Tricks For Advanced Belaying

Article by Adrian Berry
Monday 1st March 2010

- all photography copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com: no reproduction on other media -

 

 1. Introduction: giving and taking

Basic belay technique teaches us to stand in close to the climb, and lock off the belay device when the leader falls. This is sound advice for the vast majority of climbing situations, but there are very real instances where it is advisable, or even necessary to break this rule. Obvious examples are where the leader has only got runners up to half their height, where there is a risk of slamming into the surface, or where the runners are very poor and shock loading needs to be minimised.

 

A classic sport climbing case-in-point where a 'soft' belay is essential: the precarious crux of the classic 'Keyboard Wall' (7c), Battleship Edge, Portland, UK. In this situation, if the belayer were to lock off the rope completely and not create any elasticity in the system, if the leader fell he would get (at best) a badly sprained ankle.


2. The advanced belay goal: absorbing the fall impact over the longest safe time

All effective fall-arrest technologies must do the same thing. Absorb the force of a fall over the optimum safe distance in the longest period of time. Just as it is intuitively obvious that a crash mat five meters thick will be more effective than one five centimeters thick, so we have to get our minds around applying the same logic to belaying. The goal of an advanced belayer is not just to stop a falling leader, but to use dynamic techniques to allow the rope to absorb the force over the longest possible period of time - just like the crash mat does: all things being equal, deeper crash pads are more effective because its takes a longer period of time for them to do their job.

Top British trad climber Neil Dickson moving into the crux sequence on the onsight of the extremely serious pitch 'Mayan Skies' (E7 6b) at Black Crag, Lundy Island (UK). In this case, if Neil had fallen the belayer would have had to catch the fall very dynamically to minimise the shock-load on the cluster of poor small wire and skyhook protection below Neil's feet and maximise the chances of it holding. Fortunately, Neil cruised the tenuous sequence. 


3. Taking in


"Take In!!" is a common cry of a falling leader, and with good reason. The further a leader falls the more chance of an impact on the way, such as with a ledge or, ultimately, the ground. Many climbs, especially amongst the top grades, have protection at or below half-height. Naturally if a leader falls from the top moves of a climb, and the protection is at half height, then they will hit the ground.

The obvious solution is for the belayer to take in the slack as quickly as possible. Now the safest way of doing this is of course to pull the slack through the belay device and remain rooted to the spot. The problems with this are two fold: firstly speed, there isn't going to be very much time, and taking in is usually not going to be quick enough, secondly, on a straight line, you will be in direct line of the falling climber. The answer: run for it!
Assuming there is somewhere to run (or water to jump into if you're belaying Dawes of Perception in Llanberis), this is a fast way of taking in slack, and yet I have seen so many belayers miss out on a great technique that makes this even more effective.

Normal 'run for it' technique: the belayer sees the climber fall and runs for it. Now if the belayer is standing on a flat surface and is directly beneath the crucial first runner, the distance they travel will not equal the amount of rope being pulled through. Now dig out you're old mathematics books, turn to Pythagoras's Theorem… ready?

Imagine our leader's first runner is 10m above the belayer's initial position (height), and the belayer manages an heroic sprint of 5m (distance) before the rope goes tight (or impact occurs), the rope pulled through = (Square Root of (height squared + distance squared)) - height . In our example, despite a 5m sprint, our belayer would only manage to pull though just over 1m of slack, not very impressive.

Another problem with this approach is there is a possibility that the falling climber will rub past the rope or worse still land astride it (ouch). Lastly, this should only be attempted with a bomber first runner that can take an outward or sideways pull.

So here is the solution: the ground level runner. By placing a very low runner (optimally at waist height), far more slack can be pulled in when the belayer runs. Using the same formula as used above, the height becomes 0m, and so the distance moved equals the amount of rope pulled through, and for the same run of 5m, 5m of rope is pulled through instead of 1m. Furthermore, there is less rope for the falling leader to land on, and the low runner can be placed more carefully to withstand an outwards pull. Lastly, if there is no place for a very low runner, why not tie off a rucksack filled with rocks or improvise some other way.

Jack Geldard making the first ascent of the very serious 'Rocky' (E8 6c) in the Llanberis Pass, Wales (UK). Note the ground-level runner principle being used on the left hand (blue) rope. This rope is clipped to the crucial gear out of sight beyond the base of the image. If Jack had fallen on the desperate crux at the top, his belayer Stephen Horne would have been able to run back, with the low runner on the blue rope significantly increasing the amount of slack he would have been able to take in. Fortunately, Jack crushed the V7 crux at the top first go.


4. Giving out

The section above dealt with instances where it is imperative to stop the leader falling quickly, and it is easy to fall into thinking that the less distance you fall, the less the risk of injury. Watch a beginner belaying, and it is obvious that we are conditioned to think falling is bad, so we instinctively react by stopping a fall as abruptly as possible.
This basic technique puts great strain on both the climber, and the belay. On steep climbs or where the leader is not directly above the runner this will cause them to slam hard into the surface. Slamming is a frequent cause of injuries, especially to the ankles - as an example of the forces generated, I once witnessed a competition climber take a short fall during a competition, and hit the plywood with such force that a panel was knocked out of place.

Auto-locking belay devices are also instrumental in taking the 'give' out of belays, as are 'dynamic' ropes that have been fallen on and not given time to recover (change ends between falls).This technique applies most appropriately to steep single pitch routes, especially sport routes. Climbing walls are perfect places to master, and practice the technique of dynamic belaying. Clearly the degree to which the belayer allows a dynamic element will be influenced by the presence of obstructions such as ledges, and of course, the ground.

In essence, dynamic belaying is arresting a fall gradually by letting the rope slide through the system until the energy of the falling climber has been totally absorbed. This can be achieved through either letting slack pass through the belay device, or if possible by 'walking in'. This latter technique is the standard competition belay technique. As the climber gets higher up the route, the belay walks away from the base of the climb (often necessary to see what they are doing on a steep route). The distance from the first clip allows the belayer to quickly give slack for an urgent clip, and when the climber falls, the belayer can move into the base of the climb at the moment the force begins to be absorbed. Naturally the climber 'falls' further, but there is more time for the system to absorb the fall, reducing the impact force applied to the leader, and preventing slamming.

A perfect example of why a 'soft catch' is absolutely essential in sport climbing, as well as on serious trad pitches with long runouts or poor protection. Here, the falling leader is seen mid-arc in the fall trajectory. The consequences of a completely 'hard' catch, where the belayer locks off the rope completely, should be disasterously obvious to any climber looking at this photograph - the unfortunate leader would crash into the wall with great force, possible breaking his ankles or legs. 

 

5. Putting it all together

The ideal belay takes both of the above techniques and rolls them together. A falling climber needs to be stopped quickly, but gradually. By taking in as the leader falls, the moment of arrest is sooner - meaning there is more height (and hence time) available to then let the rope pass through the system, then by giving out, the impact time is stretched out and safely absorbed.

6. The future - if you dare

Hopefully by now you will see clearly why you (theoretically at least) don't need to have runners above half height to make a climb safe. Advanced belay techniques are in their infancy still, and those looking to explore the brave new world might start by working out the one problem: how do you take in as fast as gravity? Perhaps a new generation of belay devices, such as the sail winches used on yachts could herald a new age of extreme low runner climbs.

 


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Comments

High force from ground level runner? - 04/04/2010
Just curious as to what kinds of extra forces are generated by the addition of a ~ 90 degree agnle from the ground-level runner. Presumably one needs to weigh the consequences of distance fallen and solidity of gear - and if a ground fall and crap gear are both at hand, the leader better send! Thanks

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