Climbing in "decking range"

In indoor sport climbing, as your climber progresses from the ground to the first three bolts, you need to be ready for any situation. Here's how to give a kick-ass lead belay when your climber is close enough to the ground they could potentially deck. This is part of a series on lead belaying.

Have you ever encountered hard moves right off the ground? If you can't make it to the first bolt, you know you'll land on the ground if you fall. No big deal. If you make the first bolt, and get to the second one and can't clip, or if you have to make a committing move past the second bolt in order to clip, all of a sudden, hitting the ground is a real possibility, and you don't really want to do that, right?

If you're like me, and you don't completely trust your belayer, climbing becomes scary, because I'm now focused on not hitting the ground. Heady stuff, for something you do for fun.

This situation is why you need to be an awesome belayer when your climber is between the first and second bolts. You should never expect (or demand) that your belayer be better than you.

I'll address a few common situations, and explain what to do in each. Hopefully I'll help you sketch out a mental picture of what to do, then you can get in the gym and practice a bit. I'll close with how you can build all these skills in the comfort of your local climbing gym.

Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous. Falling from before the third bolt can result in you hitting the ground. So can falling from after the third bolt. Don't hurt yourself - start with small and safe, and work into big and safe. All that follows is in the context of INDOOR SPORT CLIMBING. If you're outside, you need to evaluate the landing zone, and decide how risky it is to let your climber come anywhere close to the ground. Outside you'll encounter boulders, ledges, trees, rocks, narrow ledges, etc. All of these things can break ankles, so you might wanna just spike your climber when in decking range outside. ;)

OK - from the ground up, with equally sized climbers:

Climber is below the first bolt: You're spotting right now, because they can't be on belay. 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. Pro tip: estimate before they clip how much slack they need, and adjust accordingly, rather than estimating and adjusting after they clip.

Climber is between the first and second bolt: Belay should be very 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 falls, you need to remove as much slack as possible from the system while still giving a soft catch. If you remove slack from the system and don't give them a soft catch, you've spiked your climber, which is dangerous. And rude.

To "spike" your climber means you have short-roped them while they fall. The best-case scenario is they fall into free space and are stopped very suddenly. Worst case, as they fall, they may get pulled into the wall without being able to get their feet out, or they can "pendulum" into the wall with enough force to sprain an ankle, or break a bone.

The most common way to unintentially spike your climber is to be afraid that they will fall too far, and as they fall, you take in slack and/or move backwards and sit in the rope. (Imagine your climber was on top-rope and said "take". That action taken on top rope belay is EXACTLY what leads to a devastating "spike" on lead belay.)

Getting spiked is mentally and physically jarring, and uncomfortable, and, if repeated, and really damage the lead climber's confidence in themselves, their belayer, and hard climbing in general.

To remove slack and still give a soft catch, you've got to be alert. As the climber is falling, you remove slack from the system, quickly, and get in the brake position. As their weight hits, you jump, hard, off the ground, into the air. It's possible that the climber will end up standing on the ground, with the belayer up in the air. Please note that this is not a ground fall - the climber, while maybe a bit startled, will have landed on the ground very softly. If the belayer is also standing on the ground, this means the climber was dropped. If the belayer is five or six or seven feet in the air, it was an awesome catch.

It's also common for the climber and belayer to bump into each other like pool balls. This is physics, and not to be feared. The reason the starting stance of the belayer matters is so that they don't hit each other on the way up. This would be uncomfortable for all involved.

Climber is clipping the second bolt: The belayer has zero extra slack, has not short roped the climber, and is standing beneath the first bolt ready to take in slack and step backwards if the climber blows it before clipping. If the climber does fall, the belayer should take in slack while stepping backwards but still give a soft catch.

If you spike your climber in this scenario, you're really putting the hurt on. Broken ankles and severely bruised knees are in your (or their) future.

For moving between the second and the 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. (I would contend that it's much safer to have a little more rope out. Zero downside.)

Weight Differences:

If there is a weight difference between the climber and the belayer, the belayer needs to adjust accordingly. I use the following rule of thumb: If the climber outweighs me by 25 lbs, I don't have to try very hard to give a soft catch - it'll just happen. If he falls between the first and second bolt, I may try to spike him, in order to keep him off the ground. (Since he outweighs me, I cannot cause a dangerous spike - it will just be a bit harder of a catch than normal.)

If I outweigh the climber by 25lbs or more, I have to try very hard to give a soft catch. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Use a tube-style belay device (I know it's more work. You'll be OK) and let slack go through it as you arrest the fall. Do not let rope run through your hand! You will burn yourself, and be tempted to let go of the break strand. What you can do is, as the climber is falling, but before their weight has hit the rope, slide your hand a few inches down the rope, and then just naturally let your hand end up in the break position just below the belay device. Eighteen to twenty four inches of rope will have run through the device as the fall is arrested, and it will be much more comfortable for the climber.
  2. Belay kneeling on one knee and "stand up" into the fall. If your climber is lighter than you, and especially if there is any rope drag, you won't be able to give a soft catch by just jumping up the wall. You'll jump, and end up right where you started. It isn't dangerous, but it's just not as comfortable to your climber as it could be. (You want them to be comfortable falling, right?) To do this, as they're moving between bolts, belay from a knee from where you would normally stand. As they fall, still try to jump, but you'll give a much softer catch since you'll be assisting them pulling you off the ground with the muscles in your legs.

In sum: Belaying is a big responsibility. It's easy to get psyched out if you're doing hard moves between the first and second bolt, or while clipping. You'll get a great return on investment if you spend a few minutes over your next few sessions practicing these skills. If you are more relaxed while climbing, you'll climb better. Practice these skills in order to grow relaxed. It won't come any other way.

In another post, I'll talk about considerations for climbing outdoors. Everything covered above is applicable, but outside you come across hazards that are not often encountered inside. (Ledges, dangerous landing zones, etc.)

Practice makes perfect

So, you slogged through these thousand words, and you're ready to practice. (Bless you, for reading this far)

Should you just head out, grab an unsuspecting friend, and then ask them to whip before clipping the second bolt?

Um. No.

Here's why:

Your brain is a much more powerful beast than you think it is. It is constantly tuned in to the environment and evaluating new sights, sounds, and situations, even when you're not paying attention to any of this. This is why music is so important to movies - when the ominous music cues up, you get a tight feeling in your chest, even if everything on the screen is hunky-dorey. Your brain knows that in all the past experiences, ominous music means bad things. Bad things make you feel anxious. Therefore, ominous music makes you feel anxious.

Your brain evaluates new experiences in light of past experiences. Heuristics is a cool word that means "mental shortcut". When you encounter a new situation, your brain says "does this in any way, shape, or form, resemble anything I've encountered before? If so, repeat reaction."

The implication of this thought process is stunning, and wide-spread. We're talking about climbing, today, so I'll keep it to that. When you fall, ever, do you experience stress, anxiety, or discomfort? If so, you are teaching your subconscious to link negative emotions with falling. Every time you experience stress while falling, you're strengthening the connection.

Falling, for the sake of falling, if at all associated with discomfort or stress, reinforces negative mental attitudes.

The only way to get better at falling, to make it easier, is to make it pain free. Discomfort free. Easy. Rewarding.

You need to start small, and just barely outside your comfort zone, and not progress to more challenging material until your comfort zone has expanded to include the area that was once outside your comfort zone.

Here's a recommended progression:

  1. Climb to the third bolt. Clip it, and move down one move. Confirm your belayer is ready, and then let go of the wall. You're on top rope, so this is easy. Do it a few times so your belayer can practice timing the jump up the wall, so he can give you a soft catch. You both will be able to feel when he figures it out.
  2. Repeat the above step, but this time, have your belayer feed out a foot or two of slack before you let go of the wall. You'll be moving a little faster, and will solidify to you both what a soft catch feels like. (Your belayer should be good at giving softer catches as this point.
  3. Climb to the bolt, where it's level with your chest, and fall a few times. Soft catches. This should be easy. Feel free to call it a day whenever you're ready. At this point you probably have taught your subconscious that the last fifteen falls were actually pretty low key, and you should feel a sense of reward and pride. Revel in this feeling.
  4. Climb so the bolt is at your waist. Make sure your belayer doesn't have you tight - you don't want to be short roped or spiked, remember? Fall a few times. Are you both growing comfortable with the idea behind soft catches?
  5. Switch out with your belayer. Why should you have all the fun? Repeat the above steps, then switch back.
  6. Climb a move or two above the bolt, take a fall. Now you're really falling. Your belayer should be giving you soft catches.
  7. Climb another move or two, do it again. Take a fall here a few times, but not in the exact same situation. Don't get in the mindset that you have to perfectly prepare for falling - that does not transfer well to real-world climbing.

Once you've completed these seven steps, you're well on your way to de-linking discomfort and falling. The work is not done, but a full progression is a whole blog post in it's own. That's coming soon.

Updated 09/12/16 (Thanks /u/notcrushingV16)

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