Most climbers do not understand the importance, in many situations, of a true dynamic belay for safely catching a leader fall. I recall seeing a Petzl video clip last year showing the belayer (on the ground belaying a leader on a sport climb) gently jumping up as the rope came tight while catching a fall. This technique reduces the force with which the falling leader will swing back into the wall on a steep climb.
A softer catch than just the dynamics the rope and gear provide can also be a good technique on a traditional climb if the gear is sketchy.
I always belay the leader off of my body (harness) for these reasons. I suffered a back sprain which took me out of action for months while attempting to finish my route “Seizure” in Josh. I was caught by a direct belay (the tuber type device was attached to a tree which has since died) and the impact was extreme even with more than 70 feet of rope in the system.
There are also certain circumstances when the best thing your belayer can do is to feed out
rope aggressively. Master belayer Guyzo Keese demonstrated the value of this technique as I went airborne up at the Kern Canyon’s Rincon area about 5 years ago.
I was going for the first clean lead of a new route called “Buzz Buster.” The crux moves are probably .11+, but come after a section of sustained vertical .11 climbing, so the sport grade would be 5.12a/b. The crux finishes when you latch a thin rail with the left hand enabling one to clip a bolt to the right now at chest height. At this point your pro is a bolt one full body length below your feet so the fall would be max 20 ft. Also at this point one has climbed up and right toward an arête and above an overhand about three body lengths under the feet.
The rail has a distinct sweet spot, and if you miss it you will be in trouble, so the best thing is to be patient, use a thin intermediate right which enables you to feel around for the best part of the hold. I was feeling strong and confident, and foolishly did a long reach past the intermediate. I did not hit the best spot on the rail. I was not solid enough to clip, so up came the right to another crappy spot on the rail and I piano’d around for a second or two looking for the spot before taking flight.
I did not have the rope behind my leg when I fell, but as I looked down I watched with horror as the rope formed a perfect loop in the air which my leg dropped into. I expected to be flipped and hit the wall upside down (no helmet.) I screamed.
I fell much further than I expected, and when finally caught I flipped violently end over end and axially at the same time. Then I was dangling there, about 10 feet below the overhang!
. Belay master Keese had instantly sized up the situation and realized that I needed to fall clear of the overhang below me, where I could flip without hitting the wall, and he promptly fed out as much rope as he could before catching me.
My point? Belaying and catching a leader safely can involve a lot more than simply locking off the device. And if you want to see the exact opposite of Guyzo’s thankfully loose belay that day, watch the running belayer in the opening sequence of the great video “Hard Grit…”