Continuing with this series on steep ground skills this week we are looking at belay set-ups and belaying for emergency rope-work in ascent. The intention is to keep things safe and simple, with the emphasis on avoiding over complicated rope-work, which is often unnecessary and time consuming.

As mentioned previously (but well worth repeating), keep in mind that the planned use of the rope is beyond the scope of the mountain leader award. You should be planning your steep ground days with good route planning and selection as your aim; however, you do need to have the rope-work skills in place, in case something goes wrong and you find yourself in the wrong place, in a situation where rope-work could well be your best and safest option. My tip is to put in some extra practice on rope-work skills, so that if all does not go as planned on your mountain days you have good, safe skills in place to sort things out (without adding to the problem).

Anchor selection and stance management for waist belay – the fundamentals to have in place:

A sound anchor that’s in the right place and is the right shape

A good firm stance or sitting position

A safe area for the scrambler to sit or stand when finished

Be tight on anchor when in position to belay

All in line: belay, belayer, scrambler

A clear line of sight to the scrambler

Position group members away from potential stone or rock fall

Setting up a waist belay
You have a number of choices in method of set up (some more complicated than others)

I’ll start with a method that I’ve often seen working efficiently, using two overhand knots on the bight.

Tie an overhand knot on the bight to create a loop.

Loop rope over a solid boulder or spike.

Tie another overhand knot on the bight to create a second loop.

Belayer to step into second loop.

Adjust for tightness around waist and to belay.

Disadvantages It’s sometimes difficult to adjust for tightness. However, with a bit of practice this method is quick and efficient.


Another method and one that is arguably more common is:

Attach yourself to rope; an overhand knot works well and is easy to adjust (a figure-of-eight or bowline are also frequently used, but aren’t so easy to adjust).

Feed the rope around a good sound anchor and get into belay position.

Tie the rope off onto rope around your waist with two half hitches.

Disadvantages This method requires more rope; it is, however, probably easier to adjust for tightness until you become more familiar with method 1.

Threads and trees
A quick and efficient method of attaching the rope to a thread or tree.

Pre-tie an overhand knot in the rope about a couple of metres in

Thread rope around belay

Rethread the overhand knot leaving a generous tail

Tie another overhand knot on the bight to create a second loop

Belayer to step into second loop

Adjust for tightness around waist and to belay

Using a waist belay: some points to remember

Wearing gloves is a good way to get a better grip and protect your hands.

Keep your arms covered to protect arm wrap on the brake rope.

Lock off with correct hand with the control hand on the brake rope.

NEVER wrap the live rope (to scrambler) around your arm.

No slack in the rope between belayer and scrambler.

Setting up and stance management for direct belay

Although a quick and efficient method, a direct belay leaves little or no margin for error. Excellent judgement is needed in your anchor selection and position for belaying. Poor anchor selection can result in a potential serious accident, as you are totally reliant on the anchor for the security of the scrambler (more so that when using a waist belay). Ensure that your anchors are:

  • The right shape
  • Solid (bombproof)
  • Sited directly above scramble (in line – anchor, belayer and scrambler) with a good firm/safe stance for belay

Having chosen your anchor and being happy that it meets the above criteria, you also need the rope to run free, with enough friction to be able to easily hold the weight of the scrambler. (Be aware that too much friction can prevent you taking in the rope efficiently.) As with the waist belay, you also need to consider that you have:

  • A clear line of sight to scrambler
  • A good position for group members away from potential stone or rock fall
  • A safe area for scrambler to sit or stand when finished

Finally, remember that rope-work on a steep ground day is emergency rope-work and is best avoided by using good route finding/selection skills. With this in mind it makes it important for you to get out and practice rope-work skills so that you can deal with the unexpected efficiently.

Part 4 will have a look at hazard management and rope work in descent.

Thanks to Anna for photos showing errors (FYI her belaying is great when not helping me with blog photos!)

Cheers for the feedback from previous blogs; it’s always welcome.