Unfortunately, half ropes have a reputation for being difficult to use properly, difficult to manage, and difficult to belay.
If you’re one of those people who think that they’re more difficult than a single rope, then don’t worry, because I once thought the same.
The reason why they have a bad rep is that people are often unclear about how to actually use them, so they end up fumbling around with the ropes while trying to belay.
They miss the signs of which rope to pay out slack on by looking in the wrong places, and they get complacent about safety and start to hold the dead ropes above the belay device, because, of course, they haven’t learned the technique for belaying smoothly with half ropes.
You’re not going to be one of those people. I’m going to explain how to make using half ropes as easy as possible, and I’m going to explain it clearly as I possibly can.
This is going to be the guide that I wish I’d read when I was learning this stuff.
So, let’s get right to it. We’ll start with what the lead climber is meant to be doing.
How to Lead with Half Ropes
The basic principle is simple.
All you need to do is clip one rope to the bolts on the left side of the route, and clip the other rope into the bolts on the right side of the route.
This is why you should make sure that your two half ropes are two different colors. It also makes things a lot easier for your belayer, but we’ll get onto that later.
So, make sure you’ve got a system like “red = left, and blue = right.” That way, you’re never going to run into any problems with getting your ropes mixed up.
“What’s the point of clipping them separately?” I hear you ask.
Well, the single most important reason is that it gets rid of that nasty rope drag that you’re probably all too familiar with.
If you’re a new climber and you don’t know what rope drag is, then I’ll tell you: Rope drag is the resistance you get when pulling the rope through the quickdraws that you’ve clipped it into.
If the ends of your quickdraws aren’t in a strict vertical line, then the rope is going to be zigzagging hard between them. This adds up to some immense rope drag if it goes on long enough, and even if it’s a short route it can get pretty annoying if there’s enough zigzagging going on.
Every climber wants to spend more time climbing and less time fighting rope drag, desperately trying to pull slack through every few movements. That’s why every climber should start using half ropes.
When you clip one rope into the left side bolt, and one rope into the right side bolts, you end up with two ropes going more or less straight up, rather than one rope zigzagging all over the place. No zigzagging, no problem.
As for calls, it’s pretty easy to communicate with your belayer if you chose half ropes that are two different colors. You can call, “Slack on red!” or “Take in blue!” and so on.
So, that’s all there is to it.
Really, the only part that requires a bit of know-how is belaying with half ropes, because it’s a little different when you’re dealing with two ropes at once.
I’ve seen some shockingly bad techniques out there, but really, there’s no excuse. It’s not too hard.
Let’s take a look at how to do it properly.
How to Belay with Half Ropes
Alright, so, let me say first, that the single biggest difference between belaying a single rope and belaying two half ropes at once, is that you’ll have to switch up your technique when you need to pay out or take in slack on only one rope.
Most climbers don’t do this. This is the core reason why dangerous belaying practices with half ropes are so common.
Yet, the right way to do it is so simple. It’s a slight variation of the standard PBUS technique, but applied to two ropes.
“Why the PBUS technique, when you can just let the rope slide through your hand?”
Because letting a rope slide means partially letting go. Besides, have you ever tried to stop a rope while it’s moving?
There’s so many horror stories of climbers being “dropped” because they fell while their belayer was “paying out slack.”
Let me be absolutely clear: Paying out slack does not require temporarily abandoning the lead climber’s safety.
If you pay out slack properly, your hand will always be gripping the rope securely in the brake position. There’s no need to ever bring your brake hand above the belay device, or to let the dead rope slide through your brake hand at any point.
That is, if you’ve learned the proper technique.
With a single rope, the gold standard is PBUS. Learn it, stick to it, and if you’re still complaining about not being able to pay out slack quickly enough, then “git gud” with it.
If you want to pay out slack on both ropes, then you can just treat them as one rope and do the PBUS method. If you want to take in slack on both ropes, then, again, just treat them as one rope and use the PBUS method.
However, when you want to pay out or take in slack on just one of the ropes, then you’ve got to switch up your technique a little bit.
Let’s look at how it’s done.
The Safest Technique for Belaying with Half Ropes
So, to use the PBUS technique on individual half ropes, it’s important first understand the basic principle behind the PBUS method.
What the PBUS method does, is it lets you belay without ever needing to let go of the dead rope.
You know why it’s called the “dead rope,” right? It’s because if you’re not gripping it tightly when the climber falls, they’ll be dead.
The key part of the PBUS method is the “US” bit. Using your guide hand to grip the dead rope while you reposition your brake hand is exactly what you’ll be doing here when paying out slack on individual half ropes.
The only difference? When you reposition your brake hand, you bring a bight of one rope from below with you.
What this does… is something magical.
When you’re once again securely gripping the dead rope higher up with your brake hand, you’ll find that that bight of rope automatically turns into slack the second you let go with your guide hand.
The only thing you’ve got to learn is which way to twist your hand when you do this. Otherwise that bight of rope can end up wrapped around your brake hand.
Don’t worry though. The rule of thumb for this is really simple, and with a little bit of practice, you’ll be just as fast as you are when using the PBUS method on a single rope.
The Rule of Thumb
Grip both ropes with your guide hand. Now, take a look, and you’ll see that one rope will be closer to your brake hand’s side, and the other will be further away.
To pay out slack on the far rope, you reach around and grab it some distance below your guide hand, pull it outside and towards your brake side, and grab the other rope above your guide hand. The bight will be above your knuckles while you’re bringing your hand up.
Let go with your guide hand, and you’ll have slack in the far rope.
For the closer rope, you do the same thing, but mirrored. Grab it some distance below your guide hand, move it outside and away from your brake side, and grab the other rope above your guide hand. This time, the bight will be below your hand while you’re bringing your hand up.
Let go with your guide hand, and you’ll have slack in the closer rope.
To take in slack, you do the exact same thing, except you grab the rope above and move it below. Everything else is exactly the same: the far rope moves toward your brake side, with the bight above your hand, and closer rope moves away from your brake side, with the bight below your hand.
To actually get the slack through the belay device, whether you’re taking it in or paying it out, just feed it through as you normally would with the PBUS method. It’s the “P” and “B” parts: pull and brake, using your guide hand on the live rope to help move it through.
I’d have illustrations for this if I could, but the best I can offer right now is Microsoft Paint, and I think it’d probably make things worse so I’ll give it a miss for now.
So, that’s all there is to it. I’ll close off by mentioning a few important tips.
A Final Note About Safety
The obvious drawback to this method, is that it’s slow until you’ve really practiced it. Tell the climber before doing any different belaying method to what you’re used to, and make sure they go slow.
The last thing you want is for you to have to rush it and make a mistake. The “natural” way people belay half ropes, though it means sliding your brake hand along the dead rope without tension, is practically safer than any sound belay technique done wrong.
Though, it should make you cringe simply at the thought of loosening your grip on the dead rope.
Sure, there’s climbers out there who do the “slip slap slide” technique successfully, but it only takes one mistake for the rope to go flying through your brake hand before you’re able to grab it. And, like I said before, once that dead rope is moving like that it’s impossible for you to grab it.
A Few More Things You Should Know
First of all, make sure you never clip both ropes into one quickdraw. It’s tempting to do that on a straightforward route, but you really shouldn’t.
“Using both ropes will be safer, right?”
Nope. What’ll happen is quite simple.
When you fall, you’ll decelerate a lot more quickly.
That means you’ll fall hard. You’ll be stopped with a sudden jerk, which will probably hurt.
Instead, just alternate which rope you clip in with. That’s all there is to it.
If you’ve ever seen an experienced climber with two ropes clipped in to one quickdraw, they’re probably using twin ropes, which are meant to be like that, so don’t go telling them off on a whim. Keep in mind though, that there’s no kind of rope out there that can be clipped both separately and together, so if you see someone doing this then you’ll know for sure that they’re being an idiot.
Secondly, make sure that you’re not back clipping. When you clip in, the rope should be going from under the quickdraw (against the wall), through it, and outwards away from the wall.
If you had the rope going through the quickdraw towards the wall, it’d unclip itself when you fall because the rope would push the gate open from the outside. It’s a simple mistake to make, but a costly one at that.
Also, try to have the quickdraw’s gates face away from the direction you’re climbing in, for the same reason as above. If a gate is facing away, the rope isn’t going to land on it.
Finally, if you want to rappel using half ropes, then just tie both ropes together with a double fisherman’s knot and rappel down off both strands. That way, you’ll guarantee you won’t run out of rope, because you had enough to make it to the top in the first place, and you’ll be able to retrieve your half ropes by pulling on the side the knot’s on.
Double fisherman’s knots are easy. You just overlap the two ends about a foot or two past each other, then with each end you tie a double overhand knot around the other rope. All you need to do then is give both ropes a tug and the knots will come together in a satisfying way. Just be sure to leave a reasonable amount of tail on each end in case there’s a small amount of slippage.
Never tied a double overhand knot before? Well it’s just like the standard overhand knot that everyone knows how to do, but you loop it around twice rather than once.
For the fisherman’s, you’ll be making these loops around the other rope, so the knot grips it when pulled tight. With one double overhand on each rope, there’s no way that the knots would ever be able to slip past enough other when weighted. More weight makes the knot more secure, which is why it’s the perfect knot for tying half ropes together for a cheeky bit of impromptu rappelling action.