Should climbing gyms test the skills of their visitors more closely? Should climbing gyms determine which belay device can be used? Climbing gyms in Switzerland are very different from Canadian gyms. Christine Sievers dares to think outside the box and compare the two climbing hall cultures.
A guest contribution by Christine Sievers
Having grown up in Swiss climbing gyms, very specific ideas quickly emerge about what this sport should look like. The paradox of these concrete ideas is that they don't mean anything concrete, and in the end they are simply liberal statements that different climbers develop different preferences for belay devices, knots and the right time to start lead climbing.
Accordingly, climbing gyms in this country - not only in Switzerland, but also in Germany and Austria - often have no clear rules about who is allowed to do what on the indoor routes and when. Much happens out of a sense of personal responsibility: the climber himself evaluates his or her skills. Even if there are discussions about restrictions, such as restrictions on the use of certain belay devices or introductory courses to be viewed as potentially mandatory, the philosophy of climbing gyms in the cantons is largely laissez-faire.
However, this is not a given. If you make your way across the ocean towards North America, the European-liberal climbing hall user will quickly be overwhelmed by culture shock: climbing halls there have a straightforward, clear and extremely strict security policy that leaves little room for individual decisions, but a simple and perhaps safer one Access to climbing allowed.
Even if the lack of freedom there apparently has a negative impact on the risk management qualities of climbers, the obviously large differences raise the question of which philosophy is to be preferred and, above all, which tasks and responsibilities climbing gyms take on in relation to beginners can and should.
A backup test or no backup test?
The cultural differences between the average Swiss and the average Canadian climbing gym are already evident before you even start climbing. The first thing to do in a Swiss climbing hall, in addition to paying the entrance fee, is to sign a waiver on which one confirms or denies experience in leading and top rope securing. Then, and this is the case in many European climbing halls, climbing can already begin.
The first thing a liberal, European climber encounters in the halls on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is an abyss: regardless of all the important and unimportant experiences that one has already gained outside and inside during the ascent and subsequent ascent, just go climbing suddenly not here. Instead of the written confirmation of one's own skills, there is a security test, an actual demonstration of one's own security skills under examination conditions.
A safety test is only carried out for top-rope climbing
How bad can this be, you think. Yet unexpected difficulties await. On the one hand, you should be prepared for the fact that these simple safety tests are only carried out for top-rope climbing, and lead climbing falls victim to an even more cumbersome special treatment: you will not be able to enjoy the routes in lead climbing in Canada's climbing gyms that quickly. On the other hand, the newcomer can expect harsh rules with regard to the belay device to be used: If you are used to belaying with a Smart that is widely used here, for example, the mandatory belaying with the Grigri will cause frowns in Canadian climbing halls, also and of course during the belay test. But no climbing without Grigri.
The choice of tie-in knot is similarly un-liberal. A double eight with a double fisherman's knot are mandatory and non-negotiable. You wouldn't be the first climber here to fail the entrance test due to a missing fishing knot - despite a picture-perfect double eight.
Different views on the braking hand position
For most climbers, however, such restrictions in and of themselves do not present a major obstacle until they do: Different views on the correct braking hand position on the rope could become a stumbling block, because as inflexible as the climbing gyms in Canada with belay devices are, they are also with hand positions - as if different opinions about the best handling of the Grigri were just a myth.
And then, if you are not careful, if you have other knot preferences or no experience with the Canadian version of handling the brake rope, it can happen that the actual climbing becomes a long way off, because without this passed test there is no climbing . If you do not pay attention, you will be called to take part in a top-rope climbing course and this is sure to present an involuntary “humbling moment” for an experienced climber.
One may raise criticism and malicious comments for this strict handling of everyday climbing, but there are weighty arguments in favor of the strict policy: Accidents happen in climbing halls, and when they say they are self-reported about their ability to secure themselves, they certainly regularly whisper.
Certain standards reduce potential accidents in the hall
If you standardize the type of belay and the belay device, the potential accidents are minimized, not only because mistakes within the rope teams are reduced to a minimum, but also because the staff in the hall only needs to have knowledge of the Grigri in a specific way in turn facilitate the controls.
Nevertheless, the question remains to what extent strict rules really make a safer climber. For example, if you enter a climbing gym in Toronto, Ontario, you will quickly be convinced otherwise. The abundance of different security styles, which vary from unorthodox to dangerous, is surprising.
The standardization of this process does not obviously contribute anything to the elimination of safety errors. Paradoxically, this is probably due to the strict regulations that lead to the pretense of safety and thus negligence, but also in the compulsion not to be allowed to work with the usual belay device: an experienced climber is and remains the better safer on the device with which the most experience was gained.
Lead climbing yes or no?
All of this, as mentioned, concerns top-rope climbing, a form of rope climbing that has been neglected in our latitudes. If you want to train in the lead, completely different hurdles arise in Canadian climbing gyms. In many provinces of Canada, permission to lead climbing requires a test in which the climber shows his skills on routes of a certain difficulty level.
In Toronto climbing halls, for example, an employee of the hall has to climb a 5.10+ (this corresponds approximately to a French 6b) with a roof element in the lead. Another climbing hall requires showing a lead of a 5.10- and a 5.10+ one after the other, without a break, i.e. as red point climbing. Here, in these regulations, is probably the most striking cultural difference between European and Canadian indoor climbing cultures.
A large number of climbers in Europe start climbing in the lead and not in the top rope. Others have been climbing easy lead routes for years, but are no less safe or qualified in these easy degrees that they can complete with no problems. Even if they may not be able to climb a roof element, they are good and safe climbers in this discipline. In this country, we think that good, safe lead climbing cannot and should not only be measured by the degree.
This is a statement that is aimed primarily at experienced, older climbers who may no longer climb the most force-intensive routes, but are above all experienced climbers with highly developed risk management skills. In general, in this country the question of whether someone should lead a route or not is treated as a question of assessing one's own abilities. However, there is little room for self-assessment in Canadian climbing gyms, whose regulation of who, what, when in the climbing gym, also based on insurance and liability obligations, is attempted to be measured objectively.
A policy of security versus a policy of personal responsibility
But is the Canadian motto “there are never too many precautionary rules” really one that is good for climbing? Doubts have already been registered. Another good example of Canadian safety regulations and their possible consequences is hall flooring. The indoor rope climbing facilities in Ontario are oversized boulder mats: In the halls, a soft, spring-loaded floor is used, not just directly under the routes, but actually distributed over the entire area of the climbing area.
At first glance, this architecture has a relieving element: no more fear of a belayer who gives us more speed when lowering just before the ground and no more fear of falling before the first clip. Anyone who has already made the acquaintance of the mostly unpadded, hard floors in Swiss halls may really prefer the Canadian version.
But this small difference has an impact on the behavior of the hall visitors and thus on the climbers: the climber letting go too quickly and daring, questionable, dynamic entries into routes are a common sight. It is precisely this everyday negligence that costs nothing in the climbing hall, but can make a big difference between a pleasant afternoon and a traumatic experience outside on the rock.
Stepping on the rock can be dangerous
For the average beginner at least, who, like so many climbers today, learns to climb in a climbing hall, such negligence may be difficult to get rid of when, like so many, he wants to try his hand at real rock. How can he react more flexibly to his surroundings when everything that he or she has come across in his short climbing career so far was set rules that left little room for his or her own evaluation of a situation. The lack of space for self-assessment and personal responsibility, which goes hand in hand with strict safety regulations, can therefore present itself more as a safety risk than as a guarantee of safety.
And so one or the other might ask themselves to what extent the Canadian indoor climbing philosophy offers added value in terms of input and inspiration for our indoor climbing gyms in this country? An answer should be given from a beginner's perspective. If you compare the above with first impressions in a Swiss climbing hall, the experiences of Canadian and Swiss beginners could hardly be more different.
If you have not grown up in a climbing-affine environment in this country, you quickly feel lost in the climbing hall: which belay device, which tie-in knot, what does this and that term mean, the skeptical looks of the long-established climbing hall regular customers.
Introductory courses are recommended - but not compulsory
Introductory courses are recommended, and these are often of a high quality, but they are in no way compulsory. The lack of guidance, if not actively asked, can ultimately be daunting and overwhelming and in the worst case lead to accidents: not being taken by the hand leads to safety risks.
In contrast, the Canadian model leads to an easier and, above all, at least initially safer entry for beginners who do not enjoy the advantage of experienced climbing friends. This Canadian openness for everyone, even for those who are real beginners, which arises from the narrowness of the rules, only works because the climbing gyms on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean obviously consider each other separate from rock climbing. And this in turn is certainly a no-go for indoor climbing in Switzerland.
Should climbing on plastic be viewed separately from rock climbing?
An overly secure climbing culture that leaves little room for self-assessment, but makes climbing accessible to everyone, produces completely different climbers than the liberal Swiss culture of personal responsibility. But what kind of climbers should be sculpted in climbing gyms? This question can only be answered if another problem is dealt with first: what tasks and responsibilities does a climbing hall actually have?
With all the laudable safety and accessibility for beginners, Canadian climbing halls, for example, often see themselves held responsible if a group of indoor climbers behave inappropriately on the rock. Many of these climbers, who feel the urge to go outside, especially in times of pandemic, wrongly assume that their experience in the hall is well enough prepared for them to climb outside. We all know this is not the case. And so negligence accidents happen and the clashes between local “crag” locals and the plastic climbers, who also like to leave their rubbish behind, are not always friendly.
In order to protect themselves against legal action resulting from the misconduct of the beginners, Canadian climbing gyms explicitly emphasize that they have in no way the intention to impart skills for rock climbing. John Gross, owner of True North Climbing, a climbing gym in Toronto with strikingly high walls and even a crack climbing area, says it like it is: Climbing gyms in Canada are aware of the tide of indoor climbers on the rocks, but they are taking what happens there is completely different from what your customers learn in the halls.
According to Gross, the only responsibility that climbing gyms have accordingly is to make beginners aware that their activities in the gym are not prepared for rock climbing. This is certainly not the way you want to go in Switzerland. In Swiss climbing halls, the connection between rock and indoor climbing is clearly recognizable: you can quickly find areas for stand and anchor building training or walls that are modeled on natural rock.
The freedom then with regard to knots, belay devices and the start of lead climbing continue to contribute to an important aspect of rock climbing: the assessment of the external and internal circumstances, and the resulting ability to make independent decisions. Can I lead this route? Where do I place myself to belay? Can I safely reach the first bolt? All these decisions are not set in stone on the rock and no soft mat can absorb the consequences of a wrong decision. European indoor climbers are at least better prepared for this plethora of decisions and thus for rock climbing than their Canadian colleagues.
Is it the primary task of climbing gyms to prepare their visitors for rock climbing?
Does this in turn mean that the primary task and responsibility of climbing gyms in Switzerland is to prepare beginners for outdoor climbing? And if so, is this the only task, or should an emphasis also be placed on the easy and, above all, safe accessibility of the sport for beginners? If the latter is also on the agenda, Canadian indoor climbing gyms are a good place to get inspiration. They offer suggestions, for example, with regard to the role and voluntary nature of introductory courses in Switzerland.
To what extent should and can these become compulsory courses? Another question that is certainly relevant has to do with the choice of belay devices: should devices like the ATC still be allowed in climbing gyms?
In the end, even if for most of the people the moral of the comparison between Canadian and Swiss climbing gyms only leads to a newfound gratitude for the freedoms in this country, the view over the ocean at least encourages us to ask and discuss such questions.
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Credits: picture and text Christine Sievers