Academy: Tips for Giving a Great Lead Belay

Part of our "Toes to Knows" Climbing Academy series--covering climbing from footwork to mental preparation.

Tags: Coaching, Intermediate, Advanced

This is our third article on belaying. This time we’re covering how to lead belay.

Lead belaying is belaying your climber as they lead a climb. It’s more challenging that top rope belaying because your climber is potentially facing a much larger fall than when top rope belaying. These falls can range from a few feet to tens of feet, depending on the situation. The largest lead fall I’ve taken is about 70 feet. That’s far enough you start to hear the wind rushing past your ears.

A belayer during the lead climb needs to pay full attention to what’s happening with the climber to minimize the risk of injury. You need to be aware of what the climber is doing, what the risk of a fall is and if the fall happens, whether your climber is going to hit something on the way down.

I’ve put together 7 tips for giving a great lead belay. Watch the video or read on to learn more.

Tip #1: Always keep your brake hand on the rope!

This is a fundamental aspect of any belay, even if you’re using an assisted breaking device (ABD) like a Petzl GriGri. Even with an ABD, it’s important to stay control the brake side of the rope at all times. This is even more important with a device like an ATC, which won’t stop the climber without a solid hand on the brake side of the rope. Develop the habit to always maintain a secure brake hand on the rope!

Lead Belay Brake Hand

Tip #2: Always keep eyes on the climber!

By this, I mean both watch your climber for the entire ascent as well as keep your attention on what the climber is doing the entire time. This process is eased considerably if you use a pair of belay glasses like the EyeSend glasses. EyeSend glasses let you keep a neutral neck position while belaying, reducing the likelihood that you’ll be tempted to look away due to neck pain.

Keep your eyes on climber when lead belaying

Tip #3: Learn to feed rope three different ways

During a lead belay, you’ll have to feed rope out slowly, pull rope in slowly and, when the climber is clipping into a piece of protection, feed rope out quickly. Depending on what belay device is being used, the method for these three skills differs slightly. Please watch the video for a demonstration using a Petzl GriGri.

Three ways to feed rope

Tip #4: Don’t short rope your climber

Short roping is when you don’t feed out enough slack to allow the climber to clip their rope into a piece of protection quickly. On some climbs this doesn’t matter too much, but if your climber is on a difficult route and at their limit, a short rope may result in missing a clip and a nasty fall. You can avoid short roping by keeping your eyes on the climber always and anticipating when they are needing rope to clip.

Then learn to feed up to two arm loads of slack quickly while stepping forward slightly. Check out the video for a demonstration.
Don't short rope the leader when lead belaying

EyeSend Belay Glasses

Tip #5: Know your climber’s situation

Be aware if your climber is at a place where a long fall could have bad consequences, such as being close to the ground or above a ledge. If that’s the case, maintain less slack in the rope to lessen the distance they might fall. If the fall is safe, then add more slack into the belay rope so you don’t restrict the climber’s movement. Sometimes, such as when the climber is climbing above a roof, you may want extra slack in the rope to allow the climber to land below the roof should they fall.

Have situational awareness when lead belaying

Tip #6: Be aware if your partner is much lighter or much heavier than you

If they climber is much heavier than the belayer, you may want to add some extra ballast to the belayer to lessen the fall potential. This could be some rocks in in a backpack clipped to the belayer’s harness, or an Edelrid Ohm attached to the first bolt of the climb.

If the climber is much lighter than the belayer, the belayer needs to be prepared to jump up when the climber falls. This helps soften the fall and avoids a “hard” catch where the climber slams into the wall.

Account for weight differences when lead belaying

Tip #7: Be aggressive when you take

If your climber is working a hard sequence and asks for a take, step forward while pulling in slack, then jump backward to take all the slack out of the rope. This aggressive take helps keep the climber in the right position for working through the sequence they’re on.

Aggressively take when lead belaying

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