Having some extra time on my hands, I’ve been meeting up with a few friends at indoor climbing gyms that have asked me to teach them how to climb. My experience includes years of climbing and taking a basic climbing course in 2014 with a volunteer organization called the Washington Alpine Club. Here, I learned the terminology I never grasped from friends teaching me to climb.
From my experience being tested at various climbing gyms, here’s what you can expect from a belay test.
*Disclaimer: This does not constitute formal instruction in climbing. Climbing is a dangerous activity and you undertake it at your own risk.
- Climbing rope – supplied by gym
- Belay device – sometimes supplied by gym
- Harness – bring your own or rent
- Climbing shoes – bring your own or rent
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Depending on the gym, the test may be performed in a more fluid test than what I have outlined below.
If you’re going to rope climb, you’ll be wearing a harness. These days, there are different types of harness mechanisms. When I first started climbing, my harness had three points where it had to be double-backed around the waist and around each leg loop. Newer harnesses may only have one double-back mechanism around the waist. Double-backed means you thread the strap through the buckle once and then thread it “back” through in the opposite direction to prevent coming out.
As part of the harness check, the climbing gym staff will make sure you know the parts of your harness.
- Waistbelt – The part that wraps around your waist, not your hips.
- Belay loop – The loop where the carabiner, belay device, and rope are securely attached to the belayer’s harness to belay the climber.
- Tie-in loops – Two small loops that connect the belay loop to the waistbelt and leg loops and are used when the climber ties into the rope.
- Leg loops – The loops on the harness where the weight of the climber or belayer balances between your waist and legs.
- Fit – Does the harness fit snugly around the waist and legs without too much room? Gently tug on the harness to see how much give it has.
Tie-in test: Getting ready to climb
You will need to know how to tie a rewoven figure 8 knot through both tie-in loops or the two loops your belay loop connects to. Make sure you can answer and talk to the questions below:
- Is the rope through both tie-in loops?
- Is the knot clean?
- Is there a backup on at the end of the rope?
Below are quick steps to follow as the climber tying into the rope. Though, if you’re the belayer, you’ll also need to know how to check the climber’s knot.
- Tie a figure 8 knot on the end of the climbing side of the rope.
- Pass the tail of the rope up through both tie-in loops.
- Weave the rope tail around the figure 8 knot to make the rewoven figure 8.
- Tie off the end of the rope to back-up the knot.
Belaying can be complex and the motions feel awkward until your muscle memory or repetition is learnt. Belaying is a crucial skill when rope climbing. Bouldering is always an option if you aren’t ready to rope climb.
Setting up a belay device
Belay device – I’ve been to gyms where you test belaying on your own ATC device or use the devices set on the climbing gym ropes (usually a grigri, which is an assisted braking device). Some gyms test on both the ATC and grigri so knowing how to use both may help you pass. Tip: Most belay devices have diagrams on how to thread the rope correctly.
- Make a bend on the opposite end of the rope from the climber.
- Insert the climber end of the rope into the belay device on the top and the end of the rope at the bottom. If you’re right handed, make sure the rope is on the correct side of the ATC device.
- ATC device – Use a locking carabiner to attach the device and rope to the belayer’s belay loop. Make sure it is lock and the gate is opposite side of the brake hand.
- Grigri – Use a locking carabiner and connect it to the metal circle on the device and lock the gate. The gate should face the opposite side of the brake hand.
The climber and belayer should conduct harness checks before the climber starts climbing, which includes making sure the carabiners are locked, the rope is through the climber’s harness loops and the belay device is setup correctly.
How to belay
I have learned two types of belay techniques: pull, brake, under, slide (PBUS) or slip-slap-slide. Gyms (and guides) have adopted the PBUS as the preferred technique.
Pull or take in the rope slack as the climber ascends the climbing wall. Not letting go of the rope and you’ve pulled in as much as you can, move your hand to the brake position. Place your non-brake hand under the brake hand and slide the brake hand up the rope. Repeat as the climber continues to ascend. Ask your climber to climb a slow, easy route until you get used to the motion. Better yet, have another friend stand next to you to observe (not teach, as gyms frown upon it due to liability reasons).
Lower the climber
Once the climber reaches the top of the wall (or as far as she wishes to climb), the climber should yell “take” to her belayer. The belayer takes in all the slack of the rope and can tell the climber “I got you” or something to that effect. The climber then sits on her harness and the belayer can communicate “lowering.”
The belayer slowly lets out the rope in brake position while using an ATC device. If the belayer is using a grigri, the brake lever must be held with the non-brake hand to release the tension in order to lower the climber.
Max Ritter on Climbing.com shares a step-by-step guide on the PBUS method.
Never let go of the rope with your brake hand.
Communication is key, especially in a crowded indoor climbing gym. Climbers and belayers should be on the same page when starting to climb to make sure the partner is ready and attentive. Below are is a sequence of commands started by the climber before she ascends the wall.
Climber: “On belay?”
Belayer: “Belay on.”
Belayer: “Climb on.”
Tip: Add the climber’s or belayer’s name to the end of the communication especially when other climbing parties are around. It prevents confusion when the climber distances herself from the belayer.
The gym staff will also go through how to clip into the autobelay, which is a system that will catch the climber if they fall that isn’t a human. Make sure not to let go without the carabiner being attached to either your belay loop of your harness or the base of the climbing wall. You won’t make friends with the staff if you do.
Bouldering is climbing without a rope and some gyms go through the best practices for being aware of other climbers around you at any time. Gyms have signs asking if you are clipped in at a certain height of the wall. Stop bouldering or climbing without being attached to a rope if you reach the signs. Aren’t sure? Ask the staff.
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