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

Advice: Caring for Your Kit

This page is a guide on how to look after your kit. If, like me, you have redonkulously expensive taste in kit and will bravely dish out £150 on any ‘gucci’ piece of gear then you will want to look after and maintain it in order to get your money’s worth.

*Disclaimer 1: The methods or products I suggest are purely based on my experience through doing, or learning from my customers/colleagues/friends that have done it wrong.*
*Disclaimer 2: When machine washing any piece of gear with a specialist product please clean out the detergent tray and run a rinse cycle with a towel just to flush out any excess detergent residue. This way the products will treat your gear exactly how they’re meant to.*

Waterproofs:
Your first line of defence against the epic fury of mother nature. Any WP jacket or trousers worth more than 80 quid will require a level of care over its lifetime. The majority of items are pre-treated with a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating and this, along with the fabric, is what causes the water to ‘bead’ and run off the garment. Over time this beading will soon be replaced by ‘wetting out’, this is where water doesn’t bead but seeps into the face fabric causing the dark, wet patches.
To care for your WPs you will need to wash them in a ‘pure soap’ such as Nikwax Tech Wash. Do not use any form of detergent wash on your WPs, detergents work by drawing water into and through clothing in order to wash them, this is very bad for a WP! Once washed, leave to drip dry, or tumble dry on a low heat if the care label allows.
If, after washing, wetting out still happens then you’ll want to re-proof the jacket using something like Nikwax TX Direct. Once washed, drip dry. A general rule is that for every 3 washes, do a re-proof.

Boots:
Your boots keep your feet in good working order. If your boot fails you then, ultimately, you fail.
Boot care is simple, but very often overlooked. If you don’t look after them then they will crack and/or fall apart. After a good muddy romp then be sure to take out the laces and scrub them in lukewarm water to get all the debris and muck off.
Once dried then it’s best to apply either a wax or cream for leather boots. If a wax then it’s best to rub in with fingers as the warmth speeds up the process of the oils seeping into the leather. Once applied then either give a quick buff to work it in or leave until they’re needed again. Should you go for an extended period in between using your boots then it is worth applying a good coating of wax/cream before storing the boots as this gives plenty of nourishment and hydration to the materials and keeps them from drying out, degrading or rotting whilst out of action.
A well kept pair of boots will give you many years of faithful and comfortable service regardless of what torture you may put them through.

If a synthetic boot with a waterproof membrane then after they’ve been washed leave to dry and they’ll be good to go again. There are gel products such as Nikwax footwear cleaning gel that help keep everything in good shape.

Rope:
REI has a great page on rope advice. In my experience it is best not to bung a rope in the washing machine as it can twist the sheath from the core and leave you with a knotted, lumpy mess

Sleeping Bags:
The easiest way to care for your sleeping bag is to use a sleeping bag liner inside it. This way you only have to chuck the liner in the wash instead of the whole bag.
For a synthetic fill bag then it is easy to put in the washing machine and put on a cool synthetic wash using Tech Wash or similar.
If it’s a Down filled bag however life gets a lot harder as once down feathers get wet, they lose their loft abilities (ability to capture air within them) and are difficult to dry them out properly. Down bags can last for atleast a decade if looked after properly, but washing them is a bugger. It is best to find a specialised Down Washing company.
Storage of your sleeping bag is equally important for keeping it warm and effective. Instead of having it tightly packed away in its stuff sack, it is best to have it in a storage sack of some sort, or even hung up in a wardrobe without compressing it at all. Most higher priced bags will have one with it, but something like a large pillowcase with work equally well. The reason for this is that when a sleeping bag is compressed for a long period, the loft qualities of the fill begin to degrade and you begin losing out on that all important warmth.

Tents:
Your primary shelter, look after these things and they will serve you for years to come. There are countless shapes, sizes, material types, pole materials, and uses.
I won’t cover the fabric army 9×9 style tents as nobody is stupid enough to go hiking with one of those bad boys strapped to your back.
UV is a particular killer of tents, leave it exposed to the sun for too long and the materials will start to degrade and their waterproofing and strength will be compromised, as with any pitching site be sure that its sheltered from the elements as well as offering some shade. Tent materials can be washed according to care labels, Nikwax Tent and Gear Solarproof should be used in the same fashion as TX Direct (see Waterproofs) it keeps tents and gear well maintained for the environments that we will exposed gear to. For standard washing then Tech Wash is perfect.
If you have forked out for a fairly basic tent that uses fibreglass poles then take care with them as they are by no means as strong, lightweight or durable as the anodised alu poles that are commonplace with many higher-end tents. Should they snap they can be replaced but not repaired. A temporary fix can be fashioned using the repair kit usually provided but will not provide a long term solution. Fibreglass pole replacements are becoming harder to find and so in the long run it is better to for out a little extra for a better quality tent.
A key maintenance tip for any and all tents is DO NOT STORE IT WET. A wet tent stored will just rot and become a useless waste of money. Once you have finished your trip, stand up the tent in your bedroom/living room/wherever and leave it over night to dry out, then pack it away when dry.

Feel free to contribute methods and tips that you have found particularly useful throughout your adventures. Everyone has a little gem for dealing with their beloved equipment!