To spot or not?

Close up image of the ever popular DMM Highball bouldering mat.
© Phil Geng

Almost a year ago the Climbing Wall Industry Association (CWA) released an article about spotting. Bearing in mind this article was aimed at indoor climbing venues I felt compelled to offer another view on this from a combination of personal experience and discourse with other climbers. Firstly I need to make clear that spotting indoors is very different to spotting outdoors and unlike the CWA I aim to address both.

The concept of spotting

Before setting out on this discourse let's take a quick look at the general concept of spotting. Spotting is intended to protect the head, neck and spine during a fall and ensure that the climber lands feet first. Spotting therefore does NOT equal catching a climber. More importantly spotting has to be carried out with 100% concentration on the part of the spotter. It also involves more than just providing physical support in case of a fall. A spotter acts as eyes and ears on the ground and should ensure that the potential landing zone is clear.

Spotting indoors

Spotting indoors causes great debate and the typical scene found at most bouldering walls sums the situation up beautifully. The experienced crowd spot, but only if the problem really necessitates this and usually after a climber specifically asked for a spotter on a move. Less experienced groups and beginners spot regardless or not at all - ever. Really the difference here is the difference between experience and inexperience. Many instructors and centre staff inducting bouldering to new climbers will insist that spotting should be carried out at all times. But does spotting regardless make a difference? Most likely not, as inexperienced spotters are more likely to do harm than good. After all, a novice climber is unlikely to end up in situations where spotting adds any true value.

Spotting is intended to protect the head, neck and spine during a fall and ensure that the climber lands feet first. Spotting therefore does NOT equal catching a climber.

Experienced spotters are aware of the benefits and dangers of spotting. Spotting a high indoor problem can be beneficial, but in many cases the danger of two people (climber and spotter) getting hurt outweighs the benefit of placing the spotter in the potential danger zone. Spotting a climber on a difficult overhang is almost always a good idea, if done well. Roof routes where there is a serious risk of the climber inverting and landing on their head/neck from height are a spotting must. Equally, certain types of moves such as high or sideways dynos and high foot rock-overs or heel hooks can necessitate spotting. But overall it should be a climber's decision whether they would like a spotter or not. After all, a moderately experienced climber tends to know best at which point they would like some reassurance or not.

Spotting outdoors

When bouldering outdoors the need for spotting changes drastically. Most climbers will be fully aware that indoor bouldering involves a large degree of control on the part of the centre. Matting, route setting standards and regular inspections are all designed to reduce the risk of serious injury. Outdoors we largely rely on a small boulder matt and our skills. Spotting outdoors therefore is much more about finding a good landing spot for the climber (usually the matt) and guiding them towards it than protecting the head, neck and spine. Where there is a serious risk of inverting in the outdoors most boulderers will inadvertently reduce the risk by adding more mats or spotters into the mix. On the whole though falling off outdoors is usually more likely due to the instable nature of the rock we climb on.

So when do we spot?

In short - whenever a climber asks for it. In terms of individual situations there are two main categories, bad/dangerous landing zones and potential inversions of the climber. As mentioned, bad landing zones indoors only really occur through carelessness by other climbers. Outdoors the landing zones can range from flat, even and soft grass all the way to boulders and sharp drops nearby. Therefore before any boulder problem the climber and spotter need to assess how best to protect the climber in regards to the landing. This could mean that based on this variable alone there is no reason or need to spot. Especially where crux moves are very low or the route is short this often applies. Usually spotting for the sake of landing in the right area involves guiding the climber and therefore demands good spatial awareness on the spotter's part.

Where the route style or problem could cause a full or partial inversion of the climber the main aim is to prevent this before it occurs. Once a climber is falling inverted a spotter is almost useless due to the simple distribution of weight in the body and the forces involved in a fall. So by using a proactive approach and being able to stop the inversion early using the climber's momentum and centre of gravity a spotter can seriously pull their weight.

But can we feasibly do both, stop an inversion and guide the climbers landing? As with climbing itself or indeed any other skill, spotting requires practise, thought and experience. A highly experienced spotter can most likely protect a highly experienced climber (and therefore faller) from a dangerous landing and inversion. Less experienced spotters should be able to handle at least one of these dangers while novices are likely out of their comfort zone very quickly.

To sum it up, spotting is not just "something climbers just do" but instead a skill as important and difficult to truly master as belaying. Understanding the basics is easy and most climbers can pick them up quickly. But consider this, we all know belayers who we know keep us safe on the rope but could still improve on their skills. While we also usually know that one belayer who not only keeps us safe but enables us to push ourselves and allows us to focus solely on the climb. The same is true for spotters and after bouldering for a while and pushing our grade we usually build the same relationship to our spotters.

This article is based on my personal opinion and experience after 16 years of climbing. Like belaying, spotting is a skill that has to be learned and perfected. The decision whether to spot or not is one between a climber and potential spotters and only experience will enable this decision to be made effectively. Under no circumstances can a blog article substitute experience or professional instruction and the latter should be sought by anyone unsure about the ins and outs of spotting or climbing in general.

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