Rock Climbing Commands: "On Belay"

A Basic Command Before Rock Climbing

Dr. Bill Springer belays at the Ice Cream Parlor near Moab, Utah.
The command "On belay" means that the belayer is ready for a climber to begin climbing. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

In the sport of rock climbing, “on belay” is the first climbing command used by a rope climbing team at the base of a route, as well as at both the beginning and end of a pitch higher up the cliff. The term is also used when rappelling--the sport of using ropes to descend down a steep cliff face in a series of hops or jumps. "Belaying" refers to a variety of techniques used to keep tension on a climbing rope so that in case of mishap, a climber does not fall very far before being stopped by the rope.

"On belay" is the voice command issued by your climbing partner to indicate he or she is prepared to keep tension of the rope as you climb, thereby ensuring your safety. 

In a traditional climbing exercise, your belayer, who is probably standing next to you at the base of your route’s first pitch, lets you know that he is ready and that it is safe for you to climb by loudly saying “on belay.” This means that the belayer has uncoiled the rope at the cliff base, has tied himself to an anchor like a tree or cams, and is securely holding the climbing rope that is tied to you with a figure-8 follow-through knot, threaded through his belay device. In a rappelling exercise, the belayer is sometimes at the top of the cliff or wall, especially when it is a one-way descent rather than a descent after a successful climb. 

Accepted Protocol

Below is the usual group of commands used by a climbing team, either when they are starting from the base of the cliff, from a belay ledge partway up a route, or by a leader who is has put a seconding climber on belay from above.

You will use this series of commands whether you’re big wall climbingsport climbing, or toprope climbing. Just remember that when you tell the other climber that he is "on belay," you are now on duty and must be an attentive belayer. Remember that belaying is always a serious matter. Do not be distracted.

Pay attention to the climber. A typical interchange between climber and belayer may sound something like this:

Climber: “On belay?” (Are you ready to belay me?)
Belayer: “Belay on.” (Slack is gone and I’m ready.)

Climber: “Climbing.” (I’m going to climb now.)
Belayer: “Climb on.” (I’m ready for you to climb.)

Climber: “Slack!” (Pay out a little rope.)
Belayer: (Pay out rope and pause to see if climber asks again.)

Climber: “Up rope.” (Pull in rope slack.)
Belayer: (Pull in slack and pause to see if climber asks again.)

Climber: “Tension.” (I want to rest by hanging on the rope now.)
Belayer: (Remove all slack and hold tight.) “Gotcha.”

Climber: “Ready to lower.” (I’m done climbing.)
Belayer: (Reposition both hands to brake.) “Lowering.”

Climber: “Off belay.” (I’m standing securely on the ground.)
Belayer: “Belay off.” (I’ve stopped belaying you.)

Remember that it is up to the belayer to tell you, the leader, when he is ready for you to climb and is on belay. Impatient climbers sometimes ask their belayer, “Are you on belay?” or “On belay?” Don’t be an impatient pest—let your belayer get ready and tell you when he is on belay and that it is safe for you to climb. Rushing your belayer is an invitation to a mishap.