This morning I finally figured something out that is so insanely pedantic and minute in the global scheme of things that no electrons at all should ever be wasted writing about it. But I’m actually really excited about my latest mental discovery, as it explains a lot of fumbled climbing gear, baby bottles, wrenches and other stuff that I’ve dropped in my life. My thrilling discovery occurred this morning while trying to grab a maple-syrup encrusted fork from my daughter so I could cut her pancakes up. It was like trying to grab a scared mouse or something, and I ended up with maple syrup all over my hands. Then it clicked: my daughter was doing the same thing her mom does on climbs when handing me gear…
A few weeks ago I had a great day of rock guiding (yes, I’m an ACMG Apprentice Rock Guide now if you want to go) with a talented young guy who was just really psyched to be up high on his first-ever multi-pitch climb. First time on real rock actually. He did well, and the day was a real pleasure for both of us. But when it came time for the gear hand-off at the belays (where the follower gives the gear back to the leader for the next pitch) it was a gong show–I almost dropped a half-dozen nuts and other pieces. Gear was coming at me at teenage speeds, which was far too fast for my old mind to process. Over the years I’ve noticed it’s really easy for some partners to hand gear back and forth with, and with others a real PITA. My wife is in the latter category, and at times has put real strain on our relationship. Why was gear exchange fumbling and somewhat erratic with the teenager and my wife, but very smooth with other people?
Some climbers are so fumble-fingered that they resort to handing gear back and forth by the giver holding the gear out, the taker grasping it and audibly saying, “Got,” each and every piece of gear. This is comedy to me, as it is so fast and intuitive when done well. The issue is that some people are givers, and some are takers, and their styles don’t line up well..
A clue to this micro but annoying problem came when my daughter handed me her fork. She didn’t hold it out for me to take, she logically tried to put it into my hand as she saw fit. Maple syrup and all, it was logical to her that the tines went toward my hand. I tried to dodge, she adapted, and it took about 30 seconds of comedy for me to end up with the fork and her to get her pancakes cut. The lightbulb went off: There is a societal “custom” about giving things to people: You hold it out, and they take it. Waiters at parties hold out wine glasses and you take them. They don’t move the wine glass around to put it into your hand, that doesn’t work.
If a friend and I are working on a truck or something I hold the needed wrench out in an easy-to-grasp way, he reaches for it, conforms his hand to it, and takes it. If I try to put it into his hand his hand has to adapt to a moving object, which confuses him. Same with climbing gear; when things feel rushed and weird on a gear exchange at a belay it’s usually because my partner is shoving gear at me, and trying to “help” by conforming the gear’s position to what he sees as my hand’s position as I reach for the gear. But I’m trying to conform my hand to where I see the gear, which then moves… It’s like trying to recover from a fishtail situation in a car where you’re always behind what’s already happened.
So in my mind the protocol for exchanging any type of gear with another person is that the giver holds it out in a useful and stable position. The taker grasps it, and pulls it out of the giver’s hand. My wife tries to be helpful by placing the gear into my hand, which is moving… When I hand her gear it works well, the problem is only when she’s handing me gear. We’ve been unable to figure this out for going on 15 years, so I was pretty excited when it all hit me this morning. It was worth getting covered in maple syrup.
I try to get my clients and partners to rack all their gear on one sling as they follow, in an organized manner. This one sling then gets handed to me at the belay (or they keep it if switching blocks). Fast, simple, less dropped gear, go. And racking on your waist is a total waste of time, but that’s another topic. Happy hand-offs, my dad is fully made by this minor realization.
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