How To Safely Belay A Lead Climber

Don’t you hate it when you’re lead climbing and your belayer short ropes you? Or you look down to see a huge loop of slack laying in the dirt and your belayer chatting on his cell phone? Trust me, I hate that too. The consequences of inattentive or bad belay techniques are potentially fatal. I’d like to offer climbers of all abilities a few tips and equipment suggestions to make sure you’re giving the best lead belay possible.

Check the (belay) technique

First, an effective lead belay requires a certain amount of technique and practice. Managing the amount of slack in the rope system is important to prevent dangerous falls while also allowing the leader to move up with minimal resistance. When belaying, the rope should hang in a small loop, not lower than your knee. Likewise, the belayer should stand close to the wall to minimize the amount of slack in the system and prevent the belayer from being slammed into the wall during a lead fall. Being attentive to your lead climber is also vital. While this may sound obvious, it’s important not to get distracted by a cute girl/guy or even a barking dog, especially while your partner is making difficult moves. You must be able to catch a lead fall. As the belayer, it is your job to anticipate a fall and provide a soft catch by capitalizing on the dynamic belay system. NEVER. LET. GO. OF. THE. ROPE.

Get the gear

A certain amount of specialized equipment can make your lead belay even more effective and even pleasurable for you and your partner. Your average ATC and locking carabiner is certainly safe and sufficient, but to take it to the next level, I highly recommend a few additional pieces. Belay gloves, a GriGri and Belay Specs—the newest dorky trend—are a few things to add to your pack.  

I used to think belay gloves were for people who didn’t know how to belay. But I’m finding they’re incredible useful, especially when the fall potential is high. The additional friction with belay gloves allows the belayer to hold onto the rope better during a fall. With thinner diameter ropes becoming the norm, belay gloves allow for a more secure grip on the rope, which is especially important while lowering, rappelling and catching lead falls.

The new Petzl GriGri 2 is lightweight and works with many different rope diameters.  You need a certain amount of technique and practice to safely and efficiently belay a leader with a GriGri. For more information, go to Petzl.com.

Belay specs are new to the U.S. market, but have been used in Europe for several years. They’re small glasses with prism lenses that allow the belayer to keep a constant eye on the climber without bending their neck. When your partner says, “Watch me,” all day long, these glasses allow you to watch them free of neck pain.

As with most skills, it’s essential to practice these techniques, especially with new or unfamiliar equipment. It’s crucial to communicate with your partner and be honest about your experience. Next time you’re out at the crag and that cute guy/girl tries to distract you while you’re belaying your partner, you can look at them through your belay specs and politely let them know that you’re trying to be an attentive belayer.