Indoor Belaying

You can have the gear, know your knots and signals, know the rating of the route, and have the moves memorized, but unless you can belay safely, you are not ready to climb. No other skill is as important to safe climbing than belaying, and there is no better compliment than to be described as a great belayer.

Learn the techniques and responsibilities of belaying, and practice until it is second nature-remember, your partner is literally trusting you with his or her life.

The term belay is derived from a French verb that means “to hold fast.” For the climber, to belay means to protect a climber by controlling his or her rope so that in the case of a fall, the rope will be held fast.

The key to a good belay is friction. Belay devices provide manageable friction by putting a bend in the rope that allows the belayer to feed rope out and take rope in easily, yet lock off to catch a fall.

Proper rope handling, communication, and technique are mandatory elements of safe belaying. The following elements of the belay system are universal to all types of climbing. Start by learning these techniques either in a gym or other controlled environment with an instructor.

Setting up a belay

After the climber is tied in, the belayer must set up a belay. Grasp the rope a comfortable distance from the climber and form a bight in the rope. Push the bight through the appropriate hole or slot in the belay device. Clip the bight into the locking carabiner that is clipped into the harness’s belay loop (a vertically oriented, full-strength sewn loop on the front of many harnesses connecting the waist belt to the leg loops) or through the crotch strap and waist belt on harnesses without a belay loop.

The retaining cable of the belay device is also clipped into the locking carabiner. (Practice inserting and removing the rope from the belay device without ever removing the retaining cable from the locking carabiner; it is a habit that will help prevent dropping the device.) Lock the locking carabiner.

Rope Handling

The first thing, to do after the belay device is loaded is to identity the brake hand. The standing end of the rope-the part that emerges from the belay device and does not lead to the climber-is the brake side of the rope. The hand that holds that side of the rope is the brake hand. The hand on the live end of the rope-the end going to the climber-is called the guide hand.

The number-one rule of belaying is to never let go with the brake hand. to stop a fall, or to hold a climber on the rope, pull back with the brake hand. This action bends the rope around the belay device, clamping the device against the locking carabiner. The friction that is created stops the fall. Braking is achieved by this technique. It is not a matter of a strong grip; the equipment does the job.

When the climber moves away from the belayer, slack must be fed out. This is done with each hand on its respective side of the rope, simultaneously feeding and pushing the rope out to the climber. The brake hand naturally stays on the rope during this motion.

Taking the rope in as a climber moves toward the belayer is a bit more difficult. Here are the best techniques: As the climber moves up and slack develops, pull the rope through the belay device with the brake hand. The guide hand can assist by pushing the rope into the device. When the brake hand is extended out a comfortable distance, slide the guide hand up the standing side of the rope until it is possible to pinch the brake side of the rope with the guide hand above the brake hand.

Both sides of the rope are now momentarily held in the guide hand. This allows the brake hand to slide down the brake side of the rope toward the belay device without ever letting go of the braking side of the rope, and prevents any rope from slipping back through the belay device. The process is continually repeated as the climber progresses, and the belayer is always ready to lock the rope off in the brake position should a fall occur.

This is not an easy technique to learn. One trick is to start learning in “first gear.” Keep the guide hand extended straight out, with both sides of the rope running through the open palm. Pull rope through the device and toward the guide hand with the brake hand. Allow both ropes to easily slide through the guide hand until the moment when the two hands meet. Then quickly pinch the brake side of the rope with the guide hand and slide the brake hand hack down the rope to prepare to pull in another length.

Do not move the extended guide hand; just relax and let the rope run through it until it has to pinch the brake strand. As soon as this is mastered, move to “second gear.” Now the guide hand starts moving back and forth in conjunction with the brake hand, pulling the rope in, then extending out to pinch the brake rope while the brake hand slides down. Practice!

Another method that works well is for the belayer to pull the rope through the device with the brake hand, lock the device off, reach over and hold the lock-off position with the guide hand, and then slide the brake hand back down.


The belayer often has the job of lowering the climber back down to the ground after the climber has reached the top of the climb. Lowering begins with proper communication. The belayer first pulls in as much slack as possible through the belay device until the climber is felt on the rope. Then the belayer locks off the rope in the brake position.

The climber weights the rope and the belayer lowers the climber down. Allow the belay device to do the lowering by adjusting the angle of the brake side of the rope as it feeds into the device. The climber will lower faster as the rope is raised up, slower as it is angled more sharply down toward the brake position.

Using both hands on the brake end of the rope makes for smooth lowering. Let the rope run through your hand at a moderately slow pace. Try not to be jerky. A pair of leather belay gloves make the process more comfortable on novice hands.

Using A Pretzl Gri Gri

The Petzl Gri Gri, an auto-locking belay device that is quite popular, is the only auto-locking belay device included in this book. The Gri Gri works on a different principle from traditional devices.

The rope is fed through the Gri Gri following the instructions on the device. Pulling in the slack (“up rope”) is done with the same hand motions as with any other device. When a fall occurs or the climber weights the rope, the Gri Gri automatically grips the rope by a secure camming action.

Even though the Gri Gri locks “automatically,” it is still critical that the brake hand remain on the rope at all times. Lowering the climber with a Gri Gri is performed by raising the spring-loaded handle until the rope begins to run, assisted by friction from the brake hand.

This is very different from lowering with a traditional belay device, and should be practiced diligently. If the belayer panics and pulls the lever too hard when lowering, the rope will fly through the device with almost no friction.