A simple belay back up on multipitch


Scenario: You’re on a multi-pitch sport route with your partner, and it's right about the upper edge of your abilities. You arrive at the anchor bolts for pitch 1, build an anchor, connect to it, catch your breath, and look ahead to the next pitch.

You notice two important things: 1) the moves to the first bolt on pitch 2 look pretty hard, and 2) the first bolt is straight above the belay anchor.

You start running a little “what-if” scenario in your head:

  • What if my partner starts to lead pitch 2 and falls before they clip the first bolt?

  • What if they fall directly onto me?

  • If this happens, can I keep control of the brake strand of the rope? (and no, you're not using a Grigri or other similar auto locking belay device, but you probably should be.) 

No, you’re not overthinking this. This exact tragic scenario happened at Smith Rock sometime around 2005. The leader fell onto the belayer, the belayer lost control of the brake strand, and the leader then fell to the ground and died.

Here's a simple tip that can make the situation a lot safer.

After putting the leader for pitch 2 on belay, the belayer pulls up enough rope for the leader to reach the first bolt, ties a clove hitch, and clips the clove to the anchor as a backup “catastrophe knot.” If the second were to fall onto the belayer, and if the belayer were to lose control of the brake hand, the clove hitch would prevent the second from falling to the ground. 

(Now, this is still a factor 2 fall onto the anchor, which is never a good thing, but at least the leader will never be dropped and fall to the ground.)

As soon as the leader clips the first bolt, the belayer takes a moment with one hand to untie the clove hitch, and continues to belay normally.

There’s another approach to lessen a potential harsh fall in this situation. The belayer could lower themselves a few meters below the anchor, the leader for pitch 2 could clip the anchor for their first piece, and then they head for the first bolt. Because of the belayer in the lower position means more rope out, and the leader already has a bolt clipped at the anchor, any fall before the first bolt will be less severe.

Keep your eyes open, look ahead, thanks, and have a few Crafty Rope Tricks.

Oh, and next time, please bring your Grigri.