Being On The Dull EndA Belayer's Perspective on a Free Climb of El Capitan
By Calvin Landrus, National Director of Solid Rock - Climbers for Christ
Stretching too far to clip a piece ended his first attempt on the 5.12b stemming corner, 2500 feet off the deck. As he pulled the rope and re-tied into the sharp end, success this time would be crucial for a free ascent of Freerider (VI, 5.12d). What began as a casual comment, “Hey, why don’t you let me belay you up a free route on El Cap,” was happening before me.
As a veteran of over twenty-five seasons of climbing and several big walls, I know the exhilaration and reward of being on the sharp end of a rope, in leading a pitch. Why would I trade that for being a belay slave? What could I gain by being on dull end of the rope?
With masterful climbing, Doug Englekirk - follower of Christ, husband, father, builder, and Solid Rocker - finished his first free climb up El Cap. During the four days of watching him climb hard face, steep cracks and strenuous off-widths (speaking of which – I’m to remind Doug not to do these again when the painful memories of inching his way up these seven-inch wide horror features subside), inspiration was flowing into me. I was willing to attempt to free climb way above my previous big-wall standards. I weighted the rope rarely on the 5.10s and was grateful to be on top rope for the 5.11s. Although “take” rang out more than I wanted, it was great pushing myself high on a wall.
If going down the learning curve of climbing has been like mine, you probably found yourself with partners of equal experience and ability. Often, it feels like the blind leading the blind. The privilege of climbing with Doug, who is bigger, better and faster in free and big-wall climbing, was overwhelming. The ease with which we fired off twenty-two pitches in two days, including hauling a sixty-pound bucket, still amazes me. His tips for moving fast and managing belays will add value to my climbing in the future.
Without question, I benefited from being on this ascent. However, my greatest personal gain was serving Doug. As a Christian, I desire to live the teachings of Christ. When the disciples of Christ were trying to jockey into positions of power, He rebuked them with these words, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Servant-hood is the key to great accomplishment.
What does being on the dull end accomplish? Being a servant is often downright boring. As a belay slave (most climbers have found themselves in this role at least once), you know the feeling, “Come on, get to the top of the pitch, so I can get on with my agenda.” It’s easy to downplay the significance of belaying. Although holding the rope is not glamorous, good belaying is critical to the success of the lead-climber. If a climber doesn’t have full confidence in the belayer, his or her odds of succeeding on a pitch are greatly reduced.
While on-sighting Outer Limits (5.10a, Cookie Cliff, Yosemite) many years ago, I remember very well my belayer. Bob’s confidence in me, his attention to his role as belayer and his constant encouraging words were a large part of the reason I succeeded.
The dull end accomplishes even more! Often we forget the basic goal of a belayer is to keep his partner alive. Double-checking the lead climber’s knot and harness are acts of service. Maintaining attention in the moment is a life-saving strategy. Being a great belay slave protected Doug’s life.
In a sense, Jesus Christ is the ultimate belay slave. After correcting his disciples, Jesus said that he did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28) Jesus Christ took the position of a servant so that he could provide a life-saving strategy for all. The Bible explains it this way, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
His servant-hood led to his death so our sins could be forgiven. Jesus tied into the sharp end of the rope for us and led the pitch no man could ever climb or even belay. Reconciliation between God and man comes only through Jesus Christ. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) In a paradoxical way, Jesus on the dull end provided the way for you to be tied into God!
As a climber, I’m constantly striving to go up to the next level. Getting older and lack of recreational time may prevent me from climbing at a higher level. But living as a servant, being on the dull end, will continue to accomplish much. My wife, children, friends and those I work for will be raised-up by my servant-hood. And as I serve climbers, who I love dearly, many will have an opportunity to have a relationship with God!
Learn how to be tied into God!
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