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Long before the invention of belay devices, the hip belay provided security for the second and saved time in the mountains. When used correctly, a bomber stance can replace a traditional anchor, or you can back up a marginal anchor with a solid stance. It’s best in lower-angled and broken terrain, where a fall by the second is easily recovered, and there is little danger of a pendulum swing. Proper gear placement or redirection of the rope with natural features (e.g., trees and immovable rocks) by the leader is essential to keep the second from taking a big swing, which could pull the belayer out of position. The biggest benefit of the hip belay is moving methodically and speedily through the alpine and covering more ground. Speed is safety in the mountains.
1. STANCE A good hip belay is all about stance. Brace your feet on something solid and immovable, like a large boulder or natural ledge, that wouldn’t move even if you applied the force of a fall against it. Find a place to sit so your legs are fully extended and your skeletal structure is supporting you—not just your leg muscles. Be sure that you cannot be pulled out of your stance. Use an anchor to improve the stance if you are unsure of your position by placing gear behind you and clipping directly into it. Be aware of your environment: In broken and lower-angled terrain, the rope runs over more rock, which provides more friction for your belay. In steeper terrain, where there is less friction, more weight will be loaded onto you. Possibility of a pendulum swing? Any chance of getting pulled out of position? Take the time to back yourself up with gear, or set up an anchor and use a belay device.
2. ROPE POSITION Once you have a solid position, thread the rope around your waist. In a fall, the rope will try to rotate you in the direction of the fall. It’s extremely important that your primary anchored leg is on the same side as the climber’s rope, so that the force of a fall does not rotate you out of position. (Improve your stance by putting your hip against a ledge or other immovable object.) With the climber’s rope running between your hip and the ledge, the force of a fall will rotate your body against the ledge, making your position more solid. Pay attention to how high the rope runs over your body. If it is too high—just below shoulder blades—a fall will lever your upper body forward, pivoting at your hips. This can pull you out of position or pull the rope over your head, leading to disastrous consequences. Don’t be tempted to run the rope over your pack; the correct way is to wrap the rope low, down around your hips and below your pack, if you are wearing one. To protect yourself from rope burn or the rope pinching you, tuck your shirt in and run the rope over the waistbelt of your harness. Keeping your pack on prevents the rope from slipping up higher on your back. With the rope threaded properly, the force of a fall is directly in line with your legs—putting that power and energy into your stance.
3. BELAY Hold the rope with your palms up, and as the climber moves up, pull slack into your body with the guide hand. At the same time, pull slack around and away from your body with the brake hand. Now, reach outside your brake hand with your guide hand so that you can slide your brake hand back into the ready position closer into your body without letting go of the rope. In the case of a fall, extend your brake arm fully down into your lap so that the brake rope wraps over the top of your thigh and your arm is locked off. Keep your legs fully extended and sit up straight. Leaning back too far can allow the rope to slide under your backside.
Note: A standing hip belay is the most unstable form of this technique. The force of a fall could easily pull you off your feet. If you need to stand, brace a foot out in front of you, lean against the rock, and consider using an anchor.
A fully certified AMGA/IFMGA guide, Christian Santelices was former Chief Guide for Exum Mountain Guides in the Tetons; he currently teaches avalanche courses, ski guides, and leads custom adventures through his guiding company Aerial Boundaries (aerialboundaries.com).