Published on: 03/16/2022
Belaying may be the most critical skill you need to participate in the sport of rock climbing safely.
“To belay” is a term with nautical origins that involves securing a rope around another object, for example, a cleat, to stop it from moving.
In climbing, a belayer holds a lead climber’s rope and feeds it out as the leader advances upward. In the event of a fall, expected or unexpected, the belayer must be ready to instantly lock off the rope to minimize the distance of any leader falls.
Failure to act quickly enough or use the correct technique is likely to end with a serious injury to the falling climber or worse.
Tying knots properly, securing your harness, cleaning anchors, and rappelling off a route are vital procedures to learn and practice. Indeed, a mistake during any of these processes can also result in death.
However, I would argue that these are simpler and have fewer variables involved than belaying. Human error or environmental hazards may cause dire consequences for both climber and the belayer.
Warning: This article is not intended to provide technical instruction. The content is for information only and not a substitute for professional training. Please do not attempt any of the techniques described here without guidance from an experienced rock climbing instructor.
History and Styles of Belaying
According to the classic instruction manual for climbers, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills (6th Ed.), “In its simplest form, a belay consists of nothing more than a rope that runs from a climber to another person, the belayer, who is ready to stop a fall.”
In the old days of mountaineering, a belayer might have simply held the rope in their hands and relied on grip strength and their body weight to arrest a leader fall. The body belay is the next evolution of belaying, which some people still teach today as an emergency backup.
A body belay, also known as a hip belay, requires the belayer to hold the rope in both hands, with the rope running behind the belayer’s back. If the lead climber falls, the belayer wraps the rope tightly around their waist to increase friction on the rope and arrest the fall.
Some climbers will still use a body belay on easy, low-angle terrain to speed up climbing on easier pitches. Perhaps the best reason to learn the body belay is to maximize your repertoire of self-rescue skills.
Other belay techniques are helpful but rarely used except in emergencies. One is the Munter hitch, a knot used along with a locking belay carabiner to belay or rappel.
Modern Belay Techniques
Modern rock climbers, ice/mixed climbers, and mountaineers universally depend on an item of gear called a belay device because they offer a considerable improvement in safety and reliability over these earlier techniques.
A belay device is a generic term for any gear that performs the belay function. That is, locking up the rope and stopping a climber from falling further. As you’ll see, they come in many shapes and sizes, with slight differences in how they operate.
But nearly every belay device uses the same general principles to function and operate correctly. So learn to use a basic tube-style device, and you’ll be able to adapt to any other type or brand within a few minutes of practice.
Take a belay class from a climbing instructor anywhere in the world. You will be able to take that belaying knowledge and apply it in situations from Utah canyoneering to Yosemite big walls to the top of Everest.
These days many people learn rope climbing indoors, and in that environment, most start by learning top-rope belaying and top-rope climbing first. After that, the next logical step is to learn lead climbing and how to belay a lead climber.
People who learn how to climb outdoors, with experienced trad or sport climbers, might be encouraged to practice lead belaying right away.
How To Belay
The fundamental elements of belaying are the same, no matter what technique or device you use.
One of the belayer’s hands, usually the dominant hand, is designated as the “brake hand.” The other hand’s function is to manage and feed rope as the leader ascends. Some people call this the “guide hand.”
The most important principle of belaying is this: NEVER let go of the climbing rope with your brake hand. Not to scratch an itch, not to swat away a bee, not even to deflect incoming rockfall. NEVER remove your brake hand from the rope.
Climbing Partner Communication and Safety Checks
The ability to communicate effectively with your climbing partner may be the most important safety skill you can develop. Many accidents are initiated or made worse by poor communication and misunderstanding between climber and belayer.
In North America, there is a standard set of verbal commands used by the amateur and professional climbing communities that allows everyone to climb as safely as possible, even when climbing with a new partner for the first time.
After a climber ties in to the rope and the belayer fixes the rope in his device, both partners first perform visual safety checks. They check that:
- The figure-eight knot is tied correctly in to the climber’s harness,
- Climber’s and belayer’s harnesses are adequately threaded,
- Belayer’s locking carabiner is positively locked, and the rope runs through the belay device correctly
After the visual checks, this standard dialogue follows:
Climber: (Am I) On belay?
Belayer: (You are) On belay!
Climber: (I am) Climbing!
Belayer: Climb on!
Only after these commands have been exchanged and safety checks executed does the climber leave the ground.
When the climber returns to the ground or attaches herself to an anchor and wishes to be removed from the security of the belay, she states, “Off belay!” The belayer can then release his brake hand and remove the rope from his belay device before affirming, “You’re off belay!”
There are other common commands while the climber is en route that assist in clear communication.
A climber yells “take” or “up rope” when they want the belayer to take up slack and tighten the rope, “slack” when they desire more rope to be fed out. “Lower” tells the belayer to let the climber down by allowing rope to run through the belay device.
Make sure you and your partner agree on the meanings of these phrases and how you apply them. Not all of them are universal or have the same meaning from one climbing area to another.
There are other topics to discuss before a leader sets out. For example, does he want to rappel or be lowered from the top of the route? It may be difficult to hear when you’re a pitch-length apart; communicate beforehand, so everyone knows the plan.
Many climbing partners mutually review the gear required for a pitch and the location of the anchors or belay station.
Even if you’re less experienced than your climbing partner, don’t be afraid to ask questions and repeat yourself to make sure you understand everything. It’s better to ask a silly question and risk embarrassment than to end up in the emergency room.
On the other hand, for highly experienced climbers, complacency can be the biggest enemy.
Steps for Belaying On a Single-Pitch Rock Climb
These are general instructions that apply to nearly every belay device on the market. Be sure and follow specific requirements for your particular device as instructed by the gear maker.
- Anchor the belayer to gear, fixed hardware, or natural features as needed to prevent them from being pulled upward by a lead climber’s weight. This not only helps the lead belayer avoid injury, it reduces the chance of a leader ground fall.
- Tie a knot in the free end of the rope that is flaked on the ground. In case the rope is not long enough to lower the leader back to the bottom of the pitch after climbing, this stopper knot will prevent the rope from sliding all the way through the belayer’s device, which could allow the lowering party to fall to the ground.
- Clip a locking carabiner and belay device to the the belayer’s harness belay loop.
- Feed rope through the belay device correctly per manufacturer’s guidelines. Close and secure locking carabiner.
- Pull on both ends of rope to ensure smooth feeding. Hold your hand in the brake position and confirm the device is operating properly to lock the rope.
- Perform mutual safety checks between leader and belayer to confirm both party’s gear configuration and readiness.
- Feed rope from the ground through the device as the climber ascends. Leave just enough rope slack to allow freedom of movement and minimize fall distances. Never allow brake hand to release rope.
- When the leader falls, needs rest, or reaches the anchor, move brake hand to the brake position (usually down and to the side, next to or behind your brake side hip) to lock off the rope.
- When it’s time to lower the leader from the top anchors, slowly reduce friction by moving hand from braking point upward, until the climber is lowering at the desired speed. Modulate as necessary based on conditions and terrain.
- Release brake hand and remove rope from the device only after your partner is safely on the ground and states she is “off belay.”
Top Rope Belaying
When belaying a climber on a rope that is already secured overhead, this is called a top rope belay. The concepts are the same as with the lead belay technique described above, especially the requirement to keep your brake hand on the rope.
However, when belaying a top rope climber, the belayer only takes up slack rope as the climber moves upward. The top rope belayer pulls rope in through their belay device until their partner reaches the top, then lowers them to the ground.
A top rope belay should maintain minimal slack in the rope, generally less than a lead belay. This allows you to keep the rope taut and reduce falls to nothing except the distance that the rope stretches.
Because of that, top-roping is the safest method for successfully preventing climber injury due to ground fall or striking an obstacle mid-route. It is arguably also the easiest and safest for beginner belayers to learn when using an assisted braking device.
Belaying on Multi-Pitch Routes
On longer, multi-pitch routes, there are several additional belay skills you’ll need to master. You may also need to know how to create and equalize a belay anchor, place and clean gear, rig a rappel using natural protection and fixed hardware, and more.
All these are beyond the scope of this article and require more experience and advanced instruction. However, the general process of belaying on a multi-pitch sport or trad route, with a party of two climbers, is as follows:
- Start the first pitch as you would a single-pitch route. At the top of the first pitch, the lead climber builds a sound anchor and goes off belay.
- The first-pitch leader now belays the second climber from above on top rope. The follower cleans gear as he ascends.
- When the second meets the leader at the top of the first pitch, whoever is leading the next pitch takes the gear and climbs to the top of the second pitch. It’s customary to trade leads back and forth, if both climbers are equal in abilities, so that the leader of the first pitch leads all the odd-numbered pitches and her partner leads all the even-numbered pitches.
- Climbers trade leads in this fashion until they top out the route. At this point there are generally two options, either walk off or rappel back the way you came.
Many other complications and variations of this process are likely to arise even on a straightforward trad climb. For example, if you must belay from a point where there is no natural feature to perch on, or you’re on an overhanging section of rock, you’ll need to become comfortable using a hanging belay.
Belaying a Second from Above
Belaying a follower from the top of a pitch is an important fundamental belay technique that all climbers should practice. It’s essential for climbing multi-pitch routes, but there are also scenarios where it’s the best option for single-pitch routes.
While you can belay from above by attaching a device directly to your harness belay loop, that is often not the best or safest method. It’s preferable to use a device secured directly to the belay anchor and not to the belayer’s harness. Some gear manufacturers call this feature “guide mode.”
At its core, belaying from above follows the same principles as belaying from the bottom of a pitch. Never release your brake hand from the rope, and always maintain good communication with your partner.
Assuming you can hear your partner, perform the same verbal checks before the climber begins as you would on any other pitch. Obviously, each party must do their own visual safety checks of knots, harnesses, device configuration, etc.
Catching a Fall
If you sport or trad climb, you’ll eventually end up having to catch a fall without any advance warning. Part of your belaying training should include practice catching climber falls. It’s better to have some experience with the feeling, so you know what to expect in the event of an unannounced fall.
First, don’t worry about providing a “soft catch,” as some recommend. There’s no way to control this during an actual fall realistically. A soft catch is made possible by the amount of slack in the rope, the slippage of rope through one’s device before it locks up, and the stretch in the dynamic rope itself. The whole system together makes modern climbing falls safe, so long as the falling climber doesn’t hit anything on the way down.
For most people, grasping the rope firmly and moving their hand into the braking position feels instinctual after a few practice sessions. And in the real world, you’ll nearly always get some signal that your partner is in distress when they’re imminently in danger of falling. Then you can prepare yourself to quickly take in rope or lock it in place as appropriate.
If you want to practice catching falls, the best place is on a slightly overhanging route outdoors or in the climbing gym.
Types and Examples of Modern Belay Devices
How Do Belay Devices Work?
Every belay device in existence works by helping the belayer slow and stop the progress of rope when desired, rather than relying entirely on our hand strength and skin friction. They also “lock off” the rope and allow a belayer to relax their brake hand while remaining on the rope.
Belay devices help by increasing friction to the point where the rope cannot move through the device. How they manage friction and your ability to control it varies depending on the design.
There are three main belay device types that operate slightly differently to modulate the friction and braking power applied to a climbing rope.
These devices have grooves or slots that accommodate a range of rope diameters. Pulling the rope downward into the braking position increases the angle it breaks over the metal, increases friction, and allows a belayer to stop a falling climber easily.
Examples: Black Diamond ATC Guide, DMM Pivot, Figure 8’s, “plate” and “tube” style devices
Friction with Non-Mechanical Assisted Braking
Assisted braking devices made without moving parts have become more popular over the past decade. They aim to automatically pivot and pinch the rope to halt its progress through the device unless the belayer is actively pushing down to counteract this effect. They offer additional safety at a lower price point, with simpler operation than mechanical devices like the GriGri. Their biggest drawback is an unwanted tendency to lock up when a belayer is feeding rope while lead belaying.
Examples: Mammut Smart 2.0, Edelrid Mega Jul, Black Diamond ATC Pilot
Friction with Mechanical Assisted Braking
Popularized by the ubiquitous GriGri, these devices employ moving parts that exert a camming action that slows and stops the rope. These devices are extremely popular with sport climbers and are mandatory in some climbing gyms.
Examples: Petzl GriGri, GriGri+, CAMP Matik, Mad Rock Lifeguard
Rappeling with Belay Devices
Almost all friction-only belay devices can also act as rappel devices for rapping and descending. Tube-style devices are the most common solution for performing a double-strand (or double-rope) rappel because they have two holes to feed the rope.
Assisted braking devices like the GriGri are not capable of double rope rappels. Climbers can use them for single-strand rappels in some scenarios, but this is another expert technique that beginners shouldn’t attempt. Most climbers who use a mechanical belay device also carry another device used for double-strand rappels.
How Do I Learn To Belay?
The only safe way to learn how to belay is to practice with experienced climbers. These are the three most common ways to achieve that:
Take a class at your nearest climbing gym or recreational facility with an indoor climbing wall.
Find a certified guide or climbing school that offers a course or guided trip that includes basic instruction.
Ask an experienced climber you trust to teach you the basics and take you on an outing to the gym or a local crag. Even if that person is just an acquaintance, many climbers are eager to introduce newcomers to their sport and enjoy the opportunity to share their knowledge with others.
Situational and Environmental Awareness
Excellent belaying demands constant focus and attention on everything that could endanger you and your partner. It’s impossible to list all potential mishaps or surprises that might pose a risk.
You should do things to reduce the chance of serious injury, like wear a helmet. The most significant risks to a belayer are the possibility of being struck by rockfall or being pulled upward and hitting the rock or your partner when they fall.
The most important requirement for a belayer is continual awareness of the state of your gear, the rope coiled at your feet, the rock above you, and the actions of the leader. Are they running out their protection and risking a longer fall? What can you do to prepare for that and minimize negative consequences?
Here’s an incomplete list of a few factors that can lead to disaster and that a proactive belayer might be able to circumvent with the proper actions:
- Too much/not enough slack
- Gear placed incorrectly
- Quickdraws back-clipped or Z-clipped
- Bolts skipped
- Anchors missed
- Rope stuck in crack
- Thunder clouds approaching
- Hornet nests swarming
- Knots in flaked rope sticking in belay device
- Tree limbs threatening impalement
Belaying can be like driving on a busy highway. You have to attend to multiple data streams simultaneously while being prepared for immediate countermeasures when confronted with many possible threats. It may seem intimidating at first, but it quickly becomes automatic, like driving.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Most people learn to belay fairly confidently in one or two sessions. However, be aware that like any skill, if you don’t practice regularly you’ll forget and may need a training refresher.
Belay glasses incorporate a 90-degree prism in each lens so that a belayer looking straight ahead will actually see a clear view from straight above. They provide relief from crippling neck pain during a long day of belaying.
There are different methods that advanced climbers use to self-belay and rope solo safely without a partner. You must be supremely confident in your rope rigging skills and gear set up in order to make this a safe endeavor. Seek out advanced training from an experienced practitioner before you attempt this specialized belay technique.