There is nothing more terrifying than watching a beginner belayer belay someone, and it becomes immediately apparent that the belayer either didn’t listen to the instructions or had completely forgotten them. I have been rescued from a refugee camp, flown in sketchy Putt-Putt planes, and seen my belongings go up in smoke, and to this day, I still have more fear watching a new belayer belay their significant other. It has definitely scarred me for life.
So the topic, how to belay, and subsequently, what are belay devices, is a topic near and dear to my heart because it is literally the difference between life and death.
What is a Belay(er)?
To belay means to fix a rope around an object, such as a rock, pin, etc., to secure it. The Belayer is the one you controls the belay, the running rope that is secured above them in the rock. While this is officially the “passive” role in rock climbing, much of the time it is actually anything BUT passive. It is a crucial and integral part of rock climbing and deserves a lot of attention. Having a great belayer that knows your climbing technique and can anticipate your moves can make the climb a whole lot easier, and having a belayer can also make the difference between life and death. There is even a guy that Petzl did a video about who is known as the World’s Best Belayer.
How to Belay
Belaying is not something that you can learn by reading an article, nor even watching a YouTube video. It needs to be something you learn, in person, at an accredited place that will teach you not only good belaying technique but also important safety protocols. Now after you’ve learned how to belay and have done it a bunch of times, your body grows muscle memory of the movements. This allows you to come back to it after a while and pick it up pretty easily. Here is where I think YouTube videos can come in handy, as they can help remind you how to belay and can also be used to help show you how to use different belay devices. Again, just watching a video is not going to be enough instruction to actually belay someone, but it can be a solid step in the remembering process.
Before the Climb
Before you start climbing on the wall, there are a couple of commands and checks that need to happen. I have been taught that you need to check the climber for 5 twinned parallel lines when looking at someone’s figure eight, that the rope is through the correct slots on their harness, that there is a hand’s distance between their harness and the rope and two hands distance on the slack after they finished their figure 8 knot, and finally that their harness is secured around their waist and legs. A belayer needs to make sure that their harness is secure, their belay device is set up correctly and working properly, and that their carabiner is locked correctly and connected to the harness securely. Again a good hard tug, after the checks, should make sure everything is working as it all should.
When approaching the wall, the climber should ask, “Belay ready,” to which the Belayer says “Belay ready.” The climber can then approach the wall and say “Climbing,” waiting to hear the Belayer say “Climb on!” Each gym seems to have their own script but this is a simple one that can be followed. The climber and Belayer should also have a method for how to communicate once the climber has completed the send and how much slack the climber likes to have.
What Does a Belayer do?
At first, belaying might look like a passive activity that is boring and unimportant, but as you get deeper into technical climbing, especially lead climbing; the Belayer becomes a prodigious component of sending difficult climbs and crags. Not only that, but all belayers hold the life of their climber in their hands, literally, and each belaying opportunity should be taken seriously.
The most basic element of belaying is the rope part. You are in charge of making sure that there is little or no slack on them, so if they fall they are actually caught by the belay device and rope. This job becomes more complicated during lead climbing when you have to calculate for falls and how to jump, but all of that needs to be learned in a lead climbing class, not in an article. Another important job of the Belayer is to encourage the climber. My sister and I really struggled with this aspect of climbing because we played water polo in high school and college, where the most encouragement you usually get is a nod of the head. If your shot was spectacular you might get a fist pump or high five, but that was rare. So you can imagine that going climbing and being expected to cheer for the climber was a weird transition for us, but we did it! Now we are rather obnoxious. #sorrynotsorry
Help to Find Holds?
An optional job of the Belayer is to help the climber find holds. Not all climbers find this helpful, so you should ask the climber if they would like help before they start the send. I go back and forth on my opinion of whether I actually want my Belayer to help me. However, when I have asked for their help, it has caused some comedic moments as I try to find the spot they are talking about and utterly fail or fall. Other times when I am belaying I suggest a move or grab and all I hear is laughter from the climber because the hold is way outside their reach. I easily forget I have an extra foot on most climbers…oops (I’m TALL!).
Tips for Belaying
- Invest in a good helmet, because going unconscious while belaying could not only seriously injured you, the climber could also fall to their death.
- Wear sturdy shoes that allow you to stand for a while and allow you to run at a moment’s notice along tough terrain.
- During the colder months, you will probably want a pair of gloves, to keep your hands warm and add extra grip to slippery ropes.
- Keep your harness strapped on tight.
- Check yourself before the climber starts, because you are strapped in for the ride too. There’s nothing like seeing them get through half of a difficult climb and then realize that you need to pee like a racehorse. Also make sure that you’re properly attired and won’t freeze or fry while they’re climbing. They deserve your undivided attention.
Now that we’ve covered what we can about the Belayer, let us turn our attention on their devices, aka Belay Devices. There are three major types of belay techniques, and which one you choose changes which device you use.
- ‘Assisted’ Belay
The first two are easy to knock-out, so we will spend the majority of our time talking about ‘assisted’ belaying. This latter type of belaying is what 99% of rock climbers do, they just don’t have a special name for it, so I have named it ‘assisted’ belaying because you are being assisted in your climb by a belayer and their device.
When I first read this I thought they were nuts and were going to give me instructions for how to belay using your foot and climb with your hands or something. Instead, this seems like a legitimate way to belay, that if done safely, can actually be quite effective while not endangering your life! You would see this type of belaying on multi-pitch climbs where there is no space or place for a belayer to stand. You might also use this style of belaying if you’re going for a quick, short, and “safe” outdoor climb after work or something. If you choose to do this, it is important that you tell others where you are going, how long you will be gone, and make sure to be extra safe! The technical side of this style of climbing is too complicated for this article, so here is a great article that explains exactly how to set-up the rigging for Self-Belaying and the safety precautions that need to be taken into account.
You might have seen these units in a climbing gym near you. They are circular and look like a giant kettlebell weight. These allow people to climb without having a belayer. If you have ever used them, then you know how strange it is to climb with them. Because of how they’re configured, if you let go, it does not hold you in place but instead quickly lowers you to the ground. Due to this feature, it does not allow you to take a real break mid-climb.
While getting used to how quickly and smoothly the auto-belay lowers you can take some time, these devices present some unique training opportunities. First, they allow you to train alone. So when your climbing partner calls, even though you are already at the gym, that he or she is not coming, your workout does not have to be ruined.
Second, these allow you to practice several types of exercises and drills. Much like a sports player will practice throwing for long period of times, auto-belays allow you to practice your speed, technique, and reverse climbing. You can race partners more easily on an auto-belay system, and it is easier to time yourself on these systems. You could practice your technique by only using one hand, one foot, no feet, no hands, etc., and not have to worry about bugging your friend to belay you. You can also practice climbing down on an auto-belay more easily than with a belayer, were this exercise could be a potential safety hazard.
There are two notable drawbacks to this device. First is the price tag, these puppies go for about $2000, making them by far the most expensive belay device. Second, these cannot be easily used outside in a rugged, natural environment. There are a couple of outdoor-designed auto-belays which should work if secured correctly, but again the price tags hover around $2000. However, that price gives you more than an auto-belay device. It gives you freedom to climb when you want, as long as you want, alone or with someone! We like that freedom!
To find out more info about Auto-belay system and other belay devices, read on or visit our Buying Guide page!
Within the typical belaying world there are many, many, many different types of belay devices, yet they all seem to fall into about four different categories. One of the biggest reasons for this is because companies have to name each belay device differently, thus creating a complicated web of names that have turned into terms and categories in and of themselves.
How does this work?
It is quite amazing that such small devices can hold heavy people above the ground and then assist in lowering them to the ground. While most belay devices look quite simple, their design and use of physics is phenomenal; there is a lot packed into those small units. On a basic level, these devices use the friction created by the rope and carabiner, along with the weight of the climber to stop, suspend, or lower the climber. This doesn’t seem believable, but science says otherwise, so ‘science’ shall be our answer for today.
Active or Passive Braking
This then brings us to the style of braking, or slowing, that a belay device uses. There are two types of braking styles that must be considered before we go further: active or passive braking. Active braking has a component, or moving parts, within the device that ‘automatically’ slow down or stop the climber when they are falling or rappelling. A device with a passive braking system is where the design of the device allows for you slow down the climber. Normally with passive braking devices, something must be done to ‘activate’ this slowing down. This will become more clear when we talk about the different types of popular belay devices.
**Please note that while some of these devices have active braking mechanics, your hand should always stay on the other end of the rope in the stop/brake position.
5 Most Common Belay Devices
The GriGri+ is probably the most popular belay device for indoor gyms. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only one, but I have found it to be widely popular indoors and only kinda popular for the outdoors. I think the main reason for this is that GriGris go for about $70-$125, while gyms can handle this price tag, weekend climbers usually can’t or would rather invest their money in other places. They are an awesome investment because they last a long time, but are limited since they can only run one rope. The new GriGri+ can handle the widest rope diameters of all the GriGris and has a way to switch between top roping and lead climbing. These two GriGris also have an auto-locking active braking mechanism that is perfect for beginning belayers to learn with. Overall this is a fantastic option.
While the GriGri is the most popular, this is probably the most common belay device. The main reasons for their commonality is that they are cheap and have been around for a while. They are the transformed version of a sticht plate, so if the sticht plate is a Charmander than the Big Air is a Charmeleon. It is a basic update from the sticht plate that fixed the plates tendency to snag at the wrong time and be difficult to move or release tension. The XP package was designed by Black Diamond (basically replaced the ATC “air traffic controller”) and has now become synonymous with the tubular design that can be seen everywhere. This is one of the best deals available given that it’s just a smidge over $30! The Big Air XP Guide is also great if you are doing a multi-pitch send.
By far one of the oldest devices on the list, this one is barely used anymore but it still bears mentioning. It looks like a weirdly shaped 8, and like it shouldn’t be used as a safety device. However, it does work and is said to be popular amongst European climbers. It is also used for search and rescue operations and cave climbing. If I were you I would go for a different one on this list, nevertheless it is probably wise to have a low-tech (well, “No-tech” really) belay device on hand just in case. Better safe than sorry?
This one made the list because my sister and climbing friends swear this one is “the best.” For me, the jury is still out because I am disconcerted by the test results during this impressive testing regimen that Jack Cramer and Chris McNamara did, amongst other research I did after reading their test results. Nevertheless, this belay device deserves a mention because of how popular it is, how sleek it looks, and how clever the device is. It has a strong and secure passive assisted braking system in place that works well, or so my sister found out this weekend when she fell and the Mega Jul did its job. At around $35 this is another great buy.
I still don’t know how to feel about this one, but again a trusted friend of mine swears by this one and it has good performance reviews. This is also the only one on this list that is noted for being a good choice for mountaineering. I am rather unaware of how this one works since I have only seen these in stores. A couple of things I have noticed is that more experienced climbers tend to favor this one because you need to have good rope management to manage the device. It also has a higher price, at $50, which can deter beginner climbers when they are comparing this with the much cheaper ATCs or Mega Juls. This wouldn’t be my first buy, but that has more to do with me never having used it than anything else.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means but is a great starting point for any beginner climber and other climbers who are looking to switch up their belay device.
Did your favorite belay device not get a mention in our article? Do you have any recommendations? Leave us a comment below anytime!