Wednesday, September 26, 2012


In this post I want to offer some thoughts on what I think a proper lead belay is. I'm going to assume you already know how to lead belay, so this is not meant to be basic instruction. But just because you can lead belay doesn't mean that you can't improve, or even that you are doing it properly. Think about it: how many times have you been in the gym or at a crag and have seen some pretty sketchy belaying? Well, all those people "know how" to belay, but yet they aren't doing it correctly. Is there a chance you may not be doing everything as best as you can?

Before getting too far in, let me restate this, because it's really the most important point of the whole post: just because you can lead belay doesn't mean that you are doing it properly. A proper belay is one during which you are doing everything correctly and to the absolute best of your ability. I'm going to divide the rest of this post into two parts. First, I'm going to list some thoughts and suggestions about proper belaying. Then I will finish with some detailed info on how to correctly belay with a Grigri.

Belaying is the single most important thing we do in climbing.

While belaying, your climber is putting their complete trust in you, and you literally are holding their life in your hands. Smart climbers are very picky about who they let belay them. For example, I actually choose my climbing partners on how well they can belay; I couldn't care less about how "strong" my partners are. This is so important to me that I purposely won't climb with certain people because I don't trust their belaying, even though they are way stronger than me and I probably could learn a ton from them.

Every single belay must be proper

There is no such thing as a belay that doesn't matter. Climbers can and do take unexpected falls on warmup routes. Holds break. Shit happens, especially outside. The point is that climbing is inherently dangerous. We can do several things though that drastically reduce the risk to the point where climbing can be a very safe activity ("normal" sports like football are statistically far more dangerous than rock climbing). But if you are not giving a proper belay, then you are knowingly and willingly increasing the risk to your climber. That's just not okay.

Never, ever lose control of the brake end of the rope

Regardless of whatever occurs during your belay, you can never lose control of the brake end of the rope (i.e. the end of the rope going from your belay device down to the ground). You may get hit by a falling rock, or attacked by a swarm of bees, but you don't lose control of the rope. Your job when belaying is not to protect yourself, its to protect your climber.

But I didn't say "never, ever take your hand off the brake end of the rope." This is a great thing to teach new climbers because it is simple, but there are many reasons why a belayer may justifiably want or need to let go of the rope (mimicking beta to your climber may or may not be justifiable!). You can easily take your hand off the rope while still controlling the brake end of the rope by doing things like tying a quick overhand-on-a-bight or a munter-mule knot. The knot will not be able to pass through the belay device, and therefore the rope is controlled (i.e. the climber cannot be dropped).  What is NOT acceptable, however, is to take your hand off the rope when an assisted locking device (e.g. Grigri) is locked without tying some sort of knot in the rope.

Treat every device like a plaquette device

Plaquette devices (ATCs, Reversos, etc.) require excellent belay skills because if the belayer messes up, the climber will fall. There are no backup systems with such devices. The only thing they do is add a ton of friction which makes it relatively easy for the belayer to hold the climber's force.

If you are using an assisted locking device (e.g. Grigri) your goal should be to pretend it is a friction device. This way, the locking mechanism actually becomes the backup to your proper belay. Plus, people load devices like Grigris backwards all the time (this is in fact one of the main reasons Grigris "fail"); it is surprisingly easy to do after a long day at the crag. A backwards-loaded Grigri works exactly like a friction device, with the added benefit of more friction than say an ATC. Other times, assisted-locking devices can fail because debris gets caught in or around the device inhibiting the locking mechanism to operate. In any of these cases, the "failure" of the device wouldn't matter if the belayer is pretending they are using a plaquette.

But don't use a plaquette device

Although you should always pretend you are using one, I think the absolute necessity of a perfect belay when using a plaquette  makes them dangerous. One small little lapse in concentration and the climber could easily get dropped. But more scary to me are the "shit happens" moments that occur every once in a while, like a piece of rock breaking loose and hitting the belayer. Or a lead fall low on a route resulting in the climber swinging down and colliding with the belayer, who instinctively puts their hands up and lets go of the rope. Assisted-locking devices serve as the backup that keep these moments from turning into serious accidents.

Don't have too much slack out

Sounds obvious, right? But if it is so obvious then why do so many belayers do it? Maybe because they think they have to. Or maybe because they aren't paying attention. Or maybe because they don't want to have to work very hard while belaying. Having too much slack out increases the climber's fall, and while there is nothing necessarily wrong with falling there is no reason to make it bigger than it need be.

I'm a strong proponent of a very active, rather than passive, belay. Belaying passively means that you are just standing there, feeding out a bunch of slack when the rope starts getting too tight, then standing around doing nothing again until you need to feed more slack out. Passive belayers usually have their weight on their heels, or have shifted their hips so their weight is on one leg. An active belay is the opposite: the belayer is in a "ready" position with their weight centered and on their toes, and they may even have a slight bend in their knees. But more importantly they have only a minimum amount of slack out. Doing so will force them to be more active; an active belay requires more rope management than a passive. A great belayer is constantly adjusting and readjusting their stance, position, and amount of slack out so that everything is just right and ready to go to catch a fall.

Stand under the first piece of protection the climber clips

Some belayers like to stand off to the side of the route. Others like to stand a distance away from the wall so they can see their climber better. The correct place to stand though is right under the first protection the climber clips into. When the climber falls and the belayer gets pulled up, they will always be pulled in a straight line towards the first protection piece. Therefore, the shortest distance the belayer could be pulled will be from directly under the first piece (think of a right triangle). The more the belayer gets pulled, the more the climber falls. Also, standing further away from the plumb line of the first piece will increase the force put on the belayer since doing so increases the leverage of the fall (standing further away lengthens the hypotenuse of the right triangle, which increases leverage). The point is that if you stand further away from the wall while belaying, you are going to increase the distance of your climber's fall and have a harder time controlling the belay.

Don't take your eyes off the climber

This one is pretty simple: you should be paying attention. If you are not watching your climber, you are not paying attention. The act of belaying should become something that you can easily do without having to watch your hands.

Manage the rope

Finally, understand that proper belaying starts before the climber leaves the ground. Flake the rope out into a nice pile that is near your belay stance before the climber starts. During the climb, give the rope a quick whip once in a while to ensure a snarl isn't going to develop. Your goal is to be able to feed out the rope without any problems so the climber never even has to think about what is going on with the rope.

Here is a quick video of me putting together all of these elements of a proper belay:

Proper belaying with a Grigri

In 2007 Petzl released a new, official belay technique in response to serious accidents that had been happening when Grigris were used. The device of course never failed or malfunctioned in any way. The problem was that the belayers were gripping the device and/or rope incorrectly, which in turn caused the cam to not engage the rope and stop the climber's fall. Foremost was the problem that many belayers weren't treating the Grigri like a plaquette device. Secondly, incorrect technique was allowing the belayers to inadvertently hold down the cam lever, making it impossible for the cam to engage, while they stood waiting for their climber to stop falling. I personally have seen the latter happen twice. In each case, the person belaying "knew how" to belay and had been doing it that way for years. And in each case the belayers literally stood frozen like a deer in headlights while they watched their climber fall and hit the ground. They had no idea that they were squeezing the cam lever.

Upon some research, Petzl found that the culprit was simple: a problematic positioning of the belayer's brake hand. All it takes to change this problem is to simply turn your hand over, and hold the rope. The key point of the new technique is that your brake hand should NEVER be touching the Grigri unless you have to quickly feed slack, and in that case it should be holding the Grigri as minimally as possible.

Here is a great video showing the "classic" and the "new" technique:

Here is a link to another video of this technique with good explanation:

Grigri: belaying the leader

Finally, here is a link to the most up-to-date, official direction from Petzl:

Grigri Product Experience

So what if you are still doing the classic technique- should you switch? What if you have been belaying this way for years without ever having a problem? The answer is YES!!!! Learning the new way is not difficult; it will probably take you less than 10 belays to get comfortable with it. I simply cannot understand why some people refuse to change, even when they know about the new technique. There just is no good reason to not change.

Thanks for reading this. Hopefully it will help you become a better belayer.

As always, please help spread this around, and leave any thoughts, comments, or questions.


  1. Brilliant article, and something a lot of people could benefit from if they put their ego aside. GriGri advice is particularly good.

    The one query I have is with regards to Stand under the first piece of protection the climber clips. If you stand further away from the wall, however WITHOUT giving too much slack, surely that is sufficient? If we're considering a large weight discrepancy between the belayer and the climber then it could be an issue, however so long as you brace correctly it shouldn't be too much of a problem. The reason I query that is if the climber takes a large fall you will be directly UNDER them when they fall. Do you mean after they clip into the second clip position yourself under the first?

    Thanks for the blog, really enjoy it!

  2. Dan,
    Thanks for the question! I think it is a fair question, and of course opinions vary on this. In my opinion though, I still think it is best to be directly under the first piece of protection the climber clips (if it is a bolted route and the climber skips the first bolt, then stand under the second). Here are my specific responses to your points:
    1. I don't think that (in almost all cases) the belayer would want to "brace" themselves for the falling climber's weight coming on to the rope. When I am climbing, I don't want my belayer to be bracing themselves either (again, in most cases). I think belayers should give "soft" catches, that is, allow themselves to be pulled up a bit to absorb the falling climber's weight. Bracing would lead to a "hard" catch, which although in certain circumstances is necessary, in general is not needed and not wanted.
    2. I believe that it is best for the belayer to stand (and do everything else in such a way) in the best spot - directly under the first piece - regardless of whether they will get hit by the falling climber. My *only* job as a belayer is to keep my climber safe. If that means I get kicked in the face, so be it. That is what I also expect from my belayers.

    Please let me know your thoughts on this, or any other questions you may have.

  3. Great article, but I still prefer to belay with a tube style device for lead because it allows me to feed slack faster. In fact, I even prefer a classic ATC to the guide or reverso because its lower friction allows me to 'rocket' rope up to the climber and almost always pay out enough slack for a clip in two motions. When I try this with a gri gri, the device has a tendency to cam if I feed too fast, or just provide enough friction to limit my ability to pay out slack (this is especially true with older, stiffer ropes). I'll try the techniques outlined in the article to improve my belay, but for now, color me unconvinced. Also, a guide or a reverso is still pretty much the gold standard for a versatile belay device. Its nice that the Gri Gri introduces an extra safety factor, but you can still be safe with a non blocking device.

  4. I respectfully disagree about standing in a spot that could result in e.g. being kicked in the face. This increases the likelihood that I will drop the climber. Even if I'm putting the climber first, what if I get knocked out? Or pulled into the first bolt by a heavier climber.

    I am a heavier climber and can say from experience that a "hard catch" from a lighter climber will still feel like a soft catch because of the extra force of my greater weight on the dynamic rope and because they are lighter than me and will inevitably get pulled a bit against their stance. These aretrue even when the lighter climber anchors themselves to the ground, which is a really good idea.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.