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When I was a brand-new climber, my transition from gym to crag happened in my first week of rock climbing. My friend and mentor Seiji took me to a climbing gym whereI did a few toprope climbs and was instantly hooked. Seiji said, “If you think this is cool, wait until I take you outside on real rock.” The following week, I found myself standing at the bottom of a climb on the Austin Greenbelt called Meet the Flintstones. After I toproped it without falling, Seiji asked me if I wanted to learn how to lead. My first question was, If I fall, will I hit the ground? After a few minutes of Seiji’s instruction, I tied in and led my first route—as my second pitch ever.
Looking back, my rapid progression was the equivalent of throwing someone in the deep end of the pool to teach them how to swim. In those days, there was so much I didn’t know—and worse yet, didn’t know that I didn’t know. I was blissfully ignorant. After decades of climbing and teaching gym-to-crag skills, I’ve learned the importance of teaching three main skills—lead belaying, hanging and clipping quickdraws, and cleaning an anchor—while still standing on the ground. I show my students each skill, and then have them demonstrate it until they can prove competency before I turn them loose up on the rock.
If you have a lead-belay certification from your gym, then you probably already know the basic mechanics. For those looking to take that skill outside, there are a few extra things to be aware of. To begin, you won’t be standing on a level surface like padded flooring—we need to take a few extra measures to ensure we’re using best practices. When you arrive at the crag, take a minute and survey the scene, find an open climb, and if there are other people there, ask them if there’s anyone else waiting. If you get the green light, commence as outlined below:
- Closing the System. Very simply, this means tying a stopper knot in the bottom end of the rope or tying it securely to your rope bag. A common cause of accidents is the belayer accidentally lowering the climber off the end of the rope. If you’re lead belaying, it’s easy to become distracted—and you don’t want to be responsible for a possible accident or injury because the rope isn’t long enough to lower the climber. Be sure the knot is well dressed, meaning nice and tight with plenty of tail. And don’t bury the end under the pile of rope—you’ll want to double-check you have a closed system as part of your pre-flight safety check between climber and belayer.
- Flaking the Rope. After you’ve closed the system with a stopper knot, run the rope through your hands from one end to the other to check for knots or twists. This is also a great opportunity to inspect the rope to be sure there aren’t any bad spot—e.g., soft or squishy spots, core shots, fuzzy patches, etc. Doing this will ensure that you deliver a smooth lead belay with less chance of short-roping your leader.
- Loading and Function-Checking Your belay Device.
While your choice of belay device is a personal preference, most gyms across the country already have a Petzl Grigri pre-loaded on the rope, and so gym climbers will be familiar with it. The device—the first belay-assist device ever to hit the market—is also in common use at the cliffs, so we’ll use this as our example device for the sake of this article. When you’re out on your own, you’ll need to ensure the rope is loaded in the correct direction so it can function properly. If you just bought a Grigri (or whichever device), read the pamphlet to be sure you understand best practices. If, like me, you’ve long since recycled the safety booklet, you can download it off the Petzl website; there is also a diagram on the side of the device.
Once you have the rope in the device, and the device is attached to your belay loop with a locking carabiner, grab the rope that exits the climber side of the device and pull up sharply a few times. The rope shouldn’t slide through at all but should lock up. Use all of your senses for this step: Eyes, Ears, and Touch. Look and see the camming unit engage, listen for the clicking sound of the camming unit engaging, and feel the tension on your belay loop.
- Maintaining an appropriate amount of slack.
When lead belaying, you don’t want to have the rope too tight; neither do you want it too loose. I always tell my belayer to give me a “smile, not a mile”—i.e., the rope should make a small smiley face between the belayer and the leader. This allows the climber to move freely without being tugged on, which can pull the climber off balance or prevent them from making sudden dynamic movements. As you lead belay, you’ll want to monitor that smile of rope, feeding slack out if it gets too short and taking in slack if it gets too long.
There are two main methods of feeding slack with the Grigri: the slow-feed and the fast-feed method. The slow-feed method is used when you climber is moving between bolts, taking their time as they do the moves. When the climber needs to clip the rope into a quickdraw, you’ll need to quickly feed slack using the fast-feed method. To do so, maintain your brake hand on the rope and don’t hold the device in a way that prevents the locking mechanism from functioning should your climber suddenly fall as you pay out slack.
For a visual on how to do this properly, the video above shows Dale below fast-feeding slack. Practice paying slack out using both methods so you can be fully dialed—the last thing you want to do is to short-rope your leader or slam them should they fall.
- Giving a cushioned catch.
When your leader takes a fall, you’ll want to decelerate their speed gradually, giving them a nice, soft catch to reduce the chance of injury. The analogy I often use is that you want your climber to come to a gradual stop, like you would if you’re gently pressing the brakes in your car. You don’t want to slam on the brakes and come to a screeching halt, and “stop short” Kramer-style.
There are many factors at play, and much of this comes down to judgement calls and experience. You know you’re giving enough cushion if the belayer’s body lifts off the ground. With the Grigri or any other brake-assist device, you’re less likely to drop your brake hand during the process.
Maintaining a smile of slack is a helpful start, but you also need to consider any weight differential between the climber and the belayer, as well as obstacles on the ground. For example, if the climber is heavier than the belayer, it’s a guarantee that the belayer will be lifted off the ground and will be suspended above their belay stance. This is a good thing, so don’t fight it and go with the flow. If the climber grossly outweighs the belayer, consider using some sort of ground anchor to prevent the climber from getting launched.
On the other hand, if the belayer is heavier than the climber, the belayer will have to work more diligently to deliver a soft catch. Start with the smile of rope as mentioned and position yourself in an athletic stance with one foot in front of the other, as if riding a surfboard. Keep your knees bent, and when you feel the rope become taut, shift your weight to your front foot and give a slight hop up toward the wall.
Don’t be afraid to tell your belayer what you need for a cushioned catch—never assume they know how, especially with a new partner.
- Lowering. No one likes a herky-jerky lower, nor one that’s too fast or too slow. What you’re shooting for is a nice, smooth lower at one constant speed. Grab the brake strand and move that hand toward your back pocket. The brake strand will run across your hip and add friction, plus your hands won’t get sucked into the device. Gently pull back the handle on the Grigri and find the sweet spot. If you’re doing this correctly, the device should take most of the friction, not your hand. Lastly, it’s a great idea to wear belay gloves. Not only do they keep your hands clean, they also allow you to feel more in control while lowering your climber.
To simulate lead belaying, you can practice with the first draw clipped and work on feeding out slack for the entire length of the rope.
Hanging and Clipping Quickdraws
When you’re climbing indoors, the draws are already clipped into the lead bolts, but when you climb outdoors, you’ll often need to equip the route with your own quickdraws—to “hang the draws,” in climber-speak. Outside, you’ll thus want to carry a couple more quickdraws than you think you might need, in case you miscounted, need to extend any to minimize rope drag, or accidently drop one. Above all, the most important thing to remember is to get the rope into the carabiner quickly—and in the correct configuration.
- Which way to face the quickdraw?
This matters most when you have a route that traverses laterally, in which case you want to clip the draw to the hanger such that the gate on the-rope side biner faces away from your direction of travel. In other words, if the route moves left from the bolt, the gate should face right. We do this because it’s best if the rope runs across the spine of the carabiner and not the gate. This is worth doing even if the climbing more or less follows the bolt line—you’ll always be traveling slightly to one side of the bolts or the other, so make a quick assessment and clip accordingly.
Also ensure that your quickdraw is clipped with the loose carabiner on the bolt end, so that as you climb, the quickdraw can float on the hanger and equalize as you move up. Also, the top carabiner often will get nicked and create a sharp metal burr, which could cut your rope were you to use it as a rope-side biner.
The bottom carabiner of your quickdraw is often secured with a rubber gasket to prevent it from flipping around and to make it more stable and easy to clip. No doubt you’ve heard horror stories of homemade quickdraws failing, so if you’re using someone else’s draws, inspect them to see if they have been correctly assembled. Better yet, do yourself a favor and buy quickdraws that have been pre-assembled by the manufacturer.
- Thumb Clip vs Finger Clip Method
Check out the above video on how to clip the rope into a quickdraw using these two methods. There are four possible ways you can clip—right or left handed, and gates facing right or left—so practice all four. This skill is purely muscle memory, and it’s important to practice it while you’re comfortably standing on the ground, so that when you’re stressed in the moment up on a climb, you can clip the rope in quickly and without issues.
- Avoid backclipping.
Make sure the belayer’s strand is in the back of the carabiner (the side closest to the rock), while the climber’s strand exits the carabiner’s front; if the rope is in the opposite configuration, you’re backclipped. It’s important to avoid backclipping because if you were to climb above a backclipped quickdraw and fall, the rope could twist the draw and unclip itself from the bottom biner. To fix a backclip, unclip the carabiner on the hanger side of the quickdraw, and then rotate it in the proper direction so that the climber strand now exits the front of the bottom carabiner.
- Clip from a solid stance.
Choose the best hand- and footholds at your stance, then once you pull up slack, resist the urge to adjust your stance, which could cause you to become off balance and fall with the extra slack out, resulting in a larger, more consequential fall.
- Don’t pull up more slack than necessary.
The ideal clipping height is with the quickdraw located somewhere between your waist and shoulders. In this range, you’ll pull less rope out—perhaps just one armful from your belayer—and it’s way more energy-efficient. This is especially important as you’re closer to the ground, say between bolts one and three where you might deck if you fall with extra rope out. If you need more than one armful of slack, because the clip is high and the best clipping holds are lower, pinch the rope between your lips—don’t bite it. If you were to fall with the rope in your teeth, your natural reaction would be to bite down, which has in fact led to climbers losing teeth when they hit the end of the rope.
To simulate clipping, have a friend hold up a quickdraw so you can practice clipping it all four ways.
Cleaning an Anchor
This is a question that comes up with many of the clients I guide: Is it better to rappel or lower when cleaning an anchor? The argument you’ll hear most often is that the hardware will wear out more quickly if you lower off. My answer to that is that your life is not replaceable, but the hardware is—in fact, very easily. Moreover, rappelling is statistically far more dangerous than being lowered because you have more steps, and more instances of connection to and disconnection from the rope.
There are several reasons I always start out by teaching the lowering method. One, it’s only one new skill (cleaning process) versus two (cleaning process, plus rappelling). Two, by lowering you will be on belay throughout the process, which puts the responsibility in the hands of both climber and belayer to double-check each other. And three, it’s simply safer—there’s no question about that.
There are many variables at play when it comes to anchor cleaning, including the condition of the anchor hardware (chains or rings) and how the toprope anchor is attached (two quickdraws, slings with locking carabiners, etc). Check out this video on a few of the variations and methods for cleaning an anchor:
As you practice on your own, keep the following key points in mind:
- Make a plan.
Communicate your plan for cleaning to your belayer before you leave the ground. Make sure you’re both on the same page. Be sure your belayer keeps you on belay throughout the whole cleaning process.
- Attach yourself into two points.
Add an attachment from your harness into two separate anchor points with your equipment of choice (PAS, suickdraws, or slings). Make sure your connection is equalized between the two points and tensioned throughout this process. You should never clip in to just one anchor bolt—always two.
- Thread the rope.
This is the first method featured in the video and also the easiest to execute: Ask your belayer for slack—about three to four armfuls. If you’re lucky enough to have rings or large chain links at the top of the route, pass a bight made of this slack through the rings, and then tie a bight knot (overhand-on-a-bight or figure-8-on-a-bight) and clip it to your belay loop with a locking carabiner. Having done this, you can now untie the figure-8-follow-through (climbing knot) you were tied in with, then pull the free end through the rings.
Per the second method in the video, which becomes essential with anchors with tighter/narrower threading points (i.e., smaller chain links), you can untie and rethread. To do so, go in hard to two equalized points as above, pull up a few armfuls of slack, and clip them off to your belay loop with a bight knot and a locker. Untie your climbing knot, take the figure 8 out of the rope, thread the anchors, then tie back in with your figure-8-follow-through. Unclip and undo your bight knot..
- Check the new connection before removing the old connection.
Once your climbing rope is through the chains or rings and clipped back to your belay loop or tied through your harness, ask your belayer to take you tight so you can transfer your weight off your personal connection back onto the climbing rope. This will allow you to double-check that everything is connected properly before you unclip. You want to feel the tension in the system before you untether from the anchors.
The best progression with anchor-cleaning is to practice at home or on the ground (many popular crags have practicing stations these days) so you can focus on the steps in a comfortable learning environment. If you don’t have that option, you can make an anchor board out of a wood plank and the hardware that you can hang up anywhere. I always take one of these teaching tools along when teaching a gym-to-crag curriculum.
Lastly, a few dos and don’ts regarding cliff-side behavior:
Do minimize your impact.
Keep your things neatly contained and not crowding others. Keep the chatter and noise level to a minimum. Lastly, as a dog owner and lover, as much as it pains me to say this, leave the pooches at home. There are enough distractions at the crag already.
Don’t hog the crag.
As fun as it is for you to go climbing outdoors with all your friends, it isn’t fun for other people out there trying to do the same. Break into smaller group—ideally teams no larger than four people per route—and play nicely with others.
Don’t toprope through fixed hardware.
Run the rope through your own hardware at the top of the climb, especially if all your buddies are going to do toprope laps. You don’t want to wear out the anchors any faster than necessary, though it is OK for the last person to lower off the climb.