Why Would You Need to Belay From Above?
Whether you’ve just made the transition from gym to outdoor climbing, or you’ve been climbing single-pitch sports routes for years, it’s possible that you’ve never needed to belay from above. However, knowing how to belay from above is essential for multi-pitch climbing and trad climbing, and can also be handy when you need to keep rope stretch to a minimum.
Belaying from above is most common on multi-pitch climbs. On a multi-pitch, upon finishing their lead, the lead climber needs to bring their second up to their anchor station before they can start on the next pitch. You’ll need to learn to belay from above if you want to safely bring your buddy on any route with more than one pitch.
Belaying from above is also common when trad climbing on routes with natural anchors, even on single-pitch climbs. Many trad climbing areas are established with a leave-no-trace ethic, meaning no pre-installed anchor points at the top of climbs. Even on single-pitch trad climbs, there’s a good chance that if you can walk off the top, then that’s what you’ll need to do.
In these situations, after the lead climber ascends the route, they will stay at the top and build a top rope anchor from their climbing gear. They’ll then need to belay from above, off this gear anchor, to bring their partner up too. Only then will they be able to disassemble the anchor and walk off.
Belaying From Above While Top Rope Climbing
In situations where you would like to minimize rope stretch when top rope belaying, you might choose to belay from above. By belaying from above, you halve the length of rope between the climber and the belayer when compared with a standard top rope belay, therefore halving the potential rope stretch.
Maybe the route is long and the moves in the first few feet are hard. With 200 feet of rope between the climber and the belayer, it’s probable that a fall on top rope in the first few feet will see the climber fall back to the ground due to rope stretch.
Rope stretch when falling on top rope off the first few feet of a long climb might also be a problem if the climb starts off a ledge. In this case, the rope stretch of a fall might land the climber below the starting ledge, which may then be difficult to climb back up to.
Belay Devices and Techniques for Belaying From Above
In theory, any belay device can be used to belay from above. This includes all tube-style devices (ATC, reverso, etc.), assisted braking devices, and even the old-school munter hitch. However, many belay devices are designed with top belaying especially in mind and will do this job much better.
The Redirected Belay
Any standard belay device can be used to belay from above by placing a redirect on the climbing anchor. With this method, the belayer keeps the belay device attached to their harness as if it were a standard top rope belay.
On one end of the rope will be the climber below, on the other, the belayer up top, and between them, the quickdraw acting to redirect the rope.
This just requires the belayer up top to clip a quickdraw into the anchor point above themself, or into a bolt or piece of gear on the following pitch, and clip the side of the rope going down to the seconding climber through the other end of this quickdraw.
So, this method allows the belayer up top to belay as though the seconding climber were on the other end of a standard top rope setup (just starting far below!).
However, there are a few major drawbacks to this system:
- The top roping climber’s weight is entirely on this redirected belay point. If it suddenly fails, the belay device will invert as the rope direction changes, which may cause the belayer to lose control of the rope.
- Belaying in this manner doubles the force on the redirect point, which increases its chance of failure. This is a very minor worry, because you probably shouldn’t trust your buddy’s life to a point that can’t hold more than 200lb, but it’s worth bearing in mind.
- You can only bring up one climber at a time. This is because, even with tube devices with space for two ropes, belaying up two separate followers would require you to periodically take your hand off the brake rope to take in slack.
The most common and safest way to belay from above is the direct belay. This is where the belayer hangs the belay device directly from the anchor’s master point. The belay is direct because the climber’s weight hangs directly off the anchor.
Any guide mode belay device, such as the ATC guide or Petzl reverso, can be used in a direct belay. The Petzl grigri can also be used in a direct belay, though a redirected belay should be preferred when possible. The munter hitch can also be used in a direct belay, though it offers no assistance braking.
By using a direct belay with a guide mode belay device, the belayer is free to move around the belay station while belaying. Guide mode belay devices are designed to be auto-locking when correctly used in a direct belay; manufacturers instruct to always keep a hand on the brake rope, but by design, the belay device should lock automatically in the event that the seconding climber falls.
A further benefit of the direct belay is that it allows two seconding climbers to easily be brought up at the same time, as guide mode belay devices are designed to accommodate two ropes.
The direct belay is the choice of most people belaying from above. However, it does have some drawbacks:
- Direct belays require an absolutely bomber anchor. Your partner’s/ buddy’s life will be directly hanging from the anchor.
- Lowering a seconding climber who is sitting and has loaded the rope can be difficult, and dangerous if done incorrectly. This requires more care and is less intuitive than lowering a climber on a redirected belay or top rope.
- If the device is incorrectly configured, it will not lock. For climbers inexperienced in belaying from above, or even just experienced climbers who are rushed and tired on a long multi-pitch, such mistakes might be hard to spot.
An indirect belay is where the belay device hangs from the belayer themselves, usually from their harness’ belay loop, rather than directly putting force on the anchor. In this case, the belayer’s body acts as an intermediate buffer for the anchor.
So, the anchor is only loaded if the belayer, because of the difficulty of counterbalancing the seconding climber’s weight, slips or moves into a position where they themselves hang from the anchor. The goal of this technique is to avoid load on the anchor if possible.
To perform an indirect belay, the belayer needs to sit or stand in a stable position. If the seconding climber suddenly falls or loads the rope, the belayer should be stable enough that they are not pulled out of position.
An indirect belay can be performed with any guide mode belay device, or even with a simple locking carabiner and a munter hitch.
The indirect belay method should only be used when even the best anchor available is not reliable enough to trust the climbers’ lives to it. In this system, the anchor is the backup, rather than the direct point of security.
Various Techniques and Devices
Belaying From Above With a Grigri
A grigri can be used to belay from above, either connected directly to the anchor or through a redirected belay. Petzl endorses both methods, though the preferred method is to keep the grigri attached to the belayer’s harness and redirect through the anchor point.
Petzl discourages hanging the grigri directly off the master point because:
- The braking mechanism is less effective
- Lowering a climber is harder to control. In this case, Petzl recommends redirecting the belayer’s end of the rope through a second, higher-placed carabiner for better control.
- The grigri could get caught against a rock or other obstruction and get blocked open.
To perform a redirected belay from above:
- Attach the grigri to the belayer’s harness belay loop as usual. Make sure that the rope is correctly oriented in the grigri.
- Clip a quickdraw or locking carabiner to a trustworthy point above the belayer (the redirect).
- Clip the seconding climber’s end of the rope through the redirect. Use the grigri to give and take in slack as though on a normal top rope.
To perform a direct belay from above:
- Attach the grigri to the anchor’s master point with a locking carabiner. Make sure that the rope is correctly oriented in the grigri. Make sure that there is nothing nearby that the grigri could jam against that would stop it from properly braking.
- Attach a second locking carabiner to the anchor in a position above the grigri. Run the brake side of the rope through this additional, higher point. This step is not essential, but it does give better control if you need to lower the seconding climber.
- Belay device with assisted braking, for a broad range of single rope diameters (8.5 to 11 mm), designed for the experienced belayer
- Belay device with assisted braking, compatible with a broad range of single rope diameters, for both gym and crag
- Exceptional comfort during descents
- Designed for experienced belayers
Belaying From Above With a Mega Jul
When belaying from above with the mega jul, Edelrid recommends belaying directly off the anchor point.
Performing a direct belay with the mega jul works similarly to most tube-style guide mode belay devices, like the ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso. However, there is one important safety instruction for the mega jul that makes it different to other devices.
When using the mega jul in a direct belay from above, the carabiner that attaches the rope(s) to the belay device must be attached with the opening side through the thumb loop, as indicated in the manufacturer diagram above.
Orienting the carabiner in the other direction, with the opening side facing out, as if it were any other guide mode belay device, may cause failure of the belay device. Because of the size and spacing of the mega jul’s rope slots, there is a risk that the rope(s) may twist into the wrong slot. In this case, the rope could either block up in a way that is difficult to free or deactivate the assisted braking function.
When attaching the mega jul to the anchor, beware of the several incorrect methods for attachment. Any of these will prevent the device from working properly.
To perform a direct belay from above:
- Attach the mega jul to the anchor’s master point using a locking carabiner. Make sure to clip it through the dedicated attachment loop, rather than the thumb loop.
- Pass the seconding climber’s rope through the rope slot. Make sure that the rope is oriented the right way, with the climber’s strand and brake strands of the rope correctly positioned. Make sure that the rope, or both ropes if belaying two climbers, remains in a single slot; the rope should not twist across two different slots.
- Clip a locking carabiner between the rope(s) and the belay plate. The carabiner that attaches the ropes to the belay device must be attached with the opening side through the thumb loop. The carabiner’s spine should be between the belay plate and the rope loops. This carabiner should always hang free; tension it away from the belay device and you will deactivate the device’s assisted braking function.
To lower a seconding climber:
- Tie a backup knot on the brake end of the rope a few feet further than the amount of rope you plan to pay out.
- Attach a carabiner to the small hole opposite the thumb loop. Use this as a lever to control lowering, always keeping the other hand on the brake rope.
- For belaying a leader or bringing up 2 seconds, also suitable for abseiling
- Robust solid stainless steel construction
- Very lightweight construction
- High braking performance assists the belayer with leader falls
- Small eyelet for releasing unit with a carabiner when bringing up your partner
Belaying From Above With an ATC – Using an ATC in Guide Mode
The Black Diamond ATC Guide is one of many tube-style belay devices designed with a special guide mode attachment point. This is the thumb-sized ring on the side of the ATC guide, used for attaching directly to an anchor and belaying from above. A regular (non-guide) ATC will not have this ring and cannot be directly attached to an anchor.
To perform a direct belay from above:
- Attach the ATC guide to the anchor’s master point using a locking carabiner. Make sure to clip it through the special attachment ring, rather than through the wire cable.
- Pass the seconding climber’s rope through the rope slot. Make sure that the rope is oriented the right way, with the climber’s strand and brake strands of the rope correctly positioned.
- Clip a locking carabiner between the rope(s) and the base of the belay tube. The carabiner should also go through the ATC’s cable. This carabiner should always hang free; tension it away from the belay device and you will deactivate the device’s assisted braking function.
To lower a seconding climber:
Safely lowering a following climber who has loaded the rope, when using the ATC in guide mode, is complicated. There are many techniques, though these become increasingly complicated in proportion to the control they give over the lowering process.
The simplest technique for lowering a stuck seconder a few feet is to simply ratchet the loaded carabiner between the ATC and rope back and forth, lowering a few inches each time.
Always keep one hand on the brake rope while doing this, and make sure to tie a backup knot somewhere along the brake strand in case you lose total control of the rope.
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Belaying With a Munter From Above
Dropped your belay device part-way up a multi-pitch? Cool, you get the chance to practice the munter hitch. We bet your partner will be thrilled at your excitement to finally use this esoteric technique that you’ve read about on the internet!
The munter hitch is a method of belaying directly off a locking carabiner. When belaying from above, it’s best to hang this carabiner off your anchor’s master point; this will be more comfortable and allow you better control than if you clipped it to your harness belay loop.
The munter hitch’s main drawback is that it will twist your rope(s), irritating you as you belay on the following pitches.
To belay from above using a munter hitch:
- Clip a locking carabiner into your anchor’s master point loop. The wide head of the carabiner should be hanging down. Clip the climbing rope through the carabiner.
- Make a loop on the brake strand of the rope. Make your loop with the brake end of the rope on the outside, then fold the loop back up and re-clip this hitch through the carabiner. The hitch should be attached to the side of the carabiner facing down.
- Take in slack as you would with an ATC or reverso. The munter hitch should be towards the belayer, with the free strand of the rope on the second’s side. Always keep a hand on the brake rope, as the munter hitch will not auto-lock.
- If you need to give rope, lift the brake-hand side of the rope upward; friction on the rope will reduce as the angle increases.
To belay up a second climber on double ropes, you can tie both ropes into the one munter hitch. Just make the hitch as normal, keeping both ropes parallel throughout the process.
If you’re belaying up two seconding climbers on two separate ropes, you’ll need to use two separate locking carabiners to tie two separate munters. Clip both of these through the anchor’s master point.
The munter hitch has no assisted braking function. To lock off the brake strand of the rope and free your hands, you’ll need to learn to tie it off using a munter mule hitch, as shown in this video:
Belaying Two From Above
When belaying two partners from above, you’ll want to stick to using a guide mode belay device, such as the ATC guide. These devices are specially designed to belay with double ropes from above and offer the extra safety of assisted braking.
However, something to note: if the two climbers that you’re pulling up climb at the same time, it can be hard to pull in both rope loops simultaneously. Although you should always keep your hands on the brake strands, these devices are designed to mechanically lock up if a seconding climber falls.
A grigri cannot be used to pull up two climbers at the same time because it can only fit one rope. For this system to work with double ropes, you’d need two grigris – one per rope.
A munter hitch can, in a pinch, be used to bring up two separate climbers. In this case, the belayer will need to rig two separate munter hitches at the anchor — one for each rope.
However, pulling up both climbers safely at the same time will be extremely difficult, as the belayer must constantly tension both ropes to ensure the climbers’ safety. If you have to use this system, it’s best to bring the climbers up one at a time. Keep the second follower tied off until the first follower has reached the belayer.
Are there specific carabiners for belaying from above?
In principle, any locking carabiner can be used to belay from above. However, the best option is an HMS locking carabiner. The wide top bar of these carabiners allows the rope to run smoothly over them and gives lots of space to comfortably attach double ropes or tie a munter hitch.
Better still, get yourself an auto-locking HMS carabiner. This reduces the risk that your rope will twist your carabiner unlock as it rubs against the locking ring, which is a real danger for the carabiner holding your rope against an ATC-style device, or when belaying using a munter.
- No Fur
- Materials: Aluminum; Weight: 90 g
- Major axis strength: 27 kN; Resistance minor axis: 8 kN; open lever Resistance: 8 kN
- Locking System: BALL-LOCK
- Opening: 27 mm
- Certification (s): CE EN 362, EAC, NFPA 1983 Technical Use
Can you self belay from above with a grigri?
Petzl explicitly prohibits using the grigri as a self-belay device. The device is not designed for this purpose, and your safety while doing so is not guaranteed.
Why not put your top belay skills to the test on the legendary trad routes of Squamish. And before you go, maybe a refresher on how to build solid multi-pitch anchors would be good.
Editorial staff for The Wandering Climber. An expert roundup of climbing nerds from across the world!