Weekend Whipper: A Valuable Lesson for the Belayers Among Us

Critiques are tough—but so is belaying. Here’s to approaching both with caution.

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Before we get into this week’s Whipper, allow us to acknowledge that belaying is a tough, sometimes thankless, job that takes years of practice and keen introspection to perfect. And, even so, every belayer-to-the-stars will short-rope a desperate clip at some point. With that caveat, let’s dive into Minh Le’s submission, where he takes on the cleverly named Diving For Rocks (5.10d) in Austin, Texas. 

First, the facts. The section Le fell on was a “move from two pockets to a ledge that was out of my reach,” he told Climbing. “Some argued that I wasn’t supposed to jump for the ledge. But I’m five-foot-six with a minus-one ape index. At the time, I couldn’t find any other way.” Le was somewhat justified in his decision. After all, he had flashed that move on his first attempt, and saw no reason why he couldn’t recreate the effort. Unfortunately, we think his belayer had the same confidence—and was not at all prepared to provide a soft catch.

Now, the critiques. The belayer has too much slack out and is standing too far away from the wall, which is a bad play for two reasons: (1) in the event of a fall the leader’s weight will pull the belayer forward, often knocking them off balance and possibly knocking the brake strand from their hands; (2) when the belayer is inevitably pulled forward they will introduce “extra” rope into the system, which causes an unnecessarily long fall. The final nail in the leader’s coffin, however, was the belayer’s hard catch. Some climbers believe that having a deep, concave loop of slack between belayer and climber is the key here. Not at all. Belayers should have enough slack out to not short-rope their leader, but they should jump up to soften a fall, and certainly not sit back. (Sitting back can be justified if decking is a possibility, but that’s for another time…)

Critiques are hard—but so is belaying. In the heat of the moment, with your buddy trying hard and you trying not to hose them, “perfect” belaying is a rarity. Consider, too, the shape of this cliff: there is a small ledge to avoid below but a dyno right above it. In this scenario, a well-positioned belayer would have shortened the length of the fall, but a ledge-clipping whip would still have been a possible outcome. In the words of one of Climbing’s editors, who climbs 5.14c and is a former Lead World Cup competitor: “Honestly, this is a hard one to mitigate. If I were the climber, I would have stick-clipped that next draw.” Fair enough!

Happy Friday, and be safe out there this weekend.

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