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What happens when I'm belaying the leader from an anchor on a multi-pitch climb, and the leader takes a big fall?


Original Post
Claudiu Saftoiu · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2017 · Points: 0

I'm new to climbing, having been at it only for a few months. My partner is much more experienced than me and we've already gone outdoor climbing a few times, and been on a few multipitches. However I've decided I'd like to learn a lot more myself before I'm really comfortable going on longer multi-pitches.

Which leads me to my question. I've been in the situation of belaying the leader from the ground where she takes a somewhat big fall. I end up going a few feet off the ground - I think I went 5' up for the largest fall. This is fine and kind of fun, actually (no one got hurt :)). 

However, when belaying off an anchor on a multi-pitch (say the 2nd or 3rd pitch), I can't go 5' up. I'm anchored into the anchor with a Metolius PAS which is only 38" long, and doesn't stretch much as I understand it. Soo, I'd be lifted up, and then... wouldn't I get abruptly stopped? Wouldn't that be potentially quite dangerous? Have we been doing it wrong this whole time?

Note that me and my partner are about the same body weight.

Claudiu Saftoiu · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2017 · Points: 0

It looks like this PDF answers my question pretty thoroughly: http://www.alpenverein.de/chameleon/public/e0a0abc8-3fe8-c1b5-fb8c-8d639b1d7e75/2014-3-belaying-in-multi-pitch-routes_25220.pdf .

The summary is:

The basic technique is to belay off the anchor, not off the body.

You *can* belay off the body, with the following considerations. The benefit is it's easier to belay and nicer in falls:

  • no big falls are to be expected
  • no obstacles on top
  • There should be no direct downward force on the belayer. If the leader falls before clipping into the first bolt, this will happen, unless you have a 'plus clip' or 'dummy runner':
    • plus clip - leader clips into first bolt above anchor, before coming down
    • dummy runner - belayer puts a quickdraw into anchor for rope going towards climber
  • Have to be tied into the anchor on a long-enough sling or PAS - at least 1 meter is recommended

Essentially the scenario I posted, of me being propelled up, would result in me being abruptly stopped, which wouldn't be pleasant. So if a big fall is possible, I should belay off the anchor.

King Tut · · Citrus Heights · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 420
Claudiu Saftoiu wrote:

It looks like this PDF answers my question pretty thoroughly: http://www.alpenverein.de/chameleon/public/e0a0abc8-3fe8-c1b5-fb8c-8d639b1d7e75/2014-3-belaying-in-multi-pitch-routes_25220.pdf .

The summary is:

The basic technique is to belay off the anchor, not off the body.

You *can* belay off the body, with the following considerations. The benefit is it's easier to belay and nicer in falls:

  • no big falls are to be expected
  • no obstacles on top
  • There should be no direct downward force on the belayer. If the leader falls before clipping into the first bolt, this will happen, unless you have a 'plus clip' or 'dummy runner':
    • plus clip - leader clips into first bolt above anchor, before coming down
    • dummy runner - belayer puts a quickdraw into anchor for rope going towards climber
  • Have to be tied into the anchor on a long-enough sling or PAS - at least 1 meter is recommended

Essentially the scenario I posted, of me being propelled up, would result in me being abruptly stopped, which wouldn't be pleasant. So if a big fall is possible, I should belay off the anchor.

Its not quite as simple as that, and the forces experienced by the falling leader and his protection are much harsher when belaying off the anchor. The fall is much softer for her and for the anchor if your being pulled upwards absorbs some of the energy of the fall. 

The principal consideration, imo however, is the safety of the leader as the forces you personally experience are far less, and the "handling" advantages of the belay device being on you are significant (far easier to quickly take in or give slack) and the belay much "softer". But ultimately whichever technique you use, safe belaying is dependent on your ability to personally maintain control of the belay device and properly brake the climber. W/E system of belaying you choose, knowing that you are not going to let go in a severe fall regardless of the force you experience, is the key. Your partner's life is in your hands. Your concern about what forces you may experience is a distant second, imho.

So set up your belay so that you have confidence in your ability to catch that whipper when belaying the leader.

And I do love belaying off the anchor when belaying the second.

GDavis · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2008 · Points: 10

Pre-weight your tie-in so that when you feel the pull you won't be jerked around. You should have a multidirectional anchor.

That being said, catching awkward falls are something that comes up and can be difficult to manage. I was climbing a route recently called Edgehogs and the second pitch starts off with some hard moves off the belay, then a bolt and more hard moves. Very difficult not to swing into your belayer and I got pretty good at playing Skip It with my rope as I came careening across the slab until I figured the moves out. 

Man that's a great route.

Just don't let go of the brake hand, etc.

Jake Jones · · Richmond, VA · Joined Jul 2011 · Points: 1,465
Claudiu Saftoiu wrote:

I'm new to climbing, having been at it only for a few months. My partner is much more experienced than me and we've already gone outdoor climbing a few times, and been on a few multipitches. However I've decided I'd like to learn a lot more myself before I'm really comfortable going on longer multi-pitches.

Which leads me to my question. I've been in the situation of belaying the leader from the ground where she takes a somewhat big fall. I end up going a few feet off the ground - I think I went 5' up for the largest fall. This is fine and kind of fun, actually (no one got hurt :)). 

However, when belaying off an anchor on a multi-pitch (say the 2nd or 3rd pitch), I can't go 5' up. I'm anchored into the anchor with a Metolius PAS which is only 38" long, and doesn't stretch much as I understand it. Soo, I'd be lifted up, and then... wouldn't I get abruptly stopped? Wouldn't that be potentially quite dangerous? Have we been doing it wrong this whole time?

Note that me and my partner are about the same body weight.

You can, in many cases, extend yourself well below an anchor so that you can still come up and not go above the anchor so as to not put an upward pull on it.  Sometimes that's not possible and the leader should know that as well.  Climbing itself is potentially quite dangerous.  Practice different systems on the ground.  This is a fairly basic multi pitch question and if you're asking it, that alludes to you needing more familiarity before doing it for real.

JMo · · Tucson, AZ · Joined Jan 2009 · Points: 1,015

You belay a leader off your harness not off an anchor. Don't learn to climb on MP. 

John Barritt · · OKC · Joined Oct 2016 · Points: 1,053

Thread title should be "How do I perform a soft catch from a hanging belay on multi-pitch" ;)

ViperScale · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2013 · Points: 235

Rarely will you ever want to belay a leader off an anchor. There are some cases where you may want to but extremely rare and consider it as last result. Belaying a second up on the other hand is normally done directly from the anchor.

Robert Hall · · North Conway, NH · Joined Aug 2013 · Points: 12,363

I agree that it's rare to ever belay a leader directly off the anchor, and nearly always better to belay off the body. 

  That being said, do not confuse belaying OFF the anchor with belaying THROUGH the anchor...it's nearly always prudent for the leader to clip through the top-most piece of the anchor as he/she starts out on the 2nd (3rd, 4th etc.) pitch.  If she/he then falls the belayer experiences an upward pull as opposed to catching the leader who has fallen below him/her.  Catching a falling leader who has fallen below the belayer without anything "in" above (so that the belayer gets a downward fall) is extremely dangerous.  The NY-Chapter of the AMC once required this as part of the" belay test" for seconds, (the Boston Chapter never did) but gave it up decades ago because, even in a real controlled situation it was likely to cause injury to the second.  

Also, if you think about where/how the rope would run with a downward-pull (leader falling below the belayer with nothing "in") using a belay device such as a ATC it might not even stop the fall, especially if the leader fell to the belay-hand side of the second.  If the leader fell to the opposite side of the second, the rope would run from the belay device around the second's body and down to the leader.  (Thus causing a horrendous rope burn, or at least a bruise, where the rope made contact with the second's body.  The rope to the leader would also probably be running over the tie-ins to the anchor(s). This, of course, has the potential of "cutting" (actually melting) the tie-in cords/rope running from the second to the anchor(s). 

Then, of course, (regardless of how the belay was done, and where the leader is after the "catch")   there's "What to do with "my" injured leader ?", if the fall causes injury and you're 3, 4, 5  pitches up.....

stolo · · Shelby, NC · Joined Sep 2016 · Points: 110

Also, use the rope as your tether, it is dynamic and safer then a PAS, easier and faster to use as well. 

Vaughn · · Colorado · Joined Mar 2011 · Points: 50

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is that it's a good idea to build your anchor with the potential for an upward pull in mind. Do that and give yourself a long tether, especially if you are expecting the leader to whip.

I have personally never belayed a leader off the anchor, that seems pretty awkward although I guess its a thing they do over in the UK. If you do that then you DEFINITELY need to build the anchor for an upward pull.

Robert Hall wrote:

That being said, do not confuse belaying OFF the anchor with belaying THROUGH the anchor...it's nearly always prudent for the leader to clip through the top-most piece of the anchor as he/she starts out on the 2nd (3rd, 4th etc.) pitch.  

Robert, I would have to respectfully disagree with your above statement. Mitigating a factor two fall is a tricky situation and clipping the anchor is often not the best solution. Will Gadd has a really good blog post on it : Will Gadd Anchor Clipping.

Healyje · · PDX · Joined Jan 2006 · Points: 290
Derek Doucet wrote:

There's slowly growing consensus and evolving practice, particularly in Europe, that calls this statement in to question. See

And that would be an incredibly misguided 'consensus' - growing or otherwise - more like a disease spreading. I would never allow anyone to belay my lead off the anchor.

Robert Hall · · North Conway, NH · Joined Aug 2013 · Points: 12,363

Vaughn,

  Thank you for the link to Will Gadd's posting. He brings up many good points, most especially the basic point: (which is in bold in his article) 

"The bottom line is this: I’ve played with factor-two falls onto anchors a couple of times with the top piece clipped and not, as have some of my friends and colleagues. It’s just not a good thing–don’t fall off before your piece, and get a good piece ASAP off the belay!"   ...   and to which I 100% agree! 

He describes that clipping the top piece of the anchor does very little to reduce the fall factor (which I 100% agree with) and further can result in "slamming the belayer into the wall" (also I 100% agree with this).  He describes the two fall-factor-2 falls he's caught and clearly states : "I’ve caught two “real world” factor two falls over the years, it’s a memorable event–big forces, very violent, fast. It’s definitely a “don’t do this” sorta situation"...

HOWEVER: With all due respect to both you and Will Gadd,  I believe he misses the key point when he states: "The main idea behind clipping the leader’s rope through the anchor as a first “piece” is to protect the belay from a factor two fall."  (I agree 100% with his statement that "But if you look at the numbers this amount of rope [i.e. the extra rope between the belay device and the top anchor piece]  will do very little."   

 In my opinion the main idea of clipping the anchor's top piece is to (HOPEFULLY*) ELIMINATE THE POSSIBILITY OF THE SECOND BEING PULLED DOWNWARD AND TRYING TO STOP (CATCH) A DOWNWARD-FORCE LEADER FALL.   [ * "Hopefully" because if the top piece blows, it does not good anyway. ]  

To anyone who has not experienced this I suggest the following "experiment".  Tie yourself in on a flat ledge a couple of feet from the edge with an overhang below you.  Face "upward" (i.e away from the edge) as you would be if looking at the leader starting the next pitch. Be SURE you're tied in for both an upwards and a downwards pull.  Tie 175 lbs of sandbags onto the end of a climbing rope. Put the sandbags "on belay" with any "ATC /  Tube-Type" belay device.  Feed out 10 ft of rope (equivalent to the leader being 5 ft "out" on the next pitch).  Have someone else (who is also tied in) push the sandbags off the edge on the side of your belay hand. Catch the falling sandbags.  If you still are "together", repeat with the sandbag being pushed off on the side away from your belay hand.   You'll also probably be "whipped around" and end up facing the edge of the cliff, now imagine that "whip-around" with crampons on.  The diffuculty of catching a downward-force leader fall is probably where the "belaying directly off the anchors" has come from. 

ACTUALLY I DON'T RECOMMEND ANYONE REALLY DOING THE ABOVE - as I said earlier, this once was part of a standard belay test but was eliminated decades ago due to the potential for injury.  Do it only as a "thought experiment", or do it with only 10 or 20 lbs of sandbags first, then gradually work the weight up.  

BUT, back to what Will said: "don’t fall off before your [first][ piece, and get a good piece ASAP off the belay!"  A-MEN !  


Mike Slavens · · Houston, TX · Joined Jan 2009 · Points: 35
JMo wrote:

Don't learn to climb on MP. 

Its a shame that this is true as MP should be a place to ask these questions.

Pretty much every multipitch climber belays the leader off of his/her harness, and for good reason.  If your leader takes a big fall you will be pulled up same as if you are on the ground.  Your attachment to the anchor (PAS, rope, slings, whatever) will stop you when you reach the end but thats no different than if you anchored on the ground.  Its not a big deal.

Watch the "Boys in the Bugs" section of the latest Real Rock.  You can see the belayer get jerked off their port-a-ledge or belay seat a lot as they work their route, but as you can see its not a big deal.  I think the videos on Sharma's YouTube channel of him working his multipitch project also show the belayer catching a lot of his bigger falls.  Once again, not a big deal.

Nicholas Wilson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 0
Vaughn wrote:

One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is that it's a good idea to build your anchor with the potential for an upward pull in mind. Do that and give yourself a long tether, especially if you are expecting the leader to whip.

I have personally never belayed a leader off the anchor, that seems pretty awkward although I guess its a thing they do over in the UK. If you do that then you DEFINITELY need to build the anchor for an upward pull.

Robert, I would have to respectfully disagree with your above statement. Mitigating a factor two fall is a tricky situation and clipping the anchor is often not the best solution. Will Gadd has a really good blog post on it : Will Gadd Anchor Clipping.

Very true about anchor construction, however, it's quite frustrating how many times this article is referenced on MP as a final answer for whether to clip the top piece (aka. "jesus piece") of the anchor or not.

Will Gadd himself wrote a follow-up post clarifying and even correcting the original post (Will Gadd on Anchor Clipping #2).

I just spent a really interesting half hour on the phone with Kirk Mauthner of Basecamp Innovations. For those who don’t know of Kirk, he’s very much a legend among rope rescue and rope system professionals. He has his own drop tower and other solid testing systems, and uses it to resolve questions with good data. Questions such as whether it’s better to clip the leader’s rope into the anchor or not. After speaking with him I think some of my own writing is wrong on this subject, and should be cleaned up, which I’ll do shortly.

Another great resource that heavily advocates for clipping the jesus piece in certain situations is High: Advanced Multipitch Climbing by David Coley and Andy Kirkpatrick. (Considered an authority on the subject)

A new multi-pitch climber should not be looking for answers to these kinds of questions on an open forum known for spreading incorrect and likely unsafe techniques. It is best to take a class or at least review the authoritative literature on the subject such as the book referenced above, John Long's Climbing Anchors, or one of the many others.

Claudiu Saftoiu · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2017 · Points: 0

Awesome guys, thanks for all the replies. It seems the consensus is that belaying off the harness is the way to go. Except maybe in certain situations not (though I don't know what they are). I have to do more reading to figure out this bit about clipping in the top piece of the anchor. Generally it seems the easiest way is if the leader just doesn't fall :).

Nicholas Wilson wrote:

Another great resource that heavily advocates for clipping the jesus piece in certain situations is High: Advanced Multipitch Climbing by David Coley and Andy Kirkpatrick. (Considered an authority on the subject)

A new multi-pitch climber should not be looking for answers to these kinds of questions on an open forum known for spreading incorrect and likely unsafe techniques. It is best to take a class or at least review the authoritative literature on the subject such as the book referenced above, John Long's Climbing Anchors, or one of the many others.

Thanks for the warning. Is there a forum that's better known for not spreading incorrect/unsafe techniques? I don't know enough at this point to know whether a technique would be unsafe or not. I figured by reading enough answers I could piece together the facts, but maybe not. I do like the interactive nature of forums though.

Thanks for the rec on the books, I got "High" and am reading through it now. I feel like I have to know much more before embarking on a longer multi-pitch route. 

Chipper Maney · · Seattle · Joined Sep 2015 · Points: 30

It seems like your issue is concern with being pulled into the anchor. Some people have said make a multi-directional anchor.  This is a good idea. This might look like simply tying yourself directly into one directional piece that prevents you being lifted off the ground and into the anchor.  I can pull my wife 10' off the ground on a big fall. She often uses a directional anchor to prevent such an occurrence if she feels uncomfortable with the belay station set-up. This does increase fall forces somewhat.

Nicholas Wilson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 0
Claudiu Saftoiu wrote:

Awesome guys, thanks for all the replies. It seems the consensus is that belaying off the harness is the way to go. Except maybe in certain situations not (though I don't know what they are). I have to do more reading to figure out this bit about clipping in the top piece of the anchor. Generally it seems the easiest way is if the leader just doesn't fall :).

Thanks for the warning. Is there a forum that's better known for not spreading incorrect/unsafe techniques? I don't know enough at this point to know whether a technique would be unsafe or not. I figured by reading enough answers I could piece together the facts, but maybe not. I do like the interactive nature of forums though.

Thanks for the rec on the books, I got "High" and am reading through it now. I feel like I have to know much more before embarking on a longer multi-pitch route. 

Open forums like MP, supertopo, and the like can be great sources of information if you know how to descern the difference between educated and experienced opinions and those that are neither. For the new climber learning new techniques who doesn't have the foundational understandings of rope physics and safety systems this is going to be very difficult.

Considering the above, it can only be recommended to go to authoritative sources for your initial learning and then explore the differences of opinion. An experienced guide or instructor is worth every penny and should be your first stop. Aside from that, there is a ton of great literature online and in print that will help build that foundation. The following is from a small list I send to my more curious students:

Books:

  • Freedom of the Hills
  • Climbing Anchors
  • High: Advanced Multi Pitch Climbing

Web:

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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