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When doing a multi-pitch and you reach a belay station (the top of a pitch) you can choose between belaying the lead climber from the body (like you do e.g. indoors where you aren't doing multi-pitches) or from the belay station (anchor) itself.

Can someone experienced please compare those types of belaying? What are pros and cons? What should be preferred in which situation?

I know for example that you have to care if you are using a Tube (e.g. BD ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso) and you are going to belay from the body because the device will fail if the pull of the rope isn't coming from above.

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    Those devices don't fail if the belayer understands that they need to brake in the opposite direction! Nitpick: ATC Guide is the Black Diamond one; Petzl's is the Reverso. – requiem Oct 13 '14 at 0:07
  • @requiem Thx, fixed that. Ben I am using a Tube (BD ATC-XP) or Munter Hitch. But I am asking in general so the question isn't referring solely to this style of belaying. The topic should be a reference for all climbers on multi-pitches and what you have to be sensible of when defining your belay strategy. – Wills Oct 13 '14 at 4:30
  • @EverythingRightPlace To make it clear: by "the top of a pitch" do you mean "the top of the previous pitch, and the bottom of current pitch"? (because otherwise it's not clear why you are going to belay the lead climber... Or was this a typo?) – anatolyg Oct 13 '14 at 8:51
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    I mean "the top of the previous pitch, and the bottom of current pitch". Otherwise you would just get the follower to the end of the route and start e.g. abseiling. – Wills Oct 13 '14 at 9:43
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    It's only available in German (I know that you understand it) and I don't have time to write a full-blown answer, but the bergundsteigen journal has an article about the pro's of belaying from your harness instead of from the anchor: bergundsteigen.at/file.php/archiv/2012/3/… Hope it helps somehow. – Benedikt Bauer Oct 13 '14 at 12:05
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Belaying Multi-pitch

It's often recommended to belay off the harness (an "indirect" belay) when belaying the leader, and off the anchor (a "direct" belay) when belaying the follower. Use of an indirect belay for the leader reduces the force on the anchors, but does require consideration of how the belayer may be pulled in a fall. Use of a direct belay for the follower similarly minimizes the force on the anchor by avoiding the pulley effect.

When the anchor pieces are extremely solid (e.g. bolts), a direct belay may be desirable in both cases. Still, do bear in mind that neither setup is mandatory; if a direct belay would place you in an awkward or less secure position then an indirect belay would offer, you should probably use the indirect belay and vice versa.

Belaying the leader

Should the leader fall before placing any protection, and continue falling past the belayer, the direction of pull then comes from below, and so the belayer must reverse their braking direction. As the belayer may not recognize the implications of this and thus not respond quickly enough, it's common to want to find some way to redirect the rope. However, an easier way to address this is for the belayer to bring their brake hand around behind their hip, rather than making a habit of braking purely downwards. Having your hand further from the device when it's locked-off may also reduce rope burns in a high fall factor situation as more rope can slip through the device before it has to also slip through your hand.

If a redirect is still wanted, the leader can do this by clipping the rope into the shelf, master point, or the topmost piece of the anchor, which the belayer may unclip once additional protection has been placed. Alternatively the belayer could lower themselves a few meters below the anchor. I've also seen it suggested that the previous leader could climb slightly above the belay station in order to place an initial piece, and descend to build the belay anchor. (This makes an exception to the "never back-clip" rule, as back-clipping this piece lets the rope run the correct direction when the other climber takes the lead.)

Redirecting the belay by clipping the anchor may slightly reduce the fall factor due to the additional rope out. However, it also means the belayer will be pulled violently into that piece when such a fall happens. The pulley effect will also multiply the force on the anchor (or the particular piece that was clipped) in contrast to a direct belay. Thus, unless the clipped piece is solid (e.g. a bolt) and the belayer can also be anchored to prevent them smashing into it, it may be preferable for the leader to simply place good protection soon after leaving the ground rather than clipping the leader's rope into the anchor.[1] (Of course, if you have an extremely solid anchor, you might also consider a direct belay.)

A strong argument for an indirect belay (off the harness) is that by incorporating the belayer into the system, some of the load on the anchor is shifted to the belayer's stance. This may be helpful if the quality of the anchor or gear is in question. If you do use an indirect belay, be mindful of the direction a fall will pull the belayer. It's also advisable to clip the belay device into both the rope tie-in loop and the belay loop when doing this, in order to prevent discomfort from the harness being twisted in two different directions.[2] (Clipping the belay loop vs. clipping the tie-in loop is also a way you can further adjust the amount of force going to the anchor.)

On the other hand, a direct belay (off the anchor) will be much easier to escape if something goes wrong, and essentially eliminates the weight of the belayer as a factor in catching falls. This may be beneficial if the leader significantly outweighs their belayer, but it also means that it's harder to give a "soft catch". It also places significantly higher forces on the anchor and gear.[3] (Along those same lines, use of a tube-style belay device such as an ATC or Reverso will allow additional rope slippage that further reduces the impact on the anchor.)

References:

  1. Will Gadd "Anchor Clipping #2 (Now 3) http://willgadd.com/anchor-clipping-2/

  2. Belaying – From the 'Rope Loop' or from the harness 'Belay Loop'? http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=1129

  3. Max Berger "Steinzeitmethode Fixpunktsicherung?" http://www.bergundsteigen.at/file.php/archiv/2012/3/36-41%20%28steinzeitmethode%20fixpunktsicherung%29.pdf

  • Like anatolyg, I also misinterpreted the question. This answer is the one that clearly addresses the question, which was actually about lead-belaying on a multipitch climb. – Ben Crowell Oct 16 '14 at 3:08
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There are many different types of belays from above, e.g., you could be belaying for someone on third-class snow, with your dug-in crampons as part of your anchor. In that particular situation, you want to belay off of your body.

Belaying off of your body has the disadvantage that if the climber takes a fall, you may be whipped around. A possible advantage is that it's a pretty natural and physically comfortable way to belay, and one that many people are familiar with from the gym.

Belaying with the belay device hung off of the anchor has a couple of advantages. If the follower falls, you won't be moved around. Also, if you're using an ATC Guide, this setup allows you to use its autoblocking mode. This protects your climber if, e.g., you get hit in the head by rockfall. One possible big disadvantage is that if you don't understand how to set up your belay device properly for belaying in this mode, you can be in a situation where you effectively are not giving a belay.

Every belay station is different, and you may want to take into account the physical setup and your physical comfort.

  • Thanks for this very helpful and informative answer. What I don't understand is the autoblocking of ATC Guide. As far as I understand you always (!) have to use your hand on the rope (the end which isn't coming from the lead climber of course) to be able to hold a possible fall. A device like Petzl GriGri will autoblock and therefore even work in case of knocked out belayer. – Wills Oct 13 '14 at 4:35
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    One hopes the GriGri will lock; there are cases where it may not, which is why Petzl considers it only an "assisted" locking device and says to always have your hand on the brake. (However, I believe such cases are mostly operator error.) – requiem Oct 13 '14 at 6:19
  • I would like to read more about this possible failures of the GriGri too. But still, I don't see the ATC Guide autoblocking. Can you explain this please @BenCrowell? – Wills Oct 13 '14 at 17:10
  • @EverythingRightPlace: But still, I don't see the ATC Guide autoblocking. Here's a demonstration video made by the manufacturer: youtube.com/watch?v=KM5c9wlTReo You have to set it up a special way to get the autoblocking feature. When it's set up this way, you can actually have a problem if your second wants to be lowered -- the autoblocking feature won't let you do it unless you do something special to defeat the autoblocking! This only works with an ATC Guide, not a regular ATC. I would still never take my hand off the brake strand, just as I'd never do so with a grigri. – Ben Crowell Oct 14 '14 at 1:31
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(Update: I have now realized you were talking about belaying the leader, and not the second climber. I am updating my answer to take this into account.)

What does "belay from the body" mean?

According to your remark on the direction of the pool, I guess it means the rope doesn't pass through the anchor at all. This type of belaying seems not safe, regardless of which belay device you are using. If the climber you are belaying falls, he will pull you down (or to the side, if it was a traverse), and you will find yourself hanging on your self-belay in a very uncomfortable position, possibly letting go of the belay rope! I also heard that harnesses are designed to be weaker when pulled downward, but I don't know whether this is true.

It's very easy to fix this arrangement: just pass your rope through the anchor (most likely by adding a dedicated carabiner to the anchor, and passing the rope through it).

I could think about just a few reasons not to pass the rope through the anchor:

  • If you have a very unreliable anchor, or no anchor at all
  • If the rope is too short

The above is especially true for belaying the second climber; it is also usually true for belaying the leader; however, when the station is very comfortable and you (the belayer) have nowhere to fall, there is little use in passing your rope through the anchor. In this case, until the leader places the first piece of protection, he most likely hits the ground (or ledge you are standing on), and the rope doesn't help. Also, you might want to help him land safely in this case (aka "gymnastic belay"), and being attached to the anchor hinders your movement. So, in this case you should not pass the rope through the anchor.


(The following part describes belaying the second climber. I have never tried to belay a leader with belay device anywhere except my harness, and I suspect it's impossible.)

If "belay from the body" only signifies where you attach the belay device (your harness vs the fixed anchor) - the choice is mostly a matter of convenience. It's usually more convenient to use the anchor (assuming you use a device that supports it); in some situations the "indoor" mode is better:

  • If you are going to move around while belaying
  • If the anchor is high above you, and you don't have spare webbing for extensions
  • Sometimes you want to apply a constant sideways force on the anchor to guide the rope away from sharp rock outcroppings
  • Maybe you want to use your weight to help the following climber cheat through hard sections? (just guessing here; never had to do this)
  • Thanks for the great answer given. You are right, by "belay from the body" I am just referring to the case where you attach the belay device to the harness. You are also right that you can fix the critical situation where you belay from the body with an ATC Guide and the lead climber falls before the first bolt. I am asking for this kind of possible mistakes by belaying from the belay station. And I am asking for differences in general (like e.g. load on anchor of belay station). – Wills Oct 13 '14 at 4:20
  • Your edit confuses me. It's not impossible to belay a lead climber from the anchor (in other words: NOT from the body). I found a nice video, they are summarizing some points of the topic (they also say you can belay from the anchor with a hitch OR a belay device). – Wills Oct 13 '14 at 21:23
  • @EverythingRightPlace Where did you find that video? I would like to find and watch it myself; maybe you can post a link? – anatolyg Oct 14 '14 at 7:42
  • Big sorry, forget to post the link... I meant this video: vimeo.com/44869774 but now I see there is also another video from this series which might be interesting for the topic: vimeo.com/44847539 – Wills Oct 14 '14 at 19:30

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