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The A+ Belay: Making the Grade, One Life at a Time

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From first-timers to elite climbers, we can all always find new ways to push our limits and improve. After climbing for 15 years, veterinarian turned pro climber Heather Weidner, the instructor for Climbing Magazine’s Intro to Sport Climbing course, constantly strives to push her boundaries.

In summer 2018, I was climbing with one of my best friends and long-time belayer, Elizabeth, in Peru. We were in Pitumarca, a limestone crag at nearly 14,000 feet of elevation. I was attempting to make the first ascent of a steep, thirty-five meter, tufa-ridden 5.13 bolted line with a thin and tricky boulder problem near the top. I had figured out all the moves and was ready to give it a redpoint whirl.

I began up the fourth-class start with confidence, about to clip the first bolt twelve feet-up, when I felt my juggy hand-holds loosen from the wall. In slow-motion, the entire start of the climb came off in my hands and I began somersaulting backward down steep rock and snow.

I tumbled like a rag-doll; time slowed. I was in a washing machine of rock and sky, glimpses of grey then blue, certain this was my end. Elizabeth had me on belay from a small ledge at the base of the climb—but she wasn’t clipped in to anything… she couldn’t hold me. With horror, I thought—she’s coming with me! I concluded falling some five-hundred feet of forty-degree rock and snow to the valley floor was—not just my—but our destined end.

And then suddenly—YANK! Forty feet later, upside-down with the rope in between my legs, my head inches from hitting a rocky ledge—I stopped. I couldn’t believe it! Blood was dripping from my head onto the ground but I was conscious, I was alive!

Moments after my accident in Peru, Elizabeth snapped this photo of the damage. Lessons learned: pick your belayer wisely and wear a helmet—even for sport climbing!Heather Weidner Collection

Elizabeth had instinctively self-arrested on the ledge, immediately sitting down and sticking her heels in the dirt to prevent me from ripping her off the mountain. She had saved my life in a matter of seconds.

Partnership is the most important aspect of rock climbing. When you’re roped up together you literally hold each other’s lives in your hands. Climbing is unique in that we need that connection from our belayer, it defines our sport

An A+ belayer can instill confidence in your climbing and self, share some of the most intense moments of your life, and—in my case—even save your life. A dependable belayer will spend hours with you in the gym or off-the-beaten paths.

But, like a soul-mate, these types of partners are hard to come by. They’re the cream of the crop. What makes an A+ belayer? What do we look for and how can we be the best?

The author and her trusty belayer, Elizabeth, the first climbing day of our trip in Pitumarca, Peru.Heather Weidner Collection

Here are my top-three characteristics to make the grade:

  1. Safety: Always paying attention and being the most competent and attentive belayer is number one in my book. This instills confidence to go for moves and ultimately success. From keeping you off a ledge-fall to self-arresting to save your life, this is the most important aspect of partnership. Never climb with someone who doesn’t value safety first.
  2. Dependability: “Showing up is eighty-percent of life.”—Woody Allen. We all get sick sometimes or have a life-crisis, but if you’re constantly bailing at the last minute you’re flunking out. I’ve had many climbing days where I would have loved to bail. I’ve had mornings I felt a head cold coming on, or winter forecasts are wrong, like the “mostly sunny” is actually all clouds and I’m dreading freezing all day, or worse—hungover, cursing that last cocktail I didn’t need to drink the night before and know I’ll pay for all day. But to get an A+, the first step is you’ve got to simply show up.
  3. Support: Climbing is an intimate sport, where emotions can run high. When we’re trying our hardest it’s nice to feel supported. This might simply mean having an interest in your partner’s climb, like the moves or a “Come on!” when you’re cruxing. My top-graded belay partners are ones that I feel truly care not only about their goals but also mine. If I’m close to a redpoint they might let me have the primo temps of the day, and vice versa. It’s an equal partnership, where both parties are willing to sacrifice for each other’s success.

Like a husband or wife or BFF, there are certainly more stars that need to align for the perfect partnership, but I aspire to and look for these attributes in order to get the A+ belay. I’m selective—as you should be, too—and if I don’t have a partner that fits this bill, I’ll choose not to climb. I’ve had too many friends have preventable accidents from an inattentive belaying accident that I’d rather not risk it—I’ll stay home.

The author gets back on the horse, attempting but not quite sending, the first ascent in Pitumarca, Peru…this time with a helmet.Heather Weidner Collection

I was a lucky one that summer day in Peru, walking away from my accident with merely a concussion and abrasions. Examining my body and its superficial scrapes, I felt the bond with my belayer grow deep. In the case that you, too, are fortuitous enough to have a few top-ranked belayers in your life, be grateful and do your best to return the favor.

Want more tips like these, to help introduce you to the exciting world of sport climbing? Then check out our Intro Sport Climbing  online education course, with pro climber Heather Weidner. This 8-week course takes you through all the fundamentals, from the gear you need, to how to safely belay, to how to lead, to how to fall, and so much more. Whether you’ve only ever climbed in the gym and are ready to take it outside, have never climbed at all, or want to refresh your skills, this class will teach you how to sport climb efficiently, be safer, and maximize your fun.

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