Belaying Like a Boss
27 Jul 2017
There’s more to belaying than locking off, feeding out slack and knowing how to give a soft catch. As a belayer, part of your job is to act as a second pair of eyes for your climber. Once they leave the ground you may have a better view of some parts of the climb than they do – especially when they are pumped and strung out mid-crux.
But what exactly are you looking out for? Here are a few things to keep front of mind when you’re belaying:
Leg behind the rope
This is of the most common culprits for minor falls gone bad.
‘Watch your leg behind the rope!’ many a slightly panicked belayer has called out to their climbing partner, as they tremble high above their last clip.
The term ‘leg behind the rope’ is commonly used, but what it actually means is that the rope is behind the leg.
When you’re lead climbing, you always want the lead rope to be in front of your leg, between your leg and the rock. As you climb upwards, following footers that wander from left to right, it’s quite easy to accidentally step your heel or toe in front of the rope.
If you fall with the rope behind your leg, as the rope takes up and goes taut it will flick your leg upward, turning your body upside down and whipping you into the cliff. While going upside down isn’t necessarily an issue, flipping upside down and smacking your head against the cliff is no fun. This is a common cause of injury, and one easily avoided by awareness when climbing and vigilance when belaying.
When you are learning to clip a quickdraw there is a lot to think about. It can be quite fiddly to pull up a loop of slack and clip it into a carabiner with one hand, and finding the best technique when you’re learning can take some time.
There are many ways to clip a draw, and in general it’s about finding the approach that works for you. There is only one way you want to avoid completely: back clipping.
When you clip a draw correctly, the rope goes from the ground, up the cliff face through the back of the carabiner, then out the front to the climber’s harness when the quickdraw is in its natural orientation, not twisted.
If you back clip, the rope goes from the ground, through the front of the carabiner, down the cliff face and back to the climber (it can be a little difficult to identify, as a back-clipped quickdraw will often twist, with the result that rope seem to be running correctly).
When the rope is clipped in this orientation it twists the quickdraw and can result in serious falls. If you’re unlucky, as you fall the rope can twist back over the snap gate of the carabiner, unclipping on the way. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.
Back clipped quickdraw failure
Not as common when climbing outdoors due to the wide spacing of bolts in most areas, z-clipping is common in gyms, and occurs when the climber reaches down to pull up slack to clip, and accidentally reaches below their last quickdraw.
If the bolts are close together and the climber’s hips are close to the wall, this can happen quite easily. This results in diabolical rope drag and longer fall potential.
As the belayer, you should be able to see what is happening from below and let them know.
Sometimes climbers can become so focused on the moves that they climb straight past a bolt. Or perhaps they were looking ahead from below a bulge and became fixated on the next bolt they could see, missing the one they couldn’t see, tucked in over the bulge.
When you’re on the ground you can see things they can’t, so if the length of the runout is making you suspicious, take a closer look.
These are just a few tips to help you be a more attentive and effective belayer. Of course the most important thing is to focus on your climber and ignore all the distractions at the crag.
The climbing partnership is one of ultimate trust. Climbing is one of the rare times when we truly take someone’s life into our own hands. It’s a responsibility that’s worth taking seriously.