I originally wrote this piece for the Women's Bouldering Festival blog. Last week, I found myself compelled to re-read it due to a beta spraying experience in my local gym. The subject can get me quite fired up so I find it beneficial to take a step back and consider these situations with a smidgen more sensitivity and compassion.
This is one of the pieces of writing that I am most happy with and it was almost entirely down to the incredible editing wisdom of Natalia, who manages the blog for the Women's Climbing Festival. She enabled me to take what was originally an angry rant with very little useful to say and turn it into something more coherent and level-headed with a reasonable point to make. She also gave it the excellent title that I'm using for this post.
Whether you've read this article before or this is your first time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on beta spraying or unsolicited advice in general. Feel free to drop a comment below.
To Spray or Not to Spray? That is the Question.
Beta spraying is when one climber tells another how to climb something when they weren’t asked to. It may sound pretty innocuous, but I think it’s worth exploring why the issue might be more complicated than it initially seems.
Personally, the subject of beta spraying provokes an internal tug of war between my desire to be friendly and compassionate and my tendency towards introversion. My wish to help people and share the joy of climbing and my yearning to be left alone. My jolly Doctor Jekyll and hostile Ms Hyde.
The introvert in me considers giving people unsolicited advice to be bad manners. Door-to-door salespeople who ring my doorbell when I’m hungover and couldn’t care less about the state of my double-glazing. Judgmental dog owners who think my sighthound is too skinny. People who corner me in the street to enquire whether I’ve found Jesus yet. My charitable side tells me that these people are just doing their job or expressing concern for the well-being of me and my dog. My reclusive side argues that, regardless of their intent, these unwanted invasions of my life are simply rude.
More specific to climbing, unsolicited advice ruins a fun part of what, for me, makes it an enjoyable sport. Solving the puzzle. Particularly with my personal favourite, bouldering, the challenge isn’t just physical but also a matter of mental dexterity. Every boulder is a problem to be solved and the solution might not be immediately obvious. Maybe a sneaky toe hook around a corner is required. Maybe using the features of the wall as well as the holds will unlock the sequence. Maybe it works better facing out (this is seldom the case, but I live in hope). I get a great sense of pride from figuring out that a tiny tweak of body position or a slightly different sequence transforms the impossible into the achievable. I find the moment the puzzle is solved just as satisfying as the moment my hands land on the top hold. If someone gives away the answer to the riddle at the crucial moment, it sucks the joy out of the whole endeavour.
Hiding from beta sprayers in a cave in Albarracín, Spain
As a lifelong introvert, I have a strong desire for privacy, which feels disrespected when beta is sprayed in my direction. There are many reasons why people may use different beta. Some are more obvious, like height difference. My husband is four inches taller than me and this relatively small difference can mean we use totally different beta on the same boulder. Other reasons are less obvious and sometimes more personal in nature like, injury history, difficult experiences or deep fears. My biggest fear is trusting my feet on volumes. In the crucial moment of putting weight through my feet, my brain decides to play a vivid montage of all the ways I could slide off the volume and break my teeth. To the casual observer, it may look like I don’t know what to do when I’m clinging to the handholds, looking for literally anywhere else to put my feet. It’s at times like these that I need my privacy. Time to sit alone on the mat, take some deep breaths and tell myself that I am capable of topping this boulder. Experience has taught me that I’m the only one that can change the montage in my brain and the advice of others makes precious little difference.
My desire for privacy also kicks in hard when I’m training and getting to the top of a boulder isn’t my only goal. I often climb boulders multiple times using different methods to work my weaknesses and test my creativity. Or I cut loose between every move to work on my core strength and avoid doing crunches, which I find far less fun. Or I’ll try to touch every hold with a foot before I use it as a handhold. I’m not sure what this is training, I just find it fun. It may look ridiculous but there’s generally logic in my lunacy. It’s safe to say these training efforts rarely benefit from the unwanted wisdom of a stranger.
Finding my own beta
On one occasion, I was listening to some motivational heavy metal and training my endurance by attempting to climb every V0 - V2 in the gym without getting off the wall. As I traversed between boulders and sweated profusely, someone wandered over and asked if I knew I wasn’t following a specific route. I wasn’t in the mood or cardiovascular position to explain what I was doing. Once again the gentler part of my nature quietly reminded me that I could use this incident as a learning opportunity. I could talk to this person about training techniques and maybe pick up ideas for more unusual games. But my solitary side didn’t see why I should explain myself to this person. I just wanted to stay focused on climbing and getting more oxygen into my lungs.
I’ve found beta spraying particularly unhelpful when it’s delivered by people who, in my head, look like “real” climbers. I’m talking about burly men with their nipples out, who open the interaction with “just do this” before casually floating up the project that’s taken me weeks to make progress on. Because, well, you know, the patriarchy. As a cis-gender white woman I certainly do not speak for all womankind. But in my experience, these interactions really take a dump all over my confidence as a woman in climbing and encourage my solitary nature. It feels like these sprayers are telling me that I don’t know what I’m doing or that I don’t belong in this space. By pushing me, however gently, to do the climb their way, it feels like the beta sprayer is subtly (or not so subtly) implying that their way is best and there is little room for me to forge my own path. By playing the role of the holder of sacred climbing knowledge, the beta sprayer establishes themselves as the “real” climber using the proper method that I would be wise to conform to. Do as I do, young Padawan, and you too can climb like me one day.
This is how I felt when tackling my first outdoor boulder project. I wasted a whole session trying some random guy’s beta that, deep down, I knew was never going to work for me. But I persevered with it. I felt pressure to show him that I had taken his advice and really given it a try. I didn’t want to be rude by using his beta once and then dismissing it. God forbid I offend this stranger by ignoring his advice that I never asked for. I assumed he knew best. He looked like a “real” climber. He cruised up the boulder so easily. Surely the only reason I couldn’t do the same was because I was a lesser climber or not strong enough for this boulder.
My first outdoor boulder project, Wild Country 6b+ in La Pedriza, near Madrid
Despite these experiences, my softer side tells me I should give people the benefit of the doubt. This more charitable side argues that beta sprayers don’t believe their actions are harmful. It even empathises with their wish to help fellow climbers. I’ve been “that person”, who is convinced that her little bit of advice could make a big difference to someone’s climbing. I’m similarly tempted to play the hero who rides in on a noble steed of beta and saves the day, particularly in situations that resonate with my own experiences.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen blokes telling women to do things in questionable or unnecessarily powerful ways, when I suspect they would do much better with a bit of technique or slightly adjusting their body position. I want to tell them that there’s more to climbing than the size of your biceps. I want to tell them they can climb just as well as any burly, nipples-out man. I want to tell them that this is a safe space and they’re welcome here. My sentimental side, that adores climbing and is desperate for it to bring as much joy to others as it does to me, is concerned that these women might be put off this wonderful sport because of tactless beta sprayers. But this side needs reminding that I don’t know these people, I don’t know their stories, and, no matter how good my intentions are, rudely inserting myself into their lives is not the way to make them feel comfortable.
In my more reflective moments, both sides of my nature agree that the climbing community is full of knowledgeable, kind and generous people. I recognise that positive interactions with considerate climbers have helped me gain confidence in the sport and feel more at ease.
Thanks to my nomadic former career in touring theatre, I’ve climbed on my own a lot and had some fleeting yet delightful interactions with lots of climbers. I’ve companionably struggled up a boulder with a relative stranger before saying a friendly goodbye and going back about my business. I’ve asked others for beta when I needed it and happily helped others out when asked for my take on a tricky problem. These interactions happened quite naturally, perhaps sparked by a sympathetic smile or a supportive shrug that says “yeah, I fell off that boulder a lot too”. These subtle signs of understanding have led to much more pleasant experiences than forced interactions with beta sprayers, however well-meaning they may be. By creating a supportive atmosphere and coming across as polite and approachable, these people gave me the confidence to feel like a real climber and to let my sociable side come out to play.
Now that I've been climbing for a while and have more confidence in myself, I’d like to think the two sides of my nature are coming to a mutual understanding on the subject of beta spraying. Hostile Ms Hyde still prefers climbing solo or with a trusted climbing partner, but accepts the need to take ownership of my reaction to beta sprayers and explore why it bothers me so much. Jolly Dr Jekyll understands that my own desire to beta spray, though well-intentioned, is tied up in my desire to play the role of feminist defender against burly men with their nipples out. Ms Hyde reminds Dr Jeckyll to be thoughtful about how we encourage people to feel safe in climbing spaces. Dr Jeckyll reigns in Ms Hyde’s tendency to be defensive and prompts her to respond to beta sprayers with understanding rather than lashing out at them or myself. It’s still a work in progress but I’m working towards a healthy relationship between these two parts of my character and hopefully giving them a fighting chance of living happily ever after.
I would like to close this post with some points worth considering if you find yourself in the position of beta sprayer or sprayee. I hope that these ideas can facilitate considerate communication within the climbing community and encourage serious thought about how we, as climbers, can create a supportive environment while respecting individual boundaries.
Ask yourself why you want to beta spray. Does this person look like they want your help? Or are you prioritising your own need to be valued, knowledgeable, or heroic?
Be thoughtful about how you phrase the offer of advice. Rather than “just do this”, consider a phrase that gives the person you’re speaking to some control over the situation. For example, “I was working on that one for ages, I’m sure you’ll crack it but if you’d like some help give me a shout.”
Though many climbers are happy to ask for advice, this is not the case for everyone. Doing your best to give off friendly and approachable vibes may not feel as immediately effective as starting a conversation with someone. But it could be the best part you can play in creating a space where people feel safe and confident
It’s understandable to feel uncomfortable with beta spraying and not wanting to explain your discomfort to a stranger. A respectful “Thank you for the suggestion, I might give that a try once I exhaust all of my own options” can be enough to politely convey that the advice has been taken on board but that you’d like to carry on solo
If you feel able to discuss the topic of beta spraying, try to do so considerately. I know from experience this isn’t always easy and have often wanted to lash out in these situations. But this shuts down the conversation and creates more hostility. Maybe go with “I appreciate your intention, but I prefer to work it out on my own; unsolicited advice usually ruins it for me. Perhaps you could ask if the advice is wanted?”