Belaying in traditional climbing
Common to all belay systems is the need for attentiveness on the part of the belayer so they feed out the rope at an appropriate pace, anticipating the leader needing slack, a tight rope or even falling off. Having control of the rope at all times is absolutely essential as a leader will not always give any warning of a fall! A system of moving the hands along the rope as it is fed through the device is needed so that one hand never leaves the dead rope side of the device. (The dead rope is on the far side of the device from the climber.)
With a direct belay it is common to use an 'Italian hitch', as this is the easiest to lock off from this position
This is a system where the load of a fall is transferred directly to the anchor without it first being taken by the belayer. In its simplest form, the rope is taken in behind a solid spike and you are relying on the friction of the rope against the rock to hold a fall. This works well when a leader is belaying a second on straight forward scrambling ground or Alpine terrain. In a climbing situation a more sophisticated and foolproof system is needed, such as:
- A sling on a solid spike, rock or tree.
- Two or more anchors linked together to a central point with a sling.
- In-situ anchors such as bolts or pegs.
Whichever anchor you use it must be 100 per cent bombproof, as the entire load will be transferred onto it. If the rock looks or sounds suspect do not use this system.
As you are normally positioned in front of the anchors when operating a direct belay it is common to use an 'Italian hitch', as this is the easiest to lock off from this position. Beware of using a belay plate, as it is quite likely you will not be in an effective position to brake.
- Simple and quick to set up
- Belayer remains out of the system
- Belayer does not have to take weight onto their waist
- Italian hitch kinks the rope
- Anchors take all the load so must be bombproof
- Hard to give a tight rope to second
- Less dynamic, which puts a higher impact on the anchors
This includes most modern belaying systems of tying to anchors from the front of the harness and belaying from the rope tie-in loop, i.e. the belayer ties into the anchors using the rope and attaches the belay device to the rope tie-in loop. In a fall the load is transferred via the belay device and rope to the anchors. The belayer should only experience a small proportion of the load if it is set up correctly.
In most climbing situations you'll use a semi-direct belay
- Fairly comfortable for belayer
- Is reasonably dynamic to absorb impact of fall
- Must tie into anchors correctly, can be fiddly at times
The belayer takes the load but is supported by the anchors, as in a waist belay or if you attach to the anchors from the back of the harness and belay from the front. The main advantage of this system is that it cushions poor anchors so it is not commonly used in rock climbing situations unless the anchors are really weak.
- Useful to protect poor anchors (often used in winter with snow belays)
- Very dynamic
- Uncomfortable for the belayer who takes all the weight on their waist
Libby is a highly qualified mountain leader with over 25 years experience, having worked as an instructor at Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin and also having travelled the world seeking out the best climbs. She offers bespoke guiding, instruction and coaching sessions in climbing and mountaineering in her local area of North Wales - one of the best areas in the UK for outdoor sports.
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