It is not uncommon for an individual to take a friend climbing who has a limited climbing background. Many crags require one to lead in order to set-up the rope. This creates a potentially dangerous situation for the experienced person, since the newbie may not have the appropriate experience to belay a leader.
Lead Belay Training
If you take a beginner to a venue that requires a lead in order to access the anchors, it is important to teach the beginner how to lead belay in the lesson. Once the PBUS technique has been taught and the student demonstrates proficiency, then you may move into a lesson on lead belaying.
The orientation of the beginner’s hands while belaying a leader should reflect the posture taken in the break position of the PBUS. The student will pay out rope with a guide hand above the device, while the brake-hand remains in the same position below the device. If the beginner needs to bring rope back in, they simply revert back to the PBUS toproping technique.
To practice the lead belay, it is best to place a piece ten feet or so up, then run the rope through it. You can practice paying out rope and "taking falls" prior to actually getting onto the sharp end of the rope.
Lead Belay with an Assisted Breaking Device
There are guides who prefer to have students belay them with an assisted braking device. The advantage to these devices is that they reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic failure of the system. The problem with them is they are far from foolproof and require specialized instruction and technique.
There are a number of devices on the market and they all have their own idiosyncrasies. It’s important to read all associated instructions before using a new device, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations, heed the manufacturer’s warnings, and practice with it prior to using in an institutional setting.
The Petzl GriGri is one of the more common devices on the market. As a result, lead belay technique with this device is demonstrated in the following video. This video shows both the "old style" of lead belaying, as well as the "new style."
Belaying a Leader with a GriGri - The "New Style"
The primary belaying position for the GriGri is the PBUS position, with a guide hand above the device on the rope and a brake-hand below. As a leader moves up the rock, the belayer slowly feeds rope through the device, gently pulling with the guide hand, while pushing rope through with the brake-hand. If the rope is fed at an appropriate speed, the cam in the GriGri will not engage.
In this principal belay position, the belayer’s brake-hand never leaves the rope. If there is a need to bring in slack, the belayer reverts to the PBUS technique.
Because the cam automatically engages with a sudden acceleration of the rope, it can be difficult to pay out slack quickly. The simplest solution to this problem is to never allow the rope to suddenly accelerate. This may accomplished by the leader placing gear at chest level or lower and extending the protection with runners. Doing so allows the leader to clip into the protection without having to give a quick tug on the rope.
If the goal is to teach a student the finer points of lead belaying, then there are two ways to give slack to a climber who needs it quickly. The first and easiest way is to simply step in toward the wall. This will immediately put slack into the system and works well. However, this technique is not recommended for novice belayers.
The second way is to shift the brake-hand, sliding it up the rope to the device, bracing the index finger against the lip of the moving sideplate. Press the thumb of the brake-hand down on the cam where the handle is attached while continuing to hold the brake-strand of the rope. Pull slack with the guide-hand. Once finished, immediately return to the principal belay position.
Petzl recommends that you:
1) Always keep the brake-strand in the brake hand. There is never a valid reason to let go of the brake-strand.
2) Never grip the device with the entire hand.
3) Anticipate the climber’s movement, including when additional rope is needed to make the clip.
In a toprope setting, a rope is generally set-up early in the day and may be used to practice belaying. In a lead setting, practicing this skill requires some creativity. One method is to clip the first bolt of a sport route, or to place a piece of gear about ten-feet up. Clip the rope and then have the student practice belaying a leader on this short mock set-up.
Student Belay Backups, Ground Anchors and Knots
In addition to using an assisted breaking device and placing a lot of protection, here are three other ways to increase instructor security during a lead. First, use a ground anchor. Second, employ a backup belayer. And third, tie knots in the rope behind the belayer and the backup belayer.
A ground anchor keeps the belayer under control. The belayer is fixed to a given spot. If the belayer is anchored, the opportunity to trip, fall over, and pull the instructor off is greatly reduced. They will remain in the designated stance.
With two or more beginners, a backup belayer will increase security. It is far less likely that both students will drop the leader. To add even greater security, put a friction hitch on the rope behind the belayer and attach to the backup belayer’s belay loop. Rather than being dependent on a hand belay, the backup belayer manages the rope with the assistance of a third hand.
Some instructors tie knots in the rope behind the belayer and the back-up belayer. As the instructor leads and the knots approach the belay team, either the backup belayer or, ideally, a third student unties them. Even if there are a series of mistakes, the leader will still have a reasonable margin of error.
No matter what steps are taken to increase your security, it remains important to regularly look down and check on the belayer. Make sure that the belay system is employed appropriately and communicate error corrections as needed.
If walking off or down climbing is not possible, the other descent options from the top of a route are either to rappel or lower.
The most secure method is to rappel. When being lowered the instructor is completely reliant on the belay system and at the greatest exposure to risk of system failure. If there are any doubts about the security of the system (i.e. the belayer,) rappel.
However, if your goal is to teach the beginner how to operate as an independent climber, then the he will have to learn how to lower. When faced with that situation a technique that can be used to help mitigate the risk is for you to back yourself up by placing a friction-hitch on the belay strand of the rope, clipping the friction hitch to a sling that is then clipped into the instructor’s belay loop with a locking carabiner. While being lowered, you manage the friction hitch, releasing it if the belayer loses control of the brake strand.
Leading is fun, but getting dropped isn't. Put in as much time as you need in belay training before getting onto the sharp end with a new leader...