How to Belay

Photo: Daniel Holz/TandemStock

Belaying 101: How to Top-Rope Belay

Climbing is all about partnership, and learning how to belay well is essential to supporting your friends and keeping them safe on the wall. It’s also one of the first skills you’ll learn as a climber, so it can be easy to dismiss as elementary. But because proper belaying requires so much attentiveness and skill, it’s an area of constant improvement and lifelong practice for many climbers. That means good belayers are always in high demand. If you can master the basics, you’ll be a sought-after climbing partner anywhere.

If you’re just learning how to belay, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’ll cover the following:

  1. What is belaying?
  2. Where can I learn to belay?
  3. Belay commands
  4. How to top-rope belay
  5. Belaying with an ATC or other tube-style device
  6. How to lower with an ATC
  7. Belaying with a Gri-gri or other assisted-braking device
  8. How to lower with a Gri-Gri

What is belaying?

Whenever you climb on a rope, someone has to hold the other end to catch you if you fall. That person is called your “belayer”—they pull in and pay out rope so that if you do fall, there’s not enough slack in the system for you to go very far. Because it would be almost impossible to catch a fall with bare hands (talk about rope burn), belayers rely on an aid called a “belay device” to grip the rope.

Where can I learn to belay?

You can learn a lot about belaying online, but there’s no substitute for in-person practice from a certified instructor or climbing guide, or even an experienced friend. Once you think you’ve got the basics down, go to a climbing gym and ask for a top-rope belay test for official confirmation. 

When you’re ready to learn how to lead-climb—clipping the rope up the route with you to get it to the top—you’ll need to learn how to lead-belay, which is a bit more involved. Many gyms offer great lead-belay classes as well as lead-belay tests. 

Belay commands

Because proper belaying is one of the most critical safety systems in climbing, clear communication is essential to make sure everything is set up correctly. Before climbing, you’ll hear these commands:

Climber: On belay?

Belayer: Belay on.

Climber: Climbing!

Belayer: Climb on!

There are a few variations to the latter part of the routine, i.e. “Rocking!—Rock on!” or “Dude on rock—Rock on, Dude!” But all these scripts do one thing: clearly indicate that both the climber and belayer are ready. That means:

  1. The climber is properly tied into the rope with a complete knot and at least six inches of tail.
  2. The belay device is properly loaded with the carabiner locked.
  3. Both climbers’ harnesses are properly cinched.
  4. The belayer is attentive and ready to take in or feed out slack as the climber ascends.

Do a quick internet search, and you’ll find numerous stories about climbers, even some of the world's best, forgetting to complete a knot and falling from the tops of their routes. Everyone makes mistakes; the partner check is designed to catch them before anyone gets hurt. (Taking a climbing gym belay test is a great way to make sure you know exactly what to look for.) 

Here are a few other common commands you should know as a top-rope belayer (and as a climber):

Uprope! Take in any extra slack; the climber is alerting you that there is a loop of slack by his or her feet, which could cause them to fall farther in case of a slip. 

Take! Take in slack immediately; the climber wants tension so they can sit back and hang on the rope.

Falling! The climber is about to fall. Hold the brake strand downward in its braking position, bend your knees, and prepare to catch them.

Watch me! Stay vigilant; the climber is preparing to do a difficult move and wants to make sure you’re paying attention.

Ready to lower! Your climber is sitting back against the rope and is ready to be lowered to the ground.

How to top-rope belay

The most common technique for top-rope belaying is called the “PBUS” method. PBUS stands for “Pull, Brake, Under, Slide.”

First, load the rope through your belay device such that the strand leading to the climber extends from the opening closest to your body, and the spare end of the rope extends from the other opening, nearer to the wall.

Next, grip the climber’s strand with one hand (usually your dominant hand) a bit above your head. Grip the spare end of the rope, called the “brake strand” in your other hand. This is your “brake hand.” Your brake hand should be just a few inches below your belay device. Now, it’s PBUS time.

  1. Pull: Pull down on the climber’s strand. Then lift your brake strand and pull on it to draw that amount of slack through the belay device.
  2. Brake: Pull your brake hand down and toward you. This locks the rope into the belay device, keeping your climber secure.
  3. Under: Move your upper hand down below your brake hand. This allows you to slide your brake hand back into place without ever letting go of the brake strand, which would endanger your climber.  
  4. Slide: Slide your brake hand back up so it’s just a few inches below your device. Then, move your free hand back to the climber’s end of the rope, just above your head again, and prepare to repeat.

Belaying with an ATC or other tube-style device

If you’re belaying with an ATC or other tube-style device, the PBUS method should feel straightforward—tube-style devices tend to feed smoothly. Just be sure to never take your brake hand off the brake strand, as there is no mechanical safety backup to catch a fall.

How to lower with an ATC 

When lowering with a tube-style device, first make sure there is no extra slack in the rope, and the climber is sitting back and ready to lower. Then, grip the brake strand with both hands. Gently lift the brake strand and loosen your grip just slightly until you feel the rope sliding slowly through your hands. If it starts to slide too quickly for your (or your climber’s) comfort, tighten your grip and pull the brake strand in and down to halt the descent. Then, continue again slowly until you find that sweet spot for a slow, controlled lower.   

Belaying with a Gri-Gri or other assisted braking device

The PBUS method also works well with assisted-braking devices, but you might encounter slightly more resistance through the device, especially with thicker ropes. It’s also easy to load an assisted-braking device incorrectly; before your climber leaves the ground, double-check that the device is loaded according to the manufacturer’s recommendations (usually the device itself will feature small diagrams to help you decide where the climber’s strand and brake strand should go).

How to lower with an Gri-Gri

To lower with a Gri-Gri or other assisted braking device, simply lift the lever upward until you feel the cam slowly disengage and the rope begin to slide through. Always maintain one hand on the brake strand, and release the lever if you feel your climber move too quickly for either your comfort or theirs.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.