How To Belay – The Soft Skills

There are plenty of resources out there that can teach you the hard skills on how to belay.  There are more forum posts on overhand vs underhand belaying technique than I care to mention and don’t get people started on gri-gri vs ATC style belay devices.  While all those articles are well and good at teaching the hard skills I find that even a belayer with perfect technique can be a poor belayer because of terrible soft skills.

The reason I mention this is because I recently climbed with my buddy Mike who is a novice climber and even though he has good technique and I “knew” he wasn’t going to drop me, he was lacking the soft skills that make a belayer a good belayer.

The first rule of being a good belayer is to inspire confidence in the leader.  This can range from the occasional “you got this” to “moving smooth like butta.”  The key here is to reassure without breaking their concentration.  There is nothing worse than a belayer constantly yapping but the occasional encouraging word lets the leader know you’re paying attention and are ready to catch them should they fall.  Every comment should be inspiring which means that the last thing you want to say are things like “I think you need to put pro in” or “man you’re run out” because I assure you the leader is well aware of the situation.

Don’t short rope the leader and likewise don’t use a top rope to pull the climber up the route.  There is no greater sin than a belayer causing a leader to fall because they short roped him.  While lead climbing leave enough lack in the rope for the leader to make a couple of moves.  On top rope make sure the slack is out of the system but you’re not providing upward tension.

Don’t spew beta just because it looks like the leader is struggling.  If the leader needs some help he will ask!

When a climber is clipping make sure they have enough slack to smoothly grab the rope and clip in.  If you don’t give enough slack you can throw the climber out of balance and cause him to dump at the point that they are furthest away from their last piece of pro.

When climbing on double ropes I find it helpful for the belayer to make sure I am not crossing ropes and mention whether I should clip the red or blue rope.  Ultimately it is my decision which rope to clip but the belayer has the best view of the entire system.  This also allows the belayer to protect themselves from a nasty pendelum fall in case you accidentally forget to pay attention to that.

Sometimes people will put in shoddy pro as mental pieces.  It is not good practice but some people do it.  If one of those pieces pops loose while they are climbing don’t mention it if it isn’t their last piece because it will destroy their confidence in the rest of the pro.  If it is their last piece mention it in a non-panicky way like “that crack you’re at looks like it will eat up a cam.”

On loose routes and when ice climbing make sure you are not directly below the climber.  This should be common sense but unfortunately I’ve seen it a lot.

On multipitch once the leader is off belay make sure you are getting ready to follow.  Tie your shoes, down a power gel, put on your backpack, etc.  This saves a lot of time and frustration for the leader.

These are just a few of the rules I can think of off the top of my head.  Learning how to belay well is an experience thing but hopefully these belaying tips will give you a jump start.  If I forgot any tips on how to belay please leave a comment for the next guy.

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