One place where climbers often waste a huge amount of time is in creating a solid belay, which on a multi-pitch climb slows everything down, and on single-pitch, routes result in less climbing.
The reason for the slow building of a belay most usually comes down to a lack of confidence in yourself, experience, your gear, or both, but all must be overcome if you’re to climb effectively on longer routes, especially if you want to progress in winter, alpine and big wall climbing. The longer you have to climb, the more climbing you can do, which on a big route can mean getting to the top or backing off (or just ending up finishing not in the pub but in the dark!)
Foundations of good fast belays
To set a belay quickly you need to first be able to create solid ‘slow’ belays, as a fast belay that is crap is not a belay at all. Below are some building blocks for making good belays:
Experience in identifying placements
This comes down to experience, which only comes from climbing and placing gear. Placing gear on lead can feel very different from placing gear at a belay, as on lead, gear placing is more active (you do it on the move, and need to do it quickly), while belay placements are more passive (you can take your time, also know as faffing around). Secondly, on a multi-pitch route, the leader can feel more exposed when setting a belay than when leading, with a natural human fear of being pulled off and falling to their doom by their partner, often resulting in too much gear being placed.
Matching possible placements with the protection you have
Sometimes you can be presented with a huge array of possible placements at a stance, while at others you can have just one (or sometimes non!). Knowing what gear to best employ comes down to many factors, and although you should always be mindful about not using up the protection your leader will need for the next pitch (such as not using cams unless you really have to), the number one priority should always be to make a secure belay. An example of knowing your gear means knowing that if the best placement is a Wild Country Rock 5, but you only have one, but you have two Rock 2’s, then you place a Rock 2 sideways as it’s the same size as a Rock 5, or using a cam when there is an obvious nut placement to be found in the same spot.
Experience in placing protection and evaluating its effectiveness
An experienced climber, placing a solid large wire in perfect rock would be happy to belay off just that single nut if they had to, just clove hitching themselves to it and call it good. A less experienced climber, who lacks trust in the gear or themselves will place the same nut, but then add multiple pieces around it, then get in a total mess of slings trying to equalise it. Again this comes down to experience, understanding just how strong gear is, and that two good pieces are often all you need (I’d always advocate two pieces, even when it comes to large features such as flakes or trees).
Combining all belay points to a single ‘power-point
Equalising everything is acknowledged as one of the most important aspects of modern belay techniques, but often climbers get into such a mess with this they undermine the safety of the climb (being too slow, making overly complex matrixes of slings and cordelettes, using up too much gear). The bottom line again is safety, but often people are lead into a feeling of ‘perfection anxiety’ by ‘experts’ or waffle on about the perfect belay set up (usually built, tested and blogged in their garage). Simplicity is paramount, along with speed, and a belay that is 80% equalised takes about 60 seconds, while a 100% one takes twenty minutes.
How long do you take?
Before you begin to attempt to speed up your belays it’s probably worth getting some data first, so try timing how long it takes to make a belay, starting as soon as you begin to place gear until you can shout ‘on belay’. Also time your partner. Look at the average time and see if you think you could do better.
How long should it take?
Well, when I’m teaching people to climb I often joke that “you should be able to build a belay while holding your breath”. Another way to do it is to imagine you want to surprise your belayer, to have the belay sorted and pulling up the rope before they have time to even be ready to second the pitch. Time-wise you want to be setting up a good belay - 2 or 3 placements - equalised - belay device on - in 1 to 5 minutes.
The K.I.S.S belay
Try and apply the right belay set up to the integrity of your protection, meaning just clove hitching one rope into two solid wires and calling that your belay, or using multiple slings and cords and your rope to five or six pieces in dodgy rock. For most climbers climbing a low to mid grades (Mod to E3) most belays could be K.I.S.S belays (Keep It Simple Stupid). To make a K.I.S.S belay you should attempt to create a belay with the minimum of gear, meaning using your rope(s) instead of slings, as few krabs as possible (just one quickdraw split between two placements) and as fast as possible (to remove a 240cm sling, unravel it, place it in multiple pieces, tie knots etc takes time). Very often climbers waste a lot of time extending their belays so they can see down the climb when setting a belay close to the gear would be fine (this judgement call should be based on the second and what the pitch was like, but if the second is OK, and the pitch was OK why waste time extending out the belay?).
You don’t HAVE to equalise it all
The obsession with following the SERENE doctrine (Solid, Equalised, Redundant, Efficient, No Extension) can often lead to slow belays, as the belayer, who feels they have an instructor standing over them, ignores the fact that the two runners they have could hold a train, struggles with slings and quick-draws to equalise a third crappy wire to the belay. A better way is to go for to equalised pieces that are 100% (so you have redundancy, as rock can break), then unless it’s easy to integrate further pieces, just attach the third piece as a back up to the other two, so not technically super equalised, but with a little extension.
Am I breaking all the rules?
First off there is no standard operating procedure for climbing and every belay is and will be different. All there are a set of guidelines designed to primarily guide the novice into safe practices. As you gain experience you will find that often these practices are not flexible as you need them to be, so you do it the way YOU deem to be safe, i.e. you break the rules based on your own assessment of what is needed. If you’re a novice then this is not a good idea, as you need to know, understand and have practised the rules before you start breaking them. Instead go by the book, use slings and cord, three pieces equalised etc, but just get good at it. Only when you’re belaying as textbook and fast can you begin to understand where you can break the rules a little.
Well for me it’s simple: I like climbing, I don’t like sitting waiting to climb, and the more climbing that I can do the better, plus when it comes to moving fast on a multi-pitch route most of us can only lead at one speed, so saving the time in between is the best option if you want to get home in the light.