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Belay technique discussion


Original Post
Sarah K · · Boulder, CO · Joined May 2009 · Points: 80

Recently I noticed a climbing partner doing something I think is totally dangerous while belaying. I approached him about it but he insisted he was belaying fine. I'd like anyone's input on this scenario.

He was belaying top-rope with an ATC. When taking in rope, he held the rope with one hand above the belay device (climber strand) while he loosened his other hand on the break strand in order to slide it up towards the belay device. EDIT for clarification: I was able to see his hand opening up from about 90 feet away.

I thought this was wrong because he is effectively letting go of the break strand. I thought he is not holding the break strand at all if his hand is loose enough to slide up without any force holding the end of the rope below (which usually comes by solidly holding the break end with their other hand below). I told him this was dangerous and asked him to please put his top hand below the break hand in order to slide his break hand up. For a short time he started doing it that way, and then he reverted back to doing it the way he was before. I held my breath until the climber was done climbing (I was at the top of the cliff and was shouting down to the belayer when I saw this happen, but didn't think of anything else I could do at the time).

When I was able to talk with him face to face about it, he insisted that he would be able to tighten his grip and catch a fall if he felt a fall on his upper hand or saw the climber start falling. I just reiterated that I didn't think someone would be able to stop the rope once it started sliding and could he please, please not belay like that. He continued to disagree and said he wants to test it by dropping dead weights. I have no problem testing it out and would be willing to go try it together.

He apparently has been lead belaying me like this without my knowing until now. He said he started doing it that way because there was no way to not short-rope me since I told him I don't like a lot of slack in the lead rope. I usually lead easy routes that have a ton of ledges, so I don't like a lot of slack in the line in those situations and have told him that in the past.

What are your thoughts? Do you think someone could catch a fall with this belay technique? Do you know of any links to any videos of someone trying to stop a fall when they didn't have the rope tight? Or links to any discussion of this situation? Any recommendations on what I could do or say to him? Thank you.

Max Forbes · · Vermont & Colorado · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 108

I wouldn't let him belay me using that technique on top-rope, simply put, he's doing exactly what you said, letting go of the break strand. He should do exactly what you said, put his hand below the other as he loosens his grip and slides his hand up the rope. That does however, sound pretty standard for a lead belay, as there really isn't another way to feed rope unless your pulling from the top.. Understanding the proper use of each technique, as well as the ability to adjust to the safest method in different situations is important...

I wouldn't say anything. Tomorrow, link him to this thread and plenty of people will probably have responded with the same answer I just gave. If that doesn't change his mind I would probably find a new climbing partner.

EDIT: heres a good video explaining the proper execution of this method of belaying for leaders only. youtube.com/watch?v=YvEQrKO…

John Wilder · · Las Vegas, NV · Joined Feb 2004 · Points: 1,535

Definitely not ideal for a top rope belay, I'd be concerned about catching ability on a skinny line. Sounds fine for a lead belay, though, as I'm not sure how else you would feed slack with an atc.

Linnaeus · · NZ · Joined Aug 2011 · Points: 0

What you describe is a common belay technique, for both lead and TR. Most of the friction and holding power comes from the bends in the rope going through the device and around the belay biner, not from a hard grip on the rope. In the event of a fall, a properly attentive belayer should easily be able to grab the rope and tighten up sufficiently even if his or her hand is loose and sliding up the rope at the moment of the fall.

runout · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 30
  • getting popcorn*
slim · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2004 · Points: 1,107
John Wilder wrote:Definitely not ideal for a top rope belay, I'd be concerned about catching ability on a skinny line. Sounds fine for a lead belay, though, as I'm not sure how else you would feed slack with an atc.
why would it not be ok for a TR belay if it is ok for a lead belay? this method has been used for ages and is a lot better than the crappy method i still see taught at gyms all over the place (where you pull the rope up parallel to the other, slide your hand etc, all while the rope is in a non-brake position). at least with the sliding method you can keep the rope pretty much in the brake position all of the time.
javd von dauber · · East Brookfield MA · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 91

Buy him a gri-gri for his birthday.

roger fritz from rockford, IL · · Rockford, IL · Joined Aug 2009 · Points: 60

Belaying is a very serious responsibility. If your belayer cannot belay in a method that adheres to your satisfaction, you have 2-choices: Have someone give him a back up belay or don't climb with him.

As a reminder the 3- irreducible principles that comprise the grounding theory of belaying:
1. The brake hand never leaves the rope.
2. The hand transition should be made in a position of strength.
3. The body should be positioned comfortably and sustainably.

Sliding the brake hand toward the belay device without proper back up is effectively letting go of the rope and violates #1 elementery principle above. It is bad technique.
If you fall while he doesn't have his hand on the brake strand, his likely first reaction will be to give the guide hand a death grip that cannot stop a climbers fall. While you are in the morgue or in the hospital, he will be hurting with his 2nd degree burns on the palm of his hand.

Two things disturb me about the scenario you describe. 1. Your partner does not seem to recognize the seriousness of the belayers job. 2. That your partner refuses to do the known, proper way to belay on a live human being and yet he doubts his unsafe practice so much that he is willing to perform tests on a dead weight. This attitude is an accident waiting to happen, with you on the climbers strand.

Until you see an attitude in your partner that takes your safety serious, I would find a new partner.

Paula C · · Denver, CO · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 20
Linnaeus wrote:What you describe is a common belay technique, for both lead and TR.
Agreed. This is how I learned to lead belay and now use it for TR (although I will use the "waterfall" if I have to take in a lot of slack quickly). Your brake hand loosens SLIGHTLY as it slides, but is never taken off the rope. You only need to tighten your grip to brake.

With that said, it's a common technique and if it makes you uncomfortable you should discuss the belay with your partner before getting on a climb, especially on lead. Climbing is scary enough without wondering if you can trust your belayer.
roger fritz from rockford, IL · · Rockford, IL · Joined Aug 2009 · Points: 60
javd wrote:Buy him a gri-gri for his birthday.
Gri Gri's are still not a "hands free" device! This might just be the 75-100$ gift that kills Sarah!
roger fritz from rockford, IL · · Rockford, IL · Joined Aug 2009 · Points: 60
Linnaeus wrote:What you describe is a common belay technique, for both lead and TR.
This might be a "common belay technique" however it violates Rule #1 in elementary belay principles.

Most common way to belay without letting go of the brake strand:

Pull the rope up with your brake hand as you simultaneously pull the rope down with your other hand, then brake the rope down under your brake device. Take your non-brake hand and firmly grasp the rope under the belay device, then slide your brake hand up against that hand.
Repeat this process.
Mike Cara · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 20

From what I'm gathering, this method is called the "European belay" (a climber much better than me said this term, not me). I've seen a hand full of climbers in the gym visiting from overseas belay this way and get failed on a belay test.

Abram Herman · · Grand Junction, CO · Joined May 2009 · Points: 20

His belay technique sounds fine. FWIW, I'm far from lax about safety in climbing. I'm very picky about my belayers, I wear my helmet, etc. and I would be fine with him belaying me in that style as long as he's an attentive belayer. That's the most important thing to me, is that the belayer is paying attention to what's going on.

"I didn't think someone would be able to stop the rope once it started sliding"

Have you ever rappelled?

Slartibartfast · · Magrathea · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 0

Short answer: I'm definitely OK with your friends belay method.

In my mind, a simple belay is better because all these complicated maneuvers are a great way to get a belayer distracted or confused, no matter how experienced they may be. So anything that keeps the belayer from switching hands from one strand to the other is a good thing. Keep in mind that we're not talking about letting go of the rope, but just sliding with the hand wrapped constantly around the brake strand; in that situation, the differences between "loose enough to slide my hand up" and "death grip" are measured in millimeters and milliseconds. As far as this methods usefulness in top-rope vs leading situations goes, my only thought is that top-roping with this method is the only time a palm up grip feels safe to me. I don't know why, but palm up seems to give better rope control in this situation. Leading I grip palm down.

I'd be more worried by your belayer refusing to make such a tiny change that was obviously bugging you so much.

Side note: I agree that the ol' pinch and slide(bringing the brake strand up parallel with the guide)is just the most horrifying thing I've ever seen.

reboot · · . · Joined Jul 2006 · Points: 125
slim wrote: why would it not be ok for a TR belay if it is ok for a lead belay?
Well, nothing in this thread makes any sense, so why not?

In theory, you can TR & lead belay with an "always on" break hand by interchanging your hands (if you need to move your right hand, grab the break side w/ your left hand first). I was forced to do this at Stone Summit (had a conference in ATL) or I wasn't passing the belay test (there were no requirements on how I actually belayed post test or I'd have asked for a refund & just left). Reminded me to never move to ATL.
Bill M · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Jun 2010 · Points: 317

I would buy him an Edelrid Mega Jul. I think most belaying accidents come from distractions while belaying.

Em Cos · · Boulder, CO · Joined Apr 2010 · Points: 5
Abram Herman wrote: "I didn't think someone would be able to stop the rope once it started sliding" Have you ever rappelled?
Rappelling is more analogous to lowering a climber, not to catching their fall. Unless you rappel by leaning back off the ledge first and then quickly grabbing the rope.

That technique doesn't sit right with me - though I'd be interested to hear what you learn if you do try it out with weights. For me, the difference between sliding your brake hand while lead belaying and sliding your brake hand while TR belaying is that when feeding slack out, you slide along the rope back away from the belay device, and the belay device is providing some resistance so it's easy to slide your hand away without loosening your grip much. For TR, you are sliding your hand back toward the belay device, so without your other hand holding the rope underneath, or anything else providing resistance, you have to loosen your grip a lot more to slide up.

Maybe that's a significant difference, maybe it's not. The bottom line for me though is if you can do something significantly safer with minimal extra effort, why not do it?

The other point, that you need to be able to trust your partner and you both need to feel comfortable with each other's techniques and skills, is not one to take lightly. If he offered to go test it out, it sounds like he's keeping an open mind at least.
javd von dauber · · East Brookfield MA · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 91
roger fritz from rockford, IL wrote: Gri Gri's are still not a "hands free" device!
Really? I have this all wrong.

In all seriousness Sarah... If you're not 100% comfortable with your belayer, don't let him or her belay for you. Best case scenario, you're worried about your belayer and can't concentrate on what you're doing. I learned this lesson the hard way and ended up sidelined with an injury for a month+ and took longer to regain confidence in myself.
David Morgantini · · London, United Kingdom · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 5

If the ring between his index finger and his thumb never opens this belay technique is perfectly safe. The natural tendency when faced with something startling is to grip harder. If his hand has never left the rope (as evidenced by the closed ring between the thumb and finger) then the natural reaction will be the correct one and the climber will not fall. Because this is also the technique that you must use while belaying a leader (time being much more critical) it makes sense to use/perfect the technique while top-roping.

If on the other hand, he is completely letting go of the rope and grabbing higher up on the brake strand then the technique is very dangerous and likely to lead to a bad accident. The key is the ring between the finger and the thumb that I call the 'one ring' that must* not open between when your climber has left the ground and when your climber is back on the ground.

If you go to a gym, you follow their required belay techniques. Just because a gym says you have to do something some way doesn't make it required (see stopper knot on a figure 8).

  • must being defined as most of the time baring the times when it would be more dangerous to keep it closed.
Optimistic · · New Paltz · Joined Aug 2007 · Points: 290

It's "brake hand", not "break hand".

Darren Mabe · · Flagstaff, AZ · Joined Dec 2002 · Points: 3,830

Definitely harder to belay if either hand is broken

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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