Safe Belay Technique for Top Rope Ice Climbing

The Schoolroom, Ouray Ice Park, Colorado. Belaying top rope climbers from the other side of the river--Out of the way of the impact zone. ©Karen Bockel

The Schoolroom, Ouray Ice Park, Colorado. Belaying top rope climbers from the other side of the river–Out of the way of the impact zone. ©Karen Bockel

Chicks’ home venue is the Ouray Ice Park—the best place to learn ice climbing from beginners to experts alike, hands down.

The Uncompahgre Gorge narrows down to the tight Box Canyon, which transforms into a beautiful Mecca of icy walls begging to be climbed.

In the Ice Park, one of the first things we teach is how to belay safely for top rope ice climbing.

Ice climbers swing and kick at the ice to get purchase.

Consequently, we need to consider the high likelihood that chunks of ice will break off and fall down right below the climber. This area (anywhere the ice chunks might fall) is called the impact zone—and it’s a place to be avoided!

In order to avoid the impact zone it’s best to belay from a short distance away—in the clear from falling ice.

However, belaying a horizontal distance away from the base of the climb creates another problem. When your climber loads the rope (either because they fall or they are lowering), you will feel a strong pull towards the base of the climb. This horizontal pull is a big deal!

Here is the physics of this big deal:

The pull you feel is directed right along the rope. The pull is upward towards the anchor at an angle. This angle, or force vector, has both an upward pull and a horizontal pull.

The upward pull is easy to resist. Simply resist it with your body weight by sitting back into your harness.

The horizontal pull, however, is much harder to resist. It can drag you along the ground and slam you into the wall. You could lose control of the rope and possibly drop your climber.

The solution to this big deal is a back anchor.

Clipping into a back anchor will hold you against any horizontal pull towards the wall. You can use trees or established bolts for back anchors. In the Ice Park there are often fixed ropes that extend the back anchors, elsewhere we bring our own ropes.

Setting up a Back Anchor

If you are using a tree, make sure the tree is strong and big. Tie a chunk of rope around the base. Then tie a bight knot into the rope.

If you are using a bolt, clip a bight of rope (or other anchor material) to the bolt. Then tie a bight knot into the other end of the rope.

Using a locking carabiner, clip the bight you created on either your tree anchor or bolt anchor to your belay loop. Clip it underneath and out of the way of your belay set up/device.

Make sure your back-anchor extends just far enough to let you stand comfortably with the rope snug. This allows for no surprises if the climbing rope suddenly gets loaded by your climber.

Back anchors are extremely important when you’re in an area like the Ouray Ice Park’s Schoolroom. There are often many climbers on side-by-side top ropes. Lots of ice chunks go flying through the air. Belayers need to be a large horizontal distance away from the ice in order to belay safely. This puts them on the far side of the river. Getting pulled into the river is a sure way to end your climbing day, cold, wet and possibly much worse.

Use a back anchor!

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