This blog has not been written by a qualified climbing instructor and is only intended for use as a reminder of good practice. All climbers should take responsibility for their own competence as a belayer and consider obtaining training by a qualified instructor prior to climbing outside. Anything written in this blog should not replace any advice given by a qualified instructor.
Responsible belaying in sport climbing is one of the most important roles you can perform when out on the crags. Sometimes it’s easy to become a bit slack and lose focus on how important it is. Sometimes you may just simply have not been taught by anyone experienced and picked up bad habits from other climbers. Either way, it’s always good to have a bit of a reminder of a few things to be aware of when you have your climbing partner’s life in your hands, literally!
CHECK YOUR EQUIPMENT AND PARTNER
It’s crucial to make sure you have the appropriate equipment with you and that you use it correctly. Does your belay device need replacing? Have you dropped or damaged it? Is your rope in good condition? It’s even worth thinking about how knotted up your rope is before your partner starts climbing. Can you pay out slack without getting tangled at the crucial point or will you end up pulling your partner off the rock when they’re desperately trying to clip? Have you got a knot tied in the end of the rope for long routes? Running out of rope and seeing your partner sailing off the side of a cliff is never a good thing! It's good to check your partner's knot before they set off. Are they tied through the right part of their harness and is their knot correct? Get them to check you've got your belay device correctly set up and the rope running through it the right way. Even experienced climbers can get distracted and make a mistake.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE COMPETENT AT BELAYING
So many of us are taught how to belay by other climbers who may or may not be competent themselves. If you’re someone who climbs indoors then the likelihood is that you’ve been assessed on your belaying before they let you loose on the wall, but some places don’t always do this. If you’re unsure if you’re belaying correctly, check with a qualified climbing instructor. Sometimes the confident climber on the crag isn’t always right or teaching you the safest way. Whatever you do, always remember to keep a hand on the dead end of the rope at all times. Even if you’ve got a breaking device you still need that back up. Ultimately, your partner could have a fatal ground fall if you’re not competent. Other considerations are the learnt skills associated with belay techniques. Do you know how to dynamically belay? When to take in or pay out slack? What to do if your partner takes a fall and what you should do to make it as 'good' a fall as possible? It's all about keeping your climber safe and there's more to it than just standing there with a rope running through a belay device. No doubt all of us could do with some refresher training at some point.
CONCENTRATE AND LISTEN
Are you someone who chats incessantly to others around you when you’re belaying? Do you pay more attention to what’s happening on the crag rather than your partner above you? We’ve probably all been in the situation where we’re leading a terrifying route and our belayer is chatting away below. It certainly undermines your confidence and performance! If others are talking to you as you’re belaying and it’s affecting your concentration or ability to hear your climbing partner, don’t be afraid to politely ask them to be quiet. If you’re not watching or listening, it makes it very difficult for your partner to trust you and you might find yourself scratching around for people that will climb with you. It also makes it hard for you as a belayer to be aware of falling rocks if you’re ignoring, or can’t hear, what your partner is shouting to you.
SLACK IN THE ROPE
It’s always good to be mindful of how much slack is in the rope when you’re belaying; probably one of the most important things to consider aside from keeping a hand on the rope. We’ve all seen people belaying with buckets of slack out and others telling them off. It may not be received well but if their rope is sagging to the floor then action needs to be taken. Always survey the route your partner is about to attempt and if there are any ledges that could result in broken ankles from a fall with too much slack out. It’s easy to be blasé about it if you’ve never taken a fall, but with rope stretch and even a small amount of slack, you can fall many metres further than expected. Don’t be one of those people in the ‘Epic Falls’ videos on You Tube!
Where you stand to belay is super important. You need to be able to see your partner. Sometimes they will climb out of sight as they go up higher which you can’t always control, but if you can move safely so you can see them, then think about it. You often see people stood miles away from the rock whilst belaying. When considering physics, be aware of the forces involved with the situation; if you've got a low first bolt and you're standing far back when your partner takes a fall, you could end up face-planting the wall rather than being pulled up off the floor. It’s also always worth considering falling rocks. Are you attempting a route that is marked as loose in the guide book or on the UKC logbook? Or does it just look loose? Either way, it’s definitely a good idea to consider the best place to stand to avoid falling rocks. Do you also wear a helmet in a loose area? You may not like wearing them but if you’re knocked out by a falling rock, what will happen to your climbing partner…?
BELAYING WHILE YOUR PARTNER TIES OFF
Just because your partner has reached the top bolts and is tying off, it doesn’t mean they are safe and you can take them off belay and wander off for a cuppa. What if the lower off fails? Sadly, it has happened. You cannot account for all freak accidents of course but by staying vigilant you can avoid errors. If you have an inexperienced climber with you who is tying off for the first few times, you’ll need to watch them to make sure they haven’t made a fatal error. Of course, this can also happen with experienced climbers who loose concentration but if you’re taking note of what they’re doing you could potentially prevent an accident.
USING BELAY GLASSES
These wonderful inventions can certainly help save your neck and allow you to potentially watch your partner closer and for longer without neck pain. If your partner is taking hours working out a hard crux, you can find yourself loosing concentration if you’re trying to stretch out your neck. However, it’s worth being aware that there are a few things to be mindful of when using belay glasses. Take care if it’s a sunny day as you can get blinded by the sun from above if it’s hitting the glasses at a certain angle, impairing your vision. Also, the glasses give you a different perspective of the rock and where your partner is in space, leading to confusion if your partner takes a fall or if a rock comes off. I know first-hand about this when a rock was kicked off above me; I heard the shout of ‘rock below’, saw the rock and tried to step aside but actually stepped right underneath it as I couldn’t get the right perspective of where it was going to land through the glasses. Luckily, I had a helmet on or it might have been a nasty outcome! There can also be a blind spot when using the glasses which can lead to loosing part of your view of the rock or rope and perspective of how much slack is out. Lots to consider!
SPEAK UP IF YOU SEE BAD BELAYING
Last but not least, speak up if you see someone belaying that could be putting their partner at risk with bad practices. It may not be a pleasant exchange depending on their reaction but hopefully they will realise that it’s ultimately about the safety of the person on the end of their rope. It may be that they were taught incorrectly and don’t know any better. Whatever the reason, if undertaken tactfully, most climbers will be grateful of a heads-up to improve their skills.
Written by Katie Rendall.
Photo credit: Sam Parsons from After the Send
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