You can’t reach your potential in climbing if you are terrified of falling, and the key to confidence is for you and your partner to master dynamic-belaying technique. If you are still using the belay method that you learned as a beginner—standing still at the base and locking the rope off—then there is no guarantee that your leader will have a safe, comfortable fall. The “catch” may be too static and the climber may hit the wall too hard.
Dynamic belaying refers to a method where you slightly lengthen the fall in the interest of softening the catch by introducing a small and strategic amount of slack at the exact moment of the fall. The method requires fast reactions and should only be practiced by experienced belayers. This article will provide key tips but it is not a comprehensive guide. Seek further advice if you are unsure, and remember that you practice at your own risk.
The Right Device
First up, if you use a belay plate (as opposed to an auto-locking device), then you need to consider the diameter of your rope and the weight differences between you and your partner. Some modern plates provide the option of low-friction or high-friction modes (commonly with V grooves for extra braking force). When using thicker ropes (approximately 10.2mm to 11mm in diameter) or when the belayer is notably heavier (by at least 20 pounds) than the climber, then opt for low friction. If the ropes are skinny (9mm to 10.1mm) and the belayer is lighter or similar in weight, then go for higher friction.
That said, you can give a good soft catch with any belay device. It’s more important to pick a device you’re comfortable using and master it.
One caveat: Very light belayers will be pulled off the ground when catching a heavier climber’s fall. If the first bolt is low, the belayer can be pulled right to that quickdraw, and if the belayer is using an auto-locking device, the locking mechanism can jam into the carabiner and press open. In these instances, it is better for a lighter belayer to use a plate device, or tie into a ground anchor (see below).
Regardless of weight differences, the belayer should always stand in close to the base of the route until the leader clips the third bolt. If you stand too far back for the first few clips, there’s a high chance that you will be pulled in during a fall. You can slam into the wall and the leader could hit the ground.
Always aim to give slack quickly to allow the leader to make a drag-free clip. This requires focus, solid belaying technique, a well-designed belay device and a kink-free, well-flaked rope. Be wary of narrow belay plates that are prone to jamming when you pay out slack fast.
Heavier belayer—lighter climber (or similar weights)
Once the climber has reached the third bolt, the belayer can step back a few paces (no more than 10 feet). There are two good reasons: first, the belayer can better monitor the action. Second, he/she can move in when paying out rope to provide an even more rapid delivery.
Always stand perpendicular to the route. If you stand to the side there is the risk of colliding awkwardly with the wall if the rope is loaded unexpectedly in a fall, and you could lose control of the rope. Be aware of any objects (trees, rocks, etc.) between you and the wall. Don’t keep the rope too tight or too slack—it should arc gently out of the device, but not touch the ground.
When the climber falls, watch the rope: just as it begins to come tight onto the last clipped quickdraw, move forward and give a little hop into the air. Don’t run, don’t jump, just a little hop timed to coincide with the falling climber weighting the quickdraw. Be sure to keep hold of the brake end of the rope tightly and not let it slip through your hand.
Lighter belayer—heavier climber
With this scenario, the belayer always stands in close to the wall. If the route is steep, try standing with your back to the wall, as this will allow you to watch the climber and save your neck. If the weight differences are slight, then a light belayer may be pulled a short way off the ground but a small, well-timed hop may still be appropriate. If the weight differences are significant (75 to 100 pounds) then the belayer may want to clip into a ground anchor (a tree, for example). The anchor line should have a small amount of slack in it, to allow the belayer to be pulled up a short way (hence softening the fall) but not so far that he/she is sucked up to the first quickdraw.
With so much to think about and coordinate, you will want to reduce all other unwanted distractions. Unless you check regularly, your belay carabiner can twist around and cross-load. Try using a belay carabiner with a “captive bar” to ensure that your belay biner never cross-loads.
You can theorize as much as you like, but the only way to become confident is to practice. While dynamic belaying still offers the best belay method on vertical routes and slabs, only practice on overhanging lines.
Neil Gresham is one of Britain’s best-known all-around climbers. Having repeated the notorious Indian Face (5.13 X) in North Wales and Equilibrium (5.14 R) on Peak District gritstone, he went on to make many hard first ascents in exotic destinations such as Brazil, Mongolia, Cuba, Vietnam, China and Colombia. He currently lists deep-water soloing as his favorite climbing style and is just back from an exploratory trip to Oman. Gresham is widely regarded as a pioneering climbing coach. He is the regular training columnist for Rock and Ice. See www.climbingmasterclass.com.