By HARRY LARSON
While he was visiting last month, I asked Harry to write a blog for the website. What would he write about? It didn't take long to agree that he'd take the time to tell us about the craft of a soft catch, the art of ground support, more commonly known as spotting.
In the world of bouldering often times a major part of achieving your strongest potential goes beyond training and technique. I can not count the times I have seen someone back down from a move well within their ability because of the mental side, they did not feel safe. On the flip side I have seen people make desperate throws over sketchy landings because they had assurance that there was very little risk factor. The difference lies beneath them; in the hands of their spotters.
Now, spotting is not something you can master by reading an article; there are far too many variables. An article can, however, highlight some of the primary focuses which exist at every boulder. As many people have learned, sometimes the hard way, being underneath someone with your hands up is not enough. With the complex maneuvers in climbing and the varying possibilities of failure one single move can see many different types of fall. Spotting, like climbing, is a skill which will develop with practice, and though there is no difficulty scale, there are certainly problems on which it is harder to provide safety. Like with any skill, and I can not emphasize this enough, people should not try to spot outside of their comfort level; if you do not think you can keep someone safe let them know. There is no shame in safety, and it is better to swallow your pride and keep people safe than to give them a false sense of security leading them to injury.
With that small disclaimer I can get to the meat of the topic. The duty of spotting can be split into two main categories which I will call: pad placement and fall response. When it comes to pads there are two ways to arrange them; which, with the exception of some particularly long problems, are more or less interchangeable based on quantity of pads and spotters. The categories are static and dynamic.
For the static set up, all the pads will be arranged prior to the climber stepping on the rock and left where they are for the entirety of the climb with the spotters moving across or around them while spotting. This being the case the Landing Zone (LZ) should be examined and covered based on obvious dangerous features and likely fall patterns; for instance a dyno will need pads much farther back than a slab, and a jagged protrusion may need extra coverage compared with flat ground. The more climbing experience a person has the more effectively an LZ can be created, but major dangers are apparent to a spotter of any level. The static option is very good for novice spotters and highball routes because focus can be maintained on the climber throughout the route. Some things to know about static setups is that they do need upkeep; meaning after each burn the pads should be checked to see if a fall or some cross traffic has exposed any danger areas. Look for holes in coverage and trip hazards, moving around with eyes up pad edges may not be seen and could lead to a tumble. This arrangement is a good way to start getting experience catching falls, and always my recommendation for people just joining the spotting game.
Dynamic, the second group, is less of an arrangement due to its free form and changing nature. One person should not try to use this technique alone unless they are very familiar and capable with spotting. It is a more advanced technique and should be performed as a group with at least one dedicated spotter who does not need to be moving pads. The idea behind a dynamic setup is that coverage where the climber will fall can be made thicker by using all available pads and shifting them beneath the climber as they move. This is needed for many long traverses, where not enough pads are present to make a static setup for the whole route, and for shorter routes if there are very few pads.
Some things to note about this is that it works better for projecting than for flashes and first attempts because it helps to know how the route will climb; I mention this because the dynamic LZ is usually much narrower than the static LZ and thus a harder target to hit if some strange fall arises like is so common on something brand new. Like with the static setup obvious dangers should be noted prior to the burn beginning, and in some cases a particularly dangerous or difficult area to cover should have static coverage. Unlike with the static, the dynamic setup should have ease of movement and a plan for where pads are not yet but will need to be. In this respect not all pads are created equal with qualities to consider including weight, coverage, thickness, and manageability(ease of moving). The Dynamic setup can look sloppy compared to static, but offers flexibility and expansion of the safe LZ by constantly adjusting to the current situation.
Finally I will go over fall response, which will translate into what needs to be done when the climber actually comes off the wall. First knowing the goal of spotting more thoroughly than just 'keeping the climber safe'. The ideal situation is to soften the fall and direct the climber to land on their feet or butt in the LZ. If this is not an option then the goal is to keep as much of the body as possible safe, starting from the head and moving down the body as order of importance. A special note should be added for the tail bone which is also good to avoid for landings because it can be quite jarring. When it comes to where a spotter should be in preparation for a fall some key factors should be noted prior to choosing a position; such as the size ratio for spotter to climber. When a climber falls they usually come down with a force greater than their total weight, so weaker spotters or spotters much lighter than the climber should not count on catching but instead be in a position to guide the climber into the LZ from above their center of gravity to focus on protecting what is important. Another factor to consider is moves that will occur so safety can be provided without disrupting the climb, consider again that dyno. From directly behind the spotter would be more likely to get kicked and not only affect the climb but also reduce their ability to help if a fall also occurs. That being said sometimes spotting comes with kicks or getting elbowed by a climber mid-fall or on the other side of the spectrum some awkward butt grabs and things of the like; that is all part of the job and should not get in the way of keeping someone safe.
A few more major points. When spotting avoid using thumbs, even a small person with the help of gravity can bend them back or even break them. Let the palms do most of the shock absorption, they are sturdy and let the arms and shoulders do most of the work. Also be aware of all parts of the body not just the hands, a catch can take a quick turn for the worse when a climber falls and is guided into the spotter's knee. With the endless options for falls I can not say exactly where a spotter should stand in relation to the climber; I can say though that the spotter must stay ready and attentive adjusting to each new scenario.
This is the briefest overview of a very complex practice, but hopefully people can find some guidance to help boost their spotting skill. As I mentioned, spotting should be treated like a skill same as climbing and not just a byproduct of going bouldering and, effort should be given to its improvement. From someone who takes spotting very seriously I can say that my attentions have helped to push my friends to climb and achieve at their limits because they do not have fear holding them back. And to all my fellows out there who take pride in their spotting as I do; I thank you on behalf of your local bouldering community for making the world a safer place to push their limits.