Most climbers want to be better climbers, but what about being a better belayer? A better spotter? A better overall climbing partner? We definitely all want good climbing partners. The best place to start is to be one.
Let’s first talk about being a better climbing partner to a sport climber. When I first started belaying for sport climbing, I knew all the rules and technically what to do, but I didn’t know there were certain things that I could do to make the climb run more smoothly for the climber. Now that I’ve learned some, I want to share those with you.
One of the first things to know is when to give soft catches. If you are close to the same weight as your partner or weigh more than them, a soft catch will almost always be the way. If your partner weighs a significant amount more than you, a soft catch is unnecessary and potentially dangerous because you’ll already just do it naturally. To do a soft catch you pay attention to when the climber is falling and try to jump up before tension is established in the rope. This gives a bit more slack to their fall which helps them fall in a more natural way instead of a snapping, jerking way. It lowers the chance the climber will slam into the wall, because it gives them enough fall time to get their feet out. How much you jump will have to be practiced and dependent on how far up the climber is. Jumping up high, when they only have two clips could cause the fall to be too big.
The reason it doesn’t work if the climber weighs more than you, is you will likely be sent flying up anyway and trying to resist it and hold yourself down is actually more helpful to you. I have caught falls with climbers who weighed more and often went flying up to the first clip, which is a bit scary. Trying to resist the fall a little actually still gave them a soft catch, but didn’t send me into the bolt.
You also want to try to give your partner a little bit of slack while they are climbing. Try to have a small little dip of rope in front of you. Be careful not to do too much because that will make their fall bigger, but your rope should not be completely tight either. The rope in front of you should look something like a relaxed, bent elbow. A huge loop is too much slack, but there needs to be some. I try to take in a little with each move up to make sure that I’m keeping the rope a little loose. The reason for this again is to add a little softness to a fall and to allow them to make a dynamic move if they need to. When I first started lead belaying, I thought the rope would always be tight, so you wouldn’t fall as far. However, I quickly learned that while this felt safer from my shoes, it feels very scary for a climber to be going for a big move and worrying they will be yanked from the wall. You could argue a climber could communicate, but you know when you are climbing you go into a zone and you just want to expect the belayer is keeping up as they should. It’s better to just be prepared for the climber.
You also want to make sure you have a firm grasp on the communication you will use. Often there are climbs that you will not be able to see your climber through the whole climb, so you want to know how to communicate when you cannot. Also there are many climbs where you won’t be able to hear the climber (loud gym music, great height outdoors, etc) so you want to have non-verbal communication. They teach you words like “climb on, climbing, on belay, etc,” but not everyone uses these or thinks to say them. Make sure you know what words and signs that your climber will use. I offered to belay someone I had never climbed with one time. He went on a climb that starts going over a ledge, so as soon as he was over the ledge (by clip 2) I could no longer see him. He didn’t say anything and I knew nothing about him. I was terrified the whole time desperately trying to read the way the rope was moving. Everything worked out fine, but it is still good to know. Your climber might not be thinking to communicate because they are thinking about the climb, but their life is in your hands, so you need to know.
Try to stay focused on the climber. It is easy to get used to belaying and bored of it. I see lots of belayers doing what they should but looking around, thinking about their next climb, etc. Especially since it can hurt your neck to look up the whole time. However, even when you are not looking up there are ways to be focused. Keep a feel on the rope to notice when its pulling up, weighted, or loose. Be alert for communication from your partner. Be braced in an appropriate position to take a surprise fall.
If you are outside, you may want to wear a helmet. It might sound weird, but the belayer is really at the most risk. The climber might accidentally rip off a hold, they might kick rocks down accidentally. You don’t want to get hurt because that would suck, but also it would be bad news for your partner. Make sure if you are in an area that is chossy or prone to rock fall, you take precaution.
While it isn’t necessary for safety, it is nice for all climbing partners to be able to offer some feedback or encouragement. There is a lot you can see in the climber’s technique that they may not know they are doing. Think about suggestions or compliments you can offer. This will help you stay engaged with what they climber is doing, but it also helps you both get better.
Plenty of people boulder without a partner, but it is a form of climbing where a partner can be particularly helpful and comforting.
A partner can work as an efficient spotter while you are climbing. This involves two important things. The first is making sure the pads are in the best position. Some climbs have traverses or moves that shift the climber out of their original alignment with the ground. How they stacked the pads to start, might not help them at the top out. Try to be prepared to quickly shift around pads so that the climber is always covered. Be alert for rocks, tree stumps, or things that could harm the climber and make sure they are covered either by the pad or your spotting position. A boulderer doesn’t want to have to miss a chance to onsight or send because they are concerned where their pads are, so try to help them out.
Second is holding up your hands to help push the climber into the right spot. Keep in mind that a spotter doesn’t catch the climber. You don’t have to try to wrap your arms around them and hold them up. You just have to make sure they land on their pads and not off to the side. Most spotters either aim to catch the climber under the armpits, to push their torso forward, or to body slam them into the pads if necessary. It depends on the fall. It is important to remember the weight caught won’t be the weight of the climber, but also their force. This can be a large impact and you don’t want them to get hurt, but you don’t want to hurt yourself either. That’s why each of these methods works in certain situations. You could also get a small crash pad, hold it in your arms, and use that to push the climber to where they need to be. The spotter also needs to be mindful of where they stand. You want to cover an area that would be dangerous for the climber to fall. For instance, if there is a large boulder behind their boulder, you want to make sure they are not hitting that boulder. Part of it could be lining pads up on it, but part could also be spotting.
This is another position where communication is important. You want to know what the climber is doing, so you know when and where to move the pads, and where to spot. You want the climber to communicate areas where they might need you most. A good way to do this is to have the climber explain or for you to read the route yourself. Getting to know where the moves are, what the crux is, and what parts are rated as sketchy will help you make a decision.
Of course, like mentioned before you can always keep an eye out for cool moves, improvements that could be made, etc. Help your fellow climber get better and help yourself. Think about suggestions for tough moves or areas they might look a little shaky. Offer encouragement and knowledge. Also be confident because the climber might be able to do a climb, but feel scared. Knowing someone has them might be all they need. Even if you are scared and unsure if you really have them, try to act assuring and let them know you are there. I should specify that when I say unsure I mean the normal I haven’t caught you here doubts. If you really have no idea how to spot, that is a different story and you’d need to talk to the climber to find out where you should be and how to do it. Then be confident.
Top roping is a pretty easy gig for a climbing partner, but there are still ways to look out for your partner.
Your partner will not be taking lead climb whippers in top roping, or at least they shouldn’t be. However, they may have a preference on if they like slack or being tight. Some people who are scared of top roping falls like to be very tightly held. Some people feel restricted and like the rope is pulling them up if it is too tight. Communicate with your partner to find out what they prefer and make that happen. Communication is still important in top roping. Know what signs they will use to show you what is going on.
It can be hard to pay attention to your climber because people tend to think nothing will go wrong in top roping, but it is still important. There have been times I was climbing and my rope was stuck somewhere, to the belayer it felt tight but to me an enormous loop of slack was forming. These are scary moments. Try to stay focused and able to communicate with the climber in moments like these.
There are also times where the climb might require a dyno, traverse, or some move that does need more slack than usual. Communication and paying attention is important.
If you are top roping outside, you may want to consider a helmet too. Again because rock fall could knock you out and cause trouble for the both of you.
These are some basics to think about. Let me know if you have any other ideas, things I forgot, or questions.