Learn This: Belaying A Heavier Climber

Stop the flying circus

Stop the Flying CircusPeople whose partners outweigh them by 25 pounds or more routinely get yanked off the ground when catching sport-climbing leader falls. Although this phenomenon is disconcerting at first, it can be perfectly safe with a few simple precautions—and it provides a nice, soft catch for the climber. Some climbers recommend anchoring a light belayer to the ground, but this may cause the falling leader to experience a hard, shocking fall. In most cases, allowing a sport-climbing belayer to move around decreases the chance of injury to the leader and belayer, and also lowers the force applied to the system.

When belaying, stand directly under the first bolt. Should the leader fall, this ensures you will be lifted straight upward, not dragged across the ground or scraped along the side of the cliff.

Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes: no flip-flops! As you’re yanked upward, both hands will be occupied with holding the rope, so it’s your feet that keep your body away from the rock. In a hard fall, the forces can be violent, so belay gloves and—if you’re not too cool—a helmet also are recommended.

If the first bolt is close to the ground, consider having the leader unclip it after clipping the second bolt; this will prevent you from being yanked up into the first quickdraw. Or, use an extra-long stick clip to bypass the first bolt, eliminating the down-climbing and unclipping shenanigans.

Scan the rock under the first bolt or two, following your likely path of upward trajectory. Are there any rock spikes or nasty overhangs to be wary of, or is the wall smooth and forgiving? Visualize where you might impact the rock—hopefully feet first—at three, five, or 10 feet off the ground. If there is a chance of being yanked into something nasty, find another climb or recruit a heavier belayer.

When the leader pitches off, hold on tight and prepare for liftoff. Do not jump! If the leader is low on the climb, consider dropping down on one knee. This will increase the distance between belayer and leader by a foot or two, which might be just enough to prevent climber and belayer from knocking into each other. If a collision is unavoidable, turn your head away, keep your mouth shut to protect your jaw, and don’t let go of the rope with your brake hand.

As you get pulled, keep your feet underneath you— the movement feels sort of like a speedy rappel in reverse. Your goal is to leave the ground in balance.

Holds break, wasps fly out of holes—a good belayer should be prepared for a fall at any time. Still, the leader can help. When a fall seems like a distinct possibility, calling out, “Watch me!” puts the belayer on high alert.


Previous Comments

My husband outweighs me by 100 pounds. I would never belay him unanchored - not since the first slamfest 25 years ago which served as an educational experience. Two people in the flying circus is just not a good option. Between the slack in the system and the dynamic rope, the leader will not receive a fatal force. If your pro is crap, a dynamic belay is not your solution. Listen to the experience of a very respected man above. A harder "catch" on a rope is far superior to hitting the ground.

Leslie - 10/06/2014 12:29:01

@Limestone Larry: The belayer can lower himself back to the ground. When you're dangling in the air with your climber, giving slack becomes rappeling.

Climbing Staff - 06/02/2014 10:04:15

Okay so a heavy climber and lighter belay means that if the climber takes a fall the lighter belayer shoots up the wall. Fair enough. Now you're both dangling in the air like a pendulum of a grandfather clock - how do you both return to the ground safety?

Limestone Larry - 05/30/2014 1:45:22

So if you're a lighter belayer and your heavier climber takes a fall - the lighter belayer shoots up the wall. Fair enough. Now - how do you get the pair of you down safely now your both dangling from the wall????

Limestone Lenny - 05/29/2014 4:38:08

First, isn't it the job of the belayer to keep the climber from hitting the ground or something else? If the belay person goes 15 feet up the wall, the chance of the climber hitting something greatly increases. Second, you get a much greater chance of hurting the belayer., Third, why are we using dynamic ropes? They are supposed to absorb the impact of a fall. Why not just use a static line like the old hemp ropes. If possible, I always tie the smaller belayer down to something and the falls are quite soft. I outweigh my usual belayer by 50 pounds. Maybe if my last piece was a micro nut, I might want a soft catch, but I am not worried about pulling a sport bolt out of the wall.

Steve H - 05/15/2014 2:25:36

I was excited to see this article as I am always looking for more information on the topic, but was very disappointed. I second what others have said. This is an irresponsible article and should be taken down or altered. There are numerous issues: 1) Weigh differential clarification (possibly the most important failing of this article): The article states it is giving advice for 25 lbs difference and up. While some of the advice given may be appropriate for 25-35ish lbs difference, upwards of that is an entirely different situation warranting entirely different advice (and also a very common situation for small women like myself). 2) Position: What is with the knee thing? The belayed should be attentive and with slightly bent knees. I have caught falls from many climbers much heavier than I. My first response is to simultaneously take up in order to get any extra slack out of the system (unless they are at a safe height at no risk of decking), then put weight down like I’m sitting to gain a foot or so, and prepare to get me feet in front of me to absorb the shock of pulling into the wall and protect my hands in order to maintain control. Having a knee down would make this all much more difficult. 3) Clearance: This is absurd. If it is likely that you will be pulled into the first bolt, it is possible that you could be pulled even further without that first bolt to stop you. As a small person, I would certainly rather get smacked into the first bolt (which, anecdotally, is less likely to compromise your belay if you use a gri gri), than risk my partner possibly colliding and smashing my neck, or decking and cracking his). None of these are great options though, which is why: 4) If number 2 is a hard call, the belayer should really be anchored anyway. While there are certainly advantages to an active belay, these can be pretty well mitigated by an attentive belay, and there are also ways of setting up your anchor to give you the ability to give a bit of an active belay. I would like to know: 1) Maximum safe weight differential? At what point is it simple not safe to belay without an anchor? 2) Best practices for setting up an anchor if you do have to climb with someone much larger? How to safely line yourself (for some of us small women, this is hard to avoid) 3) Belay device best practices for small climbers? (danger of ATC if there is a possibility of swinging hard into wall?) 4) Best practices for paying out slack? (tight vs. loose belay when anchored or not) Recommendations anyone?

Louisa - 05/12/2014 11:46:07

Article makes perfect sense. For those that are doubtful, keep on climbing and the aha moment will come to you, but by then it might be too late.

Fehim Hasecic - 05/11/2014 11:36:47

Thanks for confirming my thoughts guys. It was confusing me about which of these techniques was meant to combat the physics of weight unbalance. Unfortunately not even going down on one knee is going to be a match for gravity! Hopefully someone from climbing magazine can correct this article quickly before it causes any more confusion with readers, or worse, any injuries.

Jen - 05/08/2014 7:13:21

Wouldn't it be better to leave the first bolt clipped? A light belayer could then anticipate being lifted to the wall and prepare for it, rather than being lifted straight up into a possible collision with the climber.

Adam - 05/08/2014 6:53:36

Would it not be better in the pictures depicted to leave the first bolt clipped? This might send a light belayer into the wall, but that would be easier to anticipate and prepare for than a lift straight into the air and possibly cause a collision with the leader.

Adam - 05/08/2014 6:51:06

I watched a climber in Red Rocks deck, Jen. In this very situation. The first bolt was forty feet up, the leader fell going for the second bolt, pulled his belayer forty feet up slamming into the first bolt as the leader hit the deck. Please, Please ....Do not listen to this dangerous misleading article.

Scott Cosgrove - 05/08/2014 6:50:47

I'm shock that you would print such an article. A quick perusal of climbing accidents would reveal the dangers of having a light weight belayer trying to hold the leader fall of a heavier lead climber, with out a ground anchor. It is extremely dangerous for the belayer to be slammed into the first bolt of the climb. Breaking the hand is common as is losing control of the belay device. Gri Gri handles can and have been slammed into the first bolt and also have failed. Anchoring a light weight belayer is not an option but a must. The only situation that you don't need an anchor is when the belayer is heavier or of equal weight. And the climbers are very experienced. Furthermore, stating that a light weight belayer should padd up and take the hit is astonishing and irresponsible journalism. I'm a climber of 36 year, a pro guide, instructor and a professional stunt rigger. I suggest this article be taken down, before some kid without a ground anchor tries to catch his dad and one or both ends up getting hurt or worse.

Scott Cosgrove - 05/08/2014 5:16:01

First, 25 lbs. is rather arbitrary. If the heavier climber is only 100 lbs. or so, this is much more significant than if the heavier climber is 200 lbs. or so. Second, dropping to one knee puts the belayer at a physical disadvantage that far outweighs the "foot or two" gained (assuming here that the smaller climber may still be 6' 6'' tall). Sitting would probably be better. Standing somewhere else seems like the obvious choice. I would suggest a beach, if the option is climbing with the author. Lastly, I don't get the point of belay gloves. Why not use a belay device? The (optional/uncool) helmet seems much more useful here. As for the issues covered by the others regarding the dynamic belay, second bolt decking, etc. this all seems pretty obviously flawed in the article. Wouldn't an intentional dynamic belay be better? Do any experienced climbers read these articles before going to publication? Does the author have any knowledge of elementary physics or math?

Keith - 05/08/2014 4:23:15

The advantages of a dynamic belay, which is what the writer describes, is far outweighed by the disadvantages of an unanchored belayer being lifted off the ground, getting slammed into the rock,and/or losing control of the situation, etc. The belayer should be anchored.

curmudgeon - 05/08/2014 3:38:00

I agree with Jen. In a lot of circumstances (like in the drawing) the light belayer should just go stand as close to the first bolt as possible and leave it clipped. That climber is decking if they fall clipping their third draw, but not if the first blot is clipped.

luke - 05/08/2014 3:35:29

I'm unsure if I'm missing something.... If the climber unclips first bolt, clips second but then falls on their way to third then the belayer would be pulled upto second. With the amount of rope that was the distance between belayer & second, the slack from second to where the climber fell, plus the rope stretch... Wouldn't that mean the climber would hit the deck? I'm a light belayer with a heavier partner so really want to make sure I'm keeping my partner safe!

Jen - 05/07/2014 4:25:37

one of he pics does not work!

Daniel - 05/09/2013 1:00:13