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How to Thread a Belay

© Ray Eckermann
The following article is based on text from the book Sport CLIMBING + published by Rockfax. This article version was written by Adrian Berry and Alan James, and the illustrations are by Ray Eckermann.

A top quality belay but it has no clippable karabiner on it. You need to thread!
So you have started climbing your first sport route, ... all is going well, ... you counted the bolts and took the correct number of quickdraws, ... you climbed steadily and clipped all the bolts, ... you did all the moves, including some pretty hard ones , ... then all of a sudden you are at the top staring at two bolts and wondering how you are going to get back down. You know this is sport climbing so you are aware that the practice is to lower off routes but this will require you to leave some gear on the belay surely?

If you want to hang on to all your gear then you will need to learn to thread the belay. Sometimes you may be lucky and find that the belay has an opening karabiner on it. In this case no threading is necessary (although it is worth backing up while your partner climbs the route so that only the last person lowers off a single karabiner). However, the majority of outdoor sport routes have no opening clips in place and require threading unless you are prepared to sacrifice a karabiner or two each time you finish a climb.

Threading a belay

Belays come in all shapes and sizes. The one we have illustrated in the cartoons below is twin staples connected by a chain and the method described covers threading a belay like this. However, the basic method doesn't vary much from belay to belay. The thing to take care with is choosing which of the part(s) of the belay to thread. In a substantial belay like the one in the photo to the right you could thread virtually anything and be safe. The requirements are that whatever you thread is a part of the whole system and connected to both attachment points. It needs to be wide enough to allow the rope to slip through easily but also substantial enough. There is no point in threading a tiny ring connected to two solid bolts if you could thread the solid bolts. One thing to bear in mind when threading more than one part of the belay is that this may put twists into your rope when you lower off.

Before you thread the belay ask yourself whether you really need to thread it just yet. If you have just led a pitch, and your partner wants to lead it after you there is no need to thread the belay, simply clip it with a couple of quickdraws and lower-off. The last person to the belay can thread it.

Typically, a belay which you have to thread will consist of seized karabiners, maillon rapides, welded rings, or bolts with large rounded surfaces. These are the attachment points for threading and there may be one or more of them. A single attachment point, like a welded ring, will typically be attached to two bolts by steel chain or a nylon cord.

Now, you need to clip into the belay. The simplest way to do this is to use a couple of quickdraws. If you have only one quickdraw left, you may be able to lower down and strip the top quickdraw from the last bolt on the route. If there is a single attachment point, clip both quickdraws to it. If there are multiple attachment points, then put a quickdraw into each one.

Attached yourself securely to the belay
© Ray Eckermann

A frequently used technique is to use a sling or piece of cord that has been previously attached to your harness as a quick way of clipping into the belay. This is a convenient technique but it doesn't work so well when there are two or more attachment points. It also adds clutter to your harness and is not as flexible as simply taking a couple of extra quickdraws.

Attaching yourself using a fixed sling on your harness
© Ray Eckermann

Next you are going to pull up a couple of meters of slack and tie a figure of eight knot in it. Attach this knot to your belay loop with a quickdraw (or screwgate karabiner). You may well be low on quickdraws, if so, clip into the quickdraw(s) you are already using to attach to the belay with. This acts as a backup and ensures you can't drop the end of your rope. Now you can untie, thread the end of the rope through the belay, or the centre ring, tie back on, get a tight rope, remove the quickdraws that you were sitting on, and lower off.

Pull up some rope and tie it off to your harness
© Ray Eckermann

A popular alternative is to pull up a couple of metres of slack and pass a bight (loop) straight through the attachment point(s) on the belay (as illustrated), or the single loading ring if the system is substantial enough. Then tie a figure of eight in the end of the bight and attach this knot to your belay loop with a screwgate karabiner or two opposing quickdraws. Then untie from the end. You can then remove the quickdraws you were sitting on and lower-off. Often, the belay will not have enough space to thread the rope through when doubled-up.

Threading the belay attachment points
© Ray Eckermann


Communication when lowering off is vital. Far too many people have been badly injured or killed following poor communication at the belay of a sport route. Some climbers, with a very traditional background, find the concept of lowering off from the belay unusual. It has been known for people to attempt to lower off from a belay only to find that their partners, assuming they intended to abseil down, had taken them off belay, with catastrophic results. Communicate plainly and simply with your partner - avoid just saying 'OK' - after all, what does this really mean?

With practice you will develop your own method. The important thing is to be rigourous about it, always try and use a familiar system and double check everything!

Sport Climbing + Rockfax Cover


The Rockfax book Sport Climbing + includes many more useful tips like this which will help you climb better and safer. For example, have you ever wished to know how to get down from mid-route by abseiling off a single bolt without threading it or losing any gear?

The book is not just about rope techniques though. There are chapters on technique, onsighting, redpointing, the mind, training, mutli-pitching, self-care and destinations.

More information Sport CLIMBING +

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13 Nov, 2006
Isn't the whole point of equalising 2 bolts to a single ring to enable you to lower off that and not the bolts attaching the chains to the rock as shown in the last cartoon?
13 Nov, 2006
That's what I've always been led to believe too...
13 Nov, 2006
Surely that leaves you lowering off one bit of gear - the central ring - instead of two.
13 Nov, 2006
And why is this picture used on the page demonstrating bowlines ? The climber is obviously far too young to use a bowline :) http://www.ukclimbing.com/images/dbpage.html?id=54308
13 Nov, 2006
Yes but if you're worried about a big stainless steel ring breaking from the load of you lowering off then I'd suggest taking up a safer sport. Using the ring means the load on the bolts is equalised and that you don't put lots of kinks in the rope. Also if the bolts aren't the eco-bolt type or staples then you can't thread the rope through them anyway so you have to lower off the ring.
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