Belaying is an Essential Climbing Skill

Learn How to Belay for Rock Climbing

Dr. Bill Springer, a cardiac surgeon in Lubbock, belays at Joshua Tree National Park.
Bill Springer is an attentive belayer and pays attention to the leader at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

The skill of belaying is one of the cornerstones of climbing safety. Belaying is the technique of holding the climbing rope for a climber so that they are safe if they fall off the rock, as well as preventing them from hitting the ground if they take a leader fall or a fall while top-roping.

The word belay was originally a nautical term that described a technique for securing a sailing rope to a post or spar on a ship.

The same word was applied to the climbing technique of one person securing a safety rope for another person climbing, with the post being either the belayer’s body or a belay device and locking carabiner.

Belaying is an Essential Skill

The belayer is the person who establishes a belay by holding the rope. This turns a climbing rope into a safety tool rather than what the great climber Royal Robbins once called “a lethal weapon.” Belaying, while sounding rather complicated, is actually an easy climbing skill to learn and to become a good belayer mostly requires lots of practice.

The Most Important Part of the Climbing Safety Chain

Belaying is the most critical part of your climbing safety chain. It’s also a part that can go badly wrong with belayer error or inattention. A good and conscientious belayer can and will save your life if you fall. A bad and inattentive belayer can drop you to the ground, resulting in you being killed or maimed.

Be a good belayer and expect your climbing partner to be the same.

How the Belayer Holds the Rope

The simplest belay is a climbing rope that runs from a belayer, the person holding the rope securely, to another person who climbs a rock face. The belayer either gives out or takes in rope, keeping it snug on the climber.

If the climber falls, the belayer applies friction to the rope in the belay device and stops the fall. There are many ways to apply friction, including running the rope around your waist in an old-style hip belay, using a Münter hitch knot, or using a belay device with the rope running through it.

3 Essential Belay Factors

Three important factors make a belay work:

  • A skilled belayer to manage the rope and apply friction on it in the event of a fall.
  • An anchor to secure the belayer to the cliff and to absorb some of the energy of a fall.
  • A belay device to magnify the friction applied on the rope by the belayer.

Where to Learn Belaying

If you take any climbing instruction, belaying will be part of the basics. If you are new to climbing and you don't know about belaying, it is worthwhile to take an introductory lesson. If you have an indoor rock gym available, that is a good place to get instruction any time of the year.Most gyms require a belay test that demonstrates your belaying competency as well as a knot-tying test to make sure that you can properly tie a figure-eight follow-through knot to secure the rope to your harness.

While you can see belaying demonstrated online, a hands-on lesson and test will ensure you know what you are doing and are doing it right.

After all, it's only your life at stake.