NOTE: This series is about belaying in single pitch sport areas. Technique changes for multipitch and trad scenarios. This ain’t trad school. Trad is a whole different ball game y’all!
FACT: The failure to catch a climber’s fall and make it SOFT is probably the #1 reason why people don’t like climbing with you.
You can be a kleptomaniacal serial killer and people will still accept belays from you if they can count on your catches to be soft. Conversely, your climbing buddy may be your condom/dental-dam-free monogamous sex partner of the last ten years, and then when it comes time for a belay, they always seem to be… with someone else. What makes that person so great? It’s cause they can give a soft catch and you can’t.
What is a soft catch?
A soft catch occurs when you spread out the area in space and time for the climber to decelerate at the conclusion of their fall. The main purpose of the soft catch is to keep the climber from rocketing back into the wall. The phrase connoting it, “soft catch,” makes it seem like the main point of the soft catch is that the catch has the nice, comfortable side effect of making a fall feel more gentle, like coming to a stop on an elevator. But that’s actually not the main reason sport climbers do it.
Part of the softness of the catch comes from that specially designed rope you bought. The other part comes from you.
The rope is not stretchy enough to avoid all serious climbing injuries. Just relying on the rope, and not making the catch more dynamic with your own action, introduces some serious problems. (They’re more serious in trad, but this is not an article about trad.)
Why is a hard catch dangerous?
The reason a hard catch is dangerous is because it swings the climber toward the wall, not because it’s an uncomfortable jolt (you’re climbing on bolts, so the threat of ripping out trad gear isn’t the issue here). This swing into the wall introduces TWO independent dangers.
First, the velocity of hitting the wall can be enough to break whatever part of your body runs into it. Climbers may hit the wall with their ankles, hands, hips, or in the case of an inversion, the backs of their heads. The most common injuries are those to the ankles. The more tragic cases involve climbers who invert while falling and hit the back of their head on the face with enough force to kill them. Sport climbers often don’t wear helmets, so a soft catch can be enough to save your climber’s life. Conversely, a hard catch can be enough to kill them. You probably have a climbing friend of a friend who died or was seriously injured this way.
Second, by swinging into the wall, the climber may hit objects they wouldn’t have hit otherwise. A soft catch results in a climber drifting down rather than in toward the wall, even on overhanging routes. Belayers sometimes mistakenly give hard catches because there are ledges–but sometimes, a soft catch will cause the climber to miss the ledge entirely, and a hard catch will guarantee that they will hit it. It’s counter-intuitive, and thus an easy mistake for new belayers.
So how do I get good at giving a soft catch?
You practice doing it over and over until you get good at it. Do it in a controlled environment, like a climbing gym, where you can catch one fall after another. If you do it right, you will end up far into the air (e.g. five or so feet of space between your feet and the ground) and the climber will feel a noticeably comfortable stop. On a vertical wall, they will not need to use their legs to brace against the collision with the wall. Keep doing it until you can nail it every single time.
Do it with different climbers as well, so you become accustomed to the feel of the rope and the corresponding timing with different climbers’ weights. If you’re used to catching a heavier climber, you will probably jump too late for a lighter climber, because you’ll be attuned to jumping at a certain level of pull.
Practicing this with your climbing partners will also make them more likely to trust you, more likely to climb harder, and make climbing more fun.
But how do I actually do it? Give a soft catch that is?
At the point at which the rope becomes taut during a fall, you introduce more rope into the system in a controlled way. In this article, I’ll explain how to do it by jumping, and then at the end of the article, address the other methods, and the debate over their use.
So how do I give a soft catch by jumping?
As the rope cinches taut at the conclusion of the climber’s fall, you jump. And you jump hard. The ideal belayer would weigh half as much as the climber and wouldn’t have to jump at all, but you probably don’t spend most of your climbing days being belayed by children. Everyone I have encountered who wrote on the subject has described it as a “gentle hop,” but I say “jump hard!” This may be because I weigh 180 pounds. In any event, I have NEVER been caught in a fall that seemed too soft. It would be like a couch that was too comfortable. Occasionally, other factors will intervene that will cause you to want the catch to be harder (described below), but in general, the softer you can make it, the better.
If you jump too early, then the rope will go taut while you (the belayer) are coming back down, which will moot any effect of your jumping. Jump too late, and you’ll be pulled up after you’ve arrested their fall. This means you’ll still fly into the air, giving you only the appearance that you did it right, but the force of your jump will not have actually helped decrease your climber’s rate of deceleration when they needed it.
So timing is everything, as is feedback from the climber about the quality of the catch.
This requires you to:
- Watch your climber like a hawk, so that you are in a jumping stance the moment they fall
- Stand almost immediately beneath the lowest-clipped bolt (or slightly to the side if they are in danger of hitting you or catching your line with their leg)
- Practice with your climber and get feedback about the quality of your catches
If you are chit chatting away, thirty feet from the wall, then your climber will not make any hard moves and will think you suck and will anxiously await an opportunity to climb with someone who actually takes belaying seriously.
If it still doesn’t make sense, try it out, and then it will.
By default, your catches should be as soft as possible. There are THREE main exceptions:
- Your climber is at risk of DECKING.
- Your climber is on SLAB.
- Your climber is projecting a route and is working a move over and over and is very close to the bolt on an overhung sport route.
- (There is no fourth. There are reasons unique to trad, but I keep telling you this isn’t a trad article, even though you don’t want to believe me.)
A soft catch will extend the distance of the climber’s fall. If this puts them at risk of hitting the ground, then the danger of a hard catch is outweighed by the danger of decking. This generally occurs around the second bolt, particularly when clipping. If the climber is at risk of decking, the belayer will focus their attention on taking up slack while the climber is falling (by taking in rope with the hands and sitting down).
If your climber is on slab, there will be no reason to prevent the pendulum caused by a hard catch.
If your climber is projecting, occasionally the climber will prefer a slightly harder catch so they can work a section without having to jug up.
What about the amount of slack before the fall?
This is a hard point for many to understand, or at least seems so, given how many belay. But here goes:
DO NOT MAKE THE ROPE TAUT WHEN THE CLIMBER IS ABOUT TO FALL.
DO NOT GIVE OUT EXTRA SLACK WHEN YOU REALIZE THE CLIMBER IS ABOUT TO FALL.
Generally, when climbing with strangers, I find that only a third of belayers will handle an expected fall properly, with the other 2/3 divided equally between the two no-no’s listed above. After shouting, “falling”, you feel the rope go tight, or you see the belayer throw out some extra slack, and you think to yourself, “oh, fuck my life.”
In general, the proper amount of slack to have out, at all times, is the minimum necessary to prevent the rope from going taut. That’s it. Burn that sentence into your brain.
As with all things climbing, there are exceptions. If your climber is in danger of hitting a lip (because they’ve just pulled through an overhang) then it may make sense to pay out extra rope so that they fall into free space–but if you are an attentive belayer, YOU ALREADY DID THIS BEFORE THEY ANNOUNCED THE FALL. Thus, short of you realizing that you weren’t paying attention, you generally shouldn’t ever have to pay out extra slack when you see that a fall is imminent.
Paying out extra slack before the fall DOES NOT make the catch softer. In fact, in a single pitch sport situation, it by definition makes the catch harder.
What do you mean by “taut”?
You will generally leave a gentle curve in the rope while the climber is climbing, so that they won’t get short-roped if they make sudden movements. When you realize they are about to fall, it’s prudent to take in enough rope to eliminate that curve, but don’t take in enough that the rope actually tugs on the climber, or causes the quickdraws to all stick out perpendicular to the wall. That’s what I mean by “taut”. (Note: when the climber is significantly to the left or right of the bolt, it’s usually better to leave the curve in. Otherwise, it’s grandfather clock, cheese grater mania.)
In a decking situation, anything goes–the more rope you can pull in, the better. But it’s an easy beginner mistake to wrongly perceive the fall distance and needlessly drag the climber off the second bolt. The climber sprains their ankle, and you notice that the climber still had a good ten feet of buffer after the fall is over.
Gym climbs frequently have bolts only six or so feet off the ground. They don’t really serve any purpose besides letting a climber work the first few moves of a route while clipped from above, and for our purposes, they risk the belayer getting sucked into the first bolt at high speed when catching. If the belayer is at risk of hitting the first bolt, make sure you unclip it after you clip the second bolt, or don’t clip that first bolt at all. If this introduces any kind of danger in the gym, or on a route bolted like a gym, use a stick clip to clip the second or third bolt (in other words, where the first bolt would be on more conservatively bolted climbs).
Alternative Methods for Soft Catches
What about letting the rope feed through the device to make the catch soft?
Some climbers are capable of making a catch soft by letting rope feed through the device on purpose during the conclusion of the fall. In my opinion, this is a technique better reserved for multipitch trad climbers, who make up maybe 5% of all climbers, but 50% of internet climbing forum authors.
If you screw it up, the climber will deck, which is why people often use gloves, and you often only find the method practiced by trad and multipitch climbers who need additional methods to soften the catch. If you want to learn how to catch falls with this method, you should probably practice in a way that has a fail-safe until you can do it properly.
Because you can’t do this with a GriGri, people sometimes use this as justification for saying that ATCs are categorically safer. I disagree. In a sport climbing environment, giving up the GriGri for this reason would mean that you would be giving up all the safety benefits of an autolocking device in exchange for a more versatile catch, and I personally don’t find that tradeoff worthwhile–when I’m ripping flakes off the wall, I’m more concerned about whether the belayer has a helmet and a GriGri than whether they can give me a soft catch without jumping. People will argue this to the death, but fortunately, as the climber, you have the option to ask your belayer to do it any damn way you want.
The ATC, like the GriGri, and the many other belay machines out there, is a machine among many, geared to some situations and not others. If you want a cheap tube-style device for sport climbing, get a Jaws. (There are other tubes with added brake action, the Jaws just happens to be the best I’ve used.) As with all things in life, people will evangelize certain belay devices because of a lack of familiarity with the others. The widemouthed ATC in an unfortunate legacy, imported from a world of trad where the ATC’s weight, multi-purpose utility, and ease of braking larger diameter ropes was more useful. If you’re too cool for the GriGri, learn the munter hitch (which has more braking power than an ATC), or buy a tube that can catch heavy people on thin sport ropes. (That rope at the gym, by the way, is fatter and fuzzier, which is why catching people on an ATC may seem heretofore quite easy.) Or try some of the new devices coming out–the devices I’m discussing now will all be artifacts in twenty years.
The future of autolockers?
When I wrote this article, the future was approaching sooner than I thought–Mammut introduced its own belay device, the Smart, which received surprisingly poor reviews–it has some design oddities that make transitioning to it from other devices awkward.
But I’m a big fan. It is the cheapest auto-braking belay device, and at this point, the only one I know of that lets you feed rope out in a controlled way during a fall, if you want to. So you get the best of both worlds: the ability to deliver a more precise soft catch without jumping, and a back-up if the belayer is incapacitated for any reason.
It also, happily, seems to deliver a softer brake than the other auto-brakers if you just sit around and do nothing other than just stand there like a bump on a log, because the auto-brake doesn’t engage with the severity of other auto-brakers. I’m surprised it didn’t immediately replace all the other devices out there, but then again, both the GriGri and the tubes have many years behind them, and nobody likes to relearn anything. But I like the Smart now more than the others, even more than the munter, which was my first belay method. Note that the single-rope Smart is a must for single rope climbing–the alpine version for doubles and halvsies is just that–for skinny ropes. It is hell to use on a rope with a single rope diameter. (For those of you who don’t know the double rope lingo: get the big fat cheap one that only takes one rope at a time.)
What about running toward the wall?
Kind of like the opposite of our multipitch trad climbers, there are people who are capable of running toward the wall to control a fall. This is reserved for a gym environment, usually in a competition setting. In any other situation, there will be objects in the way (including other people if you’re at a gym outside of a competition), unstable footing, or a high first bolt preventing you from doing this. Very large gyms do give you the room to run forward, and I have found that helpful.
Responses to the comments:
Non-Auto-Locking Devices: A few readers agreed by and large with the article, but wanted to weigh in favor of people learning to let rope feed through the device during a catch, sans gloves of course. I adjusted the language of the article because I don’t want to suggest that it’s necessarily bad, and I don’t want the veracity of the rest of the article questioned because I take a sharp stance on a disputed issue. So, to that end, yes, you will find a lot of very experienced and good climbers favoring that method, because with training, it works very well. After ripping off enough rocks from climbs, and seeing belayers in terrible stances (standing next to ledges, in front of rocks, on loose rocks, or standing on muddy slopes), I find the safer gamble to be the autolocker. My two favorite belayers have been Marianna and Ryan–Ryan uses tubes, Marianna the GriGri. Both deliver consistently great catches. Ryan can land the climber anywhere he wants, Marianna can make the deceleration so small that you can come to a safe stop even with a spike pointed at your face.
So it’s a judgment call. If you do favor the non-autolocking device, remember that many routes are bolted and climbed without much thought given to where the belayer will stand, and it’s your responsibility to make sure you aren’t in danger of losing your grip. It’s not as simple as “just holding on with your right hand” when you fall off a ledge and break your wrist. People have died this way.
Feeding Out Slack: There was also simply some confusion about the hows and whys of letting out slack and why that makes a catch softer. To clarify that further, letting out rope before the fall makes the catch harder (bad). Letting the rope feed out some at the conclusion of the climber’s fall, as the rope tightens, is what makes the catch softer (and this can be accomplished either through jumping or letting rope feed through the device). This is the critical distinction, but in practice, it’s actually an easy one–the climber’s weight is going to be pulling that extra rope into the system, not the belayer’s left hand.
Unfortunately, I’m not a physics guru and can’t provide a formula for that. The basic fall factor equation provides an easy explanation for why giving out extra slack beforehand is worse, but that equation doesn’t deal with, directly, the forces involved to prevent a high-impact pendulum. But you can test it yourself at any gym, or even with a weight and a string attached to a wall.
Extra Slack to Avoid Hitting Objects
Someone pointed out, in six and one half dozen fashion, that letting out extra slack before the fall can prevent the climber from hitting something, so who cares about the jolt? This is to some degree true–you can let out extra slack to make sure the pendulum doesn’t happen in the wrong place. But it still risks the pendulum happening, but just further down, and increases the amount of fall distance by a lot. The dynamic catch is the most important in the middle and beginning of the climb, where the fall factors are higher, and when the risk of decking is correspondingly higher, so leaving slack out as a means of replacing the dynamic catch wholesale is inappropriate. You can do it in a consistently overhung gym with bolts that are close together and where nothing sharp sticks out, but otherwise, I would stick to the dynamic catch.