From Squamish Bouldering
Every time you step onto the rock you assume a considerable risk that your
spotter may, or may not, be able to influence. Evaluate each problem carefully
for hazards and know when to back down. The decisions you make determine your own fate.
Arguably, bouldering is more dangerous and dependent on the vigilance and abilities of another person than any other form of climbing, yet so few seem to appreciate this concept.
How many times have we all seen a climber "spotting" another with hands stretched
overhead as if summoning the dead only to let their partner splatter flat on their back at the moment of truth?
Is it because spotting is not taught to boulderers in the same way that belay skills
are drilled into beginning climbers? Is it because the perceived danger
to a climber six feet off the ground is so much less than one dangling from a cliff?
Learning to spot safely and effectively is a skill necessary to act as a competent and trustworthy partner. To climb at one's absolute physical limit, no thoughts of danger must enter your mind and complete faith in your spotter is mandatory. This level of trust is extremely difficult to develop and one shabby spot can shatter any confidence that's been long in the making.
Before discussing specific spotting techniques, it is important to understand the dynamics of falling and landing. Incredible forces and speed are developed when a climber careens off a problem. Knowledge of how to react, either as the climber or the spotter, should help reduce, not eliminate, the risk of sustaining a serious injury. Warning: the following paragraphs contain text of a technical nature. Continue reading at your own risk.
Never try to catch and hold a falling climber. Simply try to slow down and direct the fall, thereby lengthening the process of landing which will reduce force.
Falls can be placed in two distinct categories. The first are those that occur unexpectedly, as in a foot slip, and the second are those that occur slowly and deliberately, often the result of pumping out or backing down. Unexpected falls often benefit more from a good spot, but the forces involved in both are identical. All falling objects accelerate towards earth at the same incredible rate: 9.8 m/s 2
Based on this, the average male climber melting off a significant highball could reach up to 30km/hr before crashing into a helpless spotter. At speeds such as this, the spotter may be in great danger and become little or no help to the falling climber.
Essentially, the spotter's primary job is to establish contact as soon as possible to minimize acceleration and the resulting landing force. Therefore, keeping your hands close to the climber at all times is paramount and most easily accomplished when their body is still within reach. It is very important to understand that the instant you climb out of reach of your spotter, their effectiveness in the event of a fall decreases dramatically.
A climber dropping a measly one metre off a problem will land with a force nine times their mass which can easily snap an ankle. Despite this statistic, spots are not always necessary and may sometimes increase the hazard for the falling climber (I've been punched in the back and clawed on various occasions). If the problem doesn't present any unusual hazards, then it might be safer to clear the area and take responsibility for controlling your own landing.
Whether you choose a spot or not, it is worth understanding a couple of key landing principles.
Dissipation of Force
When you fall off a problem and land on your feet (or your hands), the force is dispersed through two mechanisms:
Time: By allowing a landing to occur over a longer period of time, force is more effectively spread out. Using a foot first fall as an example, time may be increased by landing on the feet, then compressing at the knees, the hips and even rolling onto the back. Imagine falling off a problem with your ankles, knees and hips locked. In this case, less landing time would equal much pain.
Surface Area: By spreading the landing force over a greater surface area on the body, less chance of injury should also occur. This simple increase in surface area occurs as your feet flatten during compression and if or when you roll onto your side or back. Concentrating the landing force on a small area, such as a single foot or hand, greatly increases the chance of a snapping bone.
The second landing principle pertains most commonly to falls that occur sideways or backwards and how you place your hands relative to the fall. Gymnasts refer to joint positions as having one of two configurations:
Closed Systems: Imagine falling face first into a "push-up" position but with your fingers pointing backwards towards your toes. In this example, your elbows would not be able to bend and absorb force. This is a closed system and it is bad - good-bye elbows.
Open Systems: Now imagine falling into the same "push-up" position with your fingers pointing straight ahead. This time your elbows will be able to bend properly and you will have created a much safer open system for absorbing force. This is much better and your elbows and wrists will thank you.
Landing Backwards or Sideways - Closed:
We naturally create an open system when we fall forward but when we fall sideways or backwards, we have a tendency to do the opposite. We stick our arms out with fingers pointing away from us which, in these situations, locks the elbows creating a dangerous closed system. Interestingly, these closed backwards and sideways falls are the reason so many snowboarders break their wrists and dislocate their shoulders catching that heel side edge.
Landing Backwards or Sideways - Open:
Many gymnastic clubs teach how to properly fall sideways or backwards with fingers pointing safely towards the body (thumbs to the bum). This could greatly benefit many boulderers as so many bouldering falls result in these very positions. It is worth emphasizing that these techniques are not instinctive and need to be learned in a safe environment. Plummeting from a highball into the talus is not the time to experiment with your new landing techniques.
Now that we understand a little more about falling and landing, we can more effectively discuss spotting techniques.
- Never agree to spot someone if you are not completely comfortable. If there is a major discrepancy in weight, find someone more suited to the task.
- Communicate carefully with the climber to determine if a spot is desired and, if so, who is actually responsible for that spot.
- At best, always place the pads over the anticipated landing zone. Try to create a flat surface with no hollow spots or edges that can twist ankles. Try to guide the falling climber onto the pads. If pads need to be moved during the ascent, assign this task to another person. This is not the job of a good spotter.
- Stand in a stable position, usually with one foot slightly back, and remove any objects you could trip over.
- Watch the thumbs. Letting them stick out can help improve your grip on the climber but can easily result in a sprain. Your choice.
- When the climber starts moving, keep your hands as close as possible to minimize acceleration in the case of a fall.
- Never take your eyes off the climber you are spotting. If you agree to spot then that boulderer should have your undivided attention. The spotter will not be able to get any beta or information about the moves as all attention should be focused very carefully on the position of the climber's back.
- Generally, the most effective place to grasp a falling climber is just above the waist near their centre of gravity. Letting your hands slide up into the armpits can also help maintain your grip and guide the climber. Grabbing a climber too low can actually cause a dangerous backwards rotation.
- Never try to catch and hold a falling climber. Simply try to slow down and direct the fall, thereby lengthening the process of landing which will reduce force. Make protecting the head, neck and spine your prime directive.
- When possible, help the climber land on their feet, the most effective position for dissipating force.
- Allow the climber to naturally compress and roll (if necessary) as this also permits proper dissipation of force.
- In the event that a climber falls with some rotation, watch out for spinning arms. This is a natural and necessary human reaction as it helps to slow down rotation. Getting slapped or punched is a real hazard. It's the responsibility of the spotter to be aware.
- On a final note, wearing a helmet to protect your head in a bad fall would be very wise and may some day become more common. Go the extra distance and pad any exposed rocks or spikes with shoes, packs or clothing. The unexpected can happen.
You only get one chance to help someone when they fall. If you don't commit fully to protecting them, you're not doing your job and should pass it to someone who can. Reaction time is critical so if you feel sluggish for some reason, don't accept the responsibility. Trust is very hard to develop and is one of the truly rewarding aspects of bouldering. Through spotting effectively you can develop the kind of bond that grows between other types of climbers allowing you to push yourself freely. Ultimately you are responsible for your own safety and the best spotter in the world can't save you if you commit to a dangerous boulder problem.
Learn more about Bouldering
Jeff Thomson, Human Kinetics Lecturer, UBC
|Jeremy Blumel, ACMG Assistant Rock Guide|
|Alain Denis, Photographer|