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Belaying Basics

Tying-in to the climbing rope and moving as a member of a rope team increases the climber's margin of safety on difficult, exposed terrain. In some instances, such as when traveling over snow-covered glaciers, rope team members can often move at the same time, relying on the security of a tight rope and "team arrest" techniques to halt a fall by any one member. On steep terrain, however, simultaneous movement only helps to ensure that if one climber falls, he will jerk the other rope team members off the slope. For the climbing rope to be of any value on steep rock climbs, the rope team must incorporate "belays" into the movement.

Belaying is a method of managing the rope in such a way that, if one person falls, the fall can be halted or "arrested" by another rope team member (belayer). One person climbs at a time, while being belayed from above or below by another. The belayer manipulates the rope so that friction, or a "brake," can be applied to halt a fall. Belay techniques are also used to control the descent of personnel and equipment on fixed rope installations, and for additional safety on rappels and stream crossings.

Belaying is a skill that requires practice to develop proficiency. Setting up a belay may at first appear confusing to the beginner, but with practice, the procedure should become "second nature." If confronted with a peculiar problem during the setup of a belay, try to use common sense and apply the basic principles stressed throughout this text. Remember the following key points:

  • Select the best possible terrain features for the position and use terrain to your advantage.
  • Use a well braced, sitting position whenever possible.
  • Aim and anchor the belay for all possible load directions.
  • Follow the "minimum" rule for belay anchors-2 for a downward pull, 1 for an upward pull.
  • Ensure anchor attachments are aligned, independent, and snug.
  • Stack the rope properly.
  • Choose a belay technique appropriate for the climbing.
  • Use a guide carabiner for rope control in all body belays.
  • The brake hand remains on the rope when belaying.
  • Ensure you are satisfied with your position before giving the command "BELAY ON."
  • The belay remains in place until the climber gives the command "OFF BELAY."

Procedure for Managing the Rope

A number of different belay techniques are used in modern climbing, ranging from the basic "body belays" to the various "mechanical belays," which incorporate some type of friction device.

Whether the rope is wrapped around the body, or run through a friction device, the rope management procedure is basically the same. The belayer must be able to perform three basic functions: manipulate the rope to give the climber slack during movement, take up rope to remove excess slack, and apply the brake to halt a fall.

The belayer must be able to perform all three functions while maintaining "total control" of the rope at all times. Total control means the brake hand is NEVER removed from the rope. When giving slack, the rope simply slides through the grasp of the brake hand, at times being fed to the climber with the other "feeling" or guide hand. Taking up rope, however, requires a certain technique to ensure the brake hand remains on the rope at all times. The following procedure describes how to take up excess rope and apply the brake in a basic body belay.

  1. Grasping the rope with both hands, place it behind the back and around the hips. The hand on the section of rope between the belayer and the climber would be the guide hand. The other hand is the brake hand.
  2. Take in rope with the brake hand until the arm is fully extended. The guide hand can also help to pull in the rope (Figure 1, Step 1)
  3. Holding the rope in the brake hand, slide the guide hand out, extending the arm so the guide hand is father away from the body than the brake hand (Figure 1, Step 2).
  4. Grasp both parts of the rope, to the front of the brake hand, with the guide hand (Figure 1, Step 3).
  5. Slide the brake hand back towards the body (Figure 1, Step 4).
  6. Repeat step 5 of Figure 1. The brake can be applied at any moment during the procedure. It is applied by wrapping the rope around the front of the hips while increasing grip with the brake hand (Figure 1, step 6).

Figure 1 - Managing the rope

Choosing a belay technique

The climber may choose from a variety of belay techniques. A method that works well in one situation may not be the best choice in another. The choice between body belays and mechanical belays depends largely on equipment available, what the climber feels most comfortable with, and the amount of load, or fall force, the belay may have to absorb. The following describes a few of the more widely used techniques.

Body Belay

The basic body belay is the most widely used technique on moderate terrain. It uses friction between the rope and the clothed body as the rope is pressured across the clothing. It is the simplest belay, requiring no special equipment, and should be the first technique learned by all climbers. A body belay gives the belayer the greatest "feel" for the climber, letting him know when to give slack or take up rope. Rope management in a body belay is quick and easy, especially for beginners, and is effective in snow and ice climbing when ropes often become wet, stiff, and frozen. The body belay, in its various forms, will hold low to moderate impact falls well. It has been known to arrest some severe falls, although probably not without inflicting great pain on the belayer.

Note: The belayer must ensure he is wearing adequate clothing to protect his body from rope burns when using a body belay. Heavy duty cotton or leather work gloves can also be worn to protect the hands.

For a body belay to work effectively, the belayer must ensure that the rope runs around the hips properly, and remains there under load when applying the brake. The rope should run around the narrow portion of the pelvic girdle, just below the bony high points of the hips. If the rope runs too high, the force of a fall could injure the belayer's midsection and lower rib cage. If the rope runs too low, the load may pull the rope below the buttocks, dumping the belayer out of position. It is also possible for a strong upward or downward pull to strip the rope away from the belayer, rendering the belay useless.

To prevent any of these possibilities from happening, the belay rope is clipped into a carabiner attached to the guide hand side of the seat harness (or bowline-on-a-coil). This "guide carabiner" helps keep the rope in place around the hips and prevents loss of control in upward or downward loads.

Mechanical Belay

A mechanical belay must be used whenever there is potential for the lead climber to take a severe fall. The holding power of a belay device is vastly superior to any body belay under high loads. However, rope management in a mechanical belay is more difficult to master and requires more practice.

Mechanical Belay Devices. There are many other commercially available mechanical belay devices. Most of these work with the same rope movement direction and the same braking principle. The air traffic controller (ATC), slotted plate, and other tube devices are made in many different shapes. These all work on the same principle — friction increases on the rope as it reaches and exceeds the 90-degree angle between the rope entering the device and leaving the device.

Mechanical Camming Devices. The mechanical camming device has an internal camming action that begins locking the rope in place as friction is increased. Unlike the other devices, the mechanical camming device can stop a falling climber without any input from the belayer. A few other devices perform similarly to this, but have no moving parts. Some limitations to these type devices are minimum and maximum rope diameters.

Munter Hitch. The Munter hitch is an excellent mechanical belay technique and requires only a rope and a carabiner. The Munter is actually a two-way friction hitch. The Munter hitch will flip back and forth through the carabiner as the belayer switches from giving slack to taking up rope. The carabiner must be large enough, and of the proper design, to allow this function. The locking pear-shaped carabiner, or pearabiner, is designed for the Munter hitch.

Establishing a Belay

A belay can be established using either a direct or indirect connection. Each type has advantages and disadvantages. The choice will depend on the intended use of the belay.

Direct Belay. The direct belay removes any possible forces from the belayer and places this force completely on the anchor. Used often for rescue installations or to bring a second climber up to a new belay position in conjunction with the Munter hitch, the belay can be placed above the belayer's stance, creating a comfortable position and ease of applying the brake. Also, if the second falls or weights the rope, the belayer is not locked into a position. Direct belays provide no shock-absorbing properties from the belayer's attachment to the system as does the indirect belay; therefore, the belayer is apt to pay closer attention to the belaying process.

Indirect Belay. An indirect belay, the most commonly used, uses a belay device attached to the belayer's harness. This type of belay provides dynamic shock or weight absorption by the belayer if the climber falls or weights the rope, which reduces the direct force on the anchor and prevents a severe shock load to the anchor.

Setting Up a Belay

In rock climbing, climbers must sometimes make do with marginal protection placements along a route, but belay positions must be made as "bombproof" as possible. Additionally, the belayer must set up the belay in relation to where the fall force will come from and pay strict attention to proper rope management for the belay to be effective. All belay positions are established with the anchor connection to the front of the harness. If the belay is correctly established, the belayer will feel little or no force if the climber falls or has to rest on the rope. Regardless of the actual belay technique used, five basic steps are required to set up a sound belay.

  1. Select Position and Stance. Once the climbing line is picked, the belayer selects his position. It's best if the position is off to the side of the actual line, putting the belayer out of the direct path of a potential fall or any rocks kicked loose by the climber. The position should allow the belayer to maintain a comfortable, relaxed stance, as he could be in the position for a fairly long time. Large ledges that allow a well braced, sitting stance are preferred. Look for belay positions close to bombproof natural anchors. The position must at least allow for solid artificial placements.
  2. Aim the Belay. With the belay position selected, the belay must now be "aimed." The belayer determines where the rope leading to the climber will run and the direction the force of a fall will likely come from. When a lead climber begins placing protection, the fall force on the belayer will be in some upward direction, and in line with the first protection placement. If this placement fails under load, the force on the belay could be straight down again. The belayer must aim his belay for all possible load directions, adjusting his position or stance when necessary. The belay can be aimed through an anchor placement to immediately establish an upward pull; however, the belayer must always be prepared for the more severe downward fall force in the event intermediate protection placements fail.
  3. Anchor the Belay. For a climbing belay to be considered bombproof, the belayer must be attached to a solid anchor capable of withstanding the highest possible fall force. A solid natural anchor would be ideal, but more often the belayer will have to place pitons or chocks. A single artificial placement should never be considered adequate for anchoring a belay (except at ground level). Multiple anchor points capable of supporting both upward and downward pulls should be placed. The rule of thumb is to place two anchors for a downward pull and one anchor for an upward pull as a MINIMUM.
  4. Stack the Rope. Once the belayer is anchored into position, he must stack the rope to ensure it is free of twists and tangles that might hinder rope management in the belay. The rope should be stacked on the ground, or on the ledge, where it will not get caught in cracks or nubbins as it is fed out to the climber.
  5. Attach the Belay. The final step of the procedure is to attach the belay. With the rope properly stacked, the belayer takes the rope coming off the top of the pile, removes any slack between himself and the climber, and applies the actual belay technique. If using a body belay, ensure the rope is clipped into the guide carabiner.

When the belayer is satisfied with his position, he gives the signal, "BELAY ON!" From that moment, the belayer is assuming responsibility for the climber's safety.


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