It's easy: just ask first
In this blog, Sophia Thomas talks about the perils of "beta spraying" and how to help others at the wall in a positive, friendly way
We’ve all been there, flush with success at a recent send. Your limbs fizzing with the hungry pride of matching hands on that distant red-tagged hold. Pacing the mat in a frenzy, spray painting your face with silver and howling “Witness me!” at the roof of the warehouse. Or just a humble round of fist-bumps. Each to their own.
You’re just starting to cool down - heart climbing out of your mouth, toes remembering they hate you - when some unassuming individual wanders up to the foot of your recently conquered nemesis and starts some contemplative chin stroking.
Good choice, you think, but maybe they don’t know what they’re in for.
They shift from foot to foot. Step back and forth from the wall, and their uncertainty has you hooked. You watch perplexed as they unsuccessfully attempt straightforward moves, only to retry more and more elaborate methods.
In horror you reminisce back to when you hadn’t topped this climb - maybe an hour, maybe a month ago, who can say, it feels like a lifetime. You wonder if you can spare this wide-eyed innocent from the ultimate frustration of getting stuck, or worse, walking away a failure.
You stop them as they step up to the wall again, you don’t ask if they want help (why wouldn’t they?) but take them through a hold-by-hold account of how you, pun intended, made the grade. Polite nods abound as you explain how to correctly take each move, but they seem to be less and less interested in what you have proven as the correct way up. You don’t really think about why they might be trying it a different way, all you can think is they’re doing it wrong and you have to tell them.
The climbing world has dubbed this impressively common occurrence as "beta spray": unfiltered and unsought advice that gives no room for the new climber to work out a problem for themselves. And for those that aren’t familiar with the term: beta means the “how” of the climb, the moves that you make. Do you take it as a drop-knee, a dyno, a rock-over, full-crimp or half? “What’s the beta?” essentially means, “How am I getting up this?” Sharing beta is a very normal and positive aspect of climbing, but taking any moment of puzzlement as an invitation to release a hefty monologue of unfiltered information can easily miss the mark.
How help can hinder
It may seem illogical to think that offering someone help could ever be taken badly, but the first step is realising that tact is definitely a thing. If you’re going to help carry someone’s shopping, you don’t just pull it from their hand, you ask first. If that hypothetical person says no to your assistance, you don’t then hang around to see if they end up dropping the bag to satisfy your pride. So before you rush in and tell someone that the climb’s too strong for them, their technique is weird, and that they haven’t read any of it right, take a moment to work out if what you’re saying isn’t really about helping them, but more a desire to prove what you can do - and then make sure that they actually want the help.
Just ask first
The rule on how to get all this right, as with so many things in life, is pretty simple: just ask first. Often, people will be really keen to take any tips you've got going, whether they work for them or not. However, for many, half the joy of climbing is working out the moves for themselves, and jumping in with advice without asking takes that all away.
Beta spraying is always a gamble. At best you help someone who really wants it, assisting them in their imminent victory. At worst you make them feel embarrassed that they looked so hopeless you had to intervene, or frustrated that they never got to try and work it out solo.
Different strokes for different folks
Beyond the risk of potentially sticking your nose where it isn’t wanted, there’s no guarantee that any part of your beta masterpiece will actually suit them. The maddening beauty of climbing is that it shows - in the most obsessive detail - that every body is different. Routes require different moves - often more moves - depending on size, strength, and flexibility. Someone who can get their foot to shoulder is going to go about things very differently to someone who’s never heard of hip-rotation. Likewise, a few inches difference in height can easily lead to being boxed in or spanned out: positions that require a lot of imagination and strength to overcome. A side-pull isn’t “just a side-pull” when your entire body is too far below the hold to create any leverage. Be aware that your own method might not be accessible for their body type - there's almost never a "correct" way to climb, just the best way for your own body shape and individual strengths.
Awareness of this difference can take time, and only becomes a lived experience when you try the same moves with a variety of people of a variety of shapes. It is lovely to work out a climb with another person, but just bear in mind that if your technique doesn’t apply and you can’t let it go, a great moment of mutual learning can turn into something that leaves one side feeling deflated or annoyed.
Likewise, if you’ve been asking for help don’t get put off when you can’t recreate their suggestion. For one thing, with specific moves like dynos (big ‘ol jumps) repeating the move over and over builds the muscle-memory required. But if muscle memory isn’t the problem, and you seem to be the same height, less obvious differences - like leg vs. torso length, ape index, and muscle length - are still going to affect how your body moves in space. If you’re stumped then watch a few more climbers work the problem, you’ll eventually see someone who changes it up and gives you new ideas. Most importantly, never be afraid to take the time to test out different moves yourself. Not suiting someone else's beta doesn’t always mean you’re not strong enough to do it. The more you climb, the more you’ll understand your own uniquely nuanced way of moving.
Never underestimate the importance of falling
Ability and physique aren’t the only reason for alternative beta. There's a game to make familiar routes harder by skipping out any number of holds just to see if you can, which creates an “eliminate” route. I’m not kidding, climbers are just weird like that. It might sound (and look) absurd to make things purposefully harder when there’s already a generous set of holds on the wall, but it demonstrates another reason to question that urge to beta spray: when we don’t challenge ourselves, improvement falters.
Both route-reading abilities and our grasp of movement can’t progress if you only ever see climbs through the experience of another. Being shut down is an unavoidable part of learning new things, and trying to avoid ever faltering can catch you prioritising success and fearing failure, but the way we navigate failure is how we improve. There should be no shame in taking more attempts to top a climb.
Maybe it’s something that’s grown with the more commercial Competition Climbing, where you get full marks for a Flash (which means topping it on the first attempt), and then the points reduce with each failed attempt. Despite knowing that most of us aren’t heading to the Climbing World Cup any time soon, it can be hard to overcome that feeling of vulnerability the longer you hang out under a climb that others are topping with ease. It can take a lot of courage to stick around your project as more and more people pass through, and while it might make sense to give a stuck person beta, you could easily leave them feeling scrutinised, pressured, and embarrassed to fall from the climbs that challenge them.
But what if I do want help?
If you are stuck yourself and do want some help from others - you're in luck! Climbers love to share their ideas when you ask them, so don't be afraid to ask anyone that looks like they might have some answers. Asking for beta can be a great way to start connections and progress your climbing - it's just the unasked-for "beta spray" in the opposite direction that can be an issue.
In an unsurprising turn of events there’s no clear rule to tell you when someone does or doesn’t want advice, likes it solo or in a team, but making new connections means someone has to take the first step. Climbing walls are easily one of the best places to meet new people. Sharing a mutual interest gives you a natural reason to chat, easing a lot of the social awkwardness that can hold us back. It’s actually harder not to cheer a random person up the wall, or share in their obvious glee when they smash past a recent stumbling block.
So, unless you’re psychic the only thing you can do is ask if they’re interested in a different way of doing things, not take it personally if they say no, and maybe tactfully give them space to work it out in private. Once you’ve climbed you know from experience that you’re not always craving a shortcut to the top or a fresh set of eyes, sometimes the epic silent saga taking place between you and the boulder can and should only be resolved by yours truly. There’s no shame in either outcome, it’s all just climbing.
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