How to you keep yourself safe when you need to lead a route with a new or inexperienced belayer.
Summer is a great time for many things, including family reunions. Imagine yourself sitting back on the old family porch, sipping a cold drink when you are introduced to a distant cousin you’ve never met. “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”
The conversation quickly turns to interests, and cousin Larry brings up the idea of a little family climbing excursion. “Why, what do you think about taking us out for some of that climbing thing you do on them rocks?” You hesitate but your grandmother quickly jumps in, “oh, that would be lovely, I’ll pack some sandwiches.” I have to confess that I’ve been in this situation before, and while dying at the hands of an inexperienced belayer might sound bad, the delicious lunch grandma is going to pack for everyone is well worth the risk. However, the only nearby climbing area is lead only, with no topropes to be found. So, how do you keep yourself safe in the hands of complete newcomers? Follow these easy steps:
On the drive to the crag, Larry talks animatedly about his time in the Army Reserves and how they rappelled down some big walls. His brother Darryl describes climbing on many steep walls on several occasions. The other brother Darryl doesn’t say anything. You may have to make your own judgements here. Larry may have just tied a Swiss seat with some rope and rapped with a Munter. Darryl may have done some laps on the red and yellow colored jug holds on an artificial wall at an amusement park. The other brother Darryl may be the next Jim Beyer.
Your goal here is to identify if someone has some prior experience, even if it was just a day or two at the local community center rock wall, that may be more trusted than the others. Ask questions like, “so, did you belay, or ‘hold the rope’, for another climber?”
Sometimes you’re stuck with no experienced belayers, but you can certainly stack the deck in your favor. If Darryl starts describing some horrible hand spasms he encounters following a bad cow milking accident, you should be wary. If your niece is the one everyone in the family makes fun of because she got lost in her own room for three days, then consider that and choose wisely.
When in doubt, pick the best body type, which usually means the biggest. If the unfortunate fall were to occur, chances are you want the larger brother Darryl belaying you instead of your pint-sized niece. The same goes for the backup belayer, the bigger and more trustworthy the better.
Now is not the time to take a burn on your latest project or try a new route. Remember, you’re there to introduce the family to climbing, not to show them how cool and “extreme” you are, a 5.7 will do just fine.
Describe the basic workings of the belay system with your chosen belayer, and let the rest of the family listen in. Focus on the need to keep the belay hand on the rope at all times and to just slide the hand along the rope, not take it off. I prefer to have new belayers use an ATC because it’s workings are simple and you don’t need to fear that someone may hold open an autolocking device in a fall. Additionally, describe how they are going to be slowly feeding out slack in the rope as you climb and clip into the quickdraws. Describe how there should be a small amount of slack in the rope, a little “smile” of rope can be a good visual.
Have your cousin Darryl practice feeding out slack and braking the rope. You may want to walk away from him, simulating what it’s like on a climb and he can practice braking the rope, holding you from walking any farther. Stick clip or go up to the first bolt and clip it but don’t have Darryl lower you (more on that later). With your feet on the ground, have him pull the rope in tight and hold you.
Following the same rationale of choosing a lead belayer, select the most trustworthy or biggest body left in the group to back up your cousin Darryl. Describe what they are going to be doing and how they can still hold a fall even if Darryl screws up because he’s picking his nose and not belaying.
Climb slowly and deliberately. Big, sudden movements may be more than what Larry can handle. Clip bolts and quickdraws at your waist and try to avoid clipping high and making big pulls of rope for a clip. Remember, Larry needs all the help he can get in making this lead belay thing go smoothly.
Clip the anchor with a quickdraw and your rope but don’t ask for a “take.” Keep your safety in your own hands and go in direct with some quickdraws, runners, or a personal anchor chain. On the ground you should have instructed Larry how to take you off belay and described how you will tell him to do so at the top, but only when you make it very clear. With the rope running through the draws you are going to toprope from, lower yourself on a belay device such as a GriGri and return to the ground.
Enjoy grandma’s sandwiches and lemonade while managing a toprope climb for all your family to enjoy. When you return home triumphant and heroic in everyone’s eyes, be prepared to reap all the rewards the family has to bestow upon you. And, you never know, the quiet other brother, Darryl, may turn out to be a ripping climber who teams up with you on future endeavors because of his quiet, solid demeanor and calm, cool approach to stressful situations. But at the very least, you get to enjoy grandma’s sandwiches in a beautiful place, and that should be reward enough in and of itself.
As the owner of Glenwood Climbing Guides, Mike Schneiter is no stranger to trusting his life to people who have never climbed before.