Belaying your climbing partner symbolizes support and attention. It demands vigilance. Although today many climbers learn belaying in the gym, using self-locking mechanical devices such as Grigris that seem fail safe, belaying will always be vulnerable to human error.
In the 1970s, many aspirant climbers underwent a brutally primitive, though effective, belay test. The student belayer was lashed down; an instructor dropped a concrete bucket from a tower, which the hapless student had to stop, with but a rope around his waist and bare (trembling) hands. This old way of teaching certainly proved the immense forces that a fall can generate, and the necessity for diligence.
Climbing provides a great community, but as concentrations of people and conversation at any cliff increase, diligence suffers. Even in a laughing crowd, you must concentrate on your leader. Watch her, with your face upturned.
Do not be distracted, including by the climber who strolls along and asks you for beta or how your summer is going. It’s better not to talk to anyone when you are belaying. The easiest course is to be straightforward: “I can’t talk when I’m belaying, talk to you after he finishes.”
Likewise, avoid asking questions yourself of someone who is belaying or climbing.
Most climbers use mechanical friction devices, which all basically work the same. You clip the device with the lead rope threaded through it to a locking carabiner on your harness belay loop (check the manufacturer’s instructions). Double-check to see that you’ve locked the carabiner, and periodically re-check it.
The belayer feeds out and/or takes in rope through the device, be it an Air Traffic Controller (ATC), Sticht plate, Tuber, or similar device (all often colloquially called ATCs). The guide hand operates the rope on the climber side of the ATC; the brake hand holds the rope on the other side and locks down to catch any fall. The single most important tenet of belaying is never to let go with the brake hand.
A sickeningly common sight is to see someone, even an experienced climber, feeding out the rope in short tosses and opening or removing his brake hand to come back and reset. If the climber falls right then, the belayer’s brake hand is off the rope. He could hit the ground. And that’s inexcusable.
The trick to avoiding this syndrome is to keep the brake hand nearer your body and the guide hand always farther away. Letting the brake hand grasp the rope outside of the guide hand is what leads to the inclination to remove the brake hand to reset it.
Mobility in a ground belay is useful, but there are excellent reasons to set a ground-level anchor.
The amount of rope the belayer pays out varies and is a matter of experience and common sense. Bottom line: catch your climber. Keep her off the deck. The second basic precept is to keep the slack to a minimum, to reduce the fall length. In some situations, for example, when a climber is seconding just above the deck, tighten up your belay.
Also, be careful not to keep the rope too tight when the leader is moving fast or traversing, in which cases a rope that’s too tight might either pull her off or even aid her, voiding her hard-earned clean ascent. Another very common error, is not to pay out enough slack for a climber to reach smoothly to clip an overhead bolt or a piece of high pro (perhaps a wired nut fiddled in at a stretch). A sticky belay can even cause a climber to fall. Watch the climber’s moves, and anticipate the clips. Pay out slack as the climber reaches down for the rope to clip a bolt or chock, not, belatedly, as she tries to pull up the rope.
Climbers on lead, for their part, save energy by clipping only as they pass a bolt at about waist height. Still, many clip when they can, such as from a good ledge, or stretching up to reach a bolt, to minimize a potential fall.
When belaying someone on toprope, keep the rope a little loose, rather than taut.
LOUD AND CLEAR—BELAY COMMANDS
Communication between the belayer and climber is one of the most important—and neglected—aspects of belaying. You’ll see experienced climbers become careless with belay commands.
The signals are simple.
When you are ready to climb, ask:
Wait to climb until hearing:
“Belay on,” or, “You’re on.”
Reaffirm that your belayer is ready by saying “Climbing,” and don’t climb until your belayer responds, “Climb on.”
You won’t always be able to see your partner or hear him well—if the route is long, or it traverses, or the wind is blowing hard, or you are climbing above a rushing river—so belt out the signals. And don’t climb or take someone off belay until you know you’re on or he’s off. When in doubt, wait and keep yelling. Never take someone off until you are sure.
One woman got to the top of a toproped pitch and yelled down to the belayer, who mistook her, “Got me?” for, “Off belay.” The belayer disconnected his device from the rope. She leaned back, expecting to be lowered. She plummeted 70 feet, and broke several bones—but it could have been worse. The two should have discussed how she was going to descend before she left the ground. He should have been certain of her words, and she should have waited for his OK before weighting the rope.
Develop a signaling system for situations where you cannot hear one another. When you are leading, tie in to an anchor and give three sharp tugs on the rope to signal you are off belay (while also shouting the words). Belaying, tug back three times to show understanding. When the leader is ready to belay, again give three tugs. The second should give three affirmative tugs back before unplugging the belay and climbing.
Anchors are everything. Even during a simple lower, the anchor is subjected to a force twice that of your weight.
THE THREE Bs
The various belay scenarios include belaying a leader (from the ground or from stances on multi-pitch routes), belaying a follower from above (toprope), and belaying someone on a “slingshot” toprope, where the rope runs from below up through the anchor and back down to the climber.
Once a climbing team is off the ground on a multi-pitch route, the belayer must be secured to a bombproof anchor.
The leader can clip into one of the top pieces in the anchor before taking off. In the event of a fall, this directional takes substantial force off the belayer. A short fall close to the belay puts much more impact on the anchor and belayer than a long fall 100 feet up a pitch, where friction and the elasticity of the rope absorb much of the force.
On a multi-pitch route, as a leader leads up from a belay, the force on the belayer changes from a downward to an upward pull. Always set a multidirectional belay by placing at least one solid piece to protect against an upward yank. The piece keeps the belayer from getting lifted and protects the anchor from dislodging.
On multipitch routes, to avoid falling directly onto the anchor and belayer, the leader should place a piece of protection as soon as possible after leaving the belay. Don’t be cocky; even on easy terrain, you could pop off. If the leader falls from 10 feet above the belay, he’ll gain momentum for 20-plus feet before you catch him. Worse, such a fall, with no protection in between, could rip the anchor. A single piece of gear above the belay gives significant mechanical advantage, and the more the merrier, creating a gentler catch.
Pay close attention to the belayer’s position relative to the climber. On multi-pitch routes, belays can be hanging (no ledge), sitting or standing. Again, the belayer needs to be stationed in a direct line between the anchor and the climber, and tied tightly to the anchor, to avoid shock-loading the belay anchor or being jerked off balance. You should position yourself to absorb as much of the force of the fall as possible. When you’re belaying a second, a solid sitting or standing position can hold virtually all the force of a fall, minimizing stress on the anchor.
A hanging belay affords little opportunity for you to absorb the forces of a fall, mandating the sturdiest anchors. Again, make sure the anchor is reinforced with a piece for an upward pull. Then simply tie off tight to the anchor.
GROUND CONTROL: SLINGSHOT AND LEAD BELAYS
Many climbers never leave the comfort of a ground belay. However, while short, bolt-protected climbs may seem relatively safe, sport climbing, ground belays and related ropework have yielded a whole new slew of accidents connected to actions done by rote. All it takes is one moment of inattention to create an accident you will regret all your life.
Whether the belayer should be anchored on a ground belay is a matter of judgment. If there is any possibility of getting pulled off a ledge, or up to hit your head on the underside of an overhang, set up a ground anchor. A climber standing 15 feet from the base of a climb, seeking shade but not thinking to tie into the tree, can be dragged through trees and thorns if her partner falls. Meanwhile, he falls 15 extra feet. In general, stand under or near the first piece.
At sport crags these days, you’ll seldom see the belayer anchored. For the most part, mobility can be useful. When the leader is beginning a pitch, the belayer can help by holding the rope out of the way of key hand and footholds and by positioning himself so the rope is available for easy clipping. A mobile belayer can also provide slack for that desperate clip by quickly stepping forward, or up onto a rock bench.
Likewise, the belayer can potentially save the leader from hitting a ledge or the ground by jumping back to take in rope.
Keep a constant eye on the leader, for his safety and your own. Beware of rockfall he may dislodge.
Most important is that you learn the basics of good, safe belaying. Once you have those down pat, you can belay certain kinds of falls more accurately.
Start by knowing that all techniques to reduce or alleviate a fall rely on judgment. Reeling in an armload of slack can keep a leader from hitting a ledge. On steep sport routes, however, “softening” a fall is the most common technique used. The practice helps a leader to avoid a jolt. It can help avoid the broken ankles that can happen when belayers instinctively tighten up, even lean back, to sharply reduce a fall. The theory is to let the fall happen.
One such method occurs naturally: a small person on the ground is usually lifted when catching a heavier climber. Too large a differential in weight, however, can launch the belayer 15 feet, giving the leader that much more air travel; in such a case, tie down.
Two common and simple methods that also soften a fall are to stand with knees bent, so that you straighten, or to even take a light jump just as the leader falls. Think of it as a hop just as the rope comes taut.
Other factors that help are having a new, dynamic rope, as opposed to a worn, stretched-out one; and standing with bent knees; and never sitting. Some belay devices, such as an ATC, are more dynamic than others, such as a Grigri, which operates with closing cams. A fall also gets “harder” the more that rope drag, which can compromise a rope’s ability to stretch, is present in the system.
Sport climbing and the ground belay often involve lowering the climber, another scenario that is ripe for human error.
When the climber leaves the ground he must let the belayer know whether he plans to rappel or lower. If the climber rappels, he simply ties into the anchor, tells the belayer he is off belay, sets up his rappel, and slides down. Never take someone off belay unless you’re dead sure he is off; shout for repetitions. If, as the belayer you are uncertain if your leader is to lower or rappel, keep him on belay until his curses for slack are loud and clear.
In lowering from a climb, never run the rope through nylon webbing. The slings burn through very easily.
If a climber intends to be lowered, never undo the belay, but simply wait for the signal.
After finishing the pitch, but before weighting the rope, the climber must always ask if the belayer is ready. He should ask, “Got me?” and not move until he hears, “Yes.”
Before lowering a climber, make sure he has enough rope to reach the ground. A middle mark on the rope will tell you if there’s enough slack, but many of these marks disappear with wear. Always tie a knot in the end of the rope so it cannot fly through the belay device if the rope is not long enough. Even experienced climbers have made the basic, traumatic mistake of losing a rope end through a belay device, resulting in ground falls for their partners. Watch the end of the rope every minute. If you are the climber being lowered, verbally confirm with your partner that she has knotted the end of the rope and is keeping an eye on it.
To lower a climber, the belayer feeds rope through the belay device with his brake hand. Do this slowly and steadily.
HIGH-TECH: “AUTO” BELAY DEVICES
Many, if not most, climbers today use ATCs or similar plate devices reliant on a lockoff action with your brake hand. Many also now use self-locking belay devices, such as the Petzl Grigri. Properly used, these devices are excellent. Climbers have, however, been dropped when the belayers used the devices improperly, such as by threading the rope through the wrong way. Always consult manufacturers’ instructions carefully before using any belay device.
Another concern about these devices is that they tempt belayers to take their brake hands off the rope, a habit definitely not recommended. If you see someone belaying without a brake hand on the rope, correct the person. Especially before he belays you.
To take up rope on lead or toprope: Pull slack through the belay device.
Reach over the brake hand with the opposite hand.
Slide the brake hand down the rope.
Return the hands to their original position and prepare to take up rope and repeat.