(Photo Source : Author’s own. IKR… Ironically it’s because of stoopid behavior like taking a photo whilst belaying that leads to accidents. But i never said i was a Saint…)
ATC vs ABD*
*The author would like to point out that technically “ATC” is a model name but it is used interchangably often enough in sunny Singapore with “tubular device” that i shall continue to smear the good name of Black Diamond by referring to all tubular devices in this controversy as “ATC”. That’s how rambling i can get, sure you want to read more? I’m just getting warmed up….
The greatest debate to every stir up our climbing community so far. I have been keeping silent so far because of two reasons. One, because people tend to get carried away by emotions so I wanted to let things settle down a bit first. Two, because I was collecting my thoughts. My thoughts as a climber, as an instructor, as an outdoor educator, as a part-time-freelance-gym staff. It’s a complex topic, not complicated. Just two devices but already we see two camps forming for and against the new changes. I guess I’m finally ready to throw in my 2-cents worth into the debate and share what I think. But wait, for the record I have already been talking about this before this whole thing started, so that makes me way cooler… (The one about the non-mechanical belaying devices…) Back then there were hints and rumours that the gyms were heading there but nothing concrete was revealed.
For the uninitiated, as a background, three gyms in Singapore – OS, CC and CA, who make up the lion share of the market already, have announced that they will not be allowing non-assisted belay devices like tubular devices and Fig. 8’s (what planet are you from???) come 1 April 2017. Instead they will allow only Assisted Belay Devices (ABD) and climbers will likely have to go through another round of verifications with the gyms to “recertify” themselves at the gyms.
Standing on the gyms’ side, they have always placed their customers safety as their priority. And I believe this move is mainly motivated by the many accidents that have happened at the gyms in the recent years from unsafe belaying practices. (Face it, we have all heard of them…) They have resorted to this move purely to build a fail-safe environment for all. If they can totally put a stop to the risk, why not do so rather than risk having an accident. Besides being bad for business, it puts a great stress on the staff having to respond to these situations. (Just ask the gym staff who is the first responder to an incident…) Having an ABD prevents even that split second of distraction from escalating into a disaster. It prevents a belayer’s sudden bout of sickness from escalating into a disaster. It prevents a newbie’s inexperience at catching a big fall from escalating into a disaster, and many more. So that’s the main reason for the ban. It’s all about creating a safe environment for you and me to climb, and for that I am thankful for the foresight of the gyms.
And in the other corner… In the other camp, a bevy of climbers have taken offence to this move by the gyms. Some brayed for a boycott, someone created a petition out there, but mainly climbers were lamenting about the lose of a freedom of choice in something as simple as a belay device. And it certainly did not help that certain representatives of the gyms were creating a PR-disaster of their own by responding to every remark with defensive, abrasive comments of their own. Certainly a PR case-study on “how not to implement an unpopular policy”, but that’s another thing by itself. So climbers were certainly up in arms all week voicing their concerns to this draconian rule. It was funny to see some people saying “we won’t support them anymore” only to have others pointing out to them that “dude they are like the majority of the climbing industry… I hope you like bouldering…” There were also genuine concerns voiced out about the increase in cost now that climbers will need to purchase new devices and get themselves verified again. To be fair, the gyms have responded swiftly with a range of measures to cushion the impacts from cheaper deals on ABDs to announcing free workshops and verifications. All these didn’t seem to satisfy this camp much because they were still fixated on their autonomy to choose a belay device that works for them. It was satisfying to see the climbing community finally stir and speak up. It was not letting the Big 3 get away with it so easily. How dare you tell me what’s good for me!
So where do I stand in all this? Every long drive in the past week, every shower, every long run, I thought about it, weighing the many pros and cons in my mind. As I have said, it’s a complex issue. And sometimes when I see an inconsiderate or emotional comment, I felt like just yelling out. I remember a Youtube video I saw called “If Gandhi took a Yoga class” (if you have time watch it….laugh until die). In a way I felt like that Gandhi in the Yoga class when everyone didn’t understand him. I’m not saying that I’m like the guru or the know-it-all in the sport but I felt frustrated that many are so emotional about things that they do not see it the way I do. I penned down my thoughts, sorting it out, mindmaps, logic diagram and all and finally I am ready to write it down.
My views as an instructor? I’m firstly sad to see that a skill might potentially be lost to a new generation of climbers. The skill I am referring to is the cardinal rule of belaying, that you never ever let go of your brake hand. I remember as a new instructor, Bx said this once in her class and I have used this line in my own classes ever since, “…if you cannot remember anything I said in the class all day, the only thing I want you to remember from today’s class is that you must never, ever let go of your brake hand. Coz your buddy’s life literally depends on it.” This I call the sacred trust between the belayer and the climber. We might potentially lose this message as we rely on the ABD’s to provide that security. And to have such a sacred trust being replaced by a mere hunk of metal felt almost insulting to me. It saddened me that in future, younger climbers might point to an ATC and tell their friend that that device is unsafe to use. When in reality, the older generation will know that it is safe to use, just that we – the climbing community on the behest of the three gyms, decided that it is considered “unsafe” and ban it from use. “Is this how knowledge should be created?” I questioned myself.
From an instructor’s perspective, I also felt that there is no such thing as a zero risk environment as hard as the gyms are working to create it. We might be solving the problem of belaying today, but ABD’s can create their own set of problems as well. Complicated rigging, extra step to lower, specific rope diameters needed, climber must be of a certain weight, these are just some examples of problems I am aware of when using ABD’s. Are we complicating a very simple device such that we are solving one problem (letting go of the brake hand) but creating another problem (rigging the device wrongly)? Besides, one thing my mentors always remind me to do is to never underestimate the human propensity for stupidity. We might add a safer belay device but what’s to stop climbers from wearing the harness wrongly or tying in wrongly? Then what? We start introducing auto-locking carabiners, auto-locking buckles? We start climbing with two ropes and two belayers in case one set fails??? When will the list end? The more complex we make the system, the more the propensity for error.
In the first place, isn’t climbing inherently dangerous? It’s printed in most climbing books on the second page. To me, that’s one attraction of climbing. From an outdoor educator’s perspective, risk is necessary for learning to take place. We always refer to the Comfort Zone Theory. You learn best when you are pushed out of the comfort zone. Then what’s the role of an instructor? I believe the instructor’s job is to create a safety net for the learner to fail-safely. If the learner can fail safely, he learns. The trick is to discover how far out do you deploy your safety net? So if I am able to impress upon the participants in my course how important it is to never let go of the brake hand, I can cast my safety net wide to let them make mistakes by building in dry-run/practices/rehearsals during my course before they do the actual climb. When they do an actual climb, I stand near the belayer holding on to the brake line to correct and assist and to provide the additional layer of safety. When they are out climbing independently, they learn from me that there is nothing embarrassing about approaching the gym staff if they are unsure of how to use a certain device or to refresh on how to tie a knot. These are the safety nets I can cast out as an instructor to help my learners learn. Why do all these? Because climbing IS risky. And as outdoor enthusiasts, as adventure seekers, we are all dicing around with risk every time we do an activity. The key to these activities is to manage the risk either using your skills, your judgement, your gut and admitably a bit of luck. If you succeed, the rewards are tremendous, but everyone should know that if you mess it up, the consequences can be as mild as just an ego check or you might end up paying the ultimate price. That’s the attraction of adventure to me, I don’t need someone to babysit me because I spend time training, perfecting my skills to do what I want to do. If you want to be safe all the time, take up a different activity like chess or stamp collecting, this climbing thingy is just not for you. We need to teach climbers to manage the risk, not to put an end to it. And that’s where the instructor comes in. Granted that the quality of instruction today is not at its best, but that’s what some of us are trying to put right again today. And we need all your support. But again, that’s a story for another day…
So should we just accept the ban on tubular devices and move on with life. Is this really an evolution for the climbing scene in Singapore? I am still undecided. I guess like the few still on the fence, I see it’s benefits but yet I still want to have the benefit of choice. I, for one am terrible at lead belaying with a grigri so I use my ATC more often to lead belay. But when I top rope, I usually opt for my grigri as the top roping areas are usually crowded with belayers and most of beginners. So it’s always helpful to have a device that can lock up whilst you give a hand or some pointers to a newbie next to you. I want to be able to make the call myself which is better for which situation. Sometimes when the gym ropes get “fat” after they have been used for awhile, the ABD tends to jam and hinder the belayer from belaying. In this case it’s more helpful to give them a tubular device that lessens the amount of friction till it’s manageable for the belayer to concentrate on his belay technique. Will an experienced climber be able to make that call in future? Are we building in another hazard in this case, will the gym change the ropes immediately to a new rope when my device jams? Just an example I can think of now to illustrate my point.
I guess what I would like to hear in this situation is what steps the gyms have taken before they came to this draconian conclusion that a new device is in order to solve all our belaying nightmares. One thing I would really like to see is evidence of all these accidents that they speak about. So far whenever an accident happens, the gyms tend to keep it hush-hush. It makes sense from a business competition point of view. But I question how many of these accidents happen yearly and how many of them are actually related to a tubular device or a climber letting go of his brake hand? If the gyms can make this data more transparent, then perhaps it will convince climbers like me that the ABD is really a necessity. However it seems like the gyms are more concerned about giving analogies of motorcars and descriptions of fallacies than to really give climbers what we need to understand the situation. Neglecting the “Why” before the “How” once again… Maybe now that the heat has died down a bit, they can focus on getting the word out on “why” this had to be done so that we can convince the heart and the mind for the change.
Next, I would also question what are the gyms already doing currently to manage the risks at the gyms. There has definitely been a great improvement in how the gyms are managed today from the early days of climbing in Singapore where a counter staff will just pass you some ratty old rental gear, collect your money and then sit back behind the counter to play handphone. Gym staff nowadays are required to do regular patrols around the gym to spot any unsafe practices. I hear more checks over the counter to verify whether a new climber to the gym knows how to belay or not and rather than leaving the clueless newbie to his friends to take care of him, I hear the counter staff advising them what they should or should not be doing more often than not nowadays. I think these are good practices but I question their efficacy to “make the gym a safer place” at times.
My first contention will be to question whether does the gym staff actually have the ability or the competency to check on climbers when they do their patrol. Yes, granted most gyms require their staff to have at least a SNCS Level 2 certificate to work, but how many of them are regular lead climbers or even just climb regularly? Bouldering doesn’t count coz well…you dun use gears… Do they know what to look out for when they do their safety patrols? A recent experience I had at one of the gym left me bewildered. I spotted 3 climbers in the span of 30mins with their harnesses’ leg loops not double-backed and the 2 staff observing them did not even notice it. So my question is, are all the gym staff capable of observing your safety? Coming from an instructor of many years, I dare say this is a skill that takes many years of observation to pick up. You can’t spot an error if you don’t know it’s an error. If the gym staff hardly ever lead climb or belay after getting their Level 2 certs, I highly doubt they have the ability to competently spot errors or even know whether that is an error or not. Don’t believe me? (I haven’t tried this yet) Let’s try randomly approaching one of the gym staff and ask them what they are looking out for? Ask them whether they are able to tell which belayer is “dangerous”? What are the signs he/she is looking out for specifically to make the call? I am not trying to create troubles here for the gyms, but I half suspect this might be the situation on the ground. (Pls dun throw me out from the gyms…just my observation and conversations with the staff) If the level of checks put in place is redundant or simply ineffective, then it is just giving everyone a false sense of security until an incident happens.
My next observation is about location, location, location! My observation is that many of these counters are located too far away from the walls such that the staff are unable to effectively supervise the belaying or climbing at the climbing wall. Most of the staff’s activity takes place at the counters. Except for the occasional patrol around the gym floors, the majority of the staff are usually busy at the counter signing in new climbers or issuing rental equipment or handling enquires from customers. Staff at the counters are usually unable to effectively monitor the happenings at the climbing walls, all except a few gyms in Singapore who decisively (or some would say “so happened to”…) placed their counters right in front of the climbing wall. Someone joked that if the swimming pool is able to hire a lifeguard that sits at poolside just to watch the people swimming, why can’t the climbing gym do the same. As silly as it sounds, that might actually be a doable solution. If we are all about a mindset change now, why not change our mental model about how a climbing gym should be operated? If it works for the swimming pool and they can afford to hire a staff to do that simply because it effectively improves safety, why not consider doing that at the gyms? But I digress, my main contention here is that wherever the gym staff are spending stationed for most of their shifts are ineffective at supervising the climbers at the wall. It might not be their main job or their only job, but again I question whether is enough being done to supervise climbers at the walls itself. It’s a question of location, not competence or attitude of the staff this time.
So what exactly is the root of the problem here? I feel that more accidents at the gyms is a true problem but this is from my own personal observation and anecdotal evidences I have been hearing. I have only met one climber who was the unfortunate victim of a 15m fall with very “impressive” x-ray photos to show for (and who totally ruined my dinner…), and I have only seen one photo of a victim being restrained (in case of spinal injuries) sent to me by a concerned climber who witnessed the fall. I am convinced that the threat is real, that climbers are getting more accident prone these days and by co-relating it to the level of instruction I am seeing in the weekly climbing courses, I can only posit that the root of the problem could be the quality of the instruction new climbers are given nowadays. It also doesn’t help that the national organization has been silent all these years on training matters (and not surprisingly in the recent controversy). Apart from briefly saying that they will leave training issues “to the commercial gyms to regulate”, little or nothing has been done for the instructors development. So I guess we really do not blame the gyms for resorting to this method because that is one of the few ways they can keep the accident numbers from going down. Some gyms have already gone to the extent of using only a closed pool of instructors so that they can control the quality of instruction. I think this is a great idea because at least in this way there is some form of quality control rather than no control at all. My worry is the renegade instructor out there who are running independently with nothing to benchmark themselves against and with no one to police over them that might be doing more harm than good. The impacts here are not just in the course but can spread downstream to the gyms themselves. Hence although by introducing the ABD, we do go away with a safer environment for all to climb, but in the long run, it might eventually be the instructor community that suffers. Because in my opinion as an instructor, if we are really in the business of education, we should never allow ourselves to restrict or limit knowledge to a learner. The learner should be exposed to a breadth of information and an instructor helps him process it to turn it into knowledge. As an instructor, the ATC is not unsafe, my trainees just need to be more aware of its limitations when they use it. And it is up to me to build in practices to drive home this point. I will also be glad to introduce to them an ABD and share with them the benefits it brings especially if you are accident prone or you are tired or it is a very crowded day at the gym. I would rather my trainees take their training up to a higher level from just knowing how to use the device to being able to make a judgement call which device is better for which situation. Granted it will not work for all (eg. School kids) but that will be where the experience of the instructor will be called into play. When to introduce it, who to introduce it to? Does a Sec 1 kid need to know how to use the ABD proficiently? Can I spend more time on ABD’s rather than ATC’s? Can I warn them to use an ABD more often until they get better at belaying? These are all the considerations an instructor can do and admittedly, sadly it is not being emphasized in our instructor training today. Rather we are still fixated on teaching our trainee instructors topics like “escape from system” or “prussiking”… hard skills that can be picked up from any other book or the internet. And in the process, we tend to neglect the soft skills which will take an experienced coach to mentor and to teach and a proper OJT programme to complement it, where the trainee instructor is given room to practice and learn. So you see, the root of the problem is not in the device but the quality of our instructors today.
And that’s why I am spending my time doing this blog, and running this COP and trying to engage SMF further to do more for the instructor development. I think it is a part that is not just stagnating but is literally regressing. We can continue to point the blame at the SMF but nothing much is going to be done because their hands are full as well. So that’s why I am trying to get the ground to chip in and help our own instructor community. How or even how much to do is something that I cannot alone decide. Hence we need your voices and we need all the help we can get. If you have an idea, or you think you can contribute in some ways, please approach me and let’s talk about it to see how we can operationalize the idea. There’s really no point lamenting and complaining about the current situation because nothing will be done if we don’t do it ourselves. I hope that once we pass this ATC vs ABD debate, we can see the importance an instructor plays in the climbing community, not just in teaching the classes but how much our actions can have a consequence on the bigger picture.
Ok that was a wall of text… And I might have digressed. But these are my thoughts. And I hope I have summarized the whole saga a bit and thrown in my 2-cents worth to stir some of your thoughts. Comment (I’m sure there will be coz not everyone will agree), but please keep things civil.
Post Note : I just wanted to point out a few good blogs i have seen on people weighing in on the issue. I thought they made some very valid points that can help in our understanding of the issue. Go read if my rantings haven’t already given you a headache…