When the weather’s good and the rock is calling, it’s easy to tie in and rush into climbing. But first, think about the belay. If your belayer’s not safe or stable, neither are you—whether you’re sport, trad, single-, or multi-pitch climbing. No matter who’s holding the rope—total newbie or hardened vet—setting up the belayer to deliver a secure, safe, reliable catch will not only prevent leader and belayer injury, it will also help the leader move faster and more efficiently.
Cragging with a flat base
To keep the belayer from slipping and potentially pulling the leader off, examine the route’s base. If it’s flat, the belayer should stand underneath the first piece, letting the rope run smoothly, without any jerking or short-roping that could pull off the leader. If there is a significant weight difference and the leader could fall, consider anchoring the belayer down (see “Catching the Climber”).
Cragging on uneven terrain
If the belay is uneven and the leader is solid on the terrain, the belayer could find somewhere comfortable to sit—a stable belayer is less likely to slip and pull the leader off, and less likely to lose control of the rope if a fall pulls him toward the wall. If the leader might fall, then the belayer should be upright and bracing in whatever body position. You can also build a mini-anchor using nuts, cams, or bolts above the belayer to prevent her from slipping and accidentally pulling off the leader; the belayer then ties into the bottom end of the rope and clove-hitches to the anchor.
- Want to learn to trad climb? Internationally certified mountain guides Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin will teach you the fundamentals of trad climbing in our 8-week online course: Intro to Trad Climbing. From placing/removing gear and proper belay techniques, to how to make an anchor and manage a stuck rope, Intro to Trad Climbing takes the guesswork out of exploring traditionally protected climbs.
Climbing off the ground
When in fourth-class terrain, high off the ground, or on a multipitch route, climbers should always have a solid anchor. Add comfort to the belay by placing the anchor above the belayer—this allows the belayer to weight the anchor and brace for leader falls. To protect the belayer and minimize the chances of a factor 2 fall—a high-force fall directly onto the anchor—the leader should place protection early on the pitch. However, note that any fall with minimal rope in the system will be violent and hard to catch—i.e., try to avoid falling with little rope out, even with gear in. As the leader climbs, she should be placing additional gear to prevent a long, higher-force fall, as well as to protect against landing on the belayer. If there’s a chance the leader could hit the belayer, consider adding a catastrophe knot (see “Backing up the Belayer”) or relocating the belay.
Catching the climber
Whether at the base or belaying from a stance, think about how the belayer will catch the climber. If there is a substantial weight difference, the belayer will likely be pulled up and into the wall. You can prevent this a few ways: First, have the belayer take a braced stance, such as an outstretched foot on a rock and a closer position to the wall, even leaning against it. For further protection, place a piece below and behind the belayer. Consider the orientation of the placement. If the leader whips, the belayer will be pulled up and the piece will act as a pivot point. You should thus avoid placing a piece in front of the belayer, as it could force him into the rock in a fall. (Note that the photo above shows the piece in front of the belayer solely to illustrate the tethering principle. She has simply stepped back from where she’d usually stand, for the photo.)
Think ABC—Anchor, Belayer, Climber—to keep the anchor, belayer, and climber/leader in as straight a line as possible, with or without a piece anchoring her down. This minimizes the chances of a lead fall pulling the belayer in at an awkward angle. Have no slack in the system, and keep your brake hand on the same side as your anchor attachment if using a piece beside you.
Backing up the belayer
One way to add more security to the belay is to use a “catastrophe knot.” First, estimate how much rope the leader will need to get through the hard climbing at hand, then tie an overhand on a bight that far down the brake strand. This catastrophe knot will jam into the belay device in case of belayer failure. After the leader climbs through the hard section and places gear, the belayer should undo the knot.
We’ve all been strung out on the sharp end for one reason or another. By setting a solid position for our belayer, making sure she can catch us well, and backing everything up, the leader and the belayer become safer. The sting of the sharp end dulls a little when the leader knows he’ll receive a reliable catch.
Safe belaying requires forethought, so your belayer can focus.
- If there’s any potential for rock- or icefall, position the belay in a protected spot—off to the side or with a natural protective feature. He should also wear a helmet.
- Belay gloves guard against rope burns and make it less likely that the belayer will accidentally let go of the rope.
- Keep ponytails, pack straps, slings, and dangly stuff away from your belay device—in a fall, these can get sucked in.
- Keep the rope organized and tangle-free.
Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin, both internationally licensed mountain guides, are co-authors of The Mountain Guide Manual ($25, Falcon Guides, 2017). For a more in-depth introduction to trad climbing, check out their 8-week Intro to Trad Climbing online course.