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Use Climbing Hand Signals to Communicate

Use Your Hands for Essential Climbing Communication


Rock climbers reach the summit of The Praying Monk on Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona.

If you're climbing The Praying Monk above Phoenix, use hand signals to communicate above the traffic noise.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green Use Climbing Hand Signals to Communicate

Voice communication is difficult at The Dome in Boulder Canyon, Colorado.

Photograph Stewart M. Green Keith McCallister jams up

Mountain cliffs like the Reflector Oven at Old Rag Mountain in Virginia can be windy, requiring hand signals for climbing commands.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Word or verbal commands like “On belay!” “Off Belay!” and “Climb on!” are always important when you’re out rock climbing. But sometimes you can’t hear the voice climbing commands because a howling wind carries your words away; you’re perched on a belay ledge up around a corner; or a creek filled with spring runoff roars beneath you.

Communication can be Unnerving

If you’re belaying above, you’re unsure if your partner is ready to climb. Or if you’re getting ready to second a pitch, you’re unsure if you’re on belay from above. So you spend an unnerving 10 minutes yelling back and forth with your climbing buddy, trying to communicate, but all the words are muted and drowned out. Finally you just commit and start climbing, hoping that your partner has you on belay. You’re relieved when the rope comes tight as you climb upward.

Use Prearranged Rope Signals

Sometimes you can use prearranged rope signals, a certain number of sharp tugs on the rope, to communicate with your partner. But before you do that you can make other arrangements before climbing to facilitate climbing communication in difficult situations and bad weather.

Keep In-Sight for Best Communication

If you’re leading a pitch, stop on a good ledge where you can still see your belayer below to set up your anchors and belay him up. Try to place your belay anchors high so it’s easy to lean out to yell down to your partner. If you have a good secure anchor with at least three pieces of gear, you’ll feel safe hanging out from the ledge to communicate.

Use Hand Signals

If you can see your partner, you can also communicate with him by using hand signals. Again, talk with your partner before you start climbing and agree on the signals. I use the “cut your throat” hand signal, drawing my hand across my throat, to indicate that I’m safe and he can take me off belay. When I’m ready to belay my partner up, I use a simple hand wave to indicate “Start climbing.”

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