Life at the Blunt End: Belaying the (Im)possible

A post by Simon Panton on the UKC forum, on choosing the cover shot of the next Slate guide mentioned that if the Quarryman was chosen then the belayer in the last two Slate guides cover shots would be the same, That’s right I would have the cover tick on the two slate guide virtually ten years apart. What it prompted in me was a reminder of the fact that i have been as scared belaying as I have leading.

Whilst belaying might be just belaying, I do know that some sport psychologists are currently researching the dyad between the climber and the belayer, and whilst I don’t want to say that success is as much down to the belayer, as the climber. I can imagine that some of the evidence will point towards whilst a good belayer would not adversely effect performance, a bad belayer will.

So I now see myself as a expert belayer, I have belayed people of what was E9, although modern gear has reduced that grade to a mere E8, held the life line on on-sight attempts of E7’s. Along the way I have had some heart stopping moments and amazing adventures. Who knows one day i might even step onto the sharp end of one of these bad arse routes.

My first truly hard belaying duty was on the front cover of the last Slate guide, belaying Leo on Bungles Arete. It goes back beyond that, the first time I met Leo, he was working the route on a shunt, and I took some photos of his attempt, a few months later and I was belaying him on a lead attempt, and then posing for photos which ended up on the cover.

I remember, that the first meeting, we walked down to Pete’s Eats and had a chip butty before I headed back to Bangor. Leo forever the blagger back then got a portion of chips and a loaf from spar!

Later on I belayed Leo on four or five failed first ascent attempts of Trauma, back then there was no pecker before the wire, just poor RP’s about head height, and the knowledge that if the wire fails the fall ends up on the slab below the belayer. Leo graded it E9, it has settled at E8. Whatever the grade leo got a long way through the crux, on the last attempt I belayed him on.

As he realised that the next hold was beyond his reach, and reversing the crux impossible, he became increasingly scared, ‘Mark I’ve fucked it’. He seemed to hang on for an age, not wanting to let go. Basically he got himself caught twixt the devil and deep blue sea. As he screamed, I half look away and wait for what seems like an age, as I take in a handful of rope, I am pulled sharply upwards.

That I have to say is a theme throughout belaying hard routes a waiting for fate to play out, whilst headpoints the difficulty is known and the judgements often made before anyone leaves the ground. Belaying E7 onsight ascents is perhaps the most gripping experiences I have had when climbing. Climbing a route you know how pumped you are you know how good the gear is, you know how you feel at any given time.

All the belayer has to go on is what is presented to them, at times that becomes apparent when the climber is frantically pedalling there feet or feeling fanatically for anything that resembles a hand hold, as a belayer I have worked out this translates to ‘where the fuck is the hand or foot hold’. Panic has set in and failure is imminent. Similarly the bingo wings (elbows around the ears), with a 2 downward glances to everyone upwards one, predicts failure with 98% certainty.

Pete was quite a way up Rumblefish when he started to display all three of these characteristics. The lone skyhook some 10ft below him seem inadequate now, his voice had broken, the final nail in the route to failure, as he accepted the inevitable. Falling, I got a handful of rope in again, and looked away, and got ready to slow him down.

As the rope came tight I jumped up to reduce the impact force, it was at this point there was a 50/50 chance in my mind, would I drop back to the ground as the skyhook started to take the strain and then fail or would I carry on my upward path as pete’s fall was gracefully slowed. I honestly thought I was going to have to deal with some first aid nightmare, alone at the top of the cromlech, I couldn’t look. Then the confirmation, I am ripped off my feet and pete dusts himself off and has another go at falling off, before nailing it.

To me being a belay bunny can be as mentally challenge as climbing, but here you must show no fear and offer only encouragement from the demons that the leader is dealing with!

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