Belaying

The “art” of protecting your partner.

Climbing, Rappelling, Canyoneering, Mountaineering, are … lots of fun and adventure. Of course, like most anything, it is important to approach them the correct way. More like a journey, fun and enjoyment are a by product of getting involved in the activity, being active, and …

What I have found is that if I just focus on learning well, trying to “get into the art of it,” I have a great time. If we hunt for a good time around every corner, that good time becomes elusive, and hard to find and enjoy. Let go, just be, and the good times sneak back in without us even noticing they ever left.

Climbing is an art. “The art is in the striving and the goal is never ultimately reached and left behind.”

Introduction:  Sky diving, Caving, Rappelling, Hang Gliding, Paragliding, and … are risk sports. Meaning there is an element of risk involved; but if we pay attention to details, and progress only as fast as what we understand, the risks are minimal, and they can be a great adventure.

Now for a few details: We often refer to our rope as “our second lease on life.”   Since the rope is an inanimate object, that can’t walk, talk, or play; we as climbers, mountaineers, cavers, rescue personnel, etc. should take responsibility for that skill, to assure the rope will meet that objective. 

If the principles are covered, belaying is something that most people can do, and the rope will perform much like a seat belt.  It will prevent us from “cratering”  (climbers have a funny sense of humor).

What I like about climbing, is there are a number of skills we must learn, like almost any activity.  That only means the fun won’t run out right away.

Mountaineering, “or the freedom of the hills,” that is what climbing is about.  It gives us the ability to explore, almost anywhere.  .

Principles are the key; in all situations, climbing is no exception.   If we expect a predictable outcome, we should remember, “Ways, Means, Methods, and Techniques change; Principles never do.”   First, we identify the principles involved then we choose the appropriate technique(s). Each belay stance presents different kinds of challenges.

 Having your body act as an airborne counterweight is somewhat unpredictable, and it can be easy to lose control. In many cases, “If you’ve been removing slack consistently during the climb, both the distance of the climber falls and the resulting force you are catching will be relatively modest.”

In some situations, it can be like holding a runaway bull!   Thank goodness falls are not happening all of the time. Depending on your understanding of this art/skill, you may feel or think quite differently.  “What is there to a person managing a rope and threading it through an ATC or Gri-Gri?”   Like driving, it takes a little practice.

Staged fall from a rope bridge for a TV Commercial my team and I coordinated near Mt. Shasta CA

Belaying is an art, which must be adapted to the circumstances.  Climbing is and Art. In an art, “The art is in the striving and the goal is never ultimately reached and left behind.”  That means we are always improving, learning, adapting, and managing various circumstances.  Just like an artist is always striving for a better picture, painting, or sculpture. 

I tell this story, so others will avoid the same pitfall. I had just returned from the City of Rocks where I was climbing well, so I was a little cocky. So when we started up this, I was not concerned, it was only a 5.10. I ended up taking a 35-foot fall on a #3 stopper. I am sure having a good belayer contributed to my confidence as well.
Fortunately, I had chosen a good partner who had learned well during the training. His comment was, “Sorry, I stopped you so quickly (he knew the pro was small) , the ground was come up!. He had stopped me about five of ten feet above the ground.

Here’s a beginner’s story: I had just returned from active duty and was hired as a National Park Ranger at Timpanogos Cave. That was where I had an almost failure of a belay; it could have been fatal.  I was quite green (I had only been climbing a few years) but I made up for my lack of knowledge with my excitement and enthusiasm for the job…

Well, there was another young Park Ranger who knew of my climbing background and was interested in climbing up above Timpanogos Cave, to see what was up there and learn a little about climbing.  She was rather hot, so I was quick to jump on the opportunity.  As far as I was concerned, it was a no brainier, at least for a young buck.

One day, after work, we climbed up a route I had climbed several times before.  The gray limestone provided good friction and adequate hand and footholds.  It was a rather easy climbing, partly because the route was easy, and partly because climbing up is three times easier than climbing down. 

We explored the area until it was time to return.  As we started to climb down we came to a section that was a little tricky, so I suggested she go first and I explained that I would use a hip belay to lower her down the section.

I had been climbing for a few years.  As if “years” of climbing experience makes someone a skilled climber?  Anyway, I had learned much of what I knew from the second edition of “Mountaineering – the freedom of the hills;” and from my experience in the Special Forces.  Back then, mountaineering was still evolving.  Sitting hip belays were common, and we rarely anchored the belayer. We usually situated ourselves behind big boulders, or wedge ourselves in cracks, etc. but we did not usually fall, especially the long leader falls.

A stunt fall our teams coordinated for a Rescue 911 show

Nowadays, In civilian life, it is common to see a belayer unanchored.  Although nowadays in the military, they rarely teach “unanchored” belays.  Why is it that belays are rarely anchored in civilian life? Anyway, I chose to do a sitting hip belay. Under the correct circumstances, an unanchored hip belay can be an acceptable way of belaying.

Belaying and the Dynamics of Motion . . .

As I lowered her down, I felt myself starting to be pulled over the edge of the cliff.  When I tried to stop her descent, I would start to be lifted up and out of my sitting belay position.  When I allowed her to go down faster, I found that I settled back into my sitting belay position. 

I was caught in an unpleasant situation; between letting her fall, or being pulled off the mountain with her!  Fortunately, I was able to slowly stop her descent, without being pulled off the mountain.  Since then, she may have heard through the grapevine about this experience, but I did not tell her how close we were to being pulled off the mountainside!

It would be nice to see LouAnn again, just to say hi, and see how she doing, and let her know what happened that that day.  Although I only had several years of experience, I would still like to apologize for the situation–belaying is a big responsibility.  Since then I have learned much, and that’s why I am writing this post.  I hope this saves a life and prevents injuries.

I am an army medic and I certified as an EMT also.  As I have mentioned, over the past years I have seen too many near misses and serious accidents during rescues and responding to accidents. I have also had the unpleasant task of carrying bodies of those who made mistakes off the mountain.

Surprisingly, I see mistakes, that could be serious, semi frequently.  The most common mistake I see is ignorance about the forces that are generated in a fall.  A belayer does not have to be anchored, but they do need to have a good understanding of what is going on. If a belayer is not anchored properly, these forces can be serious. Even on a top roped belay, anchoring the belayer is important. 

My then, girlfriend, being lifted off the ground while catching a top roped fall. Fortunately, she was anchored and she did not lose control.

A picture of my wife, while we were dating. It is a top roped fall, she was anchored and controlled the fall well, even though she was slightly pulled upward. There is a line of thinking that suggests it is good the belayer is lifted off the ground, it absorbs energy. Well . . . if the belay does not lose control, that works. Although I generally request my belayer to be anchored. With practice you can create a dynamic belay. That with rope stretch is quite effective.

Also, belay practice is real good excuse to go climbing.  I am guessing that very few climbers have ever practiced belaying and catching a fall, let alone catching a serious fall.  There are two main things in catching a fall: number one is stopping the fall, and number two is stopping the fall in such a way as not to pull out the anchors. Below are two grounders I witnessed. Both were due to anchor placement failure “resultant forces and resultant (vectors) angles of force.”

Page 13, from a two-part article I did on Mastering the “Art” of Protecting Yourself, which was published in Summit Magazine.

Many belayers do not do this . . .

According to Ed Leeper, “When you use a mechanical belay device, you choose to increase the forces on the top anchor by a factor of approximately two, as compared to using a properly executed hip belay.”

That is not to say mechanical belay devices are bad. We just need to have good situational awareness and understand when and where various techniques work well, and . . .

If you’re on the sport route with well-placed bolts; it is generally not a problem.  But, if the bolts are poorly placed, or you are using marginally placed, or small pieces of pro, it is a serious concern.

The formula for figuring the force of a falling object is: “weight times distance fallen, divided by stopping distance, times two.”  Basically, what that means is that a 200-pound block of cement, falling six feet, can develop over 2,000 pounds, or a ton, of energy if stopped too quickly.  This force needs to be managed.  Yes, the dynamic stretch of a rope helps, but I’ve seen many belayers pulled off the ground and into the mountain and lose control of the belay and drop the climber. They were people working for big name climbing equipment company’s…  Also, I have seen a number of anchors fail because of the resultant angles of pull, and the resultant forces!

This may sound “too” basic, but my tail was saved by a friend who thought otherwise and learned these skills well. I took a long lead fall, and another climber, who happen to be watching said, “That’s the longest fall I have ever seen!!!” Lucky for me, my friend learned well.

Best to you, climb on, and I hope your belayer has you on a well thought out belay.