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Precise Belaying

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In Partnership with Mammut and American Alpine Club

By Ron Funderburke

One of the main differences between a professional-caliber belayer and a merely effective belayer is precision. In belaying, precision means attention to details, forethought in rope management, and an overall economy of movement. When we learn to belay, we’re preoccupied with fundamentals, and nuanced details like precision can be a distraction. But, at a certain point, a belayer will have mastered the fundamentals so well that it is time to turn to nuance. Ask yourself:

Can I adapt my belay technique quickly to unfamiliar situations?

Can I adapt it to unfamiliar contexts?

Am I conserving energy when I belay?

Overall Movement Economy: When we’re learning to belay, our instructors and mentors focus on techniques that teach us critical belay mechanics. They focus on learning how to use friction, learning techniques that optimize friction, and of course always being ready for a fall. Over time, belaying in thousands of different situations, elite belayers retain the fundamentals, but distill their movements down to an elegant minimum. An observer will notice how all their movements seem discrete, and yet the leader always has enough rope.

We can practice a few key details to make a belay more precise.

Figure 1: Belay devices like the Mammut SMART are designed with a stationary brake hand in mind. The design of the tool lends itself to an overall movement economy.

Stationary brake hand. Most assisted braking tools allow the belayer to keep the brake hand stationary. One hand remains still, firmly committed to the brake strand of the rope. Only that limb moves, as the opposite hand feeds slack to the leader.

Stationary stance. An elite belayer has learned to belay in places where the luxury to move back and forth is unavailable. So, the person’s stance is usually just as stationary as the brake hand. He or she seems to find the perfect spot to belay, and to stay there. Only extenuating or extraordinary circumstances require the belayer to change the stance.

Detailed rope management. Just as the elite belayer seems to find the perfect stance, the rope is positioned accordingly: neatly stacked, directly at the belayer’s brake hand side. Rope unfurls from the carefully arranged stack. Plus, the belayer always seems to deliver the amount of slack the lead needs, not too little (shortroping), not too much (unnecessarily increasing fall distance).

Minimized communication. Too much communication, especially in climbing, can be confusing. Instead, an elite belayer uses an established and rehearsed communication plan. Unnecessary communications are eliminated, and nonverbal communications are common. Also, since an elite belayer is also an experienced climber, the person tends to know exactly what the leader needs, and why, and why certain communiques should elicit an immediate action.

Sierra Blair-Coyle belaying with the The Mammut Smart 2.0 Belay Device

Elite belayers don’t let the belay wag the dog. They control the belay through forethought, preparation, and precision.

What to learn more? Check out all of the American Alpine Clubs educational articles here.