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Why I Want A Belay Android And Not A Human

Why I Want A Belay Android And Not A Human

Last week I went climbing in Rifle—something freakin’ everyone associates with me regardless of the fact that I’ve done trad, ice and big-wall climbing all over the place. But nooooo, never mind any of that!

This is how Alex Honnold must feel about all the 5.14s he has redpointed on a rope—literally no one cares about 99 percent of the climbing Alex has done, or will do, in his lifetime because the only thing anyone remembers is his free soloing.

The only difference is that Alex’s “thing” is much cooler than my “thing.” This explains why Alex was on 60 Minutes while I am on holistic antidepressants prescribed by my goat-herding naturopath. Selah. I find myself like Gustav Flaubert, searching for the right word, le mot juste, to appropriately express the anguish I feel about this predicament. And yet the best I can come up with is this frownie-face emoticon ????

Anyway, back to my story … I ventured to Rifle, sans a Grigri-equipped human. This is akin to forgetting your harness or any other vital piece of gear. Today, you don’t need to make a pilgrimage to Yvon Chouinard’s tin shed just to cop a carabiner. You can buy all kinds of crap online, and with an Amazon Prime account, get free two-day shipping. You see, the cool thing about instant gratification is that it really makes you feel good and it happens right away.

Drunk spring-breaking hornball college kids in Cozumel have stricter standards than climbers for choosing partners.

A lil’ Google searching, a lil’ PayPal action, and you can quickly acquire whatever your salty black climber heart desires: Biners, Bongs, Ropes, Chalk, Slippers, C4s, C3s, R2D2s, PeckerNuts, Bippities, Boppities and Boos.

The only thing you can’t order online is a “Grigri-equipped human.” You have to find those out in the field, like arrowheads or booty. Perhaps in the future, companies will offer synthetically engineered mandroids or gynoids that know how to belay. I can see it now: the Petzl “Grigri Gringo.” I’d buy that, and go on all kinds of adventures! Just me and my patient, attentive silicone-based belayer, Yerian 2.0.

However, since Rifle is the only place I ever climb, I know most everybody and usually have no trouble roping up with someone trustworthy.

But you never know, and you have to be prepared to do what needs to be done. I was ready to shower a special someone with compliments, secret beta and IPAs in exchange for the toil of holding my cord on another marathon dogging sesh. When I arrived at the crag, I was shocked to find myself in the exact opposite situation. Someone was trying to climb with me.

Lo! The irony.

The jabbering weirdo appeared from nowhere and overwhelmed me with the stinky stench of his desperation. When he saw that I’d arrived alone, he was like a shark and I was a sweet slab of bluefin.

“Hi. I’m making photos for my local climbing club so we can get access to a new limestone cliff in New York and … Do you have a partner? I don’t have a partner. Just saying. So, yeah, I’m just shooting photos of sport climbing … I was at Red Rocks and now I’m here, just looking for partners, and do you have a partner? Did I mention that I don’t have a partner?”

Why are we so comfortable climbing with strangers who in any other area of life we wouldn’t trust?

All I could think was, limestone in New York? It was but one of many red flags. I was equally concerned that he was walking around wearing flat-lasted climbing shoes, as if that morning he had put them on like loafers on his way to the office. Of course, the daisy chain dangling betwixt the legs was a big No No. Creepy darting eyes. But mostly, it was the proximity of his face to my face.

Seriously, dude! Get out of my face!

I could feel his hot, lecherous breath as he crooned about this mystical New York limestone, all while hinting that he was interested in climbing together. Brown hair was glued atop a broad white face, the color and opacity of raw shrimp. His back hunching, his hands clawing a DSLR, he continued to drag me into his fantasy while I recoiled like a snake being poked with a stick.

A single train of thought steamrolled through my brain. Now he’s going to ask me to climb with him. He’s going to ask me to climb with him, isn’t he? I really hope he doesn’t ask me to climb with him.

Fortunately, I’ve never met a jabbering weirdo I couldn’t out-weird. I pulled out the old, “OH MY GOD, what’s that over there?”

Huh? What?

By the time he turned back around to say, “I don’t see anything,” I was already toproping a warm-up with my friends Danny and Wendy.

Earlier in my climbing career I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting this guy belay me. He’s at a crag; he has gear; he must know how to belay. After all, belaying is the very first thing every climber learns … Right?

Wrong! Somehow I inevitably run into climbers who forget, lapse or never really learned the most important technique in climbing. And we have no way of knowing who those people are until we take them for a test drive.

I’ve always found it strange, our casual regard to the role of belaying. Why are we so comfortable climbing with strangers who in any other area of life we wouldn’t trust? For example, we’d never pick up That Guy on the side of the highway, but if he showed up at the crag in a harness, it’s like, “Cool, I’ll let you be responsible for my life today.”

Drunk spring-breaking hornball college kids in Cozumel have stricter standards than climbers for choosing their partners. We’ll rope up with anyone.

Has the sacred brotherhood of the rope, the hallowed bond linking us climbers together in a profoundly metaphorical and, yes, I suppose, arguably literal sense, gone the way of the Stonemasters and sold out?! Oh no! How many times do the bloggers gotta say it? Climbing has lost its soul! AGAIN!

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Once, I was flying solo in Yosemite, a lone wolf in a Hawaiian shirt, with a red Petzl Ecrin helmet and a rack of budget cams from the Czech Republic. You’d think I would be a pariah, the suspicious, desperate loner no one wanted to climb with. Instead, I found it relatively easy to rope partners into my egoistic world of summit-or-die mania that is otherwise called “American male in his early 20s trying to earn the respect of his father.” Finding partners was merely a matter of hanging around the message board by the ranger kiosk in Camp 4. Like Craig’s List for climbers, the Camp 4 message board was a place to interact with an obscene spectrum of humanity.

In the mornings, I stood gripping my commemorative Half Dome travel mug, sipping “free” coffee from the cafe, and giving everyone who passed me the “thousand-yard stare” that all ethically pure hardmen get when they spend too much time cleansing their souls in the “Death Zone.” Then I’d hum Bob Marley and sway back and forth in a lascivious dance while taping up my hands. Pretty soon, someone would inquire what heinous gnar I planned to slay that day.

“Thought it was gonna be a day for Astroman,” I’d often reply, eyes a-squintin’. “But it’s getting late and I don’t want to shiver bivy in the Harding Slot.”

They’d say something like: “Want to go do Nutcracker?

“Yeah, OK!” I’d say, suddenly all giddy.

Over those two months I climbed with old people, young people, ex-convicts and religious zealots. I climbed with Californians and El Salvadorians, none of whom spoke English I understood. Ultimately, it didn’t matter who you were as long as you had a belay device.

I’m not sure what to make of this period of my life, or why I’m now different. Really, it was all about instant gratification—my generation’s most rampant vice born of the modern, button-clicking era. I wanted to climb right then. You could chalk up my imprudence to simple bad decision making. Yet I never got hurt or dropped. So was it bad?

Back to the Guy at Rifle. He could not take a hint. He was relentless. He lurked and bouldered (poorly) along the base of the wall close to where I was standing, making it all very obvious. Could you move, please?

I was tying in for a third warm-up. My climbing shoes were on. My friend Danny was going to belay me, but suddenly, he wasn’t there. Shit! Where’s Danny? Over there, eating pistachio nuts! Crap! I’m exposed!

The Guy saw his opportunity. The corners of his mouth creased upward. Quickly, he snagged a belay device and bee-lined toward me in a frightening Hey-You-Guys! kind of awkward scamper through the dirt—still in his floppy climbing shoes, of course.

I was trapped. Not only was I tied in, but my feet were bound in tiny reverse-camber slippers. I stood on the rope tarp, a 4 x 4-foot island off which I dared not step lest my shoe rubber get dusty. Damn my knowledge that dust reduces rubber’s friction by 10 percent! There was no way to run and nowhere to hide.

Danny looked up from his pistachios. He saw the Guy. Then he looked at me. My hands were pressed together, lower lip protruding, mouthing the words, “Help. Me!”

Danny jumped over his pack and started jogging toward me, at an acute angle to the Guy’s trajectory. Who would get there first? Aaagh!

The Guy won, arriving one second before Danny. “Can I PLEEEEEASE belay you?” he said, out of breath.

In Art of War, the master Sun-Tzu writes: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment—that which they cannot anticipate.”

In this extraordinary moment, very calmly, very collectedly, I said, “No offense, but you are a stranger, and I’m not just going to let you belay me because I don’t want to blindly put my life into a stranger’s hands. So, the answer is: No, you cannot belay me.”

“Oh,” he said, slinking away. “OK, that makes sense.”

I felt guilty about shutting down the Guy … but not that guilty. I’ve heard about or witnessed enough belay screw-ups that I no longer want to climb with people I don’t know or trust—especially if I don’t have to.

But then I think back to those Yosemite days, when I was so indiscriminate. I know that surviving those experiences were the very beats that helped me become the more experienced, sensible climber (whose father now respects him, thankyouverymuch) that I am today.

Yet I wonder if I’m being too cautious, too spoiled, too risk-averse? Am I avoiding the opportunity to connect with someone new and potentially interesting just because I fear dying? Where’s the balance?

It’s all a game of risk and luck … until my belay android arrives.

For more of Andrew Bisharat go to

This article was first published in Rock and Ice, July 2013.

The post Why I Want A Belay Android And Not A Human appeared first on Climbing.



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