If you take new climbers out on hard terrain, you know this common mishap. Your partner makes it halfway up a pitch and then gets stuck. He just can’t climb any higher—doesn’t know where to go or what to do. He starts to panic. Remember that this has probably happened to all of us at one time or another. If you’re at the base of the climb, there’s little you can do other than coach him or lower. But if you’re at the top and you have a good array of skills in your bag of tricks, then you have options. You can still lower him if that’s best, and, of course, you can and should still coach him, but you can also give him a little assist by hauling him through the hard part.
The best and easiest way to assist a climber from above is simply to position your belay stance where you’ll be able to watch him. By having visual contact, you’ll be able to manage the belay more effectively, taking in slack in sync with your partner’s movement. Plus, giving advice to a climber who encounters a challenging section may prove ineffective if the belayer can’t actually see him.
If someone just physically can’t do a move or is too tired to climb up a tough crux section, small assistance from the belayer may be enough to get him over the impasse. A simple method is the vector pull. First, some physics to help understand why this works. Picture a Tyrolean traverse. If the climber crossing weighs 200 pounds and is hanging from the middle of the rope, with an angle slightly less than 180 degrees (essentially horizontal), the force at each anchor is roughly 1,000 pounds. But if that angle were to decrease, the force exerted on each anchor decreases. For example, when the angle is relatively narrow (22 degrees or less), the 200-pound climber weights each anchor with only 100 pounds. So, let’s say you’re belaying from the top of the cliff, and your climber is unable to move up past a tough section of the climb. With a tight rope (180-degree angle) between you and your parter, you can create a surprising amount of force just by reaching down and pulling laterally on the rope to decrease that 180-degree angle between you and your climber. This is often enough to boost someone past a single move, especially if he is able to assist by, well, climbing.
3:1 Raising System
One reason to belay from above, or direct belay, with an assisted-braking belay device (such as the Grigri) is that it is easily converted to a 3:1 raising system (aka the Z system) in a matter of seconds. For most guides and climbing instructors, the direct belay is always the first choice, provided the anchor is solid, because it allows the belayer to prepare for any eventuality, such as a quick lowering or raising of the climber. Most instructors use a Grigri clipped directly to the master point. To set up a 3:1 raise, follow these steps:
1. Tie a back-up knot (overhand or figure eight on a bight) in the brake strand that’s coming out of the Grigri. This allows the belayer to go hands-free.
2. Tie a friction hitch (prusik or Klemheist) (A) with a sling or webbing on the load strand that goes down to the climber.
3. Clip the brake strand of the rope (from the Grigri) to a locking carabiner (B) clipped to the friction hitch, and push the friction hitch as far down as possible toward the climber.
4. Untie the back-up knot and pull up on the brake strand of the rope (C). For every three feet pulled through the Grigri, the load is raised one foot. Note: Friction against the rope is the enemy in any raising system. If the rope going to the climber is in contact with a large surface area of rock, the raise will be correspondingly more difficult. Using a pulley at the friction-hitch carabiner (B) would reduce friction and make it easier to pull. Remember, this technique is for assisting a climber to help him get past a tough spot—not to haul up a severely injured or unconscious climber.
5. When the friction hitch is all the way to the Grigri, reset it by sliding it back down toward the climber. The Grigri’s built-in ratchet will lock off and hold the load when this is done. Then continue the raise.
3:1 Assisted Raise
For this method, the climber must be close enough that it is possible to throw him a bight of rope. The climber clips the rope onto a carabiner on the belay loop of his harness to assist in the raise. Using this system allows both the climber and belayer to work together, and makes it much easier for the belayer to raise the climber.
1. Tie a back-up knot (overhand or figure eight on a bight) on the brake-strand side of the belay device.
2. Toss a bight of rope down to the climber from the brake strand and have him clip it onto his belay loop with a locking carabiner (A). If he does not already have a locking carabiner on his harness, carefully lower a carabiner down. Don’t throw it.
3. Identify which strand the climber should pull on by shaking it.
4. Untie the back-up knot.
5. The climber pulls down as the belayer pulls up on the brake-strand side of the rope (B). Warn the climber to watch his hands so they are not pinched in the carabiner when pulling.
If you lead a steep climb and your follower comes off and can’t reach the rock, these hauling systems provide you the means to get your partner back on the route so you can keep moving. They also offer options if he gets stuck on a move or just plain poops out. And that’s what being a good partner is all about.
Excerpted from Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual, by Bob Gaines and Jason D. Martin ($22). This book was designed to supplement the course material presented in the American Mountain Guides Association’s Single Pitch Instructor course. The course and the textbook were both built for capable recreational climbers who wish to take the step from personal climbing to climbing instruction and guiding.