At 172 pounds, I often outweigh many of my sport climbing partners. The weight difference makes hard catches, falls where the leader swings violently into the wall, more likely. While losing weight is one of my many New Year’s resolutions, I can also give softer catches by following the proper technique.
A hard catch results from the lack of proper rope out. The climber falls and then swings back towards the wall. When the leader swings their ankles, hands, hips, or if they invert, the back of their heads may hit the wall. While broken ankles are the most common injury, a hard catch can result in death if the leader hits their head. Giving a soft catch is as important as tying your knot correctly. One of the best ways to give a soft catch is to provide a dynamic belay.
Dynamic belaying refers to a method of belaying where you slightly lengthen the fall to soften the impact on the rope. This method prevents the leader from swinging back into the wall. When the belayer moves as the climber hits the end of the rope, the leader will gently lower.
The dynamic belay was invented at Indian Rock in Berkeley by Dick Leonard and the Cragmont climbing club. The climbers would jump off the overhanging rock and give each other slack to allow for softer falls. The climbers then used hemp ropes and padded themselves to prevent rope burn. Modern gear helps make things easier.
Having a new rope helps immensely. Old ropes tend have significantly more stiffness and act like static lines while a new rope will stretch and absorb more of the fall. Auto-locking belay device can also cause harder catches.
Notice in this picture that the climber has just the right amount of rope out and is standing below the first bolt but can still see Ethan Pringle climb.
Make sure to stand close to the first bolt clipped. When the climber reaches the third bolt and is safe from decking, then step back to watch the climber from a distance where they are more visible.
The best way to give a soft catch is to wait until the rope comes taut onto the last clipped quick draw and then jump. Watch the lead climber and be poised at all times. Make sure to hold onto the end of the rope so it stays in your hand. Jumping will make the fall as gentle as possible.
If the belayer is significantly lighter than the climber, than it is useful to anchor the belayer to the ground. The anchor line should have a small amount of slack in it to allow the belayer to be pulled off the ground but kept from being pulled into the first bolt.
In this video, the belayer comes off the ground and softens the leader's fall.
There are a few exceptions to giving soft catches: if there is a risk of decking, they are on a slab, or they are working a project and want to stay close to the bolt.
Practicing in the gym with your partner will help immensely. The dynamic belay is less than intuitive but very helpful. Also, Touchstone offers belay classes. Make sure you use proper technique and climb safely.