Don’t Just Stand There— Spot!


Spot­ting is an art. Just ask avid boul­der­ers Keenan Taka­hashi and Eric Bis­sell, with whom I chat­ted about the fun­da­men­tals of spot­ting and the nu­ances that sep­a­rate great spot­ters from the merely OK. Both have years of ex­pe­ri­ence putting up prob­lems. Taka­hashi has no­table high­ball first as­cents to his name, in­clud­ing Hoku­sai’s Wave (V12) in Roy, New Mex­ico, and

Ter­mi­nus (V12) in Bishop. Bis­sell also has also es­tab­lished many dou­ble-digit prob­lems, in­clud­ing

Ko­dama (V11) in Squamish and The Bal­le­rina (V11) in Yosemite. These im­pres­sive as­cents come with a sup­port­ive part­ner­ship that re­in­forces the clas­sic quote by John Sher­man: “Spot­ting is not a chore; it’s a sa­cred trust.” BUILD YOUR FOUN­DA­TION If you’re go­ing to spot prop­erly, be pre­pared for your climber to fall, hard, prac­ti­cally on top of you. “Re­mem­ber the whole ‘ trust fall’ thing you do when grow­ing up? A half-assed spot is kind of like that, ex- cept the per­son just to­tally bails on you. Lame,” says Taka­hashi. “It gives you the false im­pres­sion that you’re safe, and then you’re sud­denly flat on your back with the wind knocked out of you.” You need to

try, which means be­ing un­fail­ingly at­ten­tive. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Be­fore the climber steps off the ground, dis­cuss pad move­ments and prob­lem ar­eas to make both spot­ter and climber more com­fort­able. As a spot­ter, ask about po­ten­tial cruxes and try to pre­dict where your climber may fall. Also, spot­ters are there for mo­ral sup­port, and of­ten hav­ing a group of peo­ple yelling en­cour­age­ment will help you hang on longer. Pad place­ment and ad­just­ment One of a spot­ter’s big­gest jobs is help­ing set up the pads cor­rectly and re­ar­rang­ing them be­tween at­tempts, to help avoid those all-too-com­mon but also eas­ily pre­ventable an­kle and lower-leg in­juries that of­ten oc­cur from boul­der­ers land­ing in the “cor­rect” zone but on an un­even sur­face or gap in the pads.

Since pads shift af­ter ev­ery fall, both spot­ter and climber should di­a­logue to en­sure the pads are in the right spot, and ad­just if need be. Prob­lem-solve on the fly Es­pe­cially on tra­verses or high­balls, the spot­ter should shuf­fle the pads to en­sure op­ti­mal place­ment, as well as be flex­i­ble about where he stands. Com­mu­ni­cate with your climber as you re­ar­range the pads, so she’s aware and you don’t end up in the land­ing zone. Bis­sell of­fers a few tips:

Keep your scene clean— when you’re shuf­fling pads, have the rest of your kit ( back­packs, lunch, shoes, etc.) tidy and out of the way to avoid get­ting the pads stuck on ob­jects.

Grab pads by the cor­ners to drag them— make sure straps are tight­ened down or tucked away, as they of­ten get stuck on roots and rocks.

Avoid throw­ing pads hap­haz­ardly while the climber is climb­ing—vi­su­al­ize or even prac­tice mov­ing the pads be­fore she starts up. Sim­i­larly, pay at­ten­tion to which pads can stay “fixed”—e. g., a small pad at the start­ing moves—and which will be “mo­bile.”

RE­FINE YOUR SPOT Body po­si­tion

The stan­dard body po­si­tion is an off­set stance, with one foot in front of the other and slightly bent knees (aka an “ath­letic stance”). This stance helps ab­sorb shock, as the climber’s mo­men­tum will push you back­ward, let­ting your knees take the load. Also, make sure you know what’s be­hind you (e.g., rocks, stumps) so you can main­tain sta­ble foot­ing.

Forks vs. spoons

In terms of hands, it’s best to keep your thumbs in—spoons, not forks. This way, your dig­its won’t get snapped back when your climber crashes down. Also, keep your arms slightly bent, in a sub­tle hug-like con­fig­u­ra­tion, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of catch­ing a fall. You’ll of­ten grab the boul­derer around his cen­ter of grav­ity (hips or slightly above) and guide him to the ground, keep­ing his head, neck, and spine pro­tected and up­right.


Now that we’ve cov­ered the fun­da­men­tals, here are some ad­vanced, sit­u­a­tion-based tech­niques:

The fall­ing gi­ant

What do you do if the climber is larger than you? Says Taka­hashi, “The best way to slow some­one big­ger than you or tak­ing a big fall is to dou­ble-palm their butt.” It’s bet­ter to get over the so­cial dis­com­fort of this hands-on spot than blow it and cause your climber to get hurt.

The pixie catch

If the climber is smaller than you, then catch the climber’s waist as she comes off to slow her down and place her gen­tly on the pads. This tech­nique takes prac­tice, as well as fa­mil­iar­ity with the fall tra­jec­tory.

The tackle

In some in­stances, you may be try­ing to direct your climber away from boul­ders or other ob­jects on the ground. Here, you can try to push the climber for­ward or even side­ways onto the pads. Again, go for the buttshove and the waist to slow the fall af­ter you have redi­rected the climber to­ward the pads.

The cave catch

With over­hang­ing prob­lems, the climber can come off in unan­tic­i­pated ways. Pro­vid­ing a good spot means hav­ing your hands un­der the armpits, rather than near the hips. Spot­ting the climber above the cen­ter of grav­ity helps him land on his feet or legs, rather than tip­ping back­ward. Get un­der­neath the climber, even if that means crouch­ing un­com­fort­ably, to pro­vide an ad­e­quate spot.

The group catch

When there are mul­ti­ple spot­ters, it’s im­por­tant to com­mu­ni­cate and make sure ev­ery­one is aware of their role. “In big groups and with lots of pads, as is of­ten the case with high­balls, it can help for some­one to step up and take a lead­er­ship role. If I’m work­ing on a tall prob­lem, I’ll take the lead on mak­ing sure the pads are set up how I want them,” Bis­sell ex­plains. With one per­son co­or­di­nat­ing, the other spot­ters can work to cover dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the land­ing zone. And with par­tic­u­larly poor land­ing zones, some­times the spot­ter needs a spot­ter, to make sure he has sta­ble foot­ing and can pro­vide a good catch.


Ac­cord­ing to Bis­sell, with these big prob­lems—typ­i­cally 15 feet and higher—the spot­ter must “be pre­pared to ab­sorb a sub­stan­tial amount of en­ergy.” You’re not there to catch the fall nec­es­sar­ily, but to dampen it. Above 20 feet, spot­ters can still be use­ful, but their job will now be to fo­cus on pro­vid­ing mo­ral sup­port and pro­tect­ing the climber from se­ri­ous in­jury—es­sen­tially, mak­ing sure the climber lands up­right. Spot­ters are also there to pro­vide a se­condary spot to stop the climber from rolling or bounc­ing off the pads af­ter im­pact. The spot­ter should also make sure she’s far enough back that the climber won’t fall out be­hind her.


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