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Hanging belays suck. There’s no use trying to convince you otherwise. But it’s a necessary evil of multi-pitch climbing, and extended time in even the most comfortable big wall harnesses can leave legs numb and kidneys sore. That said, a little bit of foresight and a few tricks can shorten your hang time and mitigate pressure points. These techniques from multi-pitch masters will make any hanging belay at least a little less miserable.
The primary objective is to get through it as quickly as possible. Hazel Findlay says, “Be patient and enjoy the view, but give your partner encouragement so he hurries up!” Think through the most comfortable and organized setup when you arrive at the belay stance. Who is going to lead the next pitch? Which side will they be climbing on? Avoid a high-angle yoga session by identifying the most effective anchor structure for the next pitch. It might take a few minutes of configuration, but it can easily save you double that time in contorted backbend belaying. Alex Honnold says, “The real key is to avoid hanging belays. Link pitches, use natural stances, do whatever it takes to avoid hanging in your harness all day.” Proper rope management and multi-pitch efficiency will also help you move fast and painlessly through these inconvenient stances. Prioritize: Avoid them altogether, build a smart setup, and move quickly.
Taking the load off your harness is crucial, so reposition yourself often. Take turns lifting each leg, twisting your torso, sitting up straight, leaning all the way back, etc. Also try lifting your knees as high toward your chest as they’ll go. Avoid sitting still and getting locked into one position, particularly if you’re weighting one side of your body more than the other. Honnold says, “I like to alternate between feet against the wall, knees against the wall, and turning so that my hip is against the wall. They’re all uncomfortable, but it breaks the wear up a bit.” If you’re faced with multiple hanging belays on one route, consider rigging one of the following fast and easy contraptions that will reduce the amount of weight in your harness.
Figure 1. Photo: Julie Ellison
Many big wallers have a homemade bosun’s chair, but a smaller and lighter option for free climbing is a premade nylon belay seat like the Yates Gear Belay Seat ($26, yatesgear.com). It’s a rectangle of nylon that goes under your rear, with webbing loops on either side. Findlay once turned a mini haulbag into a seat; she says, “That was ace, but you need the right bag.” A third and simpler option is to just use a double-length sling passed under your butt as a makeshift belay seat, or try a few slings girth-hitched together for more length (Fig. 1). (Wider nylon slings are more comfy than thinner Dyneema slings, but either will work.) Clip the ends of the sling to a piece on each side of the anchor. Run both strands under your butt to evenly distribute the pressure. Tie a knot into the sling to make it shorter. IFMGA-certified guide Rob Coppolillo recommends doing something similar with a few strands of rope (Fig. 2): “Clove-hitch them to the anchor to create that loop behind your butt. It’s not ideal, but all you need is to get some different areas of your body taking the weight for a few minutes. Alternate between the rope seat and your harness.”
Figure 2. Photo: Julie Ellison
Another option is to create foot loops to stand in (Fig. 3). Use aiders if you have them, or fashion loops out of cordelette or double-length slings clipped to the anchor. Clip each sling to separate pieces in the anchor. If the slings are too long, shorten them by tying a knot in each. Standing on the end of the sling (as opposed to tying a knot under your feet) will be more comfortable. You probably won’t want to stand the whole time, but being able to lift your weight off your harness for 20 to 30 seconds at a time will be enough to keep blood flowing.
Figure 3. Photo: Julie Ellison