On belay. The art of staying safe while rock climbing
1. Distance between belayer and wall
My recommendation: the distance should be relatively short (usually between 3 and 12 feet). The closer you are to the wall, the sharper the angle between you and the first piece of equipment. A sharp angle means that in case of a leader fall, you as the belayer will experience an upward pull (vertical) compared to a sideways pull. A sideways pull (horizontal force) is not desired because it pulls the belayer into/towards the wall. Being pulled into the wall bears many risks, such as: sudden uncontrolled stance, increased slack in the system = longer lead fall, tripping over obstacles between belayer and wall, rope burn, risk of letting go the brake and so on. Conclusion: stay close to the wall – guideline 3-12 feet!
2. Weight difference between belayer and climber
I) the overall protect ability of the route:
If the route is runout with long potential falls – rather pick another route or find a belayer with similar weight.
II) your stance while belaying:
Check your belay area for obstacles. Forces on the (lighter) belayer can be enormous and sudden pulls can be bad if there are rocks or any other tripping hazards in the way.
III)your choice of belay device in combination with rope thickness:
Use a high friction belay device and rather thick than thin rope. Device and thick rope can take away a good amount of friction that otherwise will be extra load to hold. I recommend a rope thickness of at least 10.00mm in combination with a “Petzl Reverso”. As far as tubular belay devices go – the Reverso is for example much thinner than the “Black diamond ATC” (which is otherwise a great device too).
The lighter the belayer the more important for him or her it is to assess the consequences of a sudden fall/pull on the harness. Often lighter belayers literally get catapulted up a few feet, which is fine but requires extra attention and expertise to deal with.
3. Rock Terrain
4. Lead climbing fall distance formula
5. Ground fall potential
It sounds bad and is never desired but leader and belayer have to be aware of it. Mostly ground falls occur within the first two pieces of protection of a climb. For that it is really important to know the fall distance formula! Often the climber has already clipped the first piece and now is ready to clip the second piece. In the worst case scenario the climber slips right before being able to clip the second piece of protection and faces a ground fall.
The belayer has to quickly react and there are three things that the belayer can do to shorten the fall and protect him/herself and the climber:
1. Stay out of the climber’s fall line! Many incidents report that climbers have fallen on the belayer simply because the belayer stood right underneath the climber in a ground fall scenario. So look for a safe stance and stay either left or right of the climber’s fall line!
2. Rapidly take slack out of the system! There are many options! If the terrain allows you to launch down to a lower spot while keeping the brake rope locked – this is your best option. Launch/jump of a rock to have your body weight and gravity rapidly take out slack. If you believe that taking rapidly in slack with your hands is enough to prevent a ground fall then be extra quick and do that
3. If you know that there is no chance of taking out slack them your last resort is to provide a spot! Just like bouldering. With spotting you can influence the way how the climber falls. Generally speaking you always want to direct the fall so that the climber falls on her or his feet.
To summarize this – check out the characteristics of world class lead belayers:
– performing partner checks
– assessing the route before climber starts
– looking at overall protect ability of the route such as run outs or distance between bolts
– looking for features that may increase the risk of injury in case of a leaders’ fall (roofs, ledges, corners, etc.)
– having action plans for each lead fall scenario at any given time and being able to implement those plans instantly as they rapidly change during the lead.
Stay safe and explore!