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Improved Belay Check


Original Post
Northeast Alpine Start · · Conway, New Hampshire · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 122

Following a recent fatality and after watching a couple close calls last week at Rumney I thought I would help share an addition to the traditional "belay check" that we should all do before leaving the ground in the single-pitch environment.

Full article here: https://northeastalpinestart.com/2017/09/18/improved-belay-check/

TL:DR version make sure you share a flexible "action plan" with your belayer before you head up your route...


Paul Deger · · Colorado · Joined Sep 2015 · Points: 35

Great point to make standard! I would add standard also in addition to the belayer checking the climber harness/tie-in, the climber check the belayer set-up.


David Kerkeslager · · New Paltz, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 124

This is good in the ideal case, but the problem this runs into is that sometimes a plan isn't possible. On wandering Gunks routes you don't really know if you have enough rope to lower until you're at the top of the route and the belayer sees that you have or haven't passed the halfway mark on the rope. I've also reached the top of routes, found a faded mess of old tat attached to rusted pitons, and elected to walk off rather than trust my life to a questionable anchor.

Even if you communicate a plan, people might forget. The best solution, IMHO, is to not unclip from the anchor until your belayer has you on a tight belay when lowering.

S. Neoh · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2009 · Points: 10

All very good points here.

One for me to add, at busy "outdoor gym" crags, where many parties are in close proximity (throw in barking dogs into the mix), climber/belayer pair should be utmost diligent against miscommunication due to "cross talk" from other parties and the environment.  Just a short while back, our party had a very brief miscommunication when the belayer mistook what another leader said because the involved leaders had similar voices and happened to be at similar distance from the ground on practically adjacent routes.  Consider using a different language for comm if possible, or settle on a unique prefix to each command "Hey, fuzz ball, ....."  Be extra careful if there are plenty of distractions around the belayer or if the belayerr is hearing impaired which happened to me once but that is story for another day ...

 Another I wish to add is for the leader never to give the "off belay" command and the belayer never to assume the leader wants to be off belay UNLESS it is 100% clear to both persons that the  leader is anchored in direct to the anchors and intends to untie, thread, and rappel off the anchors.  IMHO, no leader should ever say "off belay" if ultimately he or she is going to be lowered from the anchors.  Only 4 or 5 feet of slack from the belayer is required, all the while still on belay, in order for the leader to untie, thread the rope thru the anchors and retie. There is no reason that I can think of that warrants the belayer to take the leader off belay in this (lowering, not rapping) scenario.  Sorry, yes, that sip of water, that snack, and that pee in the woods can wait!

Benjamin Pontecorvo · · Seattle, WA · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 145

I think you are 100% correct this should be taught at all beginner courses

IcePick · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2017 · Points: 100

Don't flame me for this but:

what if the leader ready for a lower throws on some form of belay device on his end and self lowers all the while still having a belay from below.  A redundancy of sorts.  

Just a thought maybe doable maybe not

JFM · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jul 2010 · Points: 1,768

Ice Pick, that maybe would  work but it's not necessary. If you used an ATC type device it would probably be difficult to feed any rope thru. It surely would paint you as a clueless gumby if you were seen doing it ;) if you don't trust your belayer to lower you, you need a different belayer. 

IcePick · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2017 · Points: 100
JFM wrote:

Ice Pick, that maybe would  work but it's not necessary. If you used an ATC type device it would probably be difficult to feed any rope thru. It surely would paint you as a clueless gumby if you were seen doing it ;) if you don't trust your belayer to lower you, you need a different belayer. 

Agree.    Just a thought,  you never know a new kinda device could be made just for the safety factor????

Northeast Alpine Start · · Conway, New Hampshire · Joined Nov 2012 · Points: 122
IcePick wrote:

Agree.    Just a thought,  you never know a new kinda device could be made just for the safety factor????

So interesting thing you're discussing here. As a guide, we are at great risk of getting dropped because we are constantly getting lowered by day 1 climbers. I have multiple guide friends who have had near misses when a new client loses control of the lower after the guide establishes a top-rope. When you consider how many times a full-time guide might be lowered by a very new climber over the course of their career it seems more likely they will be dropped at some point than not. To combat that some guides often choose to rap instead, but that comes at the cost of efficiency and time. Others have attached a "Shunt" style device on the other side of the rope and tethered into it during lowers until clients have shown competency. Myself, I keep my hand on the other end of the rope as I lower until I am half-way down and can see they are in control. I also often keep a quick-draw clipped from my belay loop to the other end of the rope. This would get caught on the next piece of gear and likely allow someone to arrest an out of control lower. 

Other last minute thoughts when in doubt... always make sure the belayer is using TWO hands on the brake side of the device during lowers

For very new climbers employ a "back-up belayer" until competency is demonstrated. This is not a 2nd belay device on another climber behind the brake hand... it is simply a person standing behind the belayer tending the rope with a little slack between the active belayer and the back-up... this doubles as a ground anchor when un-expected forces occur on top-rope as well!

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526

With all the work-arounds you've mentioned, why not just lower yourself, i.e. bring up an ATC (or a Grigri but I don't think that's necessary) and use it rappel-style on the belay loop to lower yourself.  You save the "inefficiency" of changing from top belay to rappel mode and keep the control of the lowering process for yourself.

The downside is the clients don't get any better at lowering.  But I wouldn't want to be the human crash dummy that's helping them to gain competence either.  And given the miscommunications that nowadays seem to plague even experienced parties, this seems like a pretty good general practice even if the second is experienced.

Old lady H · · Boise, ID · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 768
rgold wrote:

With all the work-arounds you've mentioned, why not just lower yourself, i.e. bring up an ATC (or a Grigri but I don't think that's necessary) and use it rappel-style on the belay loop to lower yourself.  You save the "inefficiency" of changing from top belay to rappel mode and keep the control of the lowering process for yourself.

The downside is the clients don't get any better at lowering.  But I wouldn't want to be the human crash dummy that's helping them to gain competence either.  And given the miscommunications that nowadays seem to plague even experienced parties, this seems like a pretty good general practice even if the second is experienced.

Actually, when it was the first lower with myself on belay and a "blind date" on the rope last spring, my guy threw a grigri on the belay side. He held it open, I lowered with my ATC as usual, and I held while he cleaned, and, he could let the device lock or slow him if I had messed up. 

A client could most definitely lower this way, and the climber could do the belay if necessary, provided the person on the ground could at least let the rope through the device.

When I saw this, I was impressed with it's usefulness in a teaching situation, or otherwise uncertain lower.

Best, OLH

David Kerkeslager · · New Paltz, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 124

Northeast Alpine Start and rgold, have you tried having your clients use a ClickUp (on a single rope)?

These devices seem to prevent the too-fast lower possible with GriGris because they provide more resistance the faster the lower is happening (i.e. if you're being lowered too fast the friction will push harder on the device, pushing it back toward the locked position). This is actually problematic for 10mm+ ropes, where the fastest lower possible is a bit slower than I would like sometimes, but this is still preferable to being dropped.

I'm not a guide, but I climb with a lot of new climbers, and I've started having them use the ClickUp after a few scary too-fast lowers on GriGri2s. The experience so far has been very positive. More experienced climbers who I've let try it have noted that they like lowering with the ClickUp.

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526

Actually, David, I almost always climb with half ropes and an Alpine Up for belaying.  But slowing down the lowering process doesn't guard against miscommunication, in which the belayer walks away but the climber thinks they are going to be lowered.  Lowering yourself seems to me to be the most prudent option, is easy to do, and involves minimal set-up.  Why isn't it more popular?

S. Neoh · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2009 · Points: 10
rgold wrote:

Why isn't it more popular?

That is a good question.  Esp if one does not have to clean gear/pieces on the way down.  Hmm.

I have only done this when setting routes without the use of a floor anchor.

Jay Morse · · Hooksett, New Hampshire · Joined Jul 2013 · Points: 30

As a belayer, always assume that you will be lowering your climber unless told otherwise, but honestly it really shouldn't matter whether you know what your climber plans to do or not. Never take them off belay until you clearly hear the words "off-belay" and know with 100% certainty that it was your climber who said it (use names always).    Your job is to follow their commands and only follow their commands when they are on the wall.

As a climber, always speak loudly and clearly and use your belayer's name.  Only tell your belayer what you want them to do and don't say anything unnecessary.  There is almost never a reason to tell your belayer that you are "In direct" since that shouldn't trigger any action from your belayer (and might trigger a new or dumb belayer to take you off belay!).  When you say off-belay, you need to proceed with the understanding that you are on your own and your belayer is not going to put you back on belay unless you tell them to.  If your plan is to lower, always cinch yourself up close to the anchors to make sure that your belayer is actively taking you in tight and that you are free-hanging on the rope and not your personal anchor.  Give it a couple bounce tests to be sure.

That's it.  Very simple stuff. The exception is on pitches where you will end up losing communication, in which case you should definitely have a conversation before the pitch.  But it's hard to imagine a situation where your leader has lost communication with you and wants you to take them off belay...      

ckersch · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2013 · Points: 151

I'd add that you should NEVER say "off belay" unless you're going to go on direct and rappel (or go on direct and bring up a second). If you're planning on lowering through fixed gear, all that you need to tell your belayer is "slack", "take", and "lower".

Similarly, you should never take someone off belay unless you're 100% sure that it was your climber and that they said off belay. Your climber can rappel with you belaying one of their rap strands. They can't lower with you 50' away eating a sandwich.

amarius · · Nowhere, OK · Joined Feb 2012 · Points: 20
ckersch wrote:

If you're planning on lowering through fixed gear, all that you need to tell your belayer is "slack", "take", and "lower".

Even "slack" is not needed.

Belayer belays as normal, not ever taking you off belay. You get to anchors, go in-direct. Pull enough rope - belayer is still belaying.  Do your rope thing. Yell "take", make sure that rope is holding body weight, remove your directs, yell "lower".

David Kerkeslager · · New Paltz, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 124
rgold wrote:

Actually, David, I almost always climb with half ropes and an Alpine Up for belaying.  But slowing down the lowering process doesn't guard against miscommunication, in which the belayer walks away but the climber thinks they are going to be lowered.  Lowering yourself seems to me to be the most prudent option, is easy to do, and involves minimal set-up.  Why isn't it more popular?

Agreed, I was commenting in the context of what Northeast Alpine Start said, "I have multiple guide friends who have had near misses when a new client loses control of the lower after the guide establishes a top-rope." This is the situation I think would be prevented by using a Click Up (or Alpine Up, ostensibly--I haven't used that device).

I can venture a guess why self-lowering isn't more common, at least for non-guides: cleaning. If I've lead a pitch and am self-lowering, that means I probably am going to clean the pitch as well. To do that, I'd want my self-lower system to be able to go hands-free confidently, because there are many situations where I'd need one hand to steady myself in relation to the wall while cleaning with the other hand, leaving no hands to manage my self-lowering system. On overhanging routes, cleaning the pitch may not even be possible via normal techniques, because without tension from the belayer to keep the rope against the wall, you'll just be pulling the rope up through the pieces below you if you try to use the rope to pull yourself into the wall. Finally, add in the fact that on routes with overhangs or traverses, it's better for the follower if you leave the gear in.

There's another way, which is to self lower and unclip from, then clip to each piece as you pass it, but at that point it might actually be faster to pull up the rope and rap down. And this doesn't completely solve the problem of overhangs, even if you clip in both ropes as you descend.

In the end self-lowering really only makes sense for leaders on fairly vertical routes who can go hands-free with their lower system and don't mind cleaning their own leads. That might be a situation guides are in a lot (cleaning your own placments makes sense as a service to your clients). But for average leaders climbing for fun, I think it's just too much of an annoyance. I'd rather my follower cleaned.

Jeff Moon · · Rapid City, SD · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 25

I always weight test my rope with a few good bounces before coming off direct. Good way to catch any previous errors. Use it before being lowered or rappelling.

rgold · · Poughkeepsie, NY · Joined Feb 2008 · Points: 526
David Kerkeslager wrote:

In the end self-lowering really only makes sense for leaders on fairly vertical routes who can go hands-free with their lower system and don't mind cleaning their own leads. That might be a situation guides are in a lot (cleaning your own placments makes sense as a service to your clients). But for average leaders climbing for fun, I think it's just too much of an annoyance. I'd rather my follower cleaned.

Yes, that's true, but as you say, that includes a lot of guided terrain.

Pavel Burov · · Russia · Joined May 2013 · Points: 50

Basically there is an alternative:

1. To develop a routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine to fix the routine...

2. To engage your brain.

Personally I would opt for the latter.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Beginning Climbers
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