I have a confession.
A few days ago, I was climbing with a friend. He fell, and I gave him a terrible catch.
He didn’t get injured, but he was hurting, cradling his ankle, and trying to convince me I wasn’t the worst person in the world for claiming to be a good belayer and then SPIKING HIM INTO THE WALL!!! He kept climbing with me, but if I were him, I’d be suspicious of me. 🙁
I want to save you from repeating my mistakes, especially because the first step to climbing harder on lead is being able to give a good belay.
Before you go farther, note what someone said about what you’re about to read:
[I sent this article] to my belayer and we made some adjustments. We would normally only give soft catches on bigger falls, but we started doing it even for smaller ones.
Made a huge difference and increased my confidence 10x.
And with those results in mind, here’s what we’ll cover:
- What a soft catch looks like
- A comparison of a soft and hard catch
- How to give a soft catch
Quick note from Josh:
A soft catch is ideal in many situations, but if the climber is close to the ground or might hit a ledge, you would probably want to not give them a soft catch.
Ideally, you and the climber will discuss your game plan as the situation requires. I’ve often said “hey, keep me tight as I move off this ledge”, or “that move past the first bolt is difficult. Keep me tight there.” It’s best to know what a soft catch is and how to give it, and then, equipped with this knowledge, decide how to belay as you go. Thanks to the folks at /r/climbing for the suggestions. Head over there for some more discussion.
What does a soft catch look like?
If you’re new to lead belaying while sport climbing, a soft catch might look a bit counterintuitive. For top-rope falls, you just have to make sure you keep the rope in the brake position. Everything else pretty much takes care of itself.
Lead falls are a different story. You should plan on not just getting pulled into the air but on jumping into the air. The falling climber’s weight will help give you a lift, but in most situations, you need to initiate the movement.
There’s a few things happening in the above catch:
- My hand drops to the brake position. I was feeding out slack as the climber fell, so I wasn’t already in the brake position.
- I quickly crouch and then hop. I drop my hips just a few inches, then hop up the wall.
- I briefly glance at my “landing zone” to make sure my feet are correctly positioned to catch me as I am pulled into the wall.
- I was pulled about five feet into the air. Look at where my feet ended up, compared to before the fall. This is a significant distance.
And that’s it! The good news is the climber does most of the work (by falling) and you just have to try to get the timing right.
Next, on to what not to do.
Comparing a good and bad catch
Which of the two above look more comfortable?
If you look carefully at the bad catch, on the right, Cristina (belaying) starts to cover her mouth in the horror of what she just did.
I asked Cristina to spike Alison, the climber, and Alison gave her permission, but Cristina still hated doing it, even though it’s for a good cause.
YOU! THE READER! YOU’RE THE GOOD CAUSE! DON’T LET ALLISON AND CRISTINA’S HORROR GO TO WASTE!
Lets call out a few other things:
- Alison tried to hold onto the rope when she fell, but by getting spiked, she had to put her hands against the wall to cushion herself. She doesn’t have to do this in the soft catch.
- Alison slams her knee into the wall when getting spiked. She tried to keep her feet out and lean back, but that obviously doesn’t work. It does work when getting a soft catch.
- Alison almost runs into Cristina with a soft catch. This is not a bad thing.
- The only difference between the two catches is Cristina “went with the fall”, and gave a little hop up the wall as Alison fell, vs. “fighting” the fall, and sitting back in the harness.
I think we can agree that in most situations (sport climbing, especially indoor sport climbing) the softer catch is the better option.
There are situations where a soft catch is not the right answer, but it’s best to know how to give it, and then selectively decide against a soft catch, instead of simply spiking your partner into the wall every time they fall. More on that in a moment.
How to give a soft catch
The golden question, huh?
There’s a few components to giving a soft catch.
- Stand in the right spot
- Have the right amount of slack out
- React correctly to the fall
Stand in the right spot (introducing the “step check”)
You can imagine that standing ten feet from the wall might work against your goal of a soft catch, right?
You have to move with the falling climber, up the wall. This movement is what makes the whole thing work. If you’re standing too far away from the wall, when you “hop” to go with the fall, you’ll just land right back where you were standing.
The farther you are from the wall, the more the fall will pull you sideways instead of up.
I recommend you do a “step check” regularly, until you’ve made a habit of standing close enough to the first bolt.
Close enough to the wall: the Step Check:
- Locate the spot on the wall directly beneath the first bolt. If the wall leans away from you, this spot will directly adjacent to the wall. If the wall leans over you, this spot might be a few feet away from the wall. (We’re still talking in terms of indoor sport climbing.)
- Never stand more than one large step from this spot.
- If you’re curious if you (or your belayer) are standing in the right spot, ask for a “step check”. If they can get to that spot on the ground in one large step, they’re close enough. If not, have them move closer to the first bolt.
Stand in the right spot, aka don’t get landed on by your climber
Your climber could fall at any time. (“Hope for the best, plan for the worst”, right?)
This means you need to be ready to catch them and not run into them and keep them from landing on the rope.
Imagine Alison fell right after clipping the first bolt. Notice where the rope is on both sides. Which one would be uncomfortable?
The left side! She’d fall and land directly on the rope. I’ve never fallen on a rope like this, but I suspect it would be painful.
As a belayer, stand where Cristina is standing, on the right half of the gif. She’s off to one side, can minimize the slack out, and if Alison falls, Alison both doesn’t land on the rope and doesn’t land on Cristina. Two good things.
Once Alison climbs up a few more bolts and is no longer in danger of falling and landing close to the ground, Cristina might move to be more square to the wall, but at all times, if she did a Step Check, she would be within a big step of the first bolt.
Have the right amount of slack out
As a belayer, you’re always checking for the belayer’s Goldilocks Zone. Instead of worrying about habitable planets, you’re interested in having the right amount of slack out. Not too much, not too little.
Too much slack means your climber will fall more than necessary, if they fall.
Too little slack, and you’ll undoubtedly short rope them when they are clipping quickdraws, and you might spike them when they fall.
So, have the right amount of slack out. If you’re standing in the right spot (you’re using the Step Check method now, right?) the right amount of slack is usually a small droop of rope as it leaves your belay device. Not so much slack it hangs on the floor, and not so little that it goes straight up to the climber.
React correctly to the fall
Go with the fall. If you’ve followed the above steps (you’re standing close enough to the first bolt, in the right spot, with the right amount of slack out) giving a soft catch is pretty simple. It may take a little practice to get the timing of your hop just right, but it’ll come together quickly enough.
As Cristina catches Alison, she’s got the right amount of slack out and she is standing close to right below the first bolt. She gives a tiny little crouch-hop, and gives a perfect catch.
Side bar: do you ever want to “fight” the fall?
Short answer: Sometimes.
In this video from Petzl, you see Chris Sharma catch Dani Andrada. He first sits back, but then ends up still being pulled a few feet into the wall.
Boinking is, as you can imagine, exhausting. So if you’re climbing in a roof and you fall, and you have little chance of hitting the wall, you would want your climber to keep the rope as tight as possible. Which means… do exactly what Sharma did.
Also, even though he “fought” the fall, he moved quite a few feet closer to the first bolt, which means he softened the catch quite a bit. (Compare the location of his belay device at the beginning and the end of the catch. I’d say he moved five or six feet.)
Additionally, depending on who taught you to rock climb, and what sort of climbing you started with, you may have been taught to always give a “hard catch”. You may have looked at the example of a hard catch above and said “psh, that wasn’t a hard catch at all. They need to man up and learn to take some real falls!”
You know what? You may be right.
When discussing soft and hard catches, the climber’s safety comes first. Next, as a belayer, you must meet their expectations for a fall. If they expect a hard catch, give them a hard catch. If they want a soft catch, give a soft catch. This isn’t a black and white issue.
If you read around on this website, you’ll figure out that I’m in favor of soft catches, but I don’t want to be dogmatic about it.
You and your climbing partners (and me!) want to achieve a few things:
- Be safe
- Feel as little anxiety as possible
- Push yourselves as hard as you want/can
I think a soft catch best meets those goals, but ultimately it’s up to you. So, if all this soft-catch talk seems like nonsense, push back a bit in the comments, or shoot me an email. I want to know, and I need your help to make a good case.
Thanks to John S in the comments and Sherri for giving me a much more nuanced view of all this.
Hard catches (“getting spiked”)
are can be bad.
They can injure a climber, and even if they don’t, they might be jarring and induce anxiety for the climber.
Soft catches are usually great fun for everyone involved, and a prerequisite for learning to be comfortable on lead.
Next time you rope up, talk to your partner about your/their expectations. Ask “do you like hard catches or soft ones?”
If they are not sure, send them this article, or take a few practice falls with them. Once you’ve both settled on how you like to be belayed, you can worry about more important things… like your project, or breaking into that next grade, or just feeling a bit more peace while you’re on the wall.
Lets just hope your climber doesn’t take a massive fall, and you have to be like this belayer. 😉