Belaying the Leader

Suppose you are belaying the leader on a one-pitch climb, and lie or she falls and cannot be lowered (for example, the leader has a broken leg). Help is just 5 minutes away but you have to leave the scene. How do you do it? Escaping the belay when a leader is in trouble can be straightforward or it can be desperately complicated.

Again, if you know the fundamental systems, the problem can usually be solved quickly. But if you do not, you may risk your life. In the late 1990s, a climber fell leading the last pitch of a long rock climb in Colorado and died from bead injuries. The belayer was unable to escape the belay and held the leader all night with his brake hand.

Rescuers arrived and the belayer survived, but if bad weather had come in, the belayer might have died of hypothermia just because he did not know how to tie a mule knot and transfer the load to the belay. Do not take the same risk.

The following steps assume that a good anchor is available and the belayer has the proper self-rescue equipment. If the belayer is on the ground and no anchor is available, the rescue scenario is far more complicated; those steps are not included here. Neither does this book cover the subject of how the belayer rescues an incapacitated leader.

This section is limited to those circumstances in which the belayer’s only responsibility is to get out of the system and go for help. Three scenarios are covered:

  • the belayer is on the ground and not tied into an anchor but one is available
  • the belayer is on the ground and tied to a natural anchor such as a tree or boulder the belayer is tied into a constructed anchor

Scenario 1:

The belayer is on the ground and not tied into an anchor but one is available. It is common, though not recommended, for the belayer on the ground to be unanchored when belaying the leader. Because this situation is so common, it is important to understand the steps necessary for the belayer to escape.

1. Block the belay with a mule knot backed up with an overhand knot (this frees the belayer’s hands).

2. Find a secure anchor such as a tree or boulder and build an anchor-often as simple as wrapping a sling around it (if an anchor is not right next to the belayer, be or she may need to release the mule knot and “rappel” down the rope using the climber as a counterbalance in order to reach an anchor point).

3. Attach a sling or prusik loop to the loaded strand using a clamping bitch and clip it to the anchor with a locking carabiner using the Munter-mule combination.

4. Pop the mule knot on the rope and lower the climber until the clamping knot holds the load.

5. Feed 3 to 5 feet of slack through the belay device and block the original belay with another mule knot on the brake strand below the original belay device – this provides a temporary backup and ensures that the system cannot fail while the permanent backup is established.

6. Tie a figure eight on a bight in the slack rope below the belay device and clip it to the achor using a separate locking carabiner.

7. Pop the mule knot on the brake strand and remove the belay device from the system.

8. Feed rope through the figure eight on a bight on the anchor until all the slack is taken out between it and the cordelette.

9. Pop the mule knot on the cordelette and lower the climber onto the figure eight on a bight, then remove the cordelette the climber is now permanently tied off and the belayer is tree to leave the scene.

Scenario 2:

The belayer is on the ground and tied to a natural anchor such as a tree or boulder. It is highly recommended that belayers be tied to an anchor whenever belaying a leader, even when the belayer is on the ground. By doing so, the belayer has already accomplished step 2 in the previous scenario, and can quickly accomplish step 1 and then steps 3 through 9.

Scenario 3:

The belayer is tied into a constructed anchor. In many instances (for example, on multi-pitch climbs), the belayer will be tied directly to an anchor constructed from either fixed hardware such as bolts or nuts and cams. Typically, these anchors are positioned so the belayer can weight them comfortably while the leader climbs.

Transferring the load created by a fallen leader to belays of this type uses the same procedures as described in Scenario 2, with one very important difference: The belay anchor must be multidirectional; it must be capable of holding a load that pulls in an upward direction.

With bolts, this is no problem-they are sufficiently strong regardless of the direction of the load. However, anchors constructed with nuts and cams are not always capable of holding an upward force.

If the person building the anchor simply slotted three bomber nuts, all oriented to hold a downward force, the upward force of a fallen leader transferred to the anchor will cause it to pull out.

Before using any constructed anchor, be certain it is capable of holding the anticipated load. The best-constructed anchors are built multi-directionally, to begin with. It is always harder, and sometimes impossible, to add components after the leader has fallen and become incapacitated-all actions must be taken while holding the fallen climber’s weight, and the belayer may not even have the proper equipment to add to the belay because the leader has the rack.

If the anchor cannot be made multidirectional, other rescue steps than those outlined below will have to be taken; they are beyond the scope of this hook. Assuming the anchor is multidirectional, repeat the steps outlined in Scenario 2.