Wednesday, July 1, 2009

No Such Thing as a "Beginner's Belay Device"

I often hear climbers (including some guides and climbing gym owners) criticize mechanical-assist belay devices such as the Petzl Gri-Gri and the Trango Cinch. One local climbing gym, here in Southern California, completely bans their use. Many people seem to regard Gri-Gris, and similar devices, as only being appropriate for "experts." In contrast, tube-style belay devices (like the ATC and the Trango Pyramid) seem to be the standard choice for use when teaching belay technique.

I have a very different take. First, I use the Gri-Gri or the Cinch every single day that I am in the field. Second, I allow climbers of every experience-level to belay with the devices (and I actually expect most clients to belay my lead climbs with the Cinch exclusively). To be clear, I am not saying that the Gri-Gri and Cinch are beginner's devices. My take is that NO belay device is a beginner's tool. Where beginner's are belaying, certain precautions must be taken, regardless of the device that is in use.

To take a step back for a moment, I want to discuss the usual criticism of the Gri-Gri, and similar devices in more detail. The usual criticism has two different facets:
  1. Mechanical-assist devices are counter-intuitive--when lowering a climber, the belayer pulls back on the handle to initiate movement; the belayer releases the handle to stop the climber. Intuition, and experience belaying with a tube-style device, indicate that pulling back should stop a climber.
  2. The increased complexity of mechanical-assist devices increases the risk of human-error.
To quickly dispense with the second point, I have not seen any evidence in the various annals of accident reporting which indicate that Gri-Gris contribute to more accidents or to a higher likelihood of accidents than any other belay device. I can site examples of belay-failures involving both mechanical-assist devices and tube-style devices.

In response to the first point, my feeling is that belaying is counterintuitive; the mechanical complexity of the act of belaying, in general, lends itself to human error; only expert belayers should ever be trusted to belay without using a reliable back-up. I hold these assertions to be true for every belay technique and every belay device.

A case in point is an accident that happened here on the central coast in 2008. An inexperienced belayer was belaying an experienced climber up a 5.11 sport climb, using a tube-style belay device. Without any warning, the climber fell from a point 60 feet up on the route. At the time of the fall, the belayer was situated with both the guide-hand and the brake-hand out in front of the device (the break hand was NOT in the brake position). As the climber's weight came onto the rope, the belayer's intuition was NOT to pull down on the brake hand, applying friction to the rope and locking the tube-style device. Instead the belayer's intuition was to grip the rope as tightly as possible with both hands in their current orientations (out in front). The belayer gripped the rope and never applied the brake. Miraculously, the belayer arrested the fall after 40 feet of rope fed through the device. Very sadly, the rope did serious damage to both of the belayer's hands (and permanent nerve damage to the belayer's guide-hand).

In this photo, you can see the damage done to the belayer's hands. The belayer is right-handed, thus the brake-hand (the right hand) is seen on the left side of this photo. Interestingly, the brake hand suffered less damage than the guide-hand.

The most perverse aspect of this story is that the belayer, who will not climb to this day, blames herself for the accident. She feels that she nearly killed her climbing partner. In truth, she did not need to be placed in this position in the first place--there are basic tools and techniques which would have averted the accident.

The most important lesson that can be learned from this case is : always use reliable back-ups to the belayer. Reliable back-ups include a back-up belayer who attentively holds the break-end of the rope, blocking knots in the brake-end of the rope, and mechanical-assist belay devices like the Gri-Gri. In this situation, it is very likely that the injuries suffered by the belayer would have been avoided had she been using any one of these three back-ups.

As I mentioned earlier, my own practice includes the careful use of the Gri-Gri and the Cinch. I have found the Cinch to be the most effective and reliable device for belaying a lead climber. The technique for belaying a lead is somewhat complex but can be taught to most people. Click here to see how. I tend to use the Gri-Gri extensively for belaying re-directed top-ropes; although, I use extra precautions to avoid accidents while lowering with the devices (I routinely use a back-up belayer and/or blocking knots on the brake-end of the rope to ensure a safe lower). When I am climbing with only one other person and need to be lowered by that person, I place a klemheist on the belayer's end of the rope and attach this to my harness. I then push the klemheist down the rope as I am being lowered.

The take-home point is that the Gri-Gri is no more or less safe than any other device. Belaying, in general, is a difficult job with very severe consequences. The only way to ensure a safe belay is to back up your belay.