Belay loops have not always been a standard feature in climbing harnesses. Before manufacturers started including them in their products, users simply attached carabiners to tie-in points for belaying.
Now that just about every harness in the market has a belay loop opinions vary as to which loop is best.
Even experts with many years of rock climbing experience differ.
In some rock climbing gyms, clients are simply not permitted to climb if they don’t adhere to the establishment’s rules on this. After many years of debate, belay loops are now accepted as the safest way to attach a carabiner.
Parts of a Climbing Harness
The climbing harness is one of the most essential pieces of rock climbing gear. It is the connection between you and the climbing rope.
If you are new to rock climbing, the first look at a climbing harness can be daunting with all the straps, loops and buckles.
It is important to familiarize yourself with the different parts and components of a harness and their specific functions before you head up the rocks.
These are the main components
This is a thick slab of webbing, much like a thick belt. It is usually made with thick foam intended to provide padding for comfort when hanging on it.
There are many different types of harnesses in the market, all with different features depending on the specific climbing style it is intended for.
Big wall harnesses for example, have exceptionally thick padding on their waist belts and leg loops. They are designed for multi-pitch routes which could take days to get through.
The extra padding helps to reduce pressure on the user’s waist and legs. Alpine harnesses used for mountaineering are lightweight harnesses with little padding to allow them fit over bulky clothes.
Alpinists often need to change layers of clothing to suit different weather conditions.
These are two wide loops which you are supposed to wear in each leg like you would with a pair of climbing pants. The webbing encases the upper thighs and can be adjusted using buckles.
This is a strong loop of rigid webbing on the front of the waist belt. The webbing used to secure the buckle is attached to the tie-in loop.
The purpose of this loop is as suggested by its name. To tie the rope into the harness. The rope is threaded first through the leg loop cross piece then pulled up through this tie-in loop.
This threading secures the rope to both the top and bottom part of the harness and helps to distribute your weight equally when you are hanging on the harness.
This is a strong, rigid center loop. Its webbing attaches the leg loops to the waist belt. As its name suggests, the belay loop is what is used to attach the harness to a carabiner when belaying or rappelling.
It is extremely strong to enable it hold the weight of the user.
Despite extreme strength, belay loops have been known to fail when they get old and worn. It is crucial that you monitor yours to make sure it is still in god condition.
These are used to tighten and loosen webbing on the waist belt and leg loops. Harnesses have one or two buckles on the front of the waist belt used to tighten and loosen it.
Each leg loop has a buckle which serves the same purpose. Each buckle is threaded with a length of webbing and then double backed to make sure it doesn’t come undone.
Some harnesses have pre-threaded buckles. With these the webbing is permanently threaded and double backed so you only need to tighten and loosen it.
Tie-In vs. Belay Loop Debate
There has been a long standing debate as to whether it is correct to clip your carabiner around the tie-in points or the belay loop of your harness when belaying.
Well, the debate has only been around since the 1970’s.
Before that, climbing harnesses didn’t come with belay loops and it was standard procedure to clip the carabiner through the leg loops and around the waist belt.
Now most climbing harnesses come with a belay loop as a standard feature. Every debate has two sides to it. Let’s take a look at the arguments put forward by both schools of thought.
Many climbers argue that it is best and safest to clip a carabiner through the two tie-in points, which is the tie in point at the front of the waist belt and between the leg loops. Some of the arguments they put forward are:
- Belay loops are not loading bearing. They argue that belay loops are just not strong enough to take the weight of the climber. This is actually not correct. The belay loop is incredibly strong and is designed for exactly that… belaying. CE requires the standard harness to have a capacity for 15kN but most actually have at least 20kN capacity.
- To prevent spinning. Another argument of supporters of tie-in points is that clipping a carabiner into these points prevents the harness from spinning around. This can be prevented even when using the belay loop as long as the belayer remains in full control.
- Death of Todd Skinner. This is perhaps the most persuasive argument. This opinion is supported by the circumstances leading to the tragic death of legendary free climber Todd Skinner in 2006. Skinner met his death after his belay loop failed while rappelling in Yosemite. The belay loop was found the next day in vegetation at the base of the wall Skinner was rappelling. What is often not mentioned is that the loop was worn at the spot where the break occurred, therefore indicating that it failed simply because it was old and quite frayed.
Hewett, a close friend and climbing partner who was with Skinner on the fatal climbing day says he noticed that Skinner’s leg loops and belay loop was frayed and asked him about it.
Skinner simply acknowledged the problem saying he would only have to use it a few more times as a new harness was on the way. Neither of them thought it would be a safety hazard.
Experts maintain it is best and safest to clip a carabiner into the belay loop when belaying. Here is why.
Tri-loading. Attaching a carabiner to tie- in points makes it bear a triple load when it is designed to take a single load. What is the triple load?
It is the two tie- in points, one from the front of the waist belt, the other from the leg loops center strap and a third load from the rope above.
This becomes a safety hazard because carabiners are designed to take the load from their spine but tri-loading forces it to take the load from its base.
This drastically reduces the carabiner’s strength rating. It brings it to just over half its rating. If your body weight is slightly lower than the carabiner’s strength rating then tri-loading means you are suddenly too heavy for your carabiner.
- Weight distribution. When your carabiner is attached to the two tie-in points, the bulk of the pressure of your weight is exerted on the leg loops and not the waist belt. Leg loops are not designed to take much weight, they are meant to provide comfort while sitting. When the carabiner is attached to the belay loop, most of your weight is on the waist belt which has sufficient structural integrity to bear significant weight. This incorrect distribution of weight also compromises comfort. Your harness will not be as comfortable with the leg loops under so much pressure.
- Right and left hand handling. When the carabiner is attached to the tie-in points, the rope system is automatically configured to enable rope handling using either the right or left hand, not both. If your rope system configures to give you right hand rope handling configuration, attempting to use your left hand crosses everything which impedes smooth movement of the rope.
When you have the carabiner attached to the belay loop, the configuration created allows for either left hand or right hand handling. You can easily switch from one to the other without interfering with the system.
Although most people are right handed, it is always best to have the option to switch from one hand to the other in case one hand gets too tired or is injured.
The tie-in loop vs. belay loop debate boils down to questions of safety and comfort.
Even after many years of differing opinions exchanged in the rock climbing world, the belay loop has slowly come to be accepted at the best way to attach a carabiner to the harness when belaying or rappelling.
Belay loops have the structural integrity required to bear all the weight of a user. It also distributes the user’s weight evenly therefore making it safer and more comfortable.