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Belaying an XL: Tips for Lightweight Climbers

You might be lighter than your partner, but you can still belay with confidence. The author shares tips from decades of climbing and guiding.

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I swung my brake hand hard against my hip and flew 20 feet up to an ice screw. The fall by Peter Athans, 185 pounds of muscle, through space off the famous Fang ice climb in Vail, Colorado, ripped the belay anchor to which I was attached. At a far-fewer 115 pounds, I launched into the air.

The author, Kitty Calhoun, longtime climber and guide. (Photo: Jay Smith)

Pete’s top screw failed, the next one caught, the forces equalized, and he and I came to rest hanging like clicker-clackers off one bent screw. Although he had fallen about 30 feet, he was fortunately unharmed, as was I.

This was one of the most dramatic belays I have experienced and illustrated the effect of a heavier leader falling and being caught by a lighter belayer.

Over the last 35 years of climbing and guiding, I’ve belayed innumerable partners who outweighed me, and along the way learned a few tricks both to help me catch them and feel confident belaying them. As a lighter person than your climbing partner, you can do this with confidence.

Tips for Lightweights

  1. Consider using a brake-assisted device.  These clamp the rope when there is a sudden pull, such as a lead fall, minimizing the risk of dropping a leader and making it easier for you to hold a leader who is working a route. Read all directions for using each type of belay device!
  2.  Stand in a braced position next to the cliff. If you are belaying away from the base and are not anchored, you may be yanked or dragged toward the cliff, increasing the length of the lead fall. The farther out you are, the greater the chance that you will reflexively let go of the belay to grab something to stop your slide. You could also, potentially, slam into the cliff and lose control of the belay.
  3. In certain cases,  such as when ice climbing or at a cliff with loose rock, belay off to the side, where you can’t be struck by falling ice or rock. When you do belay to the side, anchor in so you can’t be pulled into the path of falling debris. Also make sure the leader has a multi-directional piece as his or her first protection. When you anchor to the side, the angle of the rope will pull sideways on the first piece of pro, possibly lifting it out if it isn’t multidirectional.
  4. Understand the concept of a soft catch, and prepare for your own experience of it as a light person. On sport routes the belayer is often expected to jump up (never give out slack, a method used by some) when a leader falls, especially if the belayer is using a brake-assisted device or the leader weighs a lot less than the belayer. As a lighter belayer, you won’t need to worry about jumping to soften the catch—your heavier leader will naturally catapult you skyward. When you are lifted, put your feet up and forward on the wall to keep your body away from it, and watch that your belay device doesn’t slam into the first piece of pro and jam open.
  5. Wear belay gloves, especially with a heavier climber or skinnier rope or in wet or icy conditions, to protect against rope burns.
  6. Wear a helmet to protect your noggin, especially if there is loose rock or ice.

KITTY CALHOUN is a professional guide and former co-owner of Chicks Climbing and Skiing. She lives and climbs in Castle Valley, Utah.

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