Belaying a Leader; out of your Comfort Zone.

Climbing is much more than a person tying-in to a rope and climbing vertically. That is surely the task at hand (and foot so to speak).  But at the other end of the rope, as any 'climber' pushing their limits knows, is another. This "significant other" in the partnership is [always] the hero within the story. I write this knowingly for if there is a "story" to be told, chances are you are telling it because your belayer caught your fall, and kept you safe from catastrophe like it was their job, which it 100% is.

Peña de Bernal

Peña de Bernal

 In the realm of the climber there is an old adage~ a good belayer will always have someone to climb with, but a bad belayer will never have anyone to climb with.  

This aphorism couldn't be any closer to the truth. Sooner or later everyone witnesses that bad belayer. This is the person while someone is on lead has their hand off the brake. Or a person you see so concerned with their phone that they aren't watching and have a huge belly of slack out lengthening the fall for their partner. Or worse yet, the belayer sitting on the ground while their partner is cruxing out with the gear below their feet, looking at a huge whip, while dip-shit down below is taking a siesta. These are the people that find themselves without partners, and for good reason. 

So, with that said it is easy to distinguish between a carelessly bad belayer versus an uncomfortable person paying attention giving an awkward belay. 

The New River Gorge

The New River Gorge


The number one reason a leader gets a sub-standard belay from a competent belayer is unfamiliarity with the friction devise. With that said; anyone reading this blog with belayer's anxiety (BTSD) know it can most likely be attributed to belaying your partner on-lead with a Gri-gri before understanding the standard practices of the device. This one little change from the familiarity of a stitch plate to a brake assist device will give a competent leader, and his stressed out belayer an equal case of IBS. 

Untold numbers of seasoned traditional climbers have the same apprehension when climbing at a sport crag where all is needed is a double set of dog-bones, and the indomitable will to hang on. For the traditionally traditional climber's belayer, the speed at which their partner pulls that rope and clips could put a cramp in anyones anal tract. The move from the ease of an ATC to the rope size fickle nature of a mechanical devise just sours the experience, and sometimes the on-sight. As it is sooooo easy to short-rope the leader at the worst possible moment that new born belayers to the seasoned vet resist the device. And this aversion promptly locates fine belayers outside of their comfort zone.

Fear not, as below (with credit going to Petzl) is an instructional video that will (with practice) help melt away any stress related to learning the proper technique of lead belaying with a Gri-gri.


This video is mostly driven towards the safe procedure on how to keep the brake hand active, which plays directly into the mechanics of the device. This video is basically the manufacturers recommendation on how not to screw up, but doesn't delve into why the Gri-gri is so good. 

People frequently ask why the Gri-gri on lead belay is so far superior to all other non brake assist belay devices. 

The answer is simple. In life it all comes down to safety. Used properly the Gri-gri with the brake assist is a second line of defense incase of physical trauma where the belayer could be momentarily incapacitated. The gri-gri will simply add a second layer of protection preventing the leader's ground fall. 

Las Peñas de Dexcaní

Another reason the Gri-gri is extremely valuable is the devise helps assist the belayer while the leader ascends the line after a fall on severely overhanging territory. As the leader climbs/pulls the rope to move back toward their high point on the route, slack comes down and needs to be retrieved on the belayers end. Pulling that rope through as the climber ascends without a Gri-gri is extremely taxing, and dangerous. The rope pinch on the Gri-gri while yarding in slack allows for greater reduction in brake hand fatigue, while adding a level of protection with the brake assist. The piece of mind for the leader knowing their next attempt won't end up as a ground fall from their belayer being fatigued is a game changer. 

SouthernXposure Guides use the Gri-gri as a teaching tool.  Everyone who spends time with us become socialized with this wonderful device in every facet of its existence. Like a tool in the work chest where being better than proficient adds a level of competency that translates into security for everyone involved. Belay, single rope rappel, top-side management, as a back-up under an ascender, the Gri-gri performs. 

Developing at Ralph Stover State Park

Developing at Ralph Stover State Park

The secret to moving from outside one's comfort zone to being cool as a cucumber is as simple as understanding the dynamics of the leader fall, and feeding ample rope while your climber is clipping into the protection. There are two inter related correlations to understand here. If you aren't falling, you aren't climbing hard enough. Secondly; if you're thinking about the falling, then you aren't thinking about the climbing. These two pit-falls walk hand in hand and dictate climber/belayer experience at the crag.  The fastest way to help your climbing partner overcome these obstacles is to be the best belayer at the cliffs, bar none.  

SouthernXposure teaches systems to keep climbers alive. Communication, and belaying properly are in an equal tie. The best way to be comfortable as a belayer on a Gri-gri is to practice with the device. Practice makes perfect. Ask your partner if they are clipping from underneath, or from the hip? Ask your partner to let you know when they are clipping. This way you know they are in a stance, are going to ask for rope, and two arm lengths can be advanced into the system.

With a leader feeding more rope is always better. Two large arm length slack pulls through the device is usually sufficient for even the lowest stance reaching the bolt hanger. Feed the slack, be generous, then pull in any extra cord once the rope is in its happy home. Any experienced climber who takes falls will gladly tell anyone listening, being short-roped is a far worse fate than having an extra two feet of slack and peeling off.  Realistically, the extra slack will not be noticed during a fall versus getting the 'uncomfortable belay' short-rope while cruxing out.

Being known as the best belayer at the cliff is an honor. Climbers know who they trust, and those who just don't get the ramifications of a bad belay.  Be attentive and understand your surroundings. Watch for the bad belayer, and talk to your climbing partners about what makes up a good belay. Focus on getting better all the time with the Gri-gri as it is your friend.