“Smile Not a Mile”

Climbing Saying

“Smile Not a Mile”


In Person

May 25, 2020

Informant Data:

AC is a 21 year old female. She grew up in a small village on the coast of Maine. Her family loved the outdoors and spent lots of time outside. She is not very religious but was raised Catholic. She attended public school and shares many friends who also enjoy the outdoors. Her father is a doctor and her mother is a librarian, and she has an older and younger brother. She grew up hiking and skiing mountains but only rock climbed on a few rare occasions. She now attends Dartmouth College and studies geography and climate change. Most of her climbing experience has come at college where she has learned the basics of the activity.

Contextual Data:

Cultural Context: Rock climbing is a sport with dangerous risks and passionate participants. When climbing a face, you are always aware of how far you could fall. These risks are especially amplified when climbing outdoors, where rough and rocky surfaces often make up the ground below a climb. However, the activity is so thrilling to many people that they eagerly participate in it and try to share it with others. The Dartmouth Mountaineering Club is driven by passionate climbers who want more people to experience the fun.

Social Context: I collected this folklore in an in person interview. AC first heard of this saying on a rock climbing trip to Arizona with the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club. Dartmouth College offers a variety of clubs that help students access and participate in outdoor activities. The student leaders of these clubs regularly organize day trips for other students to participate in activities like rock climbing, kayaking, and backcountry skiing, regardless of their prior experience. During the school breaks between class terms, these clubs run longer trips to different states and countries for students to develop their abilities. AC participated in one of these trips to Arizona and was taught how to “lead belay”. While lead belaying, a person is supporting a climber on the wall who is clipping their rope to the wall as they climb it. Lots of rock climbing is performed with the climber’s rope already looped through an anchor at the top of the wall (called “toprope climbing”), but in this circumstance the climber is climbing up to put the rope through the anchor. This type of climbing is called “lead climbing”, and if someone falls while lead climbing they typically fall farther than they would while toprope climbing. This folk saying is most frequently said when an experienced climber is teaching a newer one how to lead belay, but experienced climbers can still say it to each other as a reminder for safety. AC heard this phrase at the bottom of a wall, as a more experienced climber guided her through the steps of lead belaying a lead climber.      


The following description is based on an in person interview with AC. I have carefully paraphrased her knowledge of the meaning of this climbing saying from notes I took.

A common piece of advice given to climbers learning how to lead belay is to use a “smile not a mile”. This refers to the amount of slack that the lead belayer should keep in the climbing rope. As someone begins to lead climb, much of the climbing rope rests on the ground and passes through the belayer’s harness before attaching at its end to the climber’s harness. As the lead climber ascends the wall, they need to be “fed” more rope, so that their upward movements are not restricted by tension in the rope. There needs to be some slack in the rope between the belayer and climber so that the climber can move and clip the rope onto bolts on the wall with carabiners. However, if there is a lot of slack in the rope, the climber will have a longer, more dangerous fall if they slip off the wall. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to use a “smile not not a mile” when allowing slack in the rope. When easing the rope out from their harness’s belaying device, the belayer should allow gravity to pull the rope into an upward-facing arc shape, like the mouth of a casually drawn smile. The rope should not be so clack that there is a “mile”, or significant amount, of rope loose and gathered on the ground. This would increase the lead climber’s risk of injury.  

lead belaying low angle

Henry Chamberlin, 18

Dartmouth College

Russian 13

Spring 2020