Belay stations

A belay station is a place where the belayer conducts belaying, or operates a belay device, while anchored to the terrain at the given spot, most often in the manner that a protection device has been placed in the rock. If you are belaying from the ground, you can accomplish this anchoring behind boulders at the base of the cliff, near growing trees, etc. The belayer is then connected to the anchor point of the belay station and handles the belay device connected to his harness, or the belay device is connected directly to the anchor point of the belay station. On a rock face a belay station is called a “stance”. The basic prerequisites which the belay station must fulfil are strength, a good view from the spot where it has been set up, and safe placement so that nothing can fall into the area of the station from above, if possible. We will discuss these conditions further later in the text when we address other matters pertaining to belay stations. Now we return to the question of anchoring the belay station in the terrain. Two methods are recognized for setting up an anchor at the belay station. At a belay station you can conduct belaying:

  • directly
  • indirectly

Direct and indirect belay at the belay station

Direct belay means that the belay device is fastened directly to a fixed part of the belay station using a locking carabiner. A potential catching impact will therefore act directly on the belay station. It must be strong (e.g. bolts, a drilled ring, solid rock tunnel, cinching chock, a strong tree on the ground, etc.). An advantage is the fact that the belayer is not tied to the belay station, nothing pulls him down, and there is less risk that he will get startled when belaying and make a mistake. After catching a fall the belayer can tie off the rope in the belay device without any problem, leave the belay station and set off in order, for example, to offer first aid.

Direct belay

Direct belay

Indirect belay (sometimes called belaying “off the harness”) means that the belay device is clipped using a locking carabiner to the harness of the belayer, which is fastened via a lanyard or short piece of rope to a fixed part of the belay station. Any potential catching impact will therefore act first on the body of the belayer, and once he loses balance and is knocked over, it will then act on the belay station. Caution: being knocked over can sometimes be rather rough, the belayer can then be thrown against the rock, can be startled or injured, and as a result of this will not be able to belay. Also be careful that the lanyard connecting the belayer with the belay station is not too short. The belayer must have the option of a certain amount of movement in order that he can dodge falling rock, for example.

Indirect belay (from the harness)

Indirect belay (from the harness)

Belay station on a rock face

A belay station on a rock face is understood as a stance on the face where there is free space under the belay station, in other words a fall under the belay station is possible. The belay station must be as fixed as possible, at least as far as conditions will allow. It is a place from which the leader will climb the next rope pitch, and to which she will also return and have to recover, in a manner of speaking, if her effort is unsuccessful. The belay station must be a blanked of calm; depending on the situation, a shelter or refuge for your psyche.

A belay station can be built in a face at such a spot where you are sheltered from falling rock, or water flowing down the rock. It is also good to place the belay station slightly to the side (1-2 m) of the climbing line of ascent, in order that a falling leader will not fall on the belayer.

Not should you forget that during all of the above mentioned conditions you should have at least some sort of view into the terrain, and also with an eye to the next route of ascent, for your rope to be led with the minimum of friction against the rock, which will make the activity of the leader easier. As can be seen, the conditions here are slightly contradictory, and for this reason building a good belay station on a rock face is an art, and as with each art it requires foresight, training, and experience.

Placing the first intermediate protection point will change the direction of loading of the belay station.

Placing the first intermediate protection point will change the direction of loading of the belay station.

Direct belay at a belay station on a rock face

The belayer clips a lanyard to the belay station (“cowstail”), whose length should be arranged in such a way that he can comfortably sit or stand in harness at the belay station. The rope to which he is tied in will also be connected in such a way that it forms a clove hitch the necessary distance away from him, and with the help of a locking carabiner will be clipped in to the belay station, so that the cowstail can also be backed up by the rope. The belay device is connected to the station, which can be a ring, bolt, piton, chock, etc., or a sling connecting multiple protection devices such as those mentioned. Direct belay at a stance is usually recommended for beginners. But it is not good to take this as given; depending on the specific conditions it can sometimes be better for a beginner to select another belay method at the stance.

Direct belay on a stance.

Direct belay on a stance.

Indirect belay at a belay station on a rock face

The belayer hangs in a lanyard (cowstail), however a somewhat longer one, which at the same time is connected to the belay station with the rope it is tied into, in order for the cowstail to be backed up. The belay device is clipped into the harness. The first intermediate protection point plays an important role in indirect belaying at a stance, which is absolutely important because it can guarantee that the rope will pull in an upward direction from the body. The carabiner of the first intermediate protection point is clipped either:

1) into an intermediate protection point close above the belay station, for example even less than 1 m above the station.

Indirect belay in a stance with the first intermediate protection point above the station.

Indirect belay in a stance with the first intermediate protection point above the station.

2) into the belay station. In this case it will then be necessary to have the cowstail and a set amount of rope (backing up the cowstail) long enough, approx 2 m. The belayer will then hang unusually low under the actual protection points of the belay station, but this is all right. During a fall the belayer will be lifted upwards by the force and will need space for this movement. A short cowstail would hold him too close to the first intermediate protection point, which in this case is part of the station. As a person often does not have such a long cowstail, it mostly uses only a hitch in the rope.

Indirect belay in a stance with the first intermediate protection point included as part of the station.

Indirect belay in a stance with the first intermediate protection point included as part of the station.

One way or another, in both cases 1) and also 2) the belayer must count on the fact that, if the leader falls, the catching impact will act on him, he will be “slammed, pressed” against the rock; a belayer can be injured by this impact, so pay special care to any rocky overhangs over your head (use a helmet!). This “pressing” into the rock can be rather strong during a hard fall. Be careful: people who aren’t as “resilient” may feel the pain more acutely and panic.

If indirect protection is combined with high quality and strong intermediate protection placed above the belay station, there is one positive phenomenon. The belayer is lifted upwards when catching the fall of a leader, and this partially buffers the exertion of falling forces on the actual protection points of the station. For this reason indirect protection is given precedence where protection is in unstable terrain (e.g. in snow, in breakable rock). Of course, the prerequisite must be fulfilled that good intermediate protection will soon be placed above. And it might not work. For this reason, preventively – you should always build a belay station in hard rock!

Mistake during indirect belay in a stance.

Mistake during indirect belay in a stance.

During indirect belaying on a stance you must never fail to place the first intermediate protection point. If the leader falls directly into the belay device fixed to the harness of the belayer, the belayer will not have much chance to catch the fall. A pull of the rope in a downward direction will turn the belayer upside down and the tense rope will strike him powerfully in the side of his body. It is highly likely that the belayer will not manage to hold the rope and will drop it.

Equalising anchors at the belay station

It is often desirable to have the belay station anchored to two or more points of protection, which are mutually connected using a runner.

Why is this done?

There are primarily two reasons:

  1. to back up the belay station when one point of protection is pulled out; the belay station does not fall into the depths but its fall is caught by the second point of protection through which the equalising runner also passes.
  2. distribution of forces; if the connection of the points of protection is done properly, each point of protection will bear less force than if it was used by itself. This is a very advantageous quality in breakable rock; it reduces the probability that the entire belay station will be torn out of the rock.

More in e-book.

Title Part 3Mountaineering Methodology – Part 3 – Belaying and Rappelling

ISBN 978-80-87715-09-3

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

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