In my hometown of Brisbane, all the friends I climb with are so awesome at belaying me that I often forget that not everyone is a great belayer. I was in my own little belay bubble. Then I get reminded whenever someone new gives me a catch and I come hurling into the wall.
So let’s go through a few key points for finding your belayer!
The first point of contact with potential climbing partners is normally at the campground, at the crag, or through the internet. If you have not seen them belay or climb, do not make any rash decisions until you have had a good chat about the topics below:
- Top rope or lead: Some climbers will only top rope, so you would have to put up the climbs they want to do and bring extra gear. Most climbers can lead; confidence while leading is key.
- Confident with lead belaying: Ask the question, how confident are you with lead belaying or how long have you been lead belaying for? Make a decision that makes you feel comfortable.
- Can your climbing partner clean a climb?: Being able to clean is very useful; you don’t want to climb something twice unless it’s a mega classic.
- Yes, you are going to have to talk about grades: Having too much of a difference in grades can be difficult. It shows the person’s experience with climbing as well. Furthermore, you will need to choose a crag that has the right grades for everybody.
- Soft catches: A soft catch (a.k.a. a dynamic belay) is when the belayer lets the rope and gear absorb most of the falling potential. You fall, and then the fall turns into a slow stop, instead of a sudden jerk. Think about what an elevator does when it stops at every level. Ask your potential belayer if they know how to give you a soft catch! Since it’s very important for injury prevention, I will explain more about catches later.
- Climbing experience: You’ll want to ask the following questions: How long have you been climbing for? What types of climbing have you done? Etc. Go with the person you feel the most comfortable with, usually more experience is better.
There are some tell-tale signs that someone is new to climbing or if the belayer you have chosen is not suitable.
- Observe what your potential belayer is wearing/how they look:
- Lead Pass: Super fresh from the gym. I am very sceptical. Most gym climbers will like to top rope outdoors, will not know how to clean a climb, and will be unaware of other outdoor climbing dangers.
- Helmet: It is awesome that climbers wear helmets, not bagging. Newer climbers like to wear helmets, I am just a little bit more aware of the belaying side of things.
- Main belay device is not auto-locking: ATCs are very commonly used, but when your belayer lets go of the rope it does not auto-lock. However, ATCs can give an awesome soft catch when used correctly.
- Weight difference: For me I cut the line at 30kg; it then becomes very dangerous for the climber to fall on the first 4 bolts and as the belayer you can get sucked into the first draw. Ouch…
- Shiny brand new gear: Not a scratch on the gear spells brand new climber or rich guy. Just be more aware that they are new to the outdoor scene.
- Non aggressive climbing shoes and socks: Signals a newer climber but then I’ve seen some hard-core climbers climb in sneakers!
- When the person has enough gear on their harness to go on a mountaineering expedition and still have slings and prussics left over: Many new climbers love to bring every lifesaving piece of equipment they can find. They will be prepared at least. I am cautious and I will tease if I climb with them. :P
- Observe how people belay:
- Checkity Check: It’s a great habit to make sure all your gear and knots are correct before you leave the ground. This includes a knot at the end of your climbing rope. There have been times when we didn’t check, and I had forgotten to close the carabiner for my belay device or the rope was in the device the wrong way. It’s everyone’s responsibility, so I always check whether I belay or climb.
- The belayer’s hands are not always on the brake rope: No matter what ATC or auto-locking device the belayer is using, if the belayer does not always hold the brake rope, I would avoid getting a catch from this person.
- Short Roping: It’s my pet peeve, and it can really get you in trouble when you have a hard clip. Get your new belayer to belay you on a climb that you are comfortable with first or avoid this belayer, especially if they short rope on nearly every clip.
- Not paying attention to the climber: It actually really freaks me out when belayers don’t attentively watch their climber. There are times where you can take your eyes off them e.g. when they have just clipped or when resting for long periods of time. If it hurts your neck, get a pair of belay glasses, I can’t live without mine. Another thing that makes me uneasy is when my belayer has a huge conversation with someone on the ground. Normally, I yell out “Are you with me” or an attentive belayer will tell me not to worry about the talking, because they are always watching me.
- Belayer pulling back when the climber falls (a.k.a. Hard Catch): This is a scary no-no. You do not pull back unless the climber has ground fall potential. When you pull back, yes the climber doesn’t fall as far, but it creates a pendulum effect. The climber then falls and swings into the rock. The climber can get hurt; I’ve heard about bone bruises, broken ankles, etc. This can also happen if there is a large weight different between belayer and climber. Being 53kg, I don’t let anyone belay me unless they can give me a soft catch! It’s magical…
- Observe how they climb
- Climbing harder grades: Does not necessarily mean that they are a good belayer, but it does mean they have more experience.
- Top roping: Many people top rope; it’s nice to not have that fear of falling. Just be aware that unless you want to be the top rope gun, then this is not the partner for you.
- Struggling at every clip: When a climber does sketchy climbing. It’s not your safety that is the concern. The climber puts his own life at stake and if you are on the other end of the rope, it can easily become your fault or a guilt trip if an accident happens.
- Rope behind the leg: I used to be one of these people who always got the rope behind my leg every time I freaked out on a climb. It’s not nice to fall with the rope there and it can flip you upside down. Just be prepared that there is more accident potential if you climb with a person like this.
Once you have chosen!
When you climb with your new belay partner:
- Always make sure you check each other’s harness, ropes, knots, belay device, etc. before climbing.
- Sometimes we say different words for “take”, “safe”, etc. Make sure everything is clear before you start climbing. Sometimes I say “take” when I’m above the bolt, I actually mean “falling” and now I have a sore ankle. =(
- Ask if there is any special request for belaying the person and viceversa, e.g. Can you go in direct if you are hanging on the rope for long periods of time.
- I like to reiterate that I am light and I need an extra soft catch. I have a spiel that I tell all new belayers.
- If you are leading, you can gain trust by taking a few practice falls once you have clipped the anchors of a climb. Try to make sure the climb is either vertical or overhanging. This will confirm if your chosen belayer knows how to give you a soft catch.
- Remember! Even when you have chosen your belayer, if you ever feel uneasy about your choice you can always say “No” to the person.