Climbing with Hearing Loss

Christina Cox 

Climbing with hearing loss should not be a deterrent or a safety hazard. These tips are not only for those with hearing loss. Often times,hearing people find themselves in hard-to-hear situations in the mountains.

The most important consideration in regards to communication is to keep things simple and maintain eye contact. Establish visual contact whenever possible and avoid situations (if possible) where visual contact is limited. The tips in this guide are designed to minimize frustrations, which are a safety hazard.

"As long as team members communicate climbing strategies in depth beforehand, use signs when in eyesight, or another method (such as radios or rope tugging) when out of eye and ear site, they do well together. The key is knowing our partners and being receptive to each other, whatever the method." -Erin McLaughlin, deaf climber

Tips,Techniques, and Tricks:

  1. Communicate with ALL of the trip members PRIOR to the trip the degree of your hearing loss and what to expect in terms of your hearing range in various types of situations.
  2. For alpine situations with hearing aids:  Wear your old hearing aids on the mountain. Wrap your good ones in a Smartwool beanie (or something similar) for warmth and store them inside a dry bag if you must bring them up with you on summit day. If you don't have spare hearing aids, consider taking your hearing aids out at tree line if you don't luck out with "good"weather so you will have functioning hearing aids when you descend. You should already have pre-determined hand/body signals for communication before hand.
  3. Determine communication plans with your team before you starting the event the hearing aids freeze, battery dies,  or if you can't hear. Hand signals, body signals,  whatever works for you and your team. I rely on American Sign Language
  4. Body language is  useful and very effective (i.e. nodding one's head up and down to indicate all was good or understood, thumbs up, thumbs down, pointing at me, pointing at someone and other basic infantry signals)
  5. Use your visual sense to compensate for your hearing loss by being extra diligent of your environment. Know the route, alternatives and potential obstacles. Mind your surroundings, individually and collectively. Study a map and know how to use it.
  6. Communicate with your team BEFORE the trip to be diligent on eye contact with you!
  7. Make sure you know what's happening with the route before starting. Get the complicated instructions out of the way while you are in a safe environment where you can communicate well.
  8. When roping up with new rope teams, be in the middle to get a general sense of communication dynamics.
  9. If hearing a little bit is an option, one-worded verbal communication is the most effective regardless whether it was between your selfand a person  or one of the others in the groups communicating a climbing command to another person.
  10. One word communication is easier to understand on radios, if using them.
  11. It's fair, polite, and safe for you to be included in all communications, whether it be one word commands or visual commands, between either yourself and a team member or other communications not involving you.Insist on this BEFORE the trip to prevent frustrations. Remember, frustration is a safety hazard.
  12. Ask that your group be specific and clear with whom you/they are communicating with.  Request that team members say or sign your name first to be sure he/she is talking to you and not anyone else. This is especially important if you are busy with a task at hand.
  13. Pick rope team members who are patient and understanding!
  14. Not to be relied on due to erratic cell coverage, but sometimes when rock climbing it is possible to use text messaging belay commands. (Not recommended, but this has been done before in the Gunks).
  15. If you wear hearing aids, be mindful of alpine critters that may be attracted to the scent of ear wax on on hearing aid ear molds. My hearing aids have been stolen by a curious chipmunk.  
  16. If you do wear behind-the-ear hearing aids, consider buying "Ear Gear' protection: 

Simple hand signals for belay commands

Jason and I came up with simple signs for certain terms (such as take or slack) that can be seen from a distance by the belayer while the climber only has to use one hand.  The "take" sign resembles that of pulling down your fist (as truck drivers usually do when they sound their horns).  We initially had a sign for "slack" which resembled jazz hands (five fingers out and shaking the hand) from the climber's hip area, but eventually ended up using a different sign which is pointing the finger down and moving it in a circling motion (as in circling the rope- "give me slack").  - Erin McLaughlin, deaf climber

When the leader is on much higher ground in an alpine situation:

"The times when verbal communication was least reliable were situations when whomever was leading was on much higher ground. Wind and continuous falling snow obviously made things a little more challenging. Paul(a guide in the White Mountains) stressed his general preference (through his experience) to advance up the slope and place the next anchor strategically where he would still be able to have visual contact with the rest of the climbing team."   -Christopher Cabacar, hard of hearing climber

Climbing Multi-Pitch Rock using Rope Tug Commands (no digital communication devices)

This is how one team does it in a situation where the leader cannot hear or see the second: -Jason Zodda

"Naturally, before we tie in, I talk to my second and discuss where the next anchor is, talk about places where the rope may snag, where to use extra long runners, if we will simul-climb, and etc. After that, the first thing I do is tie in on one end of the rope and have my second tie in at the other end of the rope (we are now attached end-to-end). After we check each other, I climb to the anchor. I then make an anchor and secure myself to the anchor (I am off belay at this point but do not need to tell my partner--he/she is still keeping me on belay). If my partner can hear me, then she/he can take me off belay, but this is not necessary, there is nothing wrong with my partner keeping me on belay. Next, I pull up all the slack. When I run out of slack, I put my second on belay. Only then do I do the rope tugs: 3 or 4 hard tugs (I used to always do three for "on Belay", but now add an extra one just in case the follower didn't feel the first one). When my second feels the tugs, then he/she knows that he/she is on belay and can start climbing. I continually take up slack asthe second climbs until he/she reaches the anchor. In this system, there is only one communication, from the leader to the follower and it simply informs the follower that he/she is on belay. The second never has to tug the rope(although I know some systems do incorporate such a communication). The tugs only happen after the leader 1) makes an anchor and secures himself to it; 2)pulls up all the slack; and 3) puts the second on belay.

Now there are some dangers to the rope communication method. The most common is if the rope gets stuck. If that happens, then I am tugging on the rope, but the second will not feel it. The best way to avoid this is to make sure you lead well and don't just clip in and place gear willy nilly, ensure that you are leading smoothly and placing the rope away from rope-eating rock. Another problem is pulling the rope could dislodge a rock, possibly injuring your second. Again, the best way to avoid this is good rope management as you lead (easier said than done, I know)."

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