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Leader Decks When Experienced Climber Bungles The Belay

Don't assume that because someone can climb hard that they are good belayers.

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Today’s “I can’t believe it, but it actually happened,” tale from a reader.

I went climbing with a new partner. He was a 5.13+ leader, so I didn’t put too much thought into his belay technique until I fell at the second bolt and landed on the ground. His response was, “That’s weird, the Grigri didn’t work.” It turned out his belay style was to hold the Grigri’s cam down, and use his left hand to feed slack. If a climber fell, he would let go of the Grigri completely so it would lock. His excuse for dropping me was that he was using my Grigri 2, which felt different than his own. A couple months later I saw him playing with a leaf with no hands on the device while his climber was starting a crux, which might actually be safer than having him hold the Grigri open during a fall.—Brian, via email

LESSON: You’d be surprised how many strong climbers have terrible safety records; don’t assume anyone is competent. Like with any belay device, your brake hand should never leave the rope while using a Grigri. Don’t hold the cam down unless you need to feed out slack quickly, and even then you should have your hand around the brake strand. Use your thumb to lightly hold the lever in place, but don’t wrap your hand around the device. Our reflex is to tighten up when our climber falls. If you have your entire hand around the Grigri like the fellow here, you may inadvertently disengage the device and let the rope fly right through it, which can really ruin a day out.

The fact that experienced and even professional climbers might not be competent belayers is precisely why gyms make everyone take a belay test before they are certified to belay. You should do something similar. Next time you climb with a stranger, give them a quick test. Tie in and when you are on belay jerk on the rope to see what happens, and as you start leading you might “take” on the first bolt and lower to check the system. Your belayer literally has your life in their hands. Make sure those are good hands, and don’t be afraid to criticize you belayer’s technique if it isn’t up to par.