USA Belay

 photo by James Whitesides

Anyone who has belayed at an event with me has heard me ask, often at surprising or intense moments, "How do you belay?" It's a line that's always good for a funny and distracting moment of lightness. I don't want anyone belaying tense.

In 2017, John Moriarty and I decided to volunteer at a Youth Series competition in Pennsylvania. The volunteers were summoned to the back of the gym and the event organizer asked, "Who knows how to belay?" Several dads raised their proud papa hands and one fella kind of half raised his. John asked, "Well, can you belay?" The volunteer said, "On paper, but I've never done it at a..." John nudged (shoved?) him to the other side of the room and declared, "There! You're a judge!" If you know John, you know that he slayed with that bit. To this day, whenever we see each other we say, "On paper", or ask, "How do you belay?"

Competition belaying has come a very long way in the past decade. No longer is "the belay team" the four dads drinking beer in the parking lot of the local youth competition along with two day-of volunteers in flip flops. No longer are women given the top rope climbs because they are too light to belay lead.

At current championship and elite series climbing events, trained and experienced women and men deploy from around the country ready to serve athletes and sport in a safe, consistent, and professional manner. Every belayer is prepared and ready to rope like pros they are. And, yes, women belay men and men belay women. It's a skills thing, not about relative weight. We buried that myth.

In 2015, and after careful study, I really started to understand competition belaying. There were needs and there were aspirations. Varying belay friends and colleagues nerded out into the wee hours about technique, style, process, and procedure.

I was brought up by my mentor, Ike Jariel, and studied under Charlie Lamb. These are legends in the US Style. Mostly what I learned from them was that belaying was serious business. Belayers hold life and limb in their hands. Athletes had to have faith in these grubby strangers. But I noticed that when people saw Charlie and Ike they knew they could focus on climbing and not as much on their safety.

We discussed angles, slip speed, S-curves, vocabulary, and footwork. We pondered how to destroy the old boy's club image, how to eliminate glory and pity belaying. We talked of systems, data, teams, and supervisory responsibilities. We wanted to build something self-sustaining. We wanted to build something beautiful, important, and powerful.

We debated with host gyms over techniques and equipment. We convinced the US federation that we had  ideas and plans. We wrote a book. We shared resources.

Why we do what we do is a bit of a mystery--perhaps there is a certain thrill in engaging the mind for hours of intense, sustained focus or maybe we have all learned to use our bodies and skills to give the softest, safest belay. Maybe it's the purity of the challenge or maybe it's a rare opportunity to demonstrate something so skilled that mostly only those who knew really knew. We saw what happened at the intersection of belief and skill.

The modern competition belayer is intelligent, fit, practiced, and holds their work to the highest standards. The modern elite belayers train as athletes and practice their craft. And, for certain, those who do it the best really, really know how to do a thing. And this group is growing quickly.

I believe it was these words that I came across many years ago that solidified that we were not alone and that we were absolutely right:

"The goal is actually more practical than just a 'soft catch', it is more centered around physics of keeping all the fall forces downwards and preventing them from turning into dangerous lateral momentum. In competition climbing there are often big traverses and they can sometimes be a bit run out in a way. By gradually slowing the fall rather than catching it, all the force generated is absorbed by gravity, rather than turning into lateral motion that could potentially slam the climber into the wall and cause injury.

If you catch a big pendulum fall, the sudden force of the rope going taunt will slam the climber into the wall, or maybe even sideways into another climber, which is very dangerous."

C250585 • 9y ago • Edited 9y ago

I will never know who C250585 is but never were there truer, clearer words. Thank you C250585!

And because of intense cognitive and financial resources utilized in conjunction with thousands of belays, we have landed here: the Modern US Style. We have introduced a ton of new concepts and vocabulary. We know how to perform to the highest standards. Safety, consistency, and professionalism is baked into everything we do.

We will continue to publish documents and videos. We continue to share. Our big tent is open to anyone and everyone. While only a few belayers will become legendary like Ike and Charlie, a giant group will be far, far about serviceable. I will continue to try hard to do a good job.