Effective communication skills between team members are absolutely crucial to the success of any rock climbing or mountaineering expedition but the success of the expedition or trip is not just about talking and listening.
Communication skills within a group and how effective they will prove to be all depends upon the dynamic of the group and the relationship with the trip leader and how the leader ‘fits’ into the group as a whole. A ‘good’ one will after all, consider himself or herself to be a member of the team first, then the leader second.
How effectively everybody communicates within the group will all depend on the groundwork that’s been put in before the trip. Usually this will have been achieved through a series of team building exercises where you’ll have all learned how to co-operate with each other, through trust building exercises, how to overcome your own limitations, perceived or otherwise, how to work towards a common goal and how to support one another within the group.
By undertaking the teambuilding exercises, each person will have had a chance to get to know and understand the various personalities within the group, what makes them tick and it is the team leader’s role to bring all these elements together so that a bond is formed whenever you go out on a trip.
This provides the foundation for an effective communication strategy for a climbing trip.
Communicating to Each Other on an Expedition
Many different trip leaders will have different methods of getting their message across when out on a trip and they’ll also instruct you into how you should communicate with them and with other members of the group when you may be a hundred feet apart from the nearest team member on a rock or cliff face.
However, there are certain accepted practices that are adopted by most climbers which you should familiarise yourself with and which will enable you to communicate more effectively.
Unless you are in sight of each other and can resort to commonly understood hand signals, the two most common forms of communicating when rock climbing are with your voice – naturally – and also by tugs on the rope and understanding what they mean.
Communicating by Voice
As a climber and a belayer get further apart, communicating to each other gets increasingly difficult as it becomes more difficult to hear each other. You should keep your voice communication brief, clear and succinct using one or two words only and it’s safer and more easily understood if you adopt a mentality of using commands. This is understood in the climbing world and, unlike in everyday life where commands can often cause offence, to ask politely or to have to justify your reasoning behind a decision can cause confusion amongst team members and compromise safety.
When you are a long way apart, shout as loudly as you can and break down words slowly into syllables so they are easily understood, e.g. “bee…lay…on” for ‘belay on’. If you’re trying to reach a specific member of your team and there are others members situated between you and the person you are trying to communicate with, preface the command with their name, e.g. “tom…my…bee..lay…on.
Numbers and distance can also cause confusion and phrases such as “60 feet” might get misinterpreted so reversing the sentence can often help, e.g. “feet….six….zero”.
Communicating with Ropes
Sometimes there may be a wind howling around you or you simply might be too far apart to communicate with your voice. This is when the art of learning how to communicate using your rope can come in very handy.
There is no universal system but, during your team building exercises, your trip leader might well teach you a system of tugs or pulls on the rope which have different meanings that you’ll be able to learn and understand.
If the ropes are long, you may have to exaggerate the tugs so that they’ll be felt at the other end. You should take in the slack and pull the rope as taut as possible, releasing the tension with each pull.
To understand what the tugs mean, you’ll have a code by which the person at both ends will understand the meaning. Commonly, this will be based on the number of syllables within each command which, obviously, must all be different. An example might be,
A combination, therefore, of team building and communication codes when out in the field all being understood by each member of the team are the best methods of ensuring effective communication when out on a climbing trip.