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The word ‘belay’ appears in various forms as part of a climber’s vocabulary but exactly what it means often depends on the context. This article will focus on one particular meaning but, to avoid any chance of confusion when you are next out at the crag, begins by looking at the other situations in which you may hear the term.

Top Tips for Belaying Outdoors


If a climber is “building a belay” (also called “building an anchor”) then they are creating a load bearing point at the top of a climb. To do this they will tie rope, slings or a combination of the two to climbing equipment that is fixed to the rock. At this point the climber may attach themselves to this “belay” so that they cannot fall and can safely hold the rope while their partner climbs. Alternatively, if the plan is to bottom rope the climb, then a screw-gate carabiner will be attached and the climbing rope will be threaded through that.

Another phrase that you may encounter is a climber talking about a “running belay”. In this case they are referring to a piece of protection that a lead climber has attached the rope to part way up a climb. The rope will be attached to the rock face using a quick draw (two carabiners joined by a short sling) and is not tied to the carabiner; it is free to “run” through it as the climber moves up. A running belay is used to limit the distance a lead climber can potentially fall. Over the years “running belay” has become shortened and it is now more common for a climber to refer simply to a “runner”.

Finally, a climber may offer to belay you or ask you to belay them (in which case you would be a belayer) and this is the meaning that the rest of this article is concerned with. To belay means to control the rope as someone else is climbing, letting out slack when the climber needs it and taking the rope tighter when they don’t. Crucially it also means holding onto the rope if the climber falls thereby preventing them from hitting the ground. The importance of effective belaying cannot be overstated, you are literally holding the climber’s life in your hands!

There are many excellent resources available, both printed and in video form (try some of the information produced by the BMC as a place to start), to help you learn the action of belaying but remember that the only way to become competent is to actually belay someone else for real. Wherever possible make sure that on your first few attempts you are under the close supervision of an instructor or an experienced climber who is capable of helping you control the rope should it become necessary. You should also begin by belaying in a bottom-rope or top-rope set up as this is simpler to manage and generates smaller forces than those potentially encountered when belaying a lead climber.  

Rather than go through the actual mechanics of belaying here we are going to bring your attention to some of the things you should be considering before you even pick up the rope. This list is far from comprehensive, belaying is a skill that can only be gained through time and practise, but it will give you some handy pointers as you get started.


Belay Devices


When a climber falls (or reaches the top and needs to be lowered to the ground) the belayer is required to hold the rope and prevent it from slipping through their hands. Generally, the forces involved in climbing are too large for someone to simply grip the rope so it is necessary to increase the amount of friction in the system to help the belayer. In the early days of climbing this was achieved simply by wrapping the rope around the body of the belayer before they took hold of it. While body belaying is still used in certain situations over the years a multitude of devices have been created that artificially increase the grip strength of the belayer thereby making belaying both safer and more comfortable. Broadly speaking belay devices fall into one of two categories, manual or assisted braking.

Manual devices work by putting bends in the rope, each time the rope bends around the belay plate or the carabiner it is attached to additional friction is developed. The amount of friction depends on how the rope is positioned with regards to the belay device as well as the design of the device itself. Some manual devices are smooth and symmetrical while others feature ridges or grooves that allow the amount of friction to be varied depending on how the device is used.

Assisted braking devices contain a mechanism for ‘squeezing’ the rope, typically when it starts to move too quickly. As such they can greatly reduce the amount of force that the belayer themselves have to apply and it is for this reason that assisted braking devices are often recommended for beginners. However, these devices still need to be used properly and with an appropriate rope (see below) in order to operate safely, they are definitely not ‘hands free’ and full concentration on the part of the belayer is still absolutely essential.

When choosing a device to use you also need to consider which rope it is being paired with. Newer ropes tend to be thinner and often have a slightly shiny coating applied to them to help with water-proofing and general longevity. This does however mean that some belay devices simply won’t provide enough friction for effective belaying. Manufacturers always provide information on the diameter of ropes which are suitable for a particular device.

Whichever device you choose the single most important factor is that you know how to use it properly and have practised with it in a safe environment. Even devices that look superficially similar may have quite different modes of operation and it is vital that you spend the time to familiarise yourself with your chosen device fully.


Position


Where you position yourself can have a large impact on how effectively you can belay your climbing partner. If possible (which it isn’t always, particularly when you begin belaying from the top of the rock face) you should place yourself so that you can see the climber for the entire length of the climb. When the climber is visible to you it is much easier to react to their requirements and maintain your attention level as they climb.

You should be in a stable position where you are not in danger of being pulled over in the event that the climber falls. When belaying from the bottom of the crag this will generally mean finding a flat spot close in to the rock, the further away that you stand the more forcefully you will be pulled forward when the climber puts their weight on the rope. Being close to the rock face takes on extra significance when you are belaying a lead climber who is using trad gear for protection as your position will directly affect the direction in which the equipment is loaded should the leader fall.  If you are belaying on a steep slope or near an edge then it is definitely worth considering using some of the climbing equipment to tie yourself directly to the rock face before the climber begins.

If you are belaying from the top of the rock face then you should always be attached to a safe anchor to prevent you being pulled off the rock face when the climber weights the rope. In this situation the force on you will be in a downwards direction so you will generally want to be belaying from a seated position so that you don’t have to support the climber’s weight with your legs. You will also need to consider how to place yourself so that the climbing rope doesn’t run over any part of your body which can be both uncomfortable and potentially dangerous in the event that the climber falls suddenly.

In the real world you will find that these requirements are sometimes in conflict with each other so it will come down to experience to judge which is the most important in a given situation. Again, belaying is a skill that can only be acquired through practise.


Relative Size


If the climber is significantly larger and heavier than the belayer then it can create additional challenges but with practise they can generally be relatively easily overcome. Firstly, the belayer should be using a belay device/rope combination that generates a relatively large amount of friction to help them successfully control the rope.

In an indoor setting there are often sandbags provided which can be clipped directly to the central loop of the belayers harness. In practise these can be hard to use and require careful adjustment of the attachment point to work effectively. Similar effects can sometimes be achieved outdoors if there is a handy boulder or tree root available but frequently this isn’t the case.

Generally, by maintaining your concentration you can predict when the climber’s weight is going to come onto the rope and can adjust your own body position to compensate. Bracing one foot against the rock face or dropping your own weight backwards so that you are leaning against the climbing rope slightly can both help but you will need to practise so that you can maintain your balance and control as you do so.

In extreme cases (typically only experienced when belaying a lead climber) the belayer may be lifted completely off their feet. This isn’t in itself a problem providing that you don’t let go of the rope! If you think there is any possibility of this happening then pay extra attention to where you position yourself to ensure there is no danger of you injuring your head as you are lifted.

The most common difficulties associated with different sized climbing partners are encountered when trying to maintain control as the climber is lowered to the ground in a bottom roping situation. Again, simply bracing a foot or leaning slightly against the rope can help but a very useful strategy is to turn your back to the rock face and then lean against it. The additional friction of having your back in contact with the rock is usually sufficient to stop you being lifted off the ground regardless of any weight difference. In this case you will need to look directly up to see the climber as they are lowered and you do need to be very careful not to get yourself painfully trapped between the rock and the rope but it can provide a very secure way of lowering your partner. You will also need to be very careful about the dangers posed by long hair, jewellery or loose clothing all of which have caused painful and awkward problems in the past. Make sure there is no danger of anything getting caught in the belay plate as the rope is running through it.

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