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The Etiquette of Giving Beta: Who’s Climbing Anyways?

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

During our seemingly eternal Winnipeg winters, us climbers have been for the most part hunkering indoors training for the climbing season. The gyms are filling up with more and more climbers resulting inevitably in larger viewing audiences as you try sticking that bouldering problem or roped route project. As the crowds grow, so does the chance of losing your train of thought with a horrid little four letter word: beta. More specifically, unwanted beta.

Beta, for the uninitiated, is a climbing term referring to information about a particular climb. In the indoor world of climbing, beta mainly involves information and advice on foot and hand placement.

For many climbers, the art of climbing is a zen experience, one that involves problem solving and being caught up in the moment of doing that one move – that one move that you might have been working on for weeks now – that one move that you have done over and over again to train muscle memory, or have been using to figure out a different way of doing a specific problem, since the way everyone else has been doing it just hasn’t worked for you. Executing that move has become that precious, blissful moment, when the outside world is lost to you. Nothing can ruin that more than some hapless passerby yelling up “right foot on that little jib there!”

“Hey Mommy don’t make me climb up there and show you how it’s done!”

Now I’m not pointing fingers at everyone I climb with.  I myself have given plenty of unwanted beta – I think we are all guilty of this at one time or another. Beta can be an indispensable tool- when in the right hands, used for good, not evil. There are plenty of times I have welcomed and even asked for advice when I’m stuck on a route. The key comes down to timing: getting beta when you ask for it.

For me – and this is just my perspective (others may disagree), as a climber hearing unsolicited beta aimed at me extends to a larger problem of the ego, of being pulled out of my zen moment and becoming aware of who is watching and who else has done the route. We give beta even unintentionally and without words every time, after seeing someone struggling on a route, we then silently walk over and complete the route in front of them, and just as quietly strut away to another route. What we are doing is internally fluffing our feathers, showing off our brilliant plumage. Why not do that route once they are gone? Why do we feel we have to inflate our fragile egos right at that moment? “Look, I can do it. This is how it’s done!” Fluff fluff, preen preen.

When you get a beta-giver watching your every move, you become disassociated from the climb. You start to feel like a puppet, with limbs moving on command, unattached from your mind. You don’t feel like it is you climbing anymore. Your body has been highjacked. For me, the mental part of the climb is one of the most important components of climbing, the ability to zone in and work on a problem allows me my “alone” time; my time to shut out the outside world for a brief moment.

Once when watching some newbie climbers at the gym, a late climbing friend of mine commented to me, “Some people just don’t GET it.” I don’t think I understood what he meant at the time, but over the years, as these words have rolled in my head every time I think of him and how much he has meant to the climbing world, I now understand. Climbing is so personal. It is not about beating the next guy. It is not about getting to the top the fastest. It is not about what you can do better or worse than your friends. It’s about a personal journey. It’s about being humble, being persistent, and pushing your own limits. On your own, without unwanted beta.

So next time you’re at the gym and hijack a route from some poor struggler, or give some unwanted advice to someone clearly in the zone, think twice. Who is really doing the climbing? How personal is YOUR journey?

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