Every climber is different. Sometimes, you’ll be belaying someone about your weight. And other times, you’ll be faced with someone who outweighs you hands down. I honestly never really thought about this when I was first starting out. I was belaying my partner, a friend of mine since childhood, who was the same size as me, save for a few pounds.
That weight difference was so minor, it never came into play. And then, one day at the climbing gym, I saw physics in action. I’d gotten a D in physics back in high school, so perhaps this is why I really didn’t think a whole lot about what would happen if he outweighed me by a lot.
These two guys came up on the approach, the larger one going up to lead. I saw them out of the corner of my eye but knew better than to lose focus on my partner. I refocused. But then about 15 minutes later, there was a ton of commotion. Jimbo and I both looked and saw what had just gone down. Apparently, the heavier climber slipped off the foothold and the belayer tried to stop it. Only to be dragged across the floor and had collide with everything in their path. The gym staff and some of the other climbers down at the bottom were all scrambling to help them.
Sure, you can try to choose climbing partners that match your weight. But that’s not always the case. So what can you do if your lead climber weighs much more than you? Here are some handy belaying tips to help you and your heavier friend climb safely together despite the discrepancy.
Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes when belaying a heavier climber
You might think if you’re down at the bottom, it doesn’t matter what kind of shoes you wear. But that’s where you’d be wrong. This isn’t the beach. Wearing flip-flops or sandals to the crag (unless you drove there in them and promptly change once you arrive) is foolish. You need solid, sturdy shoes with enclosed toes.
Something that has a good grip will serve you well. Hiking boots like the Salmon X Ultra 3 are great for this especially if you had to hike up to get there. Just stay in those shoes. You want to be able to grip the ground should something happen to give you leverage for a strong pull.
And unrelated to the climb, it’s dangerous to go out there with flimsy open-toed shoes There could be snakes out there. Rocks could fall. Lots of stuff is out there. Protect your feet.
Wear gloves when belaying
When we’re climbing, we’re always thinking about chalking up our hands. But while belaying, you need to have a firm grip on the rope. That’s not always easy when your hands get all sweaty from being outdoors. And chalk won’t cut it here because if that rope slides through your hands with great force, you can easily get rope burn.
Let me tell you, that’s not fun at all and makes the rest of the day out at the crag a total drag. The first time that happened to me, once my hands felt better, I went out and got belay gloves. I always keep them with me for every climb. Here are some to check out. I use Black Diamond stone climbing gloves and my partner likes PETZL Cordex (Check out the current price on Amazon), but I’ve seen quite a few around that others really like too. Go try some on and see how you like them.
When you try them out for belaying, you won’t have to be fearful of hurting your hands. You’ll be able to grab that rope and if it runs, it won’t leave you suffering in pain. They allow you to get a real grip on the rope, the kind your climber is counting on you to provide.
Stand directly under the first anchor
Now this is where physics would have served those guys at the gym well. But thanks to their mishap, I learned probably the only bit of physics that’s ever made sense to me. The mismatched weight duo would have avoided that whole unpleasant dragging incident if the belayer stood directly under the first anchor, where they clipped the climbing rope.
When you do this, it prevents you from getting knocked down suddenly. Even if you plan and are fully watching and doing what you’re supposed to, this can all go down in seconds. I’ve seen this at the crag, where an experienced team went up. The belayer was a small guy and the climber definitely doubled him in size. When the climber missed his foothold though, the belayer was on it. Because he placed himself right under that anchor, instead of being dragged on the ledge, he went straight up. It helped save the climber from a nasty fall.
Make sure the first bolt is above you not in front of you
And while we’re talking about this, that first anchor should never be clipped. It’s the fastest way to being dragged into it. Make sure your climbing partner skips it so that the first bolt is above you. Then you’ve got a much bigger space before you get pulled to the anchor.
There is one huge caveat to this though. If that second anchor is really far away, your climbing partner can go back and release that first one. Or you can use technology to make everyone happier and safer. A stick clip lets you hook the climbing rope. I always take along my TRANGO beta Stick EVO (Amazon link) when I’m lead climbing. I’ve found it makes life easier for my partner and me. There’s nothing like being prepared anywhere you go.
Wear a helmet when belaying
Ok, look. I know this seems so obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many belayers I see not wearing them. I guess it’s like when I see kids in my neighborhood zipping around on bikes, scooters, and skateboards without helmets. Even full-grown men and women ride motorcycles without helmets.
Granted, they look totally uncool, but you know what’s worse? Having a head injury that could leave you debilitated or at least wound you enough to put you out of commission for a while. At the very least, a concussion is not something anyone wants to deal with. So, take those things out of the equation and just be safe. Wear a helmet while belaying; my favorite is the Vertex Vent by PETZL.
What could fall on you? Rocks, debris, ice, snow, oh yeah, and your heavier climbing companion, that’s who. Talk about an ouch!
Make sure the climbing wall is smooth and forgiving
When you head to the crag, no matter how heavy your partner is, it’s always smart to check out the first portion of the rock before your climber gets up on the route. If he should fall and you’ve aligned yourself properly, that’s where you’ll be pulled up to. Unfortunately, though, that safety measure doesn’t keep you out of the woods. That rock can make or break you.
Look up and see if things are smooth-ish or if you see sharp edges or anything dangerous. If it looks a bit prickly, it might be best to pick another route. You could wind up seriously injured if you get dragged along a sharp rock face. Overhangs are another danger too, and another reason why belayers should be wearing helmets just in case.
One of the guys that works at the gym told us about the time he was dragged up into an overhang. He hit his head pretty hard and was really disoriented, but he’d thankfully worn a helmet. If he hadn’t, he’d probably have suffered some serious damage.
Always stay alert and ready
No matter where you are belaying, indoors or out, you must always be alert and ready for anything. This is not the time to think about distractions like relationship woes, work problems, or try to remember if you locked your door before leaving. You must be focused while belaying.
This is important for belaying safety in any scenario, whether your lead climber is much bigger than you or the same size. I talked about belaying safety in another post so you can catch up with all of that when you have a minute. It’s useful tips that can help you keep yourself and your partner safe no matter their size.
I really can’t stress enough that belaying safety is one of the most critical aspects of this sport. Even with limited knowledge of physics part of avoiding most problems that arise is to simply be on the ball at all times.
Always communicate with your climbing partner
In that belaying safety post, I also discussed communication and why making sure it’s clear, concise, and loud is so important. But with a heavier climber on your hands, you need to really listen to your partner. Be ready at all times, but if you hear “Watch me” called out, then you have to be on your highest alert.
We all know that unexpected things can happen when you’re out there. he climb might look solid and going really well and then suddenly a hold breaks and off goes your climber. When it’s a heavier climber, you need to be steady and level-headed, not a screamer. Or what about when nature interferes? I once had a run-in with a bee hive, a most unpleasant experience. Another friend of ours had a bird fly by, a glorious sight until it let loose a large splatter of bird poop right in his face.
Sure, that sounds hilarious until your lead is flying around because they can’t see, and then shouting out “Falling” while you do your best to keep him or her safe. Now we laugh about that because we all made it out okay, and we kept our minds level, while using our safety equipment to stop the fall.
Keep your feet underneath you when you get pulled by your lead climber
This goes with checking your immediate surrounds up on the face of the rock for spikes or overhangs or anything dangerous. Suppose you do get pulled up by your heavy climber. If you wiggle your feet out and about and all around, you’re going to get banged up pretty bad. Try to practice a good, strong stance with both feet firmly on the ground under the first anchor and both hands in belay gloves tight on the rope. Always be watching and if you see anything amiss, get ready to fly straight up. Keep your legs down when you do.
When you stop going up, you can put your feet out and find firm ground but keeping them out while ascending is a sure way to put an end to your day. Keeping your feet down gives you balance too, which you’ll be needing in a situation like this.
If you see your heavy climber pitching off, get ready to takeoff. Don’t jump into it though. Should your climber be lower, you can get down on one knee to provide more distance between you two, which may be enough to help keep you from getting hit. But if you know there’s nothing you can do about getting hit by your climber, face your head away and keep your mouth shut to avoid those types of injuries. A helmet is definitely going to help you here, but you’ll still feel a big bang. Whatever you do though, don’t go off the rope with the brake hand.
Belaying a bigger, heavier climber can be just as enjoyable yet just as dangerous as any other climbing partner. By always practicing proper belaying techniques and staying aware, you’ll avoid any injuries. Don’t be afraid though. If you’re really concerned about falls and how to belay a heavier, falling climber, go to the gym together and practice them. This way, you have the experience of other more advanced climbers running beta for you and you’ll also have a lot of mats. Plus, you can practice with shorter falls and not have rocks to contend with, which should make it easier to get your form just right.