TNB: Eight Ways to Avoid Braking Bad – The Art of the Soft CatchI have several friends who attribute injuries—a sore shoulder, a broken ankle, a shin laceration on an overlap—to hard catches. Of course, the climber chooses a lead, and belayers can be blamed unfairly, but most climbers agree on the importance of a soft catch.
Beth Bennett was unconcerned as she set off on Creature from the Black Lagoon (5.11d) in Boulder Canyon, Colorado. An experienced and fluid climber who had done the pitch often, she neither expected to fall nor thought to tell her partner that she—at 110 pounds—likes any belayer to strive for a soft catch.
The crux of the route is an undercling lieback at about 40 feet. Bennett cleared the crux but erred in the sequence while approaching the next bolt, a difficult clip.
“I couldn’t clip, so I started to down climb,” she recalls. She intended to reclimb the sequence, but could not reverse the lieback. “I yelled that I was jumping off.”
The belayer was attentive, but the belay was static. Bennett slammed into the wall—and shattered her patella.
I have several other friends who attribute injuries—a sore shoulder, a broken ankle, a shin laceration on an overlap—to hard catches. Of course, the climber chooses a lead, and belayers can be blamed unfairly, but most climbers agree on the importance of a soft catch.
While watching and braking are the belayer’s primary responsibilities, with thought and practice we can belay better and help prevent leader injuries. As Andrew Bisharat puts it in his book, Sport Climbing, From Toprope to Redpoint, Techniques for Climbing Success, “Aside from knowing how to safely operate the belay devices, giving a soft catch is the most important, and least understood, aspect of great belaying.”
How to give a soft catch. (This article focuses on sport climbing.)
1) Balance the risks. Dynamic belays are best for when your climber is high above the ground, with good gear. A soft catch lengthens a fall. If the climber may hit a ledge, bulge or even the ground, scratch the soft catch: Shorten the fall rather than add to it.
As Jack Geldard specifies on ukclimbing.com: “If [a leader is] at the second bolt of a short route with a bad landing, you should do everything you can to minimize the length of any fall they might take. This means having next to no slack in the system, [and] making sure you are close in to the wall to avoid being pulled forward.” Even one step, as he notes, can increase the leader’s fall by about a yard, creating “the difference between a smiling climber and a broken heel bone.”
2) No slacking. Only pay out as much slack as necessary. Keep a good belay-brake hand. Gloves are worth the purchase.
Ode to the Belayer, which is a sampling of what we received. Thank you to all who sent photos!