When your climber is beginning their climb, they’re in “decking range”, or “the ground-fall zone”. Until they are clipped to a bolt high enough above the ground that they cannot hit the ground if they fall, they are in “decking range”. In the next few minutes, we’ll discuss how to give a good lead belay to your climber when in the ground fall zone.
Most of this article will discuss climbing in the ground fall zone when climbing indoors, for several reasons:
- When climbing inside, the first bolts are often quite close to the ground. Outdoors, first bolts are often high enough that once you’re clipped, you’re out of the ground fall zone. (This means you will either need a stick clip, or you’ll be climbing dangerously high unroped to get to it…)
- When climbing indoors, there are situations where it’s OK for the climber to fall and end up standing on the ground. Outside, this is pretty much never the case, so you as the climber/belayer have more flexibility and room to practice what it’s like to catch falls low to the ground indoors.
- Most of us climb most often inside. By speaking just to indoor lead climbers, this guide can apply quite broadly without constant caveats to address how a climber/belayer might address the same situation outdoors.
Disclaimer: All that follows is in the context of INDOOR SPORT CLIMBING. When outside evaluate the landing zone, decide how risky it is to let your climber come anywhere close to the ground. My rule of thumb: if I think I might fall, I’ll stick clip as far as I can up the wall.
First, where is the “ground fall zone”?
Inside, a good rule of thumb is “before the first bolt”.
In the picture below, the climber has for some reason skipped the first bolt. With such a high first bolt, he should not have skipped clipping the first bolt. The climber outweighs the belayer significantly, so we’ll say he was in the ground fall zone until he clipped the 3rd bolt.
In this second picture, the first bolt is much lower to the ground than in the first picture, but because each bolt is so close together, the climber is still out of the ground fall zone when he or she clips the third bolt.
Rules for belaying in the ground fall zone
These rules are the same as in the guide to giving soft catches:
- Stand in the right spot
- Have the right amount of slack out
- React correctly to the fall
Lets unpack each of these:
1: Stand in the right spot
Standing in the right spot has two components:
- Be close enough to the first bolt
- Be in the right location relative to your climber’s location on the wall and the first bolt.
1.1 Be close enough to the first bolt: The step-check rule.
To check that you’re standing in the right spot, make sure that you can always reach the spot on the ground directly below the first bolt in one large step. That means never be more than about five feet from directly below the first bolt.
1.2 Be in the right location relative to your climber’s location on the wall and the first bolt.
If you stand in the right spot, you accomplish four good things:
- Minimize the slack between you and your climber
- If the climber falls, he/she won’t land on you
- If the climber falls, he/she won’t land on the rope
- If the climber falls, he/she won’t pull you into the wall in a dangerous fashion.
Always keep the imaginary line from the first bolt to the floor between you and the climber.
Imagine there is a line going straight from the first bolt to the floor. Try to always keep that line between you and your climber.
What happens when the climber switches from one side of the bolt line to the other?
Easy. Just keep that imaginary “first bolt line” between you and the climber.
Why should the belayer stand close to the baseline, instead of away from the wall?
- When standing close to the wall, or a few inches from the baseline, the rope is best kept out of the way of the climber.
- When standing close to the wall, the belayer won’t be pulled straight at the wall if the climber falls, while the climber won’t accidentally land straddling the rope. (ouch)
Cristina stands to the side of Alison, the climber. They know the climb goes to the left of the first bolt, so Cristina is standing to the right.
Assuming Cristina is going to stand on one side or the other, she wants to keep the first bolt line between her and her climber.
As the climber gets higher up, the belayer should still try to stay out from under the climber. If the climber switches to the other side of the bolt line, the belayer should switch too. If the climber is climbing right on the bolts, and not going to one side or the other, it doesn’t matter which side the belayer stands on.
OK, there’s standing in the right spot.
2: Have the right amount of slack out
You’ve got two different amounts of slack you should have out, based on the climber’s location relative to the first few bolts:
- Climber is below first bolt
- Climber is between first and second bolt
- Climber is between second and third bolt
2.1: Climber is below the first bolt:
You’re spotting right now, because they can’t be on belay – they’ve not clipped the first bolt.
Have enough slack out that the climber can clip the first bolt without getting short roped, but not so much that you have to take in a bunch before they proper slack is in the system.
Ask the climber if they want to be spotted up to the first bolt. Respond accordingly.
2.2: Climber is between the first and second bolt:
Belay should be snug, with zero extra slack, and the belayer should be out from under the climber with the bolt between the climber and belayer. (I.E. Not directly underneath the climber.)
If the climber is doing difficult moves and might fall, I’ll often belay from one knee.
In the above gif, the climber is belaying from one knee (good) but also is standing directly under the climber (not good).
If the climber falls, you need to remove as much slack as possible from the system and, if possible still give a soft catch. If you remove slack from the system and don’t give them a soft catch, you’ve spiked your climber, which can be uncomfortable and unexpected, though not a huge deal. If you leave slack in the system, you run the risk of them hitting the ground.
To “spike” your climber means you have given them an uncomfortably firm catch as they fall. It’s not the end of the world, but can be uncomfortable or injurious. Read The Ultimate Guide to Soft Catches (as told in Gifs) for a more detailed assessment.
2.3 Climber is between second and third bolt
Repeat the above steps, but leave a little more slack in the system. This makes it less likely that you’ll accidentally short rope or spike them, without exposing them to any additional risk, because they’re a few feet farther from the ground.
3. React correctly to the fall
When your climber falls, as much as possible, you want to give them a soft catch while having as little slack out as necessary. First, make sure you can give a soft catch in normal situations. Once you and your climber are on the same page about how to handle falls, talk with them about what to do if they fall low to the ground. Do they want you to pull the rope as tight as possible? Do they want a soft catch?
Once you know what they expect, you can handle any kind of fall they might take.
If there is a weight difference between the climber and the belayer, the belayer needs to adjust accordingly.
If the climber is heavier than the belayer:
- The climber will get a soft catch, no matter what, because the belayer doesn’t weigh enough to stop the climber quickly. The belayer should minimize the slack, and belay from one knee, until the climber is out of the ground fall zone. If the climber falls, “fight” the fall as much as possible.
If the climber is lighter than the belayer:
- Use a tube-style belay device. When the fall is said and done, a few inches of rope will have run through the device as the fall is arrested, and it will be more comfortable for the climber.
- Belay kneeling on one knee and “stand up” into the fall. Belay from a knee from where you would normally stand. As they fall, quickly “stand up” into the fall. You’ll give a much softer catch since you’ll be assisting them pulling you off the ground with the muscles in your legs.
Updated 09/12/16 (Thanks /u/notcrushingV16)
- The Complete Guide to Giving a Soft Catch (as told in Gifs)
- The “Lawnmower Method” for lead belaying slack management
- 7 ways to Accidentally get Better at Climbing
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