Once you get into climbing, there’s a whole set of code to follow for safe belaying. Relax, I’ve got you covered with everything you need to know.
Climbing brings with it a whole new set of rules that don’t apply in the regular world. It’s stuff that seems bizarre and foreign when you first get into it, and then once you’re in it, you can’t imagine being out of it. YOU KNOW. It’s like a whole society of people who speak a special language not known to others.
After you get comfortable with bouldering, you’ll likely start belaying and learning the ropes, pardon the pun, of climbing. While that’s certainly easier to do than being lead climber off the bat, there’s a lot of responsibility that rests in your hands as the belayer. It’s your job to keep your partner safe.
I don’t want to scare you, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can inadvertently cause them to suffer a serious injury. Just as you want your partner to take good care of you, knowing how to belay more safely is absolutely critical in this sport. Worry no more though as I’ve got your back with these 10 tips for safer belaying.
1. Cleanup your belay zone
There are many things that can distract you as the belayer while your partner is up on the wall or rock. Any loose item is considered a hazard, so think uneven rocks that cause you to slip and slide while you’re trying to hold your balance, water bottles rolling around the floor at the gym, packs, even another climber’s dog tethered to the site (or a wild animal that happens to just wander up, like the skunk that caused us all chaos one day) can all make for serious distractions that will lead to problems for the one you’re belaying.
Additionally, if you’re at the crag, not only is this so important for safety, but it’s also the principle of keeping the area pristine for other climbers or those enjoying the natural beauty. Even the animals and plants deserve our respect, so try to avoid stomping all over everything at the base of the rock. That will just kill off everything and our goal as climbers is to try to preserve the natural beauty of the places we climb in.
If you’re at the gym, obviously you don’t have to watch out for wildlife and fauna, but do keep your gear, especially water bottles, from the fall zone. And just because that’s proper climbing etiquette doesn’t mean others will follow it. Always watch out when you’re belaying so that you don’t trip over someone else’s stuff and wind up causing harm to your climbing partner.
2. Check your harness
Look, I know what it’s like to be super-psyched for your climb. Once you get into it, you just get it. So, it stands to reason that we all just want to get up there as fast as we can and bask in that thrill it gives us. The trouble with that is though that safety must always come first. That means thoroughly inspecting your equipment every time. And then, inspecting your partner’s gear too. And vice versa. This system of checks will ensure that you’ll both be safe.
The harness is of course one of your most important piece of gear. I love the Arc’teryx FL-365 Harness (Amazon link) because the fit is fantastic and I never feel like I’m being constricted. I just feel like I’m protected yet free enough to move about and enjoy my climbs. But whatever harness you and your partner use, make sure everything is fastened correctly. As the belayer, check your climber’s knot to make sure it’s threaded through the tie-ins and tied correctly. There should be no crossed strands here.
Your climber should make sure the belayer’s device is set up correctly too. The rope should be threaded through everything to unite it all together and the carabiner should be inspected to make sure it’s locked. Give it a test tug by pulling on both lengths of rope that come from the belay device. If you’ve done everything right, it should pull the belayer from the belay loop on the harness. If not, you’ll need to figure out where you went wrong. Don’t rush this step, please.
I’ve seen people at the gym hurry through their safety checks only to run into trouble. They were very lucky that they didn’t get more seriously injured. They had checked before the first climb but when they went to switch places, they assumed all was still properly locked and loaded. It wasn’t, and needless to say it terrified the rest of us at the gym that day.
3. Double-check your knots
Again this ties in (ha, another pun!) with what I was saying before. Always check out your knots. Don’t just check once though, check again. And again. And again, if necessary. Give them a good tug and make sure they’re firmly in place. One of the worst things you can do is just look at the knots and assume you guys tied them properly.
Check your knots. Check your partner’s knots. Check each other. You never can be too careful when it comes to this because if they’re not pulled tight or knotted improperly, the results can be disastrous.
4. Use an assisted-braking belay device
You should absolutely have an assisted-braking belay device like the Black Diamond ATC Pilot (check the current price on Amazon) in place too. It’s an excellent backup to your belay device, no matter how secure you think you have everything. While in the climbing gym, you’re likely cool with your belay system in place, but on the crag, the more safety you put in place, the better you and your partner will be.
Some of you will likely point out to me the obvious – that some of the assisted-braking belay devices tend to increase the force of a fall on the system. But that’s a small price to pay for added protection. They’re much more likely to catch your partner in the event of an emergency. What if you were belaying and slipped on a rock and fell or got hit on the head by a falling rock?
It’s not worth the chance of getting injured. Having this extra system in place assures you and your partner will have a safe climb, even if something random happens.
5. Use a longer rope
The right length of rope really matters too. You should be sure your climbing rope can reach the anchors and get you back down. I’m not just talking sport routes here. You need that longer rope to reach a belay edge when you eventually do those multi-pitch routes. Even if you’re not up to that yet, getting in the habit of always using rope that is long enough is a wise idea.
You can problem-solve for a short rope when you’re on a sports climb by tying a stopper knot at the tail of it. This will keep you from dropping down to the ground, something none of us wants to happen while we’re on a route.
6. Communicate with your climbing partner
Do you know what’s just as dangerous as not checking your gear before a climb? It’s not communicating with your partner in climb. Sorry, I love these puns! But on a serious note, miscommunication (or lack of communication) can lead to devastating consequences.
It’s very important for you to shout out your commands loudly and clearly to avoid any type of failure during your climb. It’s good to hash this kind of stuff out when you’re down on the ground first. Get your commands squared away so you know you’re both on the same page.
So when your climbing partner yells out, “On belay?” and they’re waiting for you to answer with a loud, “Belay on,” you both will have not a single doubt of what’s happening and what you should be doing. Listen for each other and stay focused. You want to be sure you hear your climber when they shout “Slack!” so you can respond promptly.
Ideally, you’ll have reviewed my glossary of climbing terms or boned up on climbing lingo. I’d also like to give you a bit of a pro tip here in that I firmly believe climbers should use “Tension” as the command for wanting to hang on the rope rather than “Take.” When you’re up on the crag, “Take” can sound an awful lot like “Slack” and since those are opposite commands, you guys could wind up with major problems.
When there’s other people around at the busy gym or on the crag, you need to make sure you always say your partner’s name before every command. This way, you know who is being addressed. You don’t want to hear someone yell “Slack” and assume it’s your partner when it isn’t. There’s an exception to this though. If you hear anyone around you yell “Rock,” “Watch me,” or “Falling,” be ready to act accordingly.
7. Keep your eyes on the lead
As obvious as this sounds, you wouldn’t believe how many people make this mistake. Yours truly included in my early climbing days. I happened to glance away for a second at the gym because two other guys were getting into an argument about some gear in the fall zone and thankfully, I was able to catch things before anything serious happened to my partner. I learned from that to never, ever lose sight of my lead climber.
Don’t take the system for granted in keeping you and your partner safe. Concentrate on belaying when you’re the belayer, even if another climber comes through running beta. Shut them down politely and tell them you’ll talk after your partner is finished. Always hold this rule dear to your heart and remember to do the same when you come into contact with other belayers on your climbs. Don’t distract them and keep focused on your duties as a belayer.
8. Take a braced stance and don’t sit down
I know you might be tired and want to sit down if you’re belaying from the ground. I get it. But that’s another terribly bad move to make. True you don’t need to worry about anchor failure for yourself while down there, you do need to take into account all your surroundings. You never know when relaxing could lead to getting yanked off a ledge, dragged across the ground into a rock, or even jerked up the side of the face.
In sports climbing, belayers don’t usually anchor so they can give mobility. They can also account for the falling leader’s weight if necessary by jumping up. If your leader outweighs you as the belayer, you should always tie down to prevent injuries. I talk about that more in depth over here so check that out.
No matter what type of climb though, never ever sit down and lounge while you’re belaying. If something happens, you won’t be able to control the rope. Stand up, grip that rope with both hands, and never take your eyes off your partner!
9. Build an anchor with the master point at chest level or higher for the belayer when climbing multi-pitch routes
Another thing paramount to safety during climbs is using your anchors the right way. If you build an anchor so the master point is at chest level or above when you’re belaying multi-pitch routes, it keeps you from slipping. You won’t be able to slide or fall down and yank your leader off during the climb.
The leader can clip the master point with the best piece in the anchor once they move on. What this does is prevents a fall directly onto you when you’re belaying. That’s the biggest danger when the climber falls before clipping a piece. By taking this safety measure, you’re going to stay secure and you’re both going to go on to have many more climbs instead of having a hospital stay.
10. Use the catastrophe knot
If at any time while you’re belaying, you think there might be even the slightest chance of losing control on that brake strand, be smart and tie a catastrophe knot. Should your leader be in danger of a big fall, or a factor-2 fall right onto you, you can pull that brake strand so that your leader can complete the difficult part before the knot gets to you. When they get there safely, you can just undo the knot.
It’s another measure for backup in case you can’t hold a fall, very effective and useful when you’re on a tough route.
Never ever underestimate how important your role is when you’re belaying. You are the climber’s lifeline, the one that helps keep them in check. You’d want the same devotion when you’re climbing, so pay attention at all times, check your gear repeatedly during the same climb, and take extra safety precautions.
I’ve made some mistakes along the way that thankfully didn’t cause any harm. I learned immediately from them and I’m a better climber for it. But I don’t recommend making my mistakes yourself to learn these lessons. I’ve seen major injuries occur when the belayer wasn’t paying attention and when climbing teams failed to re-check their gear before switching off. It’s very unsettling and the best way to stay safe is to always use these tips to prevent trouble before it starts.