Like Butch Cassidy without the Sundance Kid, Thelma without Louise, Batman without Robin, a climber is nothing without his mighty sidekick, the belayer. "A what?" you ask. Belayer -- the person who catches you when you start tumbling down the climbing wall.

Throughout the D.C. area, people pay climbing gyms not so much for the equipment, or use of the climbing walls, but for the trained staff belayers or auto-belayers that help guide climbers to the top. But if you learn to do it yourself and climb with a friend, the benefit is huge. Instead of paying gyms the usual $5 per climb (including gear), you'll each pay only about $16 for a full day, plus about $9 each if you need gear. And you'll have the satisfaction of mastering one of the essentials of rock climbing. It's neither difficult nor too time consuming.

What to Expect: Students must be at least 14 years of age. Classes start slowly: You're handed a long black seat-belt-looking thing with lots of hooks and gadgets (the harness); a thick red nylon rope; and a metal contraption (the pully system). For a good, long while you learn how to strap on the harness (and safety-check it), how to tie a rope and how to use the pully system. You do this over and over.

After about an hour, you get to the fun part: climbing and belaying the other students. Belay language is taught during this active part of the class, since communication between climber and belayer is key to safety -- for both of you. If the climber says "Take lowering," he wants the belayer to let him down. "On belay" means the climber is ready to climb and needs the belayer's full attention. "Off belay" indicates that the climber no longer needs the belayer's attention.

If you're taking an indoor class and want be certified to belay at the gym's climbing wall, you'll want to come back a second time to test your skills. Don't wait more than two weeks, or you're bound to forget what you just learned. (Belay students are sent home from their first class with a rope to practice tying techniques.) You'll review your skills and be tested, which should last no more than 15 minutes. Students are expected to know how to gear up and will need to belay an instructor using the correct commands. Though each course teaches the same skills, you'll still have to pass a brief test to get the go-ahead to belay at each individual climbing wall.

What to Bring: Comfy, loose-fitting clothes. Sneakers work, or the center can provide shoes along with the other equipment.

Cost: $25 to $95, with the more expensive classes including simultaneous outdoor belay and climbing instruction.

Cari Shane Parven

Where to Climb

Adventure Schools Rock Climbing. 800-392-5462. $95 for an eight-hour outdoor Introduction to Rock Climbing class, taught at Carderock Park, Md. Call for registration or visit the Web site.

Earth Treks Climbing Center. Two locations: 7125-C Columbia Gateway Dr., Columbia; 1930 Greenspring Dr., Timonium, Md. 800-254-6287. $95 for an eight-hour outdoor Intro to Rock Climbing class, held at Carderock Park or Rock State Park. The three-hour indoor Intro to Climbing class is held Thursdays and weekends.

Sportrock Climbing Centers. Three indoor locations: 5308 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria, 703-212-7625;14708 Southlawn Lane, Rockville, 703-212-7625; 45935 Maries Rd., Sterling, 703-212-7625. Call for an appointment to get into the two-hour Basic Skills class, which costs $25.

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Learn the ropes of holding the rope and you'll get a whole 'nother view.