In the AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course, this question comes up constantly. When should I have someone back up my new belayer? When can I let them belay without a backup? And how should I back them up?
These are questions that exist throughout the climbing world. Many climbers who are not professional instructors regularly teach people to belay. So these are not simply esoteric guide questions, but are real and fundamental questions that anyone who has ever taught someone how to belay must consider.
New climbers should always have a backup of some sort. The possibility of dropping someone is very real for the rank beginner and is often still a possibility for someone with a little bit of experience.
The answer to when a person should no longer need a backup belayer is twofold. First, you should be comfortable with the fact that the person no longer needs a backup. A second, and far more important consideration, is when the individual feels comfortable enough to belay without a backup.
It is not uncommon for climbers -- especially very young climbers -- to teach their friends to belay and then to give them a hard time when they show concern about the level of responsibility they have been given. This is a recipe for disaster. One should never ignore or belittle a person's concerns about his or her belay skills. Indeed, this is exactly the type of red flag that would lead a guide to continue employing a belay backup.
Belay Backup Techniques
There are a number of individuals out there that have their hearts in the right place by providing a belay backup, but are doing it very poorly. Indeed, while putting together this blog, I found an instructional video that demonstrates poor belay backup technique.
It is unfortunately quite common for climbers to simply hold the rope to backup a belayer. This is often done in a lackadaisical manner (see photo below) and may not provide the appropriate amount of friction to adequately stop a fall if the belayer panics and lets go of the rope.
There are two simple techniques to back someone up who is on flat terrain. The first option is to give the belayer a hip belay. And the second option is to simply run the rope through a second device on the backup belayer.
Occasionally I work with kids. In such a setting I tend to add yet another piece of redundancy to the system. I employ a backup belayer as well as a knot-tyer. In other words, I have a kid tie backup knots every six or eight feet. This keeps a person occupied who would otherwise be a potential crag management hazard. Admittedly, tying knots in the rope is overkill with adults and even with competent high school students. But when it comes to middle school kids, the more activities they have the better...
If the belay is running through a GriGri or a Cinch, then it might be okay to have a slightly less radical approach to your backup belay. It doesn't take much to arrest a fall in such a device.
If you are not on flat ground and a backup belayer can get below the belayer, it might be acceptable to simply hold the rope for a backup. This is what is refered to as an inline belay backup.
Backup belays are an important part of the safety net for the beginner climber. If you're new to climbing don't hesitate to ask for a backup. And if you have the opportunity to teach someone how to belay, always always always employ a belay backup. It could save someone's life!
--Jason D. Martin