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I was in Russia recently and noticed a toprope belayer standing on the other side of the room from his climber. Startled, I looked more closely and realized he wasn’t using a belay device at all—he had a figure-eight on a bight clipped to his harness, and he was supporting his partner’s weight by walking backward. I didn’t become alarmed until the after-work crowd trickled in and I saw dozens of people belaying like this, criss-crossing the gym as they backed up from one wall to the other. I don’t speak Russian and didn’t want to come off as bigoted about cultural differences, so I didn’t say anything.
—Ron P., via email
I mean, why overcomplicate things, amiright?
Kidding aside, I was equally baffled upon hearing this story, so I did some research. From speaking with some Russian gym personnel, it sounds like this is a common and condoned practice, at least in some facilities. According to one manager of a St. Petersburg gym, traditional belaying with a Grigri is preferred, but some of their coaches teach kids the walking belay method as an easier alternative, and international visitors often use it as well.
The technique looks untidy. It looks uncomfortable. It looks decidedly uncool. But it’s not necessarily unsafe, especially provided that the climber doesn’t weigh significantly more than the belayer. In the photo, you’ll notice that the kids have clipped the belayer’s end of the rope to the first quickdraw, introducing a sharp bend and therefore a significant amount of friction to the system. That friction increases as the belayer moves further back and the angle grows more severe. Usually, that’s plenty to stop the small-magnitude falls that toprope climbing generates.
Low margin of risk aside, this method does present some problems, especially in a crowded gym.
- Rather than relying on the camming action of an assisted-braking belay device or the multi-directional friction of a tube-style device, the climber in this setup pretty much just has that one bend—and the friction of the belayer’s feet against the carpet. Again, that’s usually plenty to prevent a ground fall. And it would definitely be plenty if everyone had on Velcro shoes (still waiting for that patent to come in). But most gym belayers sport either bare soles or rock shoes. Neither option has a particularly confidence-inspiring coefficient of friction on gym carpeting. So, if a heavy climber punts on a dyno and the belayer begins to stumble forward, that climber is going to drop quite a bit further than intended. Again, the risk of injury is low, but it’s not an optimal result.
- In this photo, the ropes aren’t double-wrapped around a bar at the top. Instead, they appear to be threaded through two draws as in a lead-climbing setup. Double-wrapping would add more friction, better defending the belayer from carpet-skidding into the wall in event of a dramatically botched crux. Double-wrapping also helps avoid the perils of speed-lowering.
- The bigger issue with this technique, of course, is the total chaos it causes on the gym floor. If the belayer and climber are on opposite sides of the room, it becomes impossible to traverse the gym without walking between the two. If the belayer gets pulled into the wall, they’re taking any innocent passersby with them. Plus, if two belayers cross ropes—well, you can just imagine. (The Ghostbusters have that slogan for a reason.) Finally, even if all your neighbors somehow prove sufficiently spatially aware to avoid entering your zone of hazard, walking blindly backward across a crowded gym is, in general, not a good idea.
In sum: For public safety reasons, use a belay device.