Is Your Belayer Trying to Kill You?

Now unless you’ve lost their newest bit of trad gear or run off with their spouse the answer will most likely be a no. Thankfully the vast majority of the roped climbing world is relatively switched on and can tell the difference between the dead rope, their pocket and their right nostril – places you’d most likely find their hands!

Having spent a full year working in a climbing centre environment I see bad belaying on a daily basis and it scares me, it should scare you too: Complete novices, performance squad, old boys, your mate – bad belaying can be found everywhere. It’s a rampant problem that needs sorting before more tears are shed, legs are broken and climbing careers shattered.
In the last month 3 belayers have been intercepted by myself or a colleague and the climber given an ear bending for attempting to have a novice belayer (first time ever in a climbing centre) keep them safe on the wall – this is after strictly being told that they cannot belay without supervision.

First and foremost if you are bringing a first timer to a climbing centre or outdoor venue you are not allowed to have them belay you unsupervised. They are first timers and will probably have no idea what you’re talking about. In all good judgement you can not put your life in their hands; regardless of how good a climber you are, if you fall they probably won’t catch you.

A common reply, accompanied with an almost offended look, is simply “But I’ve always belayed like this” or “Don’t worry mate, I’ve never dropped anyone“. What, you’ve always belayed without actually holding the dead rope in the locked-off position? Or always held the rope with the lightest of thumb and index finger ‘fairy pinches’? Poor form Mr/Mrs belayer. Poor form. In climbing instruction we work in what ifs – You may be fine now, but what if…?

My teaching style for belaying is through this rhyme:
Eye
To the Thigh
1
2
3
(Count in German to make it rhyme!)

The reason I teach this way is because with the usual V-Knee-1-2-3 I find that most belayers end up bobbing up and down as they belay, constantly touching their knee with the dead rope hand. Highly amusing for me, but complete waste of energy!

There are plenty of other iterations of the rhyme; V, Knee, 123 – Up, Down, Left Right Left – etc. but they’re all describing the same movement. Starting in the neutral position where the dead rope (DR) hand is at hip level and live rope (LR) hand  is at chest level, the DR hand comes up to form a V shape in the air pulling through approximately a foot of rope, the DR hand brings the rope down into the locked off position, LR hand comes down above the DR hand, DR hand now goes above the LR hand, LR hand goes back to the live rope, repeat until climber reaches the top. Using this routine there is always a hand on the dead rope and the rope is in the locked off position the majority of the time ready to catch any falls. It is worth noting that this method is suited to modern friction plate devices such as the Petzl Verso and DMM Bug, and not italian hitches or belaying in ‘guide mode’.

Safety offences I’ve called people out on include:

  • DR hand left in the V position
    • Dangerous because should the climber fall the dead rope will likely pull through the belay device, pinching the DR hand in the device resulting in a release of the rope.
  • Fairy Pinches
    • I call these fairy pinches – instead of nice firm grabs on both DR and LR the belayer simply pinches the rope with the lightest of touches. This won’t catch a lean 15 year old, let alone a 45 year old!
    • Most often seen on the ‘1’ of V, Knee, 123.
  • Releasing the Dead Rope
    • It’s called a dead rope for a reason – I know it’s named for passing the live rope through the belay device and so no longer holding the climber and thus being ‘dead rope’ – If you’re not holding it and your climber takes a fall then bad things generally happen.
    • Most common offence with belayers using a Petzl GRIGRI – Note it’s an assisted braking device, not an auto-locking device. There should always be a hand on the DR just as any other device.
    • A common occurrence whilst lead belaying. The DR is even more important in leading!
  • Excess slack in the system/Too slow
    • Risky but can be dangerous. The belayer can fumble in the slack rope and miss the DR. All that needs doing is tell the climber to slow down.
  • Not Paying Attention
    • As a belayer you are incharge of another person’s life. Don’t zone out by deeply talking to those around you or gawk at the guy that just cruised up that 8a on the competition wall.
    • Texting whilst belaying is an absolute no. Just…..no.

Climbing is an amazing sport that everyone should fully embrace, or at least give a go. It must be kept in mind that while the sport is becoming increasingly accessible through the rise of indoor climbing centres and availability of outdoor instructors and guides, it is still classed as an extreme sport – if things go wrong, they’ll go wrong quickly and in a big way often resulting in injury or even death.

Ensure your belayer knows what they’re doing before trusting them with your life, it’s really not worth the risk!

A British stigma is to see a wrongdoing, tut and mutter about it, but not actually act on it. This is just as true in climbing as it is seeing a dog walker not picking up their dog’s fresh turd. If you see something that worries you or is dangerous then tell a member of staff!

Some light reading (not so light):
BMC Belay Article
Recent Essex Belay Incident
Petzl World’s Worst Belayer
Unbelayvable
Fall Results in Broken Ribs
Acute Injury Risk and Severity in Indoor Climbing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s