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BELAY TECHNIQUES


A belay is a rope attachment designed as a redundant safety system in the event the primary system fails. It is a safety system enabling the team to climb and execute roped rescues with security, utilizing rope friction around an object to absorb and arrest the energy generated by a falling climber or rescue load. Belays apply to climbing, rappelling, ascending, and to rescue systems.  

The primary requisites of good belaying is alertness and constant expectancy. For example one must always be ready to stop a climber's fall. A belay must stop motion; therefore, a belayer must keep the potential falling distance to a minimum by using his feeling hand to insure that all excess slack is continually removed from the belay rope. In the event of a fall, this will keep the falling distance and the possible resultant injuries to a minimum. A secondary benefit of good belaying, in regards to climbing belays, is the climber's sense of security which allows more relaxed climbing.  

Definitions:

Belay, in regards to any roped work or climbing, is a completely redundant rope system that is designed to prevent major injury to a subject if the primary system fails. In leader or follow climbing the primary system is the climbers skill and strength. If the climber falls a rope system designed to catch the falling climber is the belay system. In rescue systems, all raising and lower systems will have belays to provide security for the rescue load if the primary system fails. As a safety procedure belays are applied to ascending and rappelling.  

Static Belay is used for all applications other than leader climbing. This includes rappelling and rescue systems. In this case the element is being belayed with a rope system that is always above the element being belayed. This type of belay is one in which the climbing line is not allowed to run in the event of a fall. Braking action is applied immediately to reduce fall distance.  

Dynamic Belay is used when belaying the leader climbing above the belayer. This method gradually arrests a fall by allowing the climbing line to run for a short distance after the climber's fall has eliminated all slack. The dynamic belay gradually reduces the shock of a fall. Hence, if the climbing rope is allowed to slide over the belay point prior to arresting, the kinetic energy of a high fall can be checked by a force that is small enough for both belayer and climber to withstand.  

Braking Hand is the hand that the belayer never removes from contact with the belay line. In this manner, the belayer will be able to apply tension to the brake side of the rope as soon as a surge is felt in the belay line (i.e., a fall has been taken).  

Feeling Hand is the free hand that the belayer may use to detect slack in the belay line. The goal of all belays is to minimize slack in the belay line (some leader climbing activities require the line to be somewhat slack to allow free movement of the lead climber).  

Body Belays are belays which use the rope's friction around the belayer's body to stop and absorb the impact of a fall. Body belays should only be used for climbing, ascending, or rappelling, and never for rescue systems. Body belays are used for convenience but place the belayer in a compromising position if a large fall is taken. For this reason, if possible, a mechanical belay is preferable to the body belay in all applications.  

Mechanical Belays utilize mechanical hardware devices connected directly to anchors to absorb the energy of a fall or failed rescue system. A sudden surge on a mechanical anchor does not impact the belayer directly. Examples of mechanical belays are figure 8's, brake bars, tubers, and stitch plates.  

Lock-off refers to the state of a belay line where the belay line is forced to be stationary by tying or attaching a device which prevents movement of the belay line in any direction.  

Security at the Belay Point:

The security of the belay location is universal with regards to the type of belay that is implemented. The belay surface chosen should be a solid, un-decomposed rock surface that is not prone to drop rocks onto possible activity below or is clear of rockfall if the activity is above. To provide rockfall protection if the activity is above the belay site, one should attempt to choose a belaying position at least partially protected from rockfall, as in the concave area shown in figure-1. One should be secured to an anchor while belaying. Be aware that belay anchors must be able to withstand a wide variations in force directions.  

Anchors used should be strong enough to withstand the a shock load if the primary system were to fail. The ideal anchor is a sturdy tree, bush, or rock projection

Aiming the Belay:

Aiming is one of the most important aspects of the belay. An incorrectly aimed belay can result in serious injury, not only to the personnel being belayed, but also possibly to the belayer as well.  

In regards to climbing, aiming the belay is the process of anticipating, by continuous observation of the climber and the immediate terrain, the direction a climber will fall. The belayer must adjust his stance as is needed. For a seated belay, the direction of fall must keep the belay rope within the legs of the belayer's stance. A sound stance without attention to aiming is useless if a fall whips the rope around the belayer's back and out of his braking hand. Be aware that rock and tree projections may bounce a climber, or snag a rope onto  an entirely different fall path. Indirect belays, those that use a sturdy anchor to change the direction of the belay rope, require aiming the belay in the direction of the anchor. If there are several indirect belays, the closest one to the belayer should be the belayer's target. Practicing belaying is vital, as the belayer is literally responsible for protecting human life. One should be able to belay both up and down with either hand, as one side may be more secure in a particular stance on the rock.  

The key to belaying is technique, and not strength. The friction of the rope around the belayer's back is many times stronger than one's grip, as can be easily verified with a simple test. Proper belay form depends on the braking hand, which must never leave the rope.

Belay Commands and Communication:

The climber or rescue load may be out of the sight of the belayer, yet each must always know what the other is doing. The main flaw is that a signal is worthless unless it's heard and understood. Use standard commands and be patient. Once accepting the belay stance, the belayer must be diligent until relieved. Wind carries voices, so speak slowly and clearly. Use radio communication if voice communication is marginal. If multiple operations are in progress, place an identifier in the belay commands when they are used to prevent confusion between the different operations. (i.e., Use "On Belay "BLUE" instead of plain "On Belay" to request that the belayer get ready at the "BLUE" station.)  The following commands should be used specifically. One must avoid using phrases such as "Take up the slack" which may create the wrong action by the belayer if, due to harsh winds, the belayer only hears "SLACK."  

                                Voice Commands

      Command

By Whom

                                   Action Taken

"on belay"

Climber

Climber is telling the belayer he's ready to begin.

"belay on"

Belayer

Climber is told the belayer is ready

"Climbing"

Climber

Climber is beginning his ascent

"Climb on"

Belayer

Belayer indicates go ahead

"Slack"

Climber

Belay gives slack in the line

"Tension"

Climber

Belayer takes up any slack, producing a taut line

"Falling"

Climber

Belayer brakes and braces

"Rocks"

Anyone

All team members take cover from falling rocks.

"Off Belay"

Climber

Climber is untied from the belay line.

"Belay off"

Belayer

Belayer acknowledges the climber is off the line.

Body Belays:

The body belay should only be used to belay an individual and should not be used for high load rescue systems. The body belay relies on the friction of rope around ones body to arrest a falling load. To prevent the belayer from being pulled out of position when a load is arrested, the belayer is attached to a sturdy anchor.  

In climbing it is preferable that the climber is secured to the belay rope. A bowline-on-a-coil is best, the several coils distribute the shock of a fall over a wider area, reducing shock intensity on any one point of the climber's back. If a sit harness is used, and no other system is connected to the sit harness, the belay line may be attached directly to the sit harness using a figure 8 follow-through.  

Seated Body Belay:

The belayer chooses a position facing the direction from which the force of a fall will come, then ties to an anchor. The anchor line must be taut when the belayer is in position. The belay rope runs from the climber, (or point of indirect belay), through the belayer's feeling hand, around his body, and back out to his braking hand.  

When the climber is below the belayer, the belayer must keep the rope on the upper buttocks area, below the belt, in order to keep pressure from the unprotected internal organs around the waist as is shown in figure-2. This reduces pain and possible internal damage.  

The belay rope should be laid out into a loose pile next to the belayer to allow the rope run freely with minimal entanglement. Rope that is packaged in a rope bag or "Daisy Chained" need not be laid out prior to its use. Operationally, the belayer uses his feeling hand to keep all slack from the climbing rope. The belayer must keep his braking hand on the rope at all times.  

If the climber is moving away from the belayer, the belayer feeds out rope according to the climber's progress. The belayer should never pull sharply on the rope to feel for slack, the resulting jolt may pull the climber out of position. If the climber is moving towards the belayer, the feeling hand is used to detect and minimize any slack as the climber advances. The belayer should always be braced to receive the shock from a fall. When a fall occurs the belayer wraps the rope around the front of his body to produce more friction to arrest the fall as is shown in figure-3.  

A special hand technique must be mastered by the belayer for use in all body belays. The belayer should be able to function with the left or right hand functioning as the braking hand. In addition, whenever operating a body belay, the belayer should have sufficient equipment (prussiks, Gibbs, webbing, and binders) to lock-off the belay line if a fall renders the climber inactive.  

Figure-4 indicates the sequence that should be used to guarantee that the braking hand always remains in contact with the belay line.  

If the climber is moving toward the belayer, the belayer takes up rope by pushing forward, away from his body, with the braking hand while pulling and feeling for slack with his feeling hand. When approximately 2 ft of rope has been taken up, the free end of the rope is first fed into the feeling hand. Holding the free end of the rope securely with the feeling hand the belayer is able to slide the braking hand back towards his body. The process is repeated taking up rope in a "ratchet" type motion. If a fall is felt (or heard if the climber remembers to yell "falling!") the braking hand pulls the rope tightly against his body. If slack is requested by the climber, typically one foot of slack is given for each "Slack" command.  

To allow slack to be taken, the belayer should pull the rope away from his body to relieve friction on the rope as is shown in figure-5 and allow the rope to slide through his feeling hand.

The sitting belay (figure-6) is the soundest position, utilizing a three point stance for maximum stability. The belayer sits with legs spread and feet braced against natural or artificial obstructions, facing the projected fall. The belay rope runs (from the climber), between the belayer's legs, around the lower portion of his buttocks, and is held securely in the belayer's braking hand. This is a tripod position stable only if the force (from a fall) comes inside its three points, pulling the belayer more firmly into position. In the event of a fall the belayer holds the belay rope firmly across his body with his braking hand and leans forward resting on his feeling hand, producing a four point stance.                

The Standing Hip Belay:

This is a relatively unstable two-point stance, used only when a sitting hip belay is impractical, and the direction of force is from below or at the same level as the belayer (as when the belayer is on a narrow shelf and the climber is climbing from below toward the shelf). Any large force can jolt the belayer out of position. For this reason the belayer must be secured to an anchor.  

The belayer should place himself nearly sideways to the direction of the projected fall, legs spread comfortably. The belay rope runs from the climber, through feeling hand, and around behind the belayer's hips to his braking hand as is indicated in figure-7. Braking is accomplished in the same manner as the seated belay.  

Standing Buttocks Belay:

This is used when the force from a fall will come from above the belayer. The stance is assumed as in a standing hip belay, and the belay is aimed. The difference is that the belay rope runs under the belayer's buttocks to accommodate an upward pull from a fall. However, be wary that the belay rope doesn't ride up the back. An anchor is usually needed since the weight of the belayer can rarely offset the force of a fall, unless friction from an indirect belay is incorporated. The standing buttocks belay is demonstrated in figure-8.  

Fallen Climber When Using a Body Belay:

The rescuer must be able to take action if the climber takes a fall onto the belay but becomes disabled or needs assistance to continue. First and foremost, if a fall is taken and the climber gives no response to calls to him or there is any other indication that he will not be able to continue, the operator should immediately lock-off and secure the belay line. At this time the climber may be dangling with the belay line being the only means of support.  

The process to lock-off and secure a belay line from a seated body belay should proceed as follows:  With the load being held in the brake position by the belayer, the belayer shall attach an ascender on the load side of the belay line as is shown in figure-9 with his feeling hand.  




Remember the brake hand cannot be removed from the rope. If the load is excessive, additional friction can be found by wrapping the brake side of the rope around the belayer's leg. The belayer shall then reach around and attach the ascender to an available anchor with webbing and binders as is needed. The belayer should then release tension to place the load on the lock-off ascender. If the ascender is pushed as far forward as possible, the belayed subject should not move very much during the load transfer. The belayer should then disconnect himself from the anchor in preparation to help the fallen climber in whatever way seems logical. When free from the belay, the free end of the belay line should be tied in a figure 8 knot and secured with a service loop to the available anchor as is shown in figure -10. The belayer should continue to talk and advise the fallen climber of what is about to take place. One should advise the subject even if the subject is not responding to any verbal questioning.

Assisting the fallen climber may require a technical rescue or simply time for the climber to regain his confidence. The belayer must use his best knowledge. If the fall occurs during a rescue operation, one would notify the command post or operations leader for assistance. The worst possible case would be for the belayer to use the last bit of equipment to rappel to the fallen subject prior to requesting help only to find that both the belayer and the original climber are now stuck on the face of a rock with little chance of getting any additional help. If possible it may be best to convert the belay to a lowering system to lower the injured climber back to a ledge or floor below.

The belayer should be ready to use minimal gear to reach the fallen climber to render fist aid and to return to the belay station. This maneuver is not a suggested rescue procedure and should not be practiced without proper belays. Safety should always be the first concern.  

Mechanical Belays:

Mechanical belays utilize friction devices to accept the force generated by a fall rather than using ones body. In a hybrid fashion the sticht plate and the figure 8 belay may be attached to the belayer to create a hybrid body belay. Anytime the body is in line with the force, (body belay) the belay should be limited to single person, low weight loads as is the case for the standard body belays. To be effective for rescue loads, mechanical belays attached directly to anchors must be utilized. Severe injury can be imparted on a belayer with forces generated by falling rescue loads.  

Rescue 8 (Figure 8 Plate) Belay:

The Rescue 8 (figure 8 device) is a universal tool used to rappel, belay and lower loads in the rescue environment. Friction  is generated in the figure 8 by passing the rope through several tight turns as is shown in figure-11. The operator uses the same motions that were used in the body belay to take in or pay out slack rope during the belay. If a fall occurs, the belayer will already have one hand on the brake side of the anchor. Applying force and pulling at a right angle to the major axis of the figure 8 creates additional friction at the belay device sufficient to stop a fall. Since the figure 8 relies on friction generated by a smooth metal object, some slippage will occur depending on the surge and the total force of the load. Dissipating fall energy over time is better than attempting a sudden sharp halt which can jolt and stress anchors and ropes.

 One should be able to lock-off a belay system to prevent any further movement of rope through the belay device. Locking the belay device should be done when the belayer needs to release the brake hand to correct a problem, or whenever a delay is expected before any load movement will occur. Locking-off does not release the belayer from his assignment to stay with the belay system. Locking-off is a more secure manner for holding a belay in a fixed position. The figure 8 belay is locked-off by first wrapping the free end of the rope around the belay device across the front as is shown in middle diagram in figure-12. after making two wraps, continue with a third wrap and an overhand knot, this tie-off gives additional security, as shown in figure-12.

Sticht Belay Link:  

The sticht belay is much more efficient than standard belay techniques. It may be used in all positions and can be attached to an anchor point or to the belayer's diaper. The operation and use of a stitch plate is shown in figure-14.  

As mentioned earlier, the sticht plate is best when applied as a mechanical belay device (attached to an anchor rather than to a belayer). Peak restraint with the stitch plate attached to the harness of a belayer in the standard sitting hip belay has been measured at 300-400 lbs. Restraint with the sticht belay attached directly to an anchor and manned by a belayer has been measured at 400- 900 lbs. The figure 8 device (or rescue 8 device) can be utilized in place of the stitch plate. Moving rope through the figure 8 may be slower than the stitch plate due to the added friction of the device. By slowly applying brake pressure when a fall is encountered when using a sticht plate, a dynamic braking force will be applied which will decrease the jolt received by the climber and the belayer.  

Pulley and Gibbs Belay

When operating a belay for a raising system when it is known that the pace of the system will be quick (faster than can be maintained comfortably with a figure 8 device), a Pulley and an ascender may be used as the belay. (NOTE:  Any raising system, or climber should never operate faster that the belay system can eliminate slack.)  The pulley is used to facilitate the direction of pull the belayer would need to operate the belay. The belay line is fed through an ascender, that is attached to a sturdy anchor through a shock absorbing device such as a mariners knot. As slack is generated, the slack is pulled through the ascender by the belayer. If the main system fails, the belay will suddenly become loaded and the weight of the system will be transferred to the ascender. It is imperative that the ascender not be rigidly fixed to an attachment point for shock load considerations as is depicted in figure-15.

  
Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue  |  Fillmore Mountain Rescue  |  Team 1
Mailing Address:  P.O. Box 296 |  Fillmore, CA  93016
 
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2005 Ventura County Sheriff's Volunteer Search & Rescue, Fillmore Mountain Rescue, Team 1

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