interpersonal/group leadership/teaching or coaching skills.
posted by eviemath at 5:54 AM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

(Another option I’ve seen used, though mostly in the case of less experienced belayers in training, is a back-up belayer as a second pair of hands on the rope.)
posted by eviemath at 5:56 AM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

We climb a lot and in cases of a BIG weight difference have safely belayed outdoors using an Edelrid Ohm and a Grigri. Our gym also has floor tethers all over for just this scenario.

I think the instructor was way out of line here. Find some good videos about safely belaying with a weight difference. Be willing to invest in the gear. Then I would go to the partner and say, "I really like climbing with you. I found these videos, what do you think? I wouldn't want to do anything uncomfortable, but I'd love to find a way to lead climb together!"
posted by Ausamor at 7:37 AM on September 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all for your feedback! I was feeling really anxious about how to handle this. I think I will try asking the instructor today generally to go into more detail on how to handle weight differentials given that I have often climbed with women and probably will do so in the future and a lot of the time they are much smaller than me. And follow up with meetup person later after the class to see what her thoughts are. Feeling a bit better about this.
posted by knownfossils at 9:35 AM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

You've already gotten really good answers, but just to emphasize: your instructor is full of shit. I've been climbing for 30 years and have lead belayed people who weigh up to 100 pounds more than me. It isn't contraindicated. In fact, it really is important to learn how to belay people of varying weight.
posted by medusa at 5:59 PM on September 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Obviously my gym is different because I did learn about % weight difference. They match people taking a lead climbing course within a weight range and I was asked for my weight when I signed up. So your instructor is not a total oddball.

My climbing partners and I routinely eyeball each other’s weight. If I’m belaying someone 40ish% heavier for me I’m for sure getting them to use an ohm, or they can climb top rope instead of lead. I also always use a grigri.

I saw a wicked slam not too long ago where a lighter belayer went flying up and her partner landed on her head, hard. He was on the 4th bolt so her technique probably left something to be desired but not everyone is a perfect belayer all the time. I’m all for erring on the side of safety.
posted by Cuke at 7:25 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I took a lead climbing class recently at my gym, and was never asked my weight. I was taking the class with a friend who is a similar size, but there were several climbing partners with weight mismatches (including a father and child) and the instructors went over options as far as gear and technique. They did this in the same way that they went over all possible belay devices they are aware of, not just the ones the participants had. It was framed as "you might be in this situation one day and will need to know what to do" - which I think is really important. Honestly I think your instructor should switch up partners on day 2 so you get practice catching different people. Our class I think split us into groups of 3 so there was a natural rotation.

I climb with a few different people and while we've never discussed weights, we do size each other up. If you are the heavier partner, I think investing in an ohm and stating that you will not clip the first draw would be ways to make your partner feel comfortable. My gym requires assisted braking devices for lead, but if that's not true at your gym, having a grigri (or similar) your partner can use would also be helpful if they are worried about getting their hand sucked into the ATC.

Also the lighter partner will need more practice giving a hard catch when you are low to the ground. My husband decked clipping the 2nd draw but landed very lightly, because he was being belayed by our friend who weights 50+ lbs more than him. If it had been me belaying, it could have been disastrous.
posted by autolykos at 7:53 PM on September 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

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