How to belay a heavier leader
People whose partners outweigh them by 25 pounds or more routinely get yanked off the ground when catching sport-climbing leader falls. Although this phenomenon is disconcerting at first, it can be perfectly safe with a few simple precautions—and it provides a nice, soft catch for the climber. Some climbers recommend anchoring a light belayer to the ground, but this may cause the falling leader to experience a hard, shocking fall. In most cases, allowing a sport-climbing belayer to move around decreases the chance of injury to the leader and belayer, and also lowers the force applied to the system.
POSITION When belaying, stand directly under the first bolt. Should the leader fall, this ensures you will be lifted straight upward, not dragged across the ground or scraped along the side of the cliff.
SHOE UP Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes: no flip-flops! As you’re yanked upward, both hands will be occupied with holding the rope, so it’s your feet that keep your body away from the rock. In a hard fall, the forces can be violent, so belay gloves and—if you’re not too cool—a helmet also are recommended.
CLEARANCE If the first bolt is close to the ground, consider having the leader unclip it after clipping the second bolt; this will prevent you from being yanked up into the first quickdraw. Or, use an extra-long stick clip to bypass the first bolt, eliminating the down-climbing and unclipping shenanigans.
TERRAIN Scan the rock under the first bolt or two, following your likely path of upward trajectory. Are there any rock spikes or nasty overhangs to be wary of, or is the wall smooth and forgiving? Visualize where you might impact the rock—hopefully feet first—at three, five, or 10 feet off the ground. If there is a chance of being yanked into something nasty, find another climb or recruit a heavier belayer.
BE READY When the leader pitches off, hold on tight and prepare for liftoff. Do not jump! If the leader is low on the climb, consider dropping down on one knee. This will increase the distance between belayer and leader by a foot or two, which might be just enough to prevent climber and belayer from knocking into each other. If a collision is unavoidable, turn your head away, keep your mouth shut to protect your jaw, and don’t let go of the rope with your brake hand.
STAY NIMBLE As you get pulled, keep your feet underneath you— the movement feels sort of like a speedy rappel in reverse. Your goal is to leave the ground in balance.
COMMUNICATE Holds break, wasps fly out of holes—a good belayer should be prepared for a fall at any time. Still, the leader can help. When a fall seems like a distinct possibility, calling out, “Watch me!” puts the belayer on high alert.