The first in a series about how to be a better belayer.
Short rope [shawrt-rohp] verb: The act of not giving sufficient rope to your climber.
Getting short roped is bad. It’s not necessarily dangerous, nor does it cause you to take a whip (it can, of course) but the real reason it’s bad is because it convinces your subconscious that you’re climbing with an untrustworthy belayer. The reasoning is simple – if you’re getting short roped, your belayer is either not paying attention, or not technically proficient. It’s not just annoying, it’s counter-productive.
Here’s the basic motions of a good lead belay. Think of these as building blocks.
This is the most basic lead belay motion. I’m holding the break strand with my palm down rather than palm up. (If you or a friend is a palm-upper, that’s OK. It’s an inferior method, but can be done safely.) As you’re belaying, your break hand should NOT come above the belay device.
Do NOT do this:
You don’t need to come out of the break position to feed the rope. If, when trying to feed, your belay device is “biting” the rope, the solution is to move your break hand towards the belay device faster. If there’s any tension at all between the break hand and your belay device, you won’t be able to feed.
Please don’t get in the habit of staying OUT of the break position when taking in slack. It should ALWAYS be a smooth motion, ending back in the break position. No matter how much or little slack you take, immediately return to the break position. You want to minimize time out of the break position, remember?
Notice that I’m returning my break hand to the center line of my body – this makes it easy to pull the slack through my break hand with my non-break hand. Do you remember when you learned to belay? If you’re like me, you probably learned to break on the right side of your body. This means your left hand has to “chase” your hand across the center line of your body. Too much work.
Here’s an exaggerated version of why you shouldn’t favor one side of your body when breaking:
Next, one could be a little uncomfortable with the “bubble” of slack that builds up temporarily between the break hand and belay device, when pulling in slack. Don’t do this:
If you’re trying to keep tension on the break strand at all times, you’ll end up doing a bit of gymnastics. The extra slack is not a problem.
Feeding and Taking
A good “Litmus test” of how well you have the mechanics down is if you can smoothly and easily feed and take and feed and take in a short amount of time, without fumbling your hands. Once the motion is burnt into your muscle memory, you’re good to go!
So far, these are just the basics. When you’re actually lead belaying, your climber will sometimes need a lot of slack, quickly. This usually happens when they’re clipping a bolt. This is also when you’re most likely to short rope them. Don’t short rope your climber.
Preventing a short rope is a two-step process.
Feeding lots of slack part 1
This is the exact same as a “normal” feed, but I’m reaching farther with both hands. I often see folks feeding out two little handfuls of slack, instead of one big one. Just feed a big handful. It’s easier.
Feeding lots of slack, part 2
In most situations, this big handful plus a step will immediately introduce enough slack so that your climber will be able to clip without getting short roped. If your climber is larger than you (and has longer arms) or is clipping really far, or you’ve got them on a very tight belay, you may have to feed out some more slack. But in most situations, for most climbers, the above motion is sufficient for them to clip. You’ll notice that the motion takes about 1 second. You should do it a little faster.
So, what if they drop the rope? Take the slack back in, and step back to where you just were. It’s as if nothing happened. The motion for taking in a big handful of slack vs. a small one is almost the exact same:
Phew. A lot of information, huh?
I hope I communicated clearly what I was trying to share. If you adopt these standards when belaying with an ATC-style device, you’ll be a better belayer than most. More importantly, your climber will have a growing level of trust and confidence in your belaying, which allows them to feel more comfortable when climbing. Send this article to them, and you can soon have more confidence in them!