Beth Bennett was unconcerned as she set off on Creature from the Black Lagoon (5.11d) in Boulder Canyon, Colorado. An experienced and fluid climber who had done the pitch often, she neither expected to fall nor thought to tell her partner that she—at 110 pounds—likes any belayer to strive for a soft catch.
The crux of the route is an undercling lieback at about 40 feet. Bennett cleared the crux but erred in the sequence while approaching the next bolt, a difficult clip.
“I couldn't clip, so I started to down climb,” she recalls. She intended to reclimb the sequence, but could not reverse the lieback. “I yelled that I was jumping off.”
The belayer was attentive, but the belay was static. Bennett slammed into the wall—and shattered her patella.
I have several other friends who attribute injuries—a sore shoulder, a broken ankle, a shin laceration on an overlap—to hard catches. Of course, the climber chooses a lead, and belayers can be blamed unfairly, but most climbers agree on the importance of a soft catch.
While watching and braking are the belayer’s primary responsibilities, with thought and practice we can belay better and help prevent leader injuries. As Andrew Bisharat puts it in his book, Sport Climbing, From Toprope to Redpoint, Techniques for Climbing Success, “Aside from knowing how to safely operate the belay devices, giving a soft catch is the most important, and least understood, aspect of great belaying."
How to give a soft catch. (This article focuses on sport climbing.)
1) Balance the risks. Dynamic belays are best for when your climber is high above the ground, with good gear. A soft catch lengthens a fall. If the
climber may hit a ledge, bulge or even the ground, scratch the soft catch: Shorten the fall rather than add to it.
As Jack Geldard specifies on ukclimbing.com: “If [a leader is] at the second bolt of a short route with a bad landing, you should do everything you can
to minimize the length of any fall they might take. This means having next to no slack in the system, [and] making sure you are close in to the wall
to avoid being pulled forward.” Even one step, as he notes, can increase the leader’s fall by about a yard, creating “the difference between a smiling
climber and a broken heel bone.”
2) No slacking. Only pay out as much slack as necessary. Keep a good belay-brake hand. Gloves are worth the purchase.
ready to move. Stand up straight (avoid leaning back) and prepare to be pulled up and in toward the wall. Go with the flow. Extend your feet as you
swing, to protect yourself when you contact the wall.
4) Crouch. Bend your knees when anticipating a fall, and when the climber falls, straighten. “You must be in the act of standing up as the force is applied—standing
after the impact is felt is too late,” writes Adrian Berry in Sport Climbing: The Positive Approach to Improving Your Climbing, co-authored
with Steve McClure.
5) Hop (not necessarily needed by a lighter belayer versus a heavy leader). Bisharat, Touchstoneclimbing.com and other sources advise a small jump
or hop as the rope tautens.
“Perfect timing is essential,” writes Bisharat, whose book gives a long, clear overview of ropework and belaying. “Wait to jump until you see the plummeting
climber about to come even with the quickdraw he is falling onto. As soon as the rope comes taut, hop into the air.”
Hop too soon and you drop too soon, weighting the rope—the opposite of your intent. Too late and you have missed the chance to ease the fall.
6) Protect the belay. If the leader is heavier than the belayer and the first bolt close to the ground, the belayer can be pulled to the first draw
and an autolock device can be trapped open. Bisharat suggests that in this potential scenario the leader avoid leaving a quickdraw on the first bolt.
He or she can either stick clip, or downclimb to remove the draw. Alternatively, the belayer can use an ATC-style device.
7) Keep a “gentle smile,” or small curve in the rope as you belay.
8) Break with the cash to replace an old rope with a new one. Fresh ropes are far stretchier.
Beth Bennett spent half a year on crutches and is just now beginning to hike and try to run again, using poles. Full recovery, her surgeon told her, will
take a year. She thinks climbers should add another element to their pre-climb habits. In the same way it is common for both beginning and experienced
climbers to check belay systems and knots before each pitch, they should communicate about catches. Some people hate long falls and some hate a static
“Everyone has his or her preference about catches,” she says. “You have to tell your belayer what you want.” In her case, the soft catch creates a longer
fall than the belayer might allow otherwise. “I also alert them to any situation, like a ledge, they should be aware of.” Again, the belayer must balance
the benefits of a soft catch against the chance of hitting a ledge, a bulge or the ground.
“You have to tell your belayer what you want and remind them over and over. People forget or revert to patterns or get distracted.
“Maybe they panic when a fall is imminent, and old habits kick in. If you’ve just said, ‘If I fall, this is what I want,’ you’re more likely to get it.
You are the one who could get hurt, so take responsibility for making your wishes known.”
We asked readers to send in shots of sport climbing with the belayer visible. Here is our gallery, Ode to the Belayer,
which is a sampling of what we received. Thank you to all who sent photos!