Belaying a climber

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Belaying a climber

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 1, 2015 11:14 am

The most recent NSS News, the '13/'14 ACA, includes an article about caver falls by Tony Canike. Among the many things needed to prepare for safe navigation, Tony mentions the need to "learn to rig and give a quick belay". While I could successfully belay a climber with my vertical gear, I realize that I lack the knowledge or skill to provide a belay on those intermediate climbs or slopes that would not normally warrant the use of such. I thought much of this during a quick trip to WV last week. I brought along a friend who has gone caving with me only a few times. The main purpose of the trip was to visit a caving vendor south of Lewisburg, but on the way back I stopped at a big gated cave, well known and well traveled, for a quick, easy look around. Only a couple of hundred feet into the cave is a small chimney over a drop to the stream level. The depth is 10 feet or so. This chimney is easy, and so inconsequential that I had forgotten that it existed despite five fairly recent visits . But for my companion it was the end of the line. Now, we are planning another caving trip, and while my friend is eager to atone for his timidity, it would be foolish of me to go into the next attempt unprepared. We haven't decided on a cave yet, but most of the ones I'm considering have at least some climbing. They are by no mean vertical caves.

In situations like these, it seems that carrying vertical gear is unreasonable. However, if I am carrying only a length of webbing, how will I best provide a belay? What is the minimum in gear that can be used to safely belay a climber? How does one decide between a hand line and a belay? What if your climber is vastly heavier than yourself, the belayer?
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby driggs » Jun 1, 2015 3:15 pm

GroundquestMSA wrote:If I am carrying only a length of webbing, how will I best provide a belay? What is the minimum in gear that can be used to safely belay a climber?


The venerable hip belay requires just a length of rope or webbing, and enough friction to keep the belayer from toppling down should the climber fall.

It is more suitable for steep slopes than vertical pitches, because the belayer isn't capable of producing much friction or stopping much force.

The belayer should strive to wedge himself into a constriction, if possible, in order to become more than just a "meat anchor" since he may be catching a fall.

Other options include:

Rig a high anchor with a second length of webbing or rope; attach a pear-shaped carabiner; belay from the anchor with a munter hitch. This method gives much greater control and stopping power. It removes the belayer from becoming a part of the system (you should also practice locking a munter off with a mule hitch + overhand backup).

Consider also tying an etrier as an alternative. Perhaps your novice caver doesn't yet have the confidence to chimney, but may feel more comfortable climbing a rope ladder. On Rope has a page devoted to the makeshift etrier. This, of course, may be used with a top belay; for significant heights, it should be used with one (same as a cable ladder).


GroundquestMSA wrote:How does one decide between a hand line and a belay?


How does one decide to visit Beginner Caverns versus Some Semi-Advanced Cave versus Sketchy Death Pit? It's probably a subjective decision based upon the group's experience, risk aversion, and minimum skill of the party. If you come up with a good answer, I'd love to hear it.


GroundquestMSA wrote:What if your climber is vastly heavier than yourself, the belayer?


In this situation, I would personally recommend against a hip belay in order to remove yourself from the belay chain. Rather you should opt to belay from a bombproof high anchor, with a munter hitch, or - if you've planned ahead - a figure-eight descender, a Petzl Stop in a half-rig, Reverso or ATC-Guide, GriGri, etc. Lest you be tempted to do so, note that BMS recommend explicitly against using the BMS MicroRack in a top-belay configuration, at least in 4-bar mode.


GroundquestMSA, I think that you personally may enjoy reading through an old copy of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, for many reasons. Much more than a technical manual for mountaineering, it embraces a philosophy of exploration and connection to the mountains that may be in line with your own. Hey! It just so happens that The Mountaineers have a free sample chapter from the new 8th Edition available online, and conveniently that chapter is: Belaying. I suspect that you may enjoy an older edition, where the "state of the art" is a bit more traditional (though belaying specifically hasn't changed significantly over the past few decades).
Last edited by driggs on Jun 1, 2015 3:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby caver.adam » Jun 1, 2015 3:18 pm

That's a tough question.

I think the body belay has already been covered.

As for hand-lines, I think everyone has a different opinion. I use a hand line when there is iffy purchase and a chance the person might slip and need something steady just in case. I use an etrier if there are no holds for a person. But, i will NOT use a hand ine if it causes the climber to climb a more difficult route due to the natural lay of the hand line. I've seen people struggle up a hand line when they could move 3 feet to the left and have large hand/foot holds and no need for a hand line.

My two cents. I'm sure more will weigh in.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby chac » Jun 1, 2015 4:07 pm

All good answers, sometimes you need to read the situation and levels of confidence of your partners. Whatever method you use, it's always the best policy to be prepared to lower or raise a belayed climber to safe/level ground.

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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 1, 2015 4:18 pm

Thanks! Will check out the links Dave.

One other detail that no one has yet mentioned is the connection to the climber being belayed.

driggs wrote:GroundquestMSA wrote:How does one decide between a hand line and a belay?

How does one decide to visit Beginner Caverns versus Some Semi-Advanced Cave versus Sketchy Death Pit? It's probably a subjective decision based upon the group's experience, risk aversion, and minimum skill of the party. If you come up with a good answer, I'd love to hear it.

Aye, 'twas an idiot question wasn't it?
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby caver.adam » Jun 2, 2015 7:08 am

I recommend a webbing harness to attach to the climber.

FYI, one of my friends lowered the corpse of a climber that tried to climb with a bowline around his chest. When the guy fell he broke his ribs and lodged the rope so it couldn't be lowered by the belyaer anymore. I presume harness hang finished him off in the time it took for my friends to get to where the belayer was yelling for help. AVOID simple loops.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby caver.adam » Jun 2, 2015 7:11 am

I also recommend "Freedom of the Hills". It is the climbing equivalent of "On Rope". You can get the 7th edition for $10 used on Amazon (that's including shipping). Or the 5th edition for $5.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby spider » Jun 2, 2015 1:58 pm

I'm a really crappy climber, well, maybe not *that* bad, but it seems everybody else is so much better. Anyway, I got to belay a lot while others did the climbing. Others have recommended Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, and I heartily agree. All the other advice is spot on, and I would only add that at 120 lbs I have caught and held climbers more than twice my weight using a body belay. I don't recommend it except if there is nothing else, but sometimes it's good in a pinch. I switched from carrying a length of webbing to some 3/8 rope, because I find it easier to grab even small diameter rope than webbing. We each carried enough webbing to make a diaper seat, but that was it.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby driggs » Jun 2, 2015 4:07 pm

GroundquestMSA wrote:One other detail that no one has yet mentioned is the connection to the climber being belayed.


I like the "swiss seat" or "diaper sling" method of creating an inpromptu harness. Take 10' of webbing, ring bend to form a single long sling; from behind the climber bring it together in the front at the center of the waist and from between the legs. This requires a dedicated piece of webbing and (preferably) a carabiner.

Image

If you really have nothing available except for a single length of webbing or rope, you can tie a bowline-on-a-coil around the climber's waist. Even a simple bowline around the waist is better than no belay. But note that the "padding" of the coil makes a big difference in comfort. Climbers and mountaineers used this method and the near-equivalent "swami belt" before proper harnesses came into use. It will be painful if they fall; it could injure them or even kill them if they fall... but the whole point is that the risk is better than an unbelayed fall.

Image

GroundquestMSA wrote:Aye, 'twas an idiot question wasn't it?


Sorry if my answer sounded sarcastic. It was meant to be a rhetorical answer to what may as well have been a rhetorical question.

I gave the question of freeclimb vs handline vs belay vs SRT a bit more thought yesterday evening. Unfortunately the most insightful answer I can come up with is "it depends!"
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 2, 2015 6:12 pm

Spider, in what setting were you belaying big people? I can't imagine feeling comfortable belaying my friend (who is twice my size (though I weighed myself for the first time in years a few days ago and found that I'm all the way from 125 to 134, or + one pound for every year of marriage, so I may turn into a fat guy eventually if I try hard enough)) from above with no anchor or friction other than my body.

Dave, your photo of the bowline coil made me think of the "doubled bowline" or whatever the heck it should be called, that I recently asked about using for rigging. Seems like it would work in the end of the line to attach a climber, something like this:
Image
That's a couple of leg loops and a waist loop on an easy-to-adjust bowline.

I suppose the thing to do now is practice. I guess I'll be catching falls by my air compressor...
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby spider » Jun 2, 2015 7:28 pm

The guy I was belaying climbed up about 15 ft over a crevice that was about 20 ft deep. I got situated behind a rock and belayed the climb. The guy only got about 5 ft up before he came unglued, so he only fell 10 ft or so, it pretty near squashed me but I was able to hang on. He tried again and made it. Neither of us paid it much attention.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby caver.adam » Jun 3, 2015 10:22 am

A bowline on a coil can be used in an emergency, but it shouldn't be used because people are too lazy to carry gear to make a suitable harness. And a bowline without a coil should only be used because that is the only thing available and the person is in life threatening situation. A shock load with a single line around your body is awful. Even with a bowline on a coil there is some chance of broken ribs or back.

Hopefully this link will open to the correct page showing how to tie a bowline on a coil and describing the danger.
https://books.google.com/books?id=J-5Gjk3o0tQC&pg=PA42&lpg=PA42&dq=bowline+harness+break+rib&source=bl&ots=SHAxBd9Gq7&sig=5pPvnnfQEtIL8Lf21GtdRf4dxSI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4BlvVc2lFpCgoQTv34H4Ag&ved=0CCQQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=bowline%20harness%20break%20rib&f=false
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 3, 2015 10:50 am

caver.adam wrote: A shock load with a single line around your body is awful. Even with a bowline on a coil there is some chance of broken ribs or back.


Indeed. I guess I can't be sure what you're calling a shock load, but I'm not planning on belaying what I would call shock loads with the minimal gear being discussed. The belays I have in mind need to work safely, of course, but are mostly psychological measures. I'll be belaying from above, with little/no slack in the rope. Still, I don't much care for the idea of a single line around the body either, and will carry a loop of webbing if the double bowline configuration fails to please during testing.

Thanks for the stories and references everyone. I have been an utter failure at taking other people caving, mostly due to a lack of forethought and planning. Having been too wrapped up in understanding my own abilities, I've failed to anticipate the needs of others. Developing skill as a belayer will be one step to correcting that.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby caver.adam » Jun 3, 2015 1:57 pm

I'm just over-cautious. Shock loads usually only happen when someone is climbing and they somehow get ahead of the rope and then fall. Going down isn't bad, it's going back up. And I'm a believer of not being complacent.
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Re: Belaying a climber

Postby Tony C » Jul 8, 2015 8:57 am

Great question by the original poster and great discussion!

GroundquestMSA wrote:Thanks for the stories and references everyone. I have been an utter failure at taking other people caving, mostly due to a lack of forethought and planning. Having been too wrapped up in understanding my own abilities, I've failed to anticipate the needs of others. Developing skill as a belayer will be one step to correcting that.


Keep learning, keep asking questions. A willingness to ask, learn, and discuss is the most important thing here. I've failed at times too, and I'd venture to say we all have benefited from a bit of luck. And I'm still learning, every cave trip I learn something.
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