Giving a Better Belay

Amy Mary Shagg

In our training, our gym sessions, and in our endeavors outside, our focus is typically on becoming a better climber. Yet, too often we overlook the importance of putting in time, effort, and practice at becoming a better belayer. While becoming a better climber may score you points on, becoming a better belayer can prevent injury and keep your climber safe. One only has to scan the gym or the crag to see that there are far more good climbers than good belayers. For today’s post we turn to one of our local climbing role models and mentors, Hilary, to hear her tips that she’s perfected over the years on giving a better belay. 

Giving a good catch requires just as much practice and focus as climbing itself. Sometimes I actually get more nervous getting ready to belay someone than I do getting ready to climb. I find it a bit nerve-wracking to be so responsible for someone else’s safety while also trying not to short rope them on their crux clips. Here are some tips that have helped me with my belaying. I hope you find them helpful too!

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  • More slack doesn’t necessarily mean a soft catch. Often I find myself watching in horror as a climber barely holds on while their belayer below has loops and loops of slack out. More rope means a longer fall for the climber which isn’t always a good thing especially when ledges are involved or the climber is close to the ground.
  • I always try to stand under or as close to the first bolt as I safely can. I find this especially important since I am a lighter belayer. If the belayer is standing far from the wall when the climber falls the belayer can get pulled into the wall and the climber will get more rope and a bigger fall. If I am standing right under the bolt the climber will get less unintended rope from me and I will have better control over the distance the climber falls.
  • It should go without saying but sitting while lead belaying is never a good idea. First of all it sets a tone of inattentiveness which should not be the mood when belaying. More importantly if the belayer is sitting they have very limited movement. This means they are less likely to be able to pull in or give out slack quickly. Also if a rock happens to break off from above the belayer will have little chance of moving out of the way. To me, a good belay stance is an active stance, that means that my knees are slightly bent so that I am ready to jump into action at any moment. I can jump forward to give extra rope, jump back to suck up rope or move around if needed.
A big "no-no": sitting while belaying

A big “no-no”: sitting while belaying

  • Something that I can be guilty of myself is being too chatty during the belay and not giving my partner my full attention. I find sport climbing to be so social at times, it can be difficult not to talk with friends or other climbers. I know that when I’m climbing I can easily get pulled out of focus if I think my belayer is not paying attention to me.
  • Check, check, check! As the belayer I consider it my job to make sure the climber is good to go. People who climb with me know that I want to check everything before we begin and if I need to I ask my climber to hold on for a second so that I can check their system and ask them to check mine. It’s so easy to get too comfortable and goof up. A 5 second check is well worth it to avoid an unfortunate mishap.
  • Keep an eye on your climber’s body position in regards to the rope. Sometimes a climber may not realize that they have inadvertently put their leg behind a rope which can result in a nasty fall. I try to calmly let my climber know by saying something like “watch your right leg“. This way the climber will know to fix their position.

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  • When lowering your climber watch the end of rope or tie a knot in it. Climbers getting lowered off the end of their rope happens way too frequently and is completely avoidable. This happens to experienced and novice climbers alike.

A couple final thoughts: Just because someone is a good climber it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a good belayer.  And although it may be awkward, if you do not feel comfortable belaying or being belayed by someone speak up. Hurt feelings are better than hurt body!

Thanks for the tips Hilary! Climb on! ~Cate

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9 thoughts on “Giving a Better Belay

  1. Jenna says:

    Very true, and very good tips!!

  2. Jess says:

    Great post!

    A few months ago my climber, who is heavier than me and was above the 4th bolt on a vertical route (no rope drag), came down on my head. I was standing close to the bolt as recommended since I’m small, but to the side to (unsuccessfully) prevent just this from happening. So I just want to add that you should be aware of the possibility of your climber hitting you, stand to the side and try to absorb/tackle a collision with your shoulders if it’s unavoidable. I also learned from this that I need to fight heavier climbers fall’s not just when they are at the 1st/2nd bolt, but sometimes even higher if there is no rope drag.

    Also don’t forget to be aware of where your hands are on the rope so that you don’t get your hand drawn into the first bolt if you are pulled up that far.

    So obviously, I also get nervous belaying. Anyone have any suggestions for you to stay calm and cool while belaying?

    • Hilary says:

      Thanks for the story Jess. Super important point that I totally forgot to mention, thank you! Unfortunately us smaller belayers can get tossed around and beat up a bit sometimes. There have been many times where I have asked someone heavier to belay my partner for that very reason. Another option could be to set up a dynamic anchor. That’s a ground anchor that will keep the belayer from getting pulled too high but has enough slack in it to still give a dynamic catch.

  3. Jess White says:

    This is such a great post for new belayers and seasoned ones. When I took my lead test I told every one I wanted to do the belay portion first because I was far more nervous to belay and didn’t want that in the back of my mind when climbing. My climbing partner, and husband, is more than 70lb’s over my weight and giving him a catch is a science. We have taken tons of purposeful falls to be sure we both know what to do in the even of an actual fall. I know falling on purpose can some times be scarier than an accidental fall, but it’s worth it to know you will be safe and ready for all kinds of falls as the climber and belayer.

  4. Colleen says:

    Great article. I see people carelessly belaying on top rope in the gym all of the time. Unfortunately, this can cause issues if these people go outside to climb and aren’t careful while belaying. People definitely need to be more aware while belaying and make sure they are doing every possible thing to ensure their safety and the safety of the climber. Thank you for the tips/reminders!

  5. “Sometimes I actually get more nervous getting ready to belay someone than I do getting ready to climb.”

    Right there with ya. I don’t really get nervous before hard redpoints anymore, but belaying someone on THEIR hard redpoint? Stressful!!

  6. Hootie says:

    I’m yet another one who gets far more anxious about belaying my partner on a hard redpoint attempt. I guess I’m not worried about dropping my climber as much as I am impeding her/his ability to climb as hard as possible and free of tiny nagging belayer-centric fears.

  7. Shanna says:

    Great article. I have been climbing 19 years and thousands of belays and I still get nervous since I am light (105) and often belay heavier people.
    One of my routines is to evaluate the route- is the crux low, is there minimal rope drag, is there a ledge, is the route bolted well or could they ground. If I don’t think I can keep someone safe due to weight difference, I will let them know and we can figure out a ways to mitigate it. 1- stick clip 1-2 bolts if sport; 2- find a heavier belayer; 3 – the climber does not fall until they are in a safe zone. And heavier climbers need to also be frank if they are not experienced belaying someone really light. I see too many people really slam the climber and they have zero clue. If you see someone give a soft catch, ask how and learn how to do it.

    • Mary says:

      All really great points Shanna! Hilary also wrote us a previous post on giving a soft catch which touches on some of these points. Here it is. Thanks for reading!

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