Climbers get all the glory. They stand on the podiums, feature in the climbing films and get the sponsorship deals. But don’t be fooled; the true art worth mastering is not climbing, it’s belaying.
You know a good belayer when you climb with one. A good belayer is the kind of person who fills you with confidence, who you trust to see you to the top of the route and back down again in one piece. But how do they do it?
Here are a few ingredients to better belaying we’ve discovered over the years.
Be attentive to your partner
Belaying is not chill out time (although this is a common misconception). When you’re belaying you have someone else’s life in your hands so you should pay attention to what they’re doing.
Being attentive doesn’t just mean anticipating a climber’s fall. Climbing partners should buddy check (check each other’s knots, belay devices and safety equipment) before they even leave the ground. When your partner is climbing you should still be checking their safety. If they put their leg in front of the rope, clip incorrectly or miss a bolt, you should let them know as calmly and succinctly as possible.
Sometimes you can’t see your partner when belaying them, so being attentive requires even more concentration. Shout ‘out of sight’ then listen, try to anticipate clipping and be ready to catch an unexpected fall. Focus on the movements of the rope connecting you but remember that assuming your climber is safe without confirmation is incredibly dangerous.
Anticipate and adapt
Obvious right? Of course you’re anticipating a fall when belaying!
Sometimes a fall might come out of nowhere – a foot pop or a missed hold, others there are indicators to look out for. If your partner looks tired, has shaky legs and shouts ‘watch me’, a fall may well be on the cards.
We read a route before we climb it so we should do the same before we belay. Will the climber be out of sight at any point, will you still be able to hear them? Could a fall be riskier at any point and what can you do to make things safer? If you partner is climbing above a big ledge, you may want to take them quite tight so they don’t fall onto it. If they’re high off the deck and climbing above a big roof, maybe let out a little slack so that they fall under, not into, the roof. It’s all about adapting to the terrain.
Communication is key to belaying well. For starters, talk to your climbing partner about how they like to be belayed before they even tie in and be take feedback without getting offended.
Establish your climbing calls (ie. ‘take’, ‘slack’) and cleaning protocol at the top before you go – there’s nothing worse than trying to yell crazy long and complicated questions up a crag.
Once your partner is climbing, you should still be communicating. To many this can be as simple as letting your climber know that you’ve got them when they’re struggling or pointing out hidden footholds that they might not see. Remember the communication means listening too, if your partner says ‘take’ or ‘watch me’, you should listen and respond.
Belaying is often confused with resting, but belaying is by no means a sedentary activity. When belaying from above you should sit down where possible or at least ensure that your anchor is not lower than your waist. Otherwise, stand up and be ready to react.
When lead belaying, some like to step forward when a leader is clipping to avoid pulling out a load of slack, stepping back again once they have clipped. You may also move to be able to see your climber (if safe to do so), although avoid standing so far back that you’ll just be pulled in to faceplant the wall when they fall. And please oh please don’t just sit down at the bottom of a crag when lead belaying, nothing says inattentive like lazing on a rock and eating a sandwich.
Crag chat – yay or nay?
Chatting whilst you belay is a controversial one – some climbers hate it and others don’t mind. Your best bet is to ask yourself ‘am I belaying the best that I can whilst I’m having a natter?’.
Crags are social places where it can be hard to avoid a bit of small talk. Don’t be afraid to say ‘sorry, I just need to focus on my climbing partner for a bit’ if needs be. Alternatively, you could just start shouting encouragement at your climber and hope that your interlocutor gets the point, but that may cause some confusion!
Learn to belay (and climb, of course) on one of our Peak District climbing courses.