There’s no need to shout: using walkie-talkies when rock climbing

Clear communication between climbers is a vital part of climbing safely.  When two climbers are far apart, out of sight of each other or the wind is strong, then shouting is the usual way to communicate climbing commands and it usually works.  However, for those occasions when it doesn’t, I would recommend having walkie-talkies to hand.

Rock climbing with a walkie-talkie – climbing Colonel’s Arete (VD**) at The Dewerstone, Devon.

Why use walkie-talkies?

Safe climbing depends on climbers being able to accurately communicate information and instructions between each other.  The system of climbing commands is designed to ensure there are no misunderstandings between climbers about what exactly is going on and what they should be doing next.  However, it obviously depends on those commands being clearly heard.  It’s quite easy to come up with things that could go wrong if a shout is misunderstood or a climber makes assumptions when they cannot hear their partner.For example, a climber could be taken off belay when they are far from being safe or start climbing when they are not on belay.

Although it doesn’t happen very often, I have had more occasions than I would like where I just cannot clearly hear what my climbing partner is saying and they cannot hear me.  Sometimes this has been because a route has gone around corners and over lumps of rock.  Sometimes it has simply been because of the distance between my climbing partner and me.  Wind whistling around a crag or mountain is often a problem.  These issues are perhaps more likely to come up on a multi-pitch route and so communication on such routes can be more challenging.  However, communication on a single pitch route can still be difficult if the wind is high enough.  I’ve shouted myself hoarse at (mostly) single pitch venues like Stannage and Holyhead Mountain trying to tell my second that I’m safe.

One tactic that climbers sometimes use to overcome these sorts of problems is to agree before they start a climb a system of pulls on the rope to communicate particular climbing commands.  Three hard pulls on the rope to signal safe, for instance.  However, I have had mixed success with using this method.  With even a bit of rope drag, I’ve found it hard to tell whether the pulls I am feeling on the rope are a signal that my partner is safe or attempts to pull through enough slack to clip a runner.  These are two things I do not want to get confused.  One time I was so perplexed trying to understand the various twinges I was feeling in the rope, that I resorted to getting some climbers on a route running parallel to the one I was on to relay climbing commands between my climbing partner and me.

Fundamentally, I don’t want to trust my life and the life of my climbing partner to a communication that is not fully reliable. To cut down the risk of communication problems in future, my soon-to-be in-laws kindly gave me a pair of walkie-talkies for my birthday.

Walkie-talkies on the rock

I’ve used walkie-talkies on a few rock climbing trips now and I am a convert.  There is no need to shout anymore and I can quickly, clearly and easily communicate with my climbing partner.  This not only makes communicating climbing commands easier, it somehow makes the rock climbing more of a partnership.  As it is so easy to communicate, my partner and I can talk to each other as we climb, offering tips, encouragement and warnings about such things as loose rock.  With these benefits, I wonder why it is so rare to see climbers in the UK using walkie-talkies.

I think that there are probably three arguments that might be levelled against using walkie-talkies.  The first is that they are extra weight and that keeping weight down is safer because it saves energy and allows a climber to move quicker.  The model of walkie-talkie I use weigh 149g, which is a little under the weight of four lightweight, snap-link carabiners.  This isn’t particularly heavy, but the particularly weight conscious may disagree.

The second argument is that walkie-talkies could get in the way a bit.  I agree that working out how to carry a walkie-talkie so that it doesn’t catch on anything, while being readily to hand, takes a bit of thought.  I also admit that I have momentarily snagged the aerial with a sling as I’ve taken the sling off my shoulder.  However, I think these are just minor inconveniences.

The third argument is the one made against taking any electronic device up in the mountains – that the batteries might run flat at a vital moment.  This could happen, but not if you are careful.  I’ve used walkie-talkies on climbing weekends without recharging or changing the batteries and without the power indicator even dropping by one bar.  If you are going for a week of climbing in the wilderness, you should probably take some spare batteries.  However, for a weekend of climbing it is not an issue as long as you remember to turn them off when you have finished using them.

I think the advantages of carrying a walkie-talkie in terms of improved convenience and safety far outweigh any disadvantages.

The walkie-talkies I use

I am afraid that I have only ever used one model of walkie-talkie when rock climbing and so cannot provide a comparative test of different models.  However, I think it is worthwhile noting some of the features available on the model I used as a means of highlighting things to look for if buying walkie-talkies for rock climbing.

I own a pair of Motorala TLKR T6 walkie-talkies.  These don’t require any licence to use in the UK.  They have a stated range of 8km, but any terrain that gets in the way of the signal limits the range of any walkie-talkie.  However, range is unlikely to be an issue on a rock climb when you are unlikely to be more than a rope length apart.  So far, I’ve had no issues with reception, interference or clarity while using these models on a rock climb.

The T6 comes with rechargeable batteries but can take four AAA batteries if need be.  These batteries can be recharged by slotting the handsets into a twin recharging dock or by removing the battery packs from the handsets to charge them directly in the dock (see photo).  This enables you to use the handsets with standard batteries while the rechargeable batteries are recharging.

Motorola TLKR T6 walkie-talkies and charging dock.

It’s important for you to look for a walkie-talkie that is easy to use and has the functions you need.  When belaying on a small ledge or hanging off a rock face, you do not want to start pressing multiple buttons and not be able to see the screen.

After a little bit of time getting familiar with the range of options, the T6 is easy to use.  The LED display is backlit and clear and reminds me a bit of old mobile phone screens.  Options can be scrolled through using a small selection of buttons and there are quite a few different functions to choose from.

There are 8 channels to select and 121 codes (basically sub-channels) under that.  This meant that the one time that I did start picking up someone else’s walkie-talkie conversation, there were lots of other frequencies to switch to.  Interestingly, the T6 has a scan monitor function that enables it to scan frequencies to find ones that are in use and then choose to select that frequency.  In an area with no mobile phone reception, this might be a useful way of getting in touch with another party in an emergency.

A voice activation option means you could start talking to your partner without having to take yours hands off the rock.  I haven’t used this yet, but it seems like it might be valuable on harder routes.  I was a little disappointed that the T6 makes a noise to signal that someone has finished talking as I was quite looking forward to saying “over”, but it is actually a useful feature.

When buying walkie-talkies for rock climbing you should look out for what option the handsets have for being carried.  The T6 come with belt clips that can be used to attach them to a bandolier, harness or sling.  However, these are not sufficiently secure to prevent a knock dislodging the T6 and I have used a bit of cord and a mini-carabiner as a backup.  Ideally, there would be a model of walkie-talkie that could be attached to a carabiner and then clipped to a harness, but I haven’t seen one.

As any walkie-talkie you climb with is likely to take the odd knock against the rock face and be pushed in with climbing gear in your bag, it’s important to make sure it is robust.  The T6 has stood up well so far.  However, it’s also worth noting that the T6 is not waterproof.  This isn’t necessarily an issue because I try to avoid climbing in the rain, but it’s worth thinking about whether you are likely to be using a walkie-talkie in rain or snow.  If you are, then there are more expensive models, which are designed for work rather than leisure, which are more weather resistant.I like the T6 and I like using walkie-talkies when I rock climb.  It’s easier and safer and I would certainly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “There’s no need to shout: using walkie-talkies when rock climbing

  • FWIW, someone recently pointed out on UKC the system which is in use in a lot of the rest of the world and which requires no communication whatsoever, vis, always keep your partner on a tight rope or on belay at all times. Thus:
    Start off as usual, leader leads, second belays.
    Leader gets to belay stance, builds belay, makes self safe.
    Before taking any rope in, leader puts second on belay, then starts pulling the rope through.
    Second continues paying rope out through their belay plate until they run out of slack.
    Second takes rope off belay and starts climbing.
    About the worst case scenario here is that the leader misses the belay, runs out the full rope length and you end up simulclimbing – but if the leader misses the belay and runs out of rope then you’re a bit stuck whatever your system. Otherwise the only cost is that you have to pull the rope through the belay plates – which isn’t much of a cost on the sort of long pitch where you’re liable to lose communication.

    Walkie talkies are easier if you’ve got them, though…

  • Thanks Dave. That’s a really useful suggestion – a good, simple way of dealing with many of the issues arising from not being able to communicate at the end of a pitch. I’ll admit its not something I had heard of before and I’ll keep it in mind as a backup.

    All the best,

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