So much is dependent on context, and this includes considerations of how best to tie in when trad rock climbing. It’s supremely ironic that what was always ‘standard good practice’ in one activity is today very often replaced by ‘standard good practice’ from a different activity. Given the different contexts, the result is that ‘good practice’ is no longer being followed. This makes the activity less safe.
Let me explain.
Old-School Trad Climbing
The age-old sequence used to tie in when trad rock climbing is (usually) along these lines. The leader prepares the rack while, at the same time, the second flakes out the rope. Both partners tie in to their harnesses and the second clips the leader’s rope into the belay device. Then the pair do a ‘buddy check’ and make sure that everything is correct. We always teach this on our learn to lead trad climbing courses.
The leader then climbs the route and sets up a belay at the top. When it is the second’s turn to climb, their harness and tie-in have already been independently checked before the leader left the ground.
Indoor and Sports Climbing
Indoor lead climbing and most sports climbing has an entirely different context. Only one person climbs at a time and the belayer’s role is to stay on the ground. They then swap roles.
In this activity, it makes perfect sense for the leader to tie into their harness but not the belayer. The belayer simply prepares the belay device. The ‘buddy check’ consists of the belayer checking the leader’s harness and tie-in; and the leader checking the belayer’s belay device.
The leader climbs the route and returns to the ground. Then the pair can swap roles. They carry out the same ‘buddy check’ but with the roles reversed between the two climbers.
Trend of Mixing Techniques
It is increasingly common to see climbers at trad climbing venues follow a different procedure from the ‘old-school’ method.
Fairly frequent practice will see a trad leader tie in while the second fits the belay device. The second has not yet tied in. Their end of the rope lies in the pile of flaked–out rope. The ‘buddy check’ is something like the sports climbing ‘buddy check’. The leader’s tie-in and the belayer’s belay device are both independently checked. But, for obvious reasons, not the tie-in of the second.
This has become increasingly common because of the volume of climbers coming to trad climbing via a different pathway to that in the ‘old days’. They have probably learned to lead climb indoors first, then perhaps done some outdoor sports climbing. So, they follow the ‘standard good practice’ that is applicable in those contexts.
Reduced Safety Margin
When the leader has safely belayed at the top of the trad route, they tell the second to start climbing. The first thing the second has to do now is tie in to the rope.
Here is the thing, however. Given the different context, who will check the harness and tie-in of the second before they climb? The answer, sadly, is that most of the time there is no independent ‘buddy check’ of the second.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the second is condemned to instant death when they start climbing. Hopefully they haven’t made a mistake with their knot. But is hopefully good enough?
If you acknowledge the need for a ‘buddy check’ in indoor and sports climbing, and for the leader of a trad climb, then what is the logical argument for not having a ‘buddy check’ on the second in a trad climb?
If you think ‘buddy checks’ are superfluous and don’t incorporate them in your climbing, then fair enough.
However, if you think they are a good thing, and should be part of ‘standard good practice’, then don’t make a simple misunderstanding about the different contexts catch you out.
Good, safe practice when trad climbing is for both partners to tie-in together. Then they do a ‘buddy check’ before the leader steps off the ground.