Belay-bor Pains Part 1

I’m going to go ahead and say it – IMHO belaying sucks. Yes, I admit it is a major part of our sport that builds bonds that will last throughout the years, but it has it’s definite drawbacks. It makes your neck ache. The rope trashes your hands. It’s boring. And you can often spend an egregious amount of time belaying your buddy while he hangdogs every clip instead of sending your own project. But in spite of all this, passing the belay test is what every first time climber focuses on. It is as important to them as getting to the top of the wall. And while it is a skill that is very easy to learn, tragedy can strike if you falter, even for a microsecond. At ROCK’n & JAM’n, we do our very best to make sure that everyone belaying in our facilities does it correctly and safely. Rest assured that we have our eyes on you and will come up and correct you if we deem it necessary. Our staff has encountered almost every mistake imaginable. Brian even got to step in and rectify a hip belay debacle once (for the record, not allowed in any gym I know of). In light of this, I’ve put together a Belaying FAQs post for your enjoyment. Read on.

Why do I have to belay off the belay loop? I think two points of contact are safer.

This a topic that can make people get hot under the collar. But no matter what your stance is on this, every harness manufacturer that includes a belay loop on their harness will instruct you in the manual that comes with your purchase to belay off the belay loop, not the two points of contact. As an example, this is taken from the Arc’teryx harness instruction manual:

Attach all belay and rappel devices to the belay loop with a locking carabiner. The belay loop is engineered for extreme structural strength, (>15kN/ 3350 lbf), equal to the main harness structure, and when used correctly for belaying and rappelling provides a safer two-point load.

What this means is that when you use the belay loop instead of the two capture points on your harness, you reduce the risk of cross loading the biner. If you look at your locking biner that you use to belay, you will see a series of little drawings on one side depicting the amount of force it can withstand depending on the biner’s orientation. The one I’m looking at right now shows 23kN from end to end and 7kN from gate to side – a whopping 70% reduction.

Bottom line, it’s a good idea to check the manual and follow it for all your equipment.

Some further reading that I found on this subject can be found here and a fun discussion thread can be found here.

I see people belaying differently, which way is safer?

This one doesn’t have a definite answer. Some gyms flat out ban certain ways of belaying while others just want to make sure you are in control of the brake side at all times. We fall into the latter category – we just want to see confident and controlled belaying. This includes never taking your brake hand off the rope and also staying in a locked off position with your brake hand below the mouth of the belay device approximately 99.99% of the duration of the climb.

There are two main ways of belaying that I know of, and there are several variations on these two main themes. Below is a video of the “pinch” method of belaying. Please note how Samantha raises the brake side of the rope up to meet her left hand, pinches both ropes with her left hand over her brake hand and slides her brake hand down the rope and goes back to her lock off position.

Some people don’t approve of this method for several reasons: you have the brake hand above the mouth of the belay device for a relatively long time, it’s easy to get confused and pinch the ropes below the brake hand instead of over forcing the belayer to take their brake hand off, and most beginner belayers do not move back to their lock off position between periods of taking up slack. However, Samantha is belaying confidently and staying locked off between periods of taking up slack, thereby using this method in a safe manner. For the record, this is the way I’ve belayed for 17 years.

At both R&J gyms, we prefer to teach this method:

We don’t have a name for this, so Nate would like to call it the squat technique since most people get very confused about how to manage the ropes and their limbs at the same time, thereby inducing excessive squatting while belaying. Dede, however, makes this method look casual. It keeps the rope in a locked off position for a longer amount of time and promotes good belaying habits by teaching the belayer to stay locked off. It also seems to be easier to learn and takes less coordination to master.

Again, either of these methods are acceptable at R&J as long as you convey to us that you are in control of the situation.

That’s it for now, stay tuned for part 2.

One thought on “Belay-bor Pains Part 1

  1. Brian Scoggins

    Former RJ instructor Brian here. At the gym I worked at before RJ (and now set at, since I went back to the barren wastelands of Wyoming), we called the squat method the Brake-Under-Slide (or BUS) method, since you brake, move your other hand under your brake hand, then slide your brake hand up the brake strand.

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