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Climbers are constantly trying to increase their strength and improve climbing technique, while belaying the leader is often viewed as a stagnant skill: Once you know how to feed out rope, take in slack, and catch a fall, you’re done. False. All climbers should strive to refine their belaying practices throughout their climbing career, which means learning and practicing the subtleties that make a truly great belayer. We’ve talked to guides, longtime climbers, and even a physicist about how to give the best catch possible in a variety of situations, and we’ve compiled all that information here. Dial in these methods every time you go to the gym or the crag, and your top-notch belay services will mean you’ll never have trouble finding a partner again.
Before the climb
>>Wear closed-toe shoes to protect your feet if you’re being pulled up through obstacles, jumping into the air, and deflecting off the wall.
>>Belay gloves will give you increased control of the rope (including better grip on skinny cords), as well as protect your hands from rope burns and anything that might get stuck in the rope as it drags across the ground toward your brake hand. (Think: A cactus needle stabbed one belayer in the hand and resulted in him dropping the rope completely.)
>>Check your belay stance by making sure you have a clear path between you and the cliff (in case you get pulled into it), and be aware of loose rocks as you shift your position by stepping forward or backward. Tripping in this situation can pull your climber right off the wall.
>>This is more of a belaying basic, but it can’t be stated enough: Always double-check your belay setup and the climber’s tie-in knot before he leaves the ground.
>>Communication between climber and belayer is key. For more info on this, check out Know The Ropes.
>>If you are a lighter belayer, don’t anchor yourself to anything on the ground. That would result in a hard catch on the climber and a violent jerk for you. If the climber is significantly heavier than you and long falls are possible, consider finding another belayer.
>>Golden rule of belaying: Belay others as you’d like to be belayed. Focus on your leader, don’t get distracted, and pay attention.
>>Talk through how to belay a route beforehand. Maybe there are slab sections, roofs, near-groundfall clips, etc.; it helps to agree on how each section should be belayed so both partners are on the same page.
>>If you’re heavier than your climber, know how to give a dynamic belay (see below).
During the climb
>>Smaller belayers should consider using an assisted-braking device and standing really close to the base of the wall, near the first clip. This will help catch a fall and minimize the distance the heavier climber falls, which also minimizes the distance the climber has to yard up to get back on the route. Since lighter belayers will get pulled into the wall naturally, be aware of the lowest pieces of protection. We’ve heard horror stories of broken fingers as a result of being catapulted into the first draw.
>>Whenever you’re not feeding slack, be prepared with your brake hand in a locked position. The climber might be tired, off-route, out of sequence, scared, or even just evaluating a loose hold. If the climber isn’t climbing, he might be falling, and even when he is climbing, he might be about to fall!
>>Exercise situational awareness; know where your climber is and what he might hit if he takes a fall. He might need a bit more slack to clear a roof and fall into space, or he might need less to avoid hitting a ledge.
>>Keep tabs on the rope: the location of the midpoint (will you still be able to lower the climber?), where the end is, the amount of stretch you expect, that the coil is feeding smoothly to you, there are no knots in the rope, etc.
>>It’s your job to alert the climber if his leg gets between the rock and the rope (this can cause him to get flipped upside down in a fall and hit his head). If you see this happen, alert the climber by yelling up to him: “Joe, watch your leg!” or “Joe, watch the rope!”
>>It’s also your job to alert the climber if he has Z-clipped (clipped the rope from below a lower piece into a higher piece) or back-clipped (instead of the leader’s rope running up through the draw and away from the wall, the rope runs up through the draw and out between the biner and the wall. If you didn’t already know what these things are, consider taking a basic lead-belay course.) Yell up to him to correct his mistake.
>>When the climber is low to the ground, you’ll want less rope out to keep him from hitting the deck. As he moves up, you can keep a bit more slack in the system so he has ample rope to pull up and clip.
>>Anticipate clips and be super-active with the rope, whether he’s clipping below his waist or way above his head. You’ll need to quickly feed out slack to avoid short-roping him (meaning you stop the rope from feeding through, which is not only annoying for the climber, but could cause him to fall at an inopportune time), but if he can’t make the clip or drops the rope suddenly, you’ll want to quickly reel in slack to avoid a huge fall.
>>On the very start of a climb, the belayer might need to stand off to the side of the climber so he doesn’t land on your head if he falls. The belayer also might need to help the climber step over the rope by moving in closer to the wall or repositioning the rope.
>>Encourage and reassure your climber as much as you can. He might need that extra push to get through a hard or scary move. Simple words like, “You got it!” or “Keep fighting, Joe!” might go further than you think.
>>An assisted-braking device might not lock up completely if your climber is very light, if the climber sits back on the rope (instead of falling), or if there’s a lot of rope drag—more reasons to always have a hand on the brake side.
>>Before the climber makes the first clip or places his first piece, spot him by standing slightly behind and having your hands up, ready to guide his fall safely to the ground.
>>If the climber takes a fall higher on the route, you can assist him in getting back up by sitting back and putting all your weight on the rope while he pulls the rope down toward you. Time it right so you’re weighting the rope while he’s pulling himself up, and then quickly pull slack through your device. Repeat this process until he’s back to where he wants to be. Same goes for boinking: Make sure the rope is fully weighted when he’s pulling up.
>>To avoid aches and pains while belaying, shift your weight between feet, take a step to the side to slightly change your stance, move your neck and eyes as much as possible, and stay loose. To prevent and treat the dreaded belayer’s neck, check out this handy guide.
>>When lowering on a sport climb, step forward so you’re practically leaning against the rock directly under the first bolt. Lowering the climber while standing away from the first bolt puts a tremendous amount of outward force on a bolt that is primarily designed for a downward force. Plus, this bolt sees more traffic and impact than almost any other bolt on the climb.
When the leader starts to fall, our first instinct is to lock down the rope quick and hard, minimizing the overall distance the climber will fall. This can cause a leader to slam hard into the wall, resulting in snapped ankles, jarred spines, and serious head injury if the climber falls upside down. A way to mitigate this is to aim for giving a “soft catch” by dynamic belaying, which eases the climber into the wall and greatly reduces the chance of injury. Keep in mind that a dynamic belay isn’t always appropriate and it’s an expert technique, so make sure the answers to the following questions are yes before you employ this method.
♉ Is the path of the fall free from ledges, slabby sections, or other obstacles (including the ground) that the climber would hit if she takes a longer fall? If these are present, give a catch that will land the climber in a spot that avoids these hazards altogether.
♉ Is the belayer a similar weight to the climber or heavier? A lighter belayer will get pulled up in the air when the heavier climber takes a fall, and that unintentional movement by the belayer will naturally result in a soft catch.
♉ Are you on a trad line with marginal gear? A soft catch will reduce the force on the piece catching a fall, which could mean the difference between a safe catch and pulling gear.
The ProcessWe talked to physicist and climber Adam Scheer to see how a dynamic belay works. The belayer jumps as the climber begins to weight the rope. Because the belayer introduces upward momentum from the jump, it momentarily takes less work to continue pulling him upward, in essence reducing his weight from the standpoint of the climber. This lengthens the time over which the catch takes place, thus softening the catch. The belayer needs to stay light on his feet and be prepared to get pulled into the wall quickly. Keep knees and feet soft for low impact. Timing the jump is a mix between art, science, and practice, but you want to be moving upward just as the climber starts to put downward force on the rope. Falls happen quickly, so if the climber isn’t very high above his last piece, the belayer can usually plan to jump as soon as the climber comes off. If the climber is 10 feet or more (spicy!) above his last piece, the belayer can wait a split second before jumping.
>>Don’t feed out extra slack. This results in a harder catch because it increases the fall factor. If a climber takes a 10-foot fall with 20 feet of rope in the system, the fall factor is 0.5. If the belayer includes an extra five feet of slack (15-foot fall, 25 feet of rope in the system), the fall factor increases to 0.6, resulting in a harder catch (increased maximum force). Only give extra slack to make sure the climber clears an obstacle.
>>Don’t mistime your jump. If the belayer jumps too early, his center of gravity will actually be on the way down when the climber is reaching the point of maximum force. The belayer acts as a counterweight, and if he is traveling downward, his momentum will be counteracted by the falling climber, causing a harder catch.
>>Don’t run toward the wall, which will not soften a catch when the first piece is high (20 feet or more). This is dictated by trigonometry. (Scheer says, “Trust me, I’ve done the math.” For more info on this, visit climbinghouse.com.)
Adam Scheer — As a Ph.D. physicist and an avid rock climber, Adam has studied the physics of climbing and belaying for climbinghouse.com. Based in California’s Bay Area, he is currently researching the fundamental chemistry of new biofuels.