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5 Tips for Safer Belaying

Internationally certified mountain guide Rob Coppolillo shares five ways to ensure a safer belay.

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Understanding proper belay technique is of critical importance—the link between climber, rope, and belayer is what keeps us alive. However, there are a number of actions you can take to add another layer of safety while belaying. Here are a few of my favorite tips:

1. Do some minor housekeeping around your belay zone.

Uneven rocks, loose water bottles, piles of gear, and wandering dogs can distract a belayer. If the belayer is fighting to keep his balance or find his footing, he isn’t paying attention to his climber. Stash packs, move small rocks, rearrange your pose—anything to keep yourself comfortable and focused on the leader. Keep in mind your Leave No Trace principles, too, though: We don’t want to make a “dead zone” at the bottom of a climb. No trampling tundra, wildflowers, etc.!

2. Use an assisted-braking belay device

\While some of these devices typically increase fall forces on your system, they also build in some risk management because they’re far more likely to catch a climber if the belayer is displaced or injured by a huge fall or hit by rock or ice—or if anything else unexpected happens.

3. Take a braced stance, anchor yourself down, or simply sit down.

The belayer is far less likely to be pulled into the rock if she’s ready for a fall. Falls can happen quickly and unexpectedly, so thinking ahead can prevent injury to the belayer and reduce the chances of the belayer dropping the climber.

4. On multi-pitch routes, build an anchor with the master point at chest level or higher for the belayer.

This does two things: First, it ensures the belayer can’t slip, slide, or tumble downward and thereby pull the leader off while she’s climbing. Second, the leader will be able to clip the master point or the highest, best piece in the anchor when leaving the stance. This prevents a factor-2 fall directly onto the belayer, which would occur if the climber fell before placing and clipping a piece.

5. The catastrophe knot. 

Any time there is a chance of the belayer losing control of the brake strand, he should tie a catastrophe knot in it. If the leader is risking a huge fall, or a factor-2 fall onto the belayer/anchor, the belayer can pull up the brake strand and tie a catastrophe knot (usually an overhand-on-a-bight) into it far enough down the rope that the leader can complete the hard climbing before the knot comes up to the belayer, who would then undo the knot. This backs up the belay in case the belayer can’t hold a fall.