Rope Handling

By Don Graydon.

Rope handling takes practice. When belaying the leader, never let the rope get taut, because that would impede the climber's next move. An alert belayer keeps just a hint of slack and responds immediately to the leader's advance by paying out more rope.
Belaying the leader.
  1. Rope drag can be caused by the terrain the climber passed, such as blocks of rock or rope-sized notches, or by protection that forces the rope over convexities or into an angle. Any friction applied by the belayer is multiplied by these, so if the leader tells you that rope drag is a problem, keep a few feet of slack in the rope and do everything possible to eliminate any pull.
    • If the climber falls when there is a lot of friction in the system, the belayer may actually be unsure whether a fall took place. If it is impossible to communicate with the climber, you can find out by letting out a few inches of rope. If the same tension remains, then you are probably holding the climber's weight.
  2. An especially acute problem with slack can occur when belaying someone who is leading out on a traverse with a significant distance between the belayer and the first piece of protection.
    • Because of the weight of the rope, any attempt to keep only a little slack will exert a potentially dangerous pull on the climber. So it's natural to allow quite a lot of slack.
    • This extra slack can't always be avoided, but it's important for both belayer and climber to realize that it can greatly increase the length of a fall. Only a few feet beyond the last protection, the leader could be facing a fall of, say, 15 feet because of the slack.
  3. To minimize falling distance, leaders preparing to make difficult moves often place protection well above their harness tie-in and clip in before moving up. This means the direction of rope movement will reverse twice.
    • As you are belaying the leader and letting out rope, you will suddenly find yourself taking in slack as the climber moves up to the protection and then letting it out again as the climber moves past the protection and puts renewed pull on the rope.
    • These switches call for extra attention, especially as this tends to happen at the most difficult spots.

Belaying a follower.

  1. Ideally, when you are belaying a follower, there is no slack in the rope. At the same time, the rope should not be taut, which would hamper the climber's movement and balance.
  2. When belaying a follower up to you, pile the rope where it won't be disturbed later.
    • Don't let loops hang down if there are projections that could snag a loop.
    • If the entire pile must be moved, picking it up is tempting but will produce snarls later. It is best to repile the entire rope twice, so that the leader's end is on top.
    • If the follower is climbing rapidly, you can take in more rope with each pull by leaning forward or bending over.
  3. Occasionally when belaying a follower, rope drag is so great that it is almost impossible to pull the rope in with your hands in the usual way. Here is a technique that works when belaying in a sitting position, though it is extremely slow:
    1. Bend forward and simultaneously pull the rope through the device (this is easy, because you are not actually pulling the rope up yet).
    2. Then, gripping the rope tightly, in the braking position if necessary, lean back. This pulls the rope up a few inches; you are using your upper body, not your arms, to pull the rope.
    3. Repeat the process. Once the climber is past the first few bends or obstructions, rope drag decreases and you can revert to normal rope handling.

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