Learn to Climb: Better Toprope Belaying

Learn the safest methods for toprope belaying
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Learn the safest methods for toprope belaying

A new climber typically starts with a style of climbing called toproping, where the rope runs from the belayer’s device and harness up through the anchor at the top of the climb and back down to the climber’s harness. The climber does not have to clip bolts or place gear as he or she moves up the wall, and with the rope secured overhead, any falls are usually short and safe—as long as you have an attentive belayer. This allows the climber to focus on movement, technique, and getting stronger instead of worrying about falling or setting her own protection. So for a newer climber, learning how to give a safe and proper toprope belay is crucial to progression, and it will make you a much better and more desirable climbing partner.

Pay Attention

This is the most important part of any type of belaying. You must be aware of where your climber is and what he is doing at all times. It can be challenging to ignore the obtrusive distractions of a climbing gym (music, other climbers, conversations, etc.), but it’s absolutely vital to being a good belayer. Watch your climber closely when he is on the wall and communicate clearly and effectively when necessary.

Load and Lock

With a tube-style belay device (e.g., ATC or Reverso), thread a bight of the rope through either slot in the device. (Some devices have grooves on one side that make braking easier, so make sure the brake strand is coming out on that side.) Clip a locking carabiner through the rope, keeper loop on the device, and the belay loop on your harness. Lock the carabiner. The part of the rope that goes up to the anchor is the climber’s end. The other part coming out of the device is called the brake strand. Orient your belay device correctly so that the brake strand comes out away from your harness or to the same side as your brake hand (typically your dominant hand).

Double-Check

You and your partner should visually inspect each other’s systems before starting a climb. Make sure both harnesses are worn correctly with all appropriate buckles doubled-back. The belayer should see that the climber’s knot is threaded through both tie-in points, tied correctly, and dressed properly (no crossed strands). The climber should make sure the belayer’s device is set up properly: The rope is threaded through everything, and the carabiner is locked. Test the system by pulling on both strands of rope coming out of the belay device. If it pulls the belayer via the harness’ belay loop, you’re good to go. Do this double-check every single time either person is about to climb, meaning you might go through this process a few dozen times in one gym session. These double-checks are vital for preventing mistakes.

PBUS

Pull, Brake, Under, Slide  

A universal rule to belaying is that your brake hand, which is palm down on the brake strand of the rope, should never come off the rope. The PBUS method, which stands for pull, brake, under, slide, is a tried and true technique that will accomplish this while providing a safe belay.

toprope belaying pbus rock climbing

Photo: Elliott Natz

Pull. Pull down on the climber’s rope with your guide hand (the one on the climber’s end of the rope) to remove slack as the climber moves up, and at the same time, pull out with the brake hand to get the slack through the belay device.

toprope belaying pbus rock climbing

Photo: Elliott Natz

Brake. Put the brake strand in the brake position, which is down in front of you. This puts a bend in the rope at the belay device that will keep the rope from moving through it.

toprope belaying pbus rock climbing

Photo: Elliott Natz

Under. Take your guide hand off the climber’s strand and place it on the brake strand under your brake hand, meaning it’s lower on the rope.

toprope belaying pbus rock climbing

Photo: Elliott Natz

Slide. With your guide hand now tightly grasping the brake strand, slide your brake hand up the brake strand (without removing it from the rope) so it’s a few inches away from the belay device. Put your guide hand back up on the climber’s strand.

Repeat

You’ll keep doing this PBUS motion each time the climber moves up and creates slack in the rope. Once you do it a few times, it will become muscle memory and you should be able to do it without thinking.

Brake

When the climber reaches the top, falls, or needs to sit on the rope to rest, put the rope into a solid braking position. Pull the brake strand down in front of you. Use two hands on the brake strand if the climber wants to hang for a while, or consider wrapping the brake strand around your hip and slightly under your bum with only your brake hand on it. The friction and weight from your body will help reduce the force needed from your hand to hold the rope in place. 

Lower

When your partner is ready to come down, pull as much slack through the device as possible and put the rope in a brake position down and in front of you. When he or she is comfortably weighting the harness and the rope, put both hands on the brake strand and slightly raise it to lessen the angle between it and the device, using the top hand to feed rope through the device while the bottom hand controls the speed. Be very careful to stay in control; if at any time the climber is moving down too fast, immediately move the rope down away from the device into a strong braking position.

Tips

  • Little movements are better than big ones. Instead of waiting to take a bunch of slack in at once, you should constantly be taking in little bits of slack. This will make any potential fall much smaller.
  • When the climber first starts off the ground or when she is right above a big ledge, keep the belay tight so that a fall and the resulting rope stretch won’t mean she’s hitting the ground or ledge.
  • The PBUS technique is exactly the same if you’re using an assisted-braking device like a Cinch or a Grigri.
  • When first learning to belay, it’s crucial to have a backup belayer, or someone who is also holding the brake strand and is there in case you don’t catch a fall. Not only can a backup belayer provide important pointers as you’re belaying, she also provides a third person to double-check everyone’s belay and tie-in setups.
  • Always have a certified instructor or experienced climber show you this technique and watch you practice it before doing it on your own.