Monday, March 19, 2012

Monkey Judges your Belay

"Just calling to check. You wanted slack, right?"
I said previously that Rock Climbing is a pretty safe sport - since over 50% of the sport is about safety.

Of course, safety only works if it's taken seriously. So today, I'll talk about belaying.

If you don't already know how to belay, get lessons from qualified instructors before reading on - I'm not going to teach you how over the internet.

Also, I don't care if your friend knows how to belay - unless they've been trained to be an instructor, don't blag free lessons off them - it'd be like asking a bomb disposable expert how to defuse a single bomb and then head to the war zone, instead of learning how explosives and detonation devices work.

If you're in between lessons, or have just passed your belay test. Check out the only good YouTube video I could find here. This video takes a fairly comprehensive look at belaying, from setting up to lowering climber back down to the ground. It's a good reminder of what you're trying to achieve with belaying, and keeping yourself fresh with the process. But again, don't use this video in lieu of lessons - use it to compliment your lessons instead.

Oh yeah, and IGNORE the ExpertVillage or eHowSports videos - some of them are out right wrong and teach you dangerous habits - which I'll get into in another post.

If you've passed your belay test, have been climbing a while and feel pretty confident about your belaying. I still urge you to check out the following list anyway. I've created it over time for myself (in my head, near where I kept my pin numbers, so you may get lucky), to help me become more aware as a belayer.
  1. Belay safety checks
    Be honest with me, how often do you do this? I've always been at people's back about safety checks, because, guess what? - I forget to do them all the time too.

    Yes, once you've climbed with your regular partner for a good while, you develop a certain faith and expectation in them. But that's not the point of safety checks - it's got nothing to do with not trusting your partner - it's about catching the odd occasions when you just happen to forget a minor detail.

    I've forgotten to shut the screw-gate on my carabiner numerous times (which significantly reduces its load capacity); I've had my belay plate backwards twice (granted it still works); I've forgotten to fully tie in my harness on occasions as well. Even as a preacher of safety - I forget things too - which is exactly why I want my partners to check on me every time. I'd rather be named and shamed than to have blood on my hands.
    Cuz I jus ain't gangsta enough.
  2. Watch where you're standing
    While safety should be your top priority when giving a belay, there's no reason not to give your climber a comfortable ride.

    Have you ever received rope burns whilst being lowered down from the wall? I have, numerous times. No, there isn't a no claim no fee number you can call to sue your belayer you money crazed little bitch. Just take it like a man. And tell your belayer off.

    Rope burns typically happen when the rope is pressed against you on your descent from the wall, especially if you're trapped between the rope you're tied into, and the rope towards the belayer. Ouch...

    Belayers - unless you're tied down to a weight-bag, belaying isn't a static affair. Move around and free your climber from your rope before lowering them.
  3. Keep your back straight when belaying
    First, I'd like you to watch this little clip on YouTube:

    Besides this being a piss poor excuse for a belay test (belayer are not tested on their reaction on real falls), note how the belayer has been taught to lean forward each time she takes in the slack.

    BAD GIRL! (And not the good kind)

    Try this yourself - ask your climber to sit into their harness to build tension on the rope. What angle is the rope running through your belay-plate? That's the angle the rope will return to (and some more due to springiness of the rope) when your climber falls whilst there's slack in the system. Picture a rubber-band when pulled back and released.

    The area covered by that rope is what I like to call the 'flick zone'. It's easy to get into the zone when you're trying to take in a lot of slack from the system.


    You should have experienced falls on a slacked line by now to know that a foot or two of slack isn't the end of the world. Just calmly take two normal feeds of rope instead of one big one to rid of the slack and you're back to normal tension.

    DON'T lean forward as you reach down to grab more ropes.

    Also if your climber is going too quickly, tell them to slow down (threaten to release the rope unless they slow the fuck down).
  4. Give slack on overhangs and side swings
    Again this one is a simple case of physics. Picture this scenario: you're climbing up to an overhang, and your rope is caught at the lip of the roof. Your belayer takes in the slack, and yanks the rope some more to keep things tight. What happens next?

    In my case it's my feeble scream of "WOW! Slack!" that often doesn't reach the belayer. Because like Clint Eastwood, I'm too cool to shout.

    My gun does all my shouting. It goes "POW! POW!"
    Belayers - be aware of which direction the rope is pulling when you take in. You want to keep your climber on the wall by catching their falls, NOT yanking them up the wall - so there's no need for super tension until you yank them OFF the wall. Unless of course you're doing dynamic top rope climbs like these guys.

  5. Sensible distance from the wall
    This is a difficult one to call as it's pretty circumstantial. So I'll just comment on my personal preference and reasoning:

    Unless I'm belaying someone really light, I almost always keep a few paces away from the wall, especially if I'm lead belaying. And here's why:

    Worst case scenario fall, when slack is in the system - I'm inevitably going to be drawn towards the wall. As your instructor should have told you - get your feet out. The distance I stand from the wall is in proportion to how quickly I expect to fly towards the wall should my loser climber falls.

    Contrary to popular beliefs, I'm no Bruce Lee. The distance is there to give my brain a chance to react, and get my feet out. Use it.
  6. Be aware of your and your climber's surroundings
    It's easy to get bored when belaying. Staring at your climber isn't always an option, nor is it always fun (unless you have a keen taste in bottoms). If you're doing top rope belaying, fair enough, if you're belaying lead - you'll just have to put up with your stiff neck (perhaps invest in a pair of belay glasses).

    On the flip side - don't get TOO focused on your climber either, especially if you're in a crowded gym. There're other things to look out for:

    In case you missed it, the belayer in the foreground had both hands off the belay plate when he was knocked over. Not exactly ideal, old chump.

    Other shit can happen too, and while you don't need spidersense all the time, it pays to be a little aware of potential problems may arise from other climbers around you.

    The same applies for the climber too. As the belayer, you're typically in a much better position to see problems such as caught rope, z-clips, or climber heading off route, etc. Give them a helpful shout.
  7. Never let go
    She totally pried him off at the end.
    You'd think this one is obvious, but not judging by the previous video...

    It doesn't take much to keep one hand on the rope, it take shit loads for me to take both off (I haven't yet).
    • I've been dragged 15ft up the wall with my face firmly planted in my climber's bottom;
    • I've had to confront my phobia of censored phobia, freaking out big time;
    • I've been dragged pass my climber while they slowly descended to the ground.
    I never let go of the rope.

    If you're being pulled up the wall, just wait till you come to a stopped, and abseil down. Years ago I've seen a 10 year old kid being dragged 25ft up to the top of wall when he belayed a fully grown adult of generous proportions (mistake #1) when he told the climber to lean back (mistake #2). These things happen - but rather than panicking and letting go - which would have resulted in the climber plummeting to the ground, probably squashing the 10 year old's little body. He just held the dead rope tight until they traded altitude, and our instructor told him to let himself down.

    That example showed that relying to the safety system works even in extreme situations. So don't fuck let go of the dead end of the rope.
  8. Spot your climber, stay close to the wall for the first few clips when lead belaying
    This one is a bit odd in that I shouldn't have to include it to the list, but my experience made me think otherwise.

    First of all, check out the beginning of this video:

    You can see my belay partner (sorry bro!) had his hands up before my first clip, several paces away from me. When I slipped and fell, he was nowhere near to catch me, it renders the 'spotting' pointless and he was just wasting arm strength. Better off just preparing the rope for the first clip.

    So if you're going to spot your climber - do it as you would bouldering - stand close (enough) and aim your arms at their shoulder (for guys) / waist (for girls). If they fall, support their fall to make sure they're not landing backwards.

    Of course sometimes spotting aren't deemed necessarily at all (if first clip is really easy / low), and there're debates that until the 3rd clip, your climber can still deck anyway. With my usual style of ignorance, I'm backing away from the debate - because there's only one key thing you need to figure out:

    What does the climber want out of the belayer?

    Helen Hunt just wanted the operation to separate her conjoint twin Mel Gibson.
    I choose to always spot because it gives ME comfort, even if I know my climber is at no risk of falling. I'm only belaying, my arm strength doesn't need conservation.

    Now with the clipping - the climber needs to know that if they pull rope above their waist level to clip the second or third clip - the slack and the stretch of the rope could well mean a ground fall. It's a risk you balance out with how firm your holds are. Some recommend that you only clip waist level for the second and third clip to minimise ground fall potential, as you're introducing minimum slack to the system. Again, use common sense. I'd happily clip head level if my footholds are bombproof.

    What the belayer needs to be aware of though, is their distance from the wall. I said in a previous point that I like to keep my distance to break my flight to the wall - this point counters it when it comes to lead climbing.

    If I remotely expect my climber to lift me off my feet with a slack fall, I will always stand close to the wall for the first 3 clips (obviously depends on how high the clips are).

    The reasoning this time is - if I can fly towards the wall, it means the climber will more likely deck it. Reducing this distance (and honing my reflex to push against the wall) means the climber should only fall the slack distance plus the stretch, no more, no less.

    In some cases, I may even need to run away from the wall to reduce the fall - but that's advance stuff for another post someday.

  9. Don't leave the rope between your climber's legs when lead belaying
    This is a judgement thing, but it's pretty obvious after the first clip.

    If you're standing directly in line with your climber in the first few clips, the rope will be lined up right for their crotch. If they haven't got a camel toe before their fall, they sure as hell are getting one afterwards.

    And it'll be way more painful than this one.
Bad belaying doesn't just come from poor training. It comes from poor judgement, poor awareness, and poor common sense. You need to be honest with yourself about how competent you are, because your climbing partners will sure as hell have feelings about it, even if they're too British to tell you to your face.

Do it for the climber, do it for yourself.

 Or drop your climber and be shunned by the community for life.

Of course not everything falls on the belayer (no pun intended), the climber needs to get some shits straight as well:
  1. Shout single word commands / establish commands
    This is a tricky territory. Different people approach climbing commands differently. While Americans seem to favour a very strict set of commands (On belay, belay on, etc.), I find it confusing personally. The key thing is to establish good communication with your climbing partner(s).

    The only two commands I was taught when taking my lessons were "Take" and "Slack" - indicating whether you want tension on the rope or not. One thing I was also taught, and I've noticed a couple of incidents when it made sense - was never to shout "Take in the Slack", i.e. mixing command words.

    The reasoning is simple for this one, if you shout both Take and Slack in the same command, and your belayer missed the KEY word Take, they could well be giving you slack. Oops.
    Best single word command ever.
  2. Let go of the wall
    We as a species is pretty shit at everything besides thinking. One of our weakness is our inability to hear / see what our fellow climber is up to when they get to the top of the wall.

    With my friends, we've established a rule that if we finish a route top rope, we'd tap the top carabiner as an indicator that we're done and are ready to come down. The sound is distinct, and we the belayer can typically see it - so we take in the slack and wait for your weight to rest onto the rope.

    Climber - let the wall go, completely.

    Granted this is typically a beginner's mistake, it has happened enough times that it's probably worth mentioning and explaining:

    If you don't put all your weight into the rope, we as the belayer can't always tell if you're fully seated into the rope yet. If you're not, I'm not lowering you down in case I end up giving you slack before you finally let go, and make an unnecessary fall.

    And don't climb with a gun please...
    Of course you, the climber may just as well be waiting for the slack in the system to know that you're being lowered down - we're in stalemate.

    Sit yo arse down so we can really feel your weight, and we can go get tea in between climbs. Okay?

And that, is all I have to say about that, for now. Let's end things with a video on Bad Belaying:

Monkey goes Free Soloing. Fuck belayers!

1 comment:

  1. Good job making this list, it's a fun read and obviously something very important!! /Beginner climber from Sweden