THE UPSIDE OF DOWN #3 Learning to Belay

Being hobbled this month forced me to learn something really important.

I’m learning how to belay.

I’ve written before about wall climbing here
and here: LOST MUSCLES

It’s obvious that going up that wall is an active, exciting metaphor for change and empowerment. It’s also a lot of fun!

The person who makes this all possible and safe is the person who belays you. The person who stays on the ground, taking up the slack (literally!) as you climb, catching you if you fall, and gently reeling you down as you descend.

The first day I climbed, the instructor had told me that, if my husband and I both learned to belay each other (man the supporting ropes), and get certified, we could come in whenever we wanted to and climb (instead of needing to have an instructor present.)

The thing is, nobody ever takes the time to learn to belay.

Oh, some people do, of course. But most people just want to get in there and get up the wall. The belayer stays on the ground watching everyone else go up. Who wants that?! Far fewer people are willing to “put off the fun” to learn it.

When the doctor said, “No climbing for a month”, I realized this was a unique opportunity.

Maybe I can’t climb right now. But I can start learning how to belay.

And I am.

The subtleties of belaying are very different than actually climbing. First, you have to pay attention to what the climber is doing–how fast they’re going up, when they’re ready to come down, how fast they want to come down. I have to practice a special way of taking up the slack quickly and smoothly. Like driving, I have to practice it until it feels like second nature, so I don’t even have to think about it.

But the rewards are there. Less obvious, more subtle. But there.

For one thing, I’m learning even more about climbing. I can feel my brain stretch a bit as I learn yet another skill.

For another, I’m becoming more independent. When I master this, our family will be halfway there to being able to climb anytime, anywhere.

Here’s something I didn’t realize til now. When you climb, you are essentially talking and getting to know only the person who belays you. When you belay, you talk and get to know anyone else who climbs off you. Since there are always more climbers than belayers (because everyone else feels the same way about belaying) I’m interacting with more people directly and I’m getting to know them better.

And of course, even when you can’t climb, if you can stand and if you can pull a rope through, you can still be involved. You can still show up, and be a part of something.

I think this is why so many artists and craftspeople move on to teaching and mentoring when they retire from the show circuit, and other more strenuous aspects of the art biz. And why sometimes artists actually start their own shows (like the Paradise City Arts Festival for example. And why artists write books and articles on making a living in craft or art. And why someone like me blogs or serves on a fair committee.

Because, yes, the most fun I can have is actually making stuff. But sharing what a life spent making stuff looks like, and helping other people make stuff and sell it, broadens my world–and my life–too.

Last, I’ve learned something big about myself.

The responsibility is huge. My job is to keep that climber safe. I almost couldn’t imagine what would happen if someone fell while I was belaying. My instructor, Lin, said, “Oh the first time your climber falls, you’ll never forget that!” It’s happened already. A young highly experienced climber, taking on a very easy wall for my benefit, hit a loose hold and slipped. It frightens you when that happens, no matter how safe you “know” you are in the ropes.

And I held him.

It was scary, yeah. But when I realized I had held him up and kept him from harm…. Well that was a pretty powerful feeling, too.

As Lin assured me, as long as you do your job and keep the ropes in the right position, the climber isn’t going anywhere. He may fall a few feet, but he’s not going to fall far.

And she was right.

It makes me think today about all the support, all the ropes, all the people we put in our own lives, to hold us up if we fall.

To make sure, if we do slip, we don’t fall far.

And I think I’ve started something. Because the other day, someone who’s been climbing for months and months, decided maybe he would start learning how to belay, too.


4 thoughts on “THE UPSIDE OF DOWN #3 Learning to Belay

  1. In 2001 I went hiking up Pike’s peak in Colorado with a couple of friends. Two of them got tired halfway up and I carried their backpacks for them. It was so rewarding to do this for them. Last year I participated in a ropes/obstacle course with a couple of friends. My favorite part was being the guy who belayed others. I enjoyed being high up on the ropes but not as much as being able to belay others. I fully appreciate your thinking in this post.


  2. In life there are givers and takers, and belaying certainly falls into the giving camp. I do think those who give more, get more, but there’s also the possibility of being taken advantage of. Balance, as always, is key.

    On a lighter note, did you mean to skip #3 in an obscure Monty Python reference, or am I missing something? 😉

    Barbara J Carter


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