This write up is not about how to belay, this is more focused on the design of belay devices, and on the advanced skills that can be applied with some of the belay devices.
One of the most critical climbing related safety action is associated with belaying the climber. The term belay means to stop or arrest, and has origins in Shipping terminology, where a rope would be secured around a cleat or a pin to either anchor it or to control the amount that is to be paid out.
The bending of the rope and running it around an object creates friction, and with sufficient friction, the ability to stop a falling climber is amplified. The amount of friction needed to provide a safe belay is determined by the co-efficient of friction during the belay, and a few other factors.
My earliest introduction to the concept of securing or controlling a rope was during my kayaking days. In case of emergencies, we would jump out of the kayaks on to the shore, to create a belay or even anchor the rope, with a few wraps around a tree or a boulder if we could find one, or one of us would sit down and brace to create a body belay or body anchor.
While those quick and dirty methods of securing rope for river rescues was the precursor to the more elaborate and contextually different rope work needed for climbing, the less dynamic world of climbing allowed for a leisurely study and application of belaying techniques and study of belay devices. But when things go south in climbing, the reaction has to be based on sound principles and quick thinking based on a depth of experiences, while working in a dynamic environment. Right tools help in ensuring such situations don’t become more than epics. But before we attempt to identify the right tool, let’s understand the principles behind a belay device.
There are at least five-six factors that determine the ability to safely stop a falling climber while climbing.
- The impact force of the rope, and how much energy it transmits between the falling climber and the belayer. The impact force is dissipated and reduced by the way of stretching capability of the nylon braided ropes. One of the reasons, static or low stretch ropes are not recommended for climbing.
- Belay device’s ability to stop the fall.
- The amount of friction at the top most anchor, and its ability to absorb the impact force.
- Harness is critical component too. It acts as a component of anchor. It should be robust enough to withstand the peak forces generated during a fall. A belay loop per UIAA standards should withstand 15 kn of forces, and the waist loop should withstand about 10 kn of forces.
- Critically, considering the nature of most belay devices, and the dynamic nature of falling scenarios, the ability of the belayer to provide for attentive and safe belay. Also, what is critical is that there be no more than 40% difference in weights between the belayer and the climber. If that number is lower and closer to zero, would be ideal.
- An anchor for the belayer, either by the way of their own body weight, or by the way of being secured to an external anchor.
In the early days of climbing, the co-efficient of friction was provided by what were called ‘Body belays’. It truly needs to be experienced to realise what it takes by another climber braced and positioned by the way of sitting or standing to stop the fall of another climber. If one is doing top belay, that is with the belayer situated above the climber, and with no slack in the system, and near equal weights of climber and the belayer, the body belay works fairly well. However, to stop a fall of a climber either on top rope or on lead, the body belay is not sufficient. On an average, a waist belay by a well braced belayer allows for near equal weight of holding capacity.
A climber falling from above generates many times the weight of their body weight in impact force, and that force is nearly impossible to stop with a body belay.
Up until 1930s, the guiding principle was that the leader shouldn’t fall, and if did fall, the best to do was to sacrifice the leader by ensuring the rope would snap by anchoring the rope to a tree or a boulder, which would practically ensure that.
The first known mechanical device to assist with belaying was invented in the 1960s. ‘Sticht plate’, an aluminium plate with a slot or two slots allowed for a bight of the rope to be inserted, clipped to a carabiner, and the carabiner attached to the harness allowed the belayer to stop the fall with minimal effort in relation to the effort and risks associated with body belays.
Sticht plate is the forerunner of modern belay devices.
Munter hitch was introduced at a 1973 UIAA meet in Italy and offers about 2.5 kn of holding capacity in closed mode, which is when both the sides of the rope are parallel to each other. In the ‘open munter’ mode, the holding capacity drops to about 1.4 kn. Munter hitch requires just one HMS type locking carabiner. It is a critical skill to know for times when you have dropped your belay device. It isn’t more popular than it should be, as belaying on Munter hitch (especially for leader belays) can be hard on the shoulders, and then it also is more impactful on the rope.
TYPES OF BELAY DEVICES FOR CLIMBING:
Recreational Climbing is just one application for devices that use friction to control ropes. Other applications include industrial high rope access, caving, canyoneering, and other aerial pursuits, and such devices are designed for the specific purpose. Climbing related belay devices are designed for belaying and some related activities.
Original being Salewa Sticht Plate, offer about 2 kn of holding power.
With the spring, the holding power reduces to about 1.5 kn. The smaller eye of figure eights also functions in the same manner as that of Sticht plates.
- Jam against the carabiner
- Too much friction for rappelling
- Heat generation during rappels, due to small mass.
Belay plates in their original form are outdated.
Latok tuber was the first in the long list of tubers that have come into the market.
More advantageous than belay plates, and over comes all the three issues that the plates have and have been mentioned above.
Belay tubes are quite versatile and relatively inexpensive. They can belay a leader, abseil, bring up a second and lower the second with ease, and work with double ropes.
For most of your rock climbing career and needs, simple tubers may just be sufficient. There are multiple makes in the market, including Black Diamond ATC, Mammut Fuse, etc.
Best uses: Top Rope belays, Belaying a leader, Abseiling. Tube style devices also work for multi-pitches, for bringing up the second. There are two ways to do this right to ensure that if the follower takes a fall, the impact is not on the belayer, but on the top anchor.
- If belaying from the harness, redirect the rope from a higher point.
- You could also hang the belay tuber from the master point, and redirect the rope from a higher point.
Emergency tip: If you have one of the bigger hexes, they make for good emergency tube style belay or rappel devices.
BELAY TUBES WITH HIGH FRICTION MODE
High Friction mode on belay tubes is achieved by either V shaped notches on one side of the tuber or by the way of adding serrations on the side of the notches. This provides about twice the braking power of a regular tuber.
PLATES OR PLAQUETTES
The term ‘Plaquette’ (in French meaning Plate) originally comes from ‘Paquette Magique’ (or Magic Plate), a device originally made by New Alp, a French manufacturer. The specific feature of this device is the auto-locking mode when belaying from top. Also known as the guide mode, the rope locks off automatically, if the belayer is not feeding the rope. The beauty of this system depends entirely on the geometry of the belay device and the rope friction.
Plaquettes work well with double ropes, to bring up the followers efficiently, rappel smoothly, and function as progress capture device to help ascending a fixed rope. A critical drawback of the Plaquettes has been their inability to belay a leader effectively. There simply isn’t enough friction to be able to confidently belay a leader, in the design of the device.
One of the reason, Plaquettes still remain popular despite advances in design of belay devices, is their ability to belay the second climber or the follower, very smoothly. The large slots on plaquette allow for ropes to be fed very smoothly. A couple of Tube style Plaquettes have come close to being able to provide similarly smooth belay.
One critical thing to remember with Plaquettes is that because of the large belay slots, the risk of rope inversion exists. What this means is that a single rope can twist around and invert itself, thus removing the advantage of the belay, and risk dropping the follower. While this is a possibility and has rarely been recorded, there are two ways to over come this. If belaying on a single rope from the top, clip the secondary carabiner that goes through the rope, back into the carabiner on which the Paquette is hanging. Or, two, clip the carabiner through the rope and ensure it is going round the entire plaquette.
An external link to one of the methods to overcome the risk of rope inverstion in plaquettes. http://youtu.be/MkkFmLoFcFc
While there have been improvements on this design, some manufacturers have continued to provide devices dedicated to the original design, as few other design comes close to the efficient and smooth belay that it provides to bring up the followers on multi-pitches. Couple of popular designs include Kong Gigi and Camp Ovo.
TUBE STYLE PLAQUETTES
Petzl Reverso and Black Diamond ATC Guide fall into this category. They combine the advantages of a tube style belay device (most times with High Friction mode) and the Plaquettes to provide a versatile little tool that can belay a leader, rappel easily, provide a guide mode belay (even on double ropes), and can work as progress capture devices.
Tube Style Plaquettes or Guide Mode Belay devices or whatever other names they are referred to by, are downright the most versatile belay devices on the market.
The single biggest challenge with the Tube Style Plaquettes or Plaquette design is their complexity in lowering a climber in the midst of a climb, when belaying from the top. Typically, a notch is provided to assist with the lowering. There are two-three ways to provide some slack or to completely lower the follower in the midst of a climb. One, requires ratcheting of the carabiner that is clipped into the rope, or two, create a redirect to lift the same carabiner, or, three, using the notch provided either insert a third carabiner, or sling using the notch. In the last two scenarios, the brake end of the rope needs to be secured using a munter hitch belay, or with a secondary belay system to ensure that the follower is not dropped while lowering.
There have been some improvements to the design by various manufacturers, that incorporate compactness of design, lightness of materials, ability to lower a bit more easily, or simply some other gimmickry, but most of them work with about the same efficiency overall for smaller rope diameters.
In my experience with a dozen different Tube Style Plaquettes, I have found that there are some subtle differences based on design that offer advantages with different diameters of ropes, or ensure smoothness of belay, while not impacting your shoulders and elbows.
A noteworthy mention is DMM Pivot, which comes closest to offering similarly smooth top belays as with Kong Gigi or Camp Ovo, even for thicker ropes. Ability to lower in the midst of a top belay is also much superior in the DMM Pivot.
Edelrid Megajul combines all the benefits of Tube Style Plaquettes, with Assisted Braking while providing a top rope or leader belay. However, it’s versatility is mildly compromised by it’s inability to do anything with top notch perfection. And then the learning curve is steeper, so especially if you are the types who likes to keep things simple, avoid Megajul. The design and innovation with this simple looking device is inspiring.
There are also some devices in this category that work less well with thicker ropes, or the design lends itself to less efficiency.
Simond Toucan 2 is least of my favourites. In theory, an innovative design, the material used makes a tuning fork sound, the belay isn’t that smooth, and most importantly, it is extremely difficult or impossible to lower or provide slack to the follower in the midst of a climb.
These are external links some advanced skills that can applied using Tube Style Plaquettes or Plaquettes or ABDs:
Hauling of gear or partner using 3:1 method. https://youtu.be/KaERKYT-fK4
Converting a Plaquette style device to lowering. http://youtu.be/JoZ-5xr8LEM
Converting a Plaquette style device to lowering, when the rope is loaded. https://youtu.be/vyN52Uuilv4
Converting a Plaquette style device to ascending or to a Progress Capture Device. http://youtu.be/_kcAB7Dmb-c
These devices provide the smoothest rappels, due to their larger mass. Has only 1.2 kn of holding power, if the rope is running around the neck. If the rope is running through the carabiner (sport mode), then the holding power drops to 80 newtons.
Figure Eights are descenders and not dedicated belay devices. There is no reason to use Figure Eights for rock climbing or technical climbing. However, in India, about six-seven out of ten devices are of this kind. FOE devices work well in the mountains, and for speed climbing applications.
So, if lead belaying with FOE devices, use either Munter mode or Sticht Plate mode (as shown below, left to right, respectively).
FIGURE EIGHTS: SMALL
Popular with alpinists for their compact size and weight, but have a tendency to abrade more quickly than a full sized figure eight.
FIGURE EIGHTS: WITH EARS, OR RESCUE FIGURE EIGHTS
Figure eights with ears drooping over the sides of the head are to ensure that the rope doesn’t slip over the large hole and girth hitch during rappels.
Figure eights with ears forming horns on the sides off the large hole provide the same function as above but with marginally less certainty, but more importantly provide additional options for higher friction during descent.
ASSISTED BRAKING DEVICES (ABDs)
The action of Belaying is critical to safety, in the climbing systems. Aside from the very process of climbing, belaying depends largely on the human skill to belay correctly and attentively. Most belay designs depend on the ability of the belayer to brake properly. However, a popular category attempts to mitigate any risk of human error by providing assistance by the way of rope locking off when a sudden and urgent pressure is generated on the device by the rope pulling through. Such belay devices are categorised as Assisted Belay Devices.
This assisted braking ability is either generated by geometry based design that pinches the rope between the carabiner and the device, or by mechanical means which ensures that when the rope is pulled urgently through the device in any direction, a moving part in the device pinches the bight in the rope, and generates tremendous friction.
ASSISTED BRAKING DEVICES: MECHANICAL
The most popular one for nearly three decades has been Petzl Grigri, and the standard for such devices. There have been three generations of it already, including the original Grigri, Grigri 2 and Grigri Plus. In addition many more devices exist in the market, including Faders Sum, Trango Cinch, Trango Vergo, Madrock Lifeguard, Edelrid Eddy, and so on. However, Grigri has stood the test of time, and remains the most popular.
There are distinct advantages with such devices. They provide the most stress-free belay, especially for top roping and if the partner is working a route. However, the assisted nature of the belay is not to be confused with automatic belay.
In the past, atleast two of my experienced partners believing that they are auto-belay devices, released the brake hand from the ropes. Such lackadaisical attitude with these devices makes them a bit dangerous. In addition, they tend to be heavier, cannot accommodate double ropes, abseiling with them requires complex setup like the Reepschnur method, and also while belaying a leader, unless one is well versed, may cause short roping.
One other critical problem is that while lowering, many of these mechanical assisted belay devices require a lever to be compressed to release the rope. This depressing of the lever needs to be calibrated correctly. Depressing of the lever without the brake hand controlling the rope, has caused accidents over the time.
To overcome the particular problem with users accidentally keeping the release lever depressed, Petzl Grigri Plus and Edelrid Eddy have what is known as anti-panic mode. The lowering action is enabled, when the lever is calibrated to a precise degree, and when completed depressed, the device locks off. This is an additional feature, and not all Mechanical ABDs accommodate it.
Also, considering the very nature of assisted braking, the catch is a little stiff, so the impact force generated on top anchor and the rope is typically higher than with other belay device designs. Ideally, one should avoid using ABDs for any type of trad climbing lead belays, or lead belaying on ice.
While comparing, Petzl Grigri 2 and Madrock Lifeguard, I have found the Lifeguard to be much superior for majority of functions. In Grigri 2, to offer a smooth leader belay, you have to keep your thumb over the device, to avoid the device locking up, and providing short rope to the climber. Where as in the Lifeguard, the belaying action is similar to the action in a tube style belay device, and still locks off effectively. There is a small slippage in the Lifeguard, but that slippage is preferable to provide a dynamic belay. Also, the Lifeguard is lighter by 24 grams, and a more compact device than the Grigri 2. Grigri 2 however, because of quicker lockoff ability provides a far better belay while belaying from top to bring up the second.
One of the more hyped recent entrant to this list of devices includes Wild Country Revo, which apparently can be threaded in any direction for it to work. All other ABDs currently need to be threaded in a particular direction for them to work. This is a potential risk, but usually, is part of the short learning curve.
Mechanical ABDs in general are expensive. They range in pricing from USD 90 to USD 150/200.
Best uses for them include, frequent gym usage, for top roping, and sport climbing. Amongst other uses, I have found them to be very useful while exploring new routes, being either belayed or being on rappel. If on rappel, I can convert the device to back up for ascending the same rope.
Some of these ABDs are also popular for solo climbing, but there is an entire category of self-belaying devices, which is not being addressed at this time.
ASSISTED BRAKING DEVICES: MANUAL OR GEOMETRY BASED
A second type of Assisted Braking Devices are manual or geometry based. These include Mammut Smart series of devices, Edelrid Jul series, Camp Yoyo, Climbing Tecnology ClickUp, Wild Country SRC, etc.
These devices are typically cheaper, and lighter than the Mechanical ABDs, and also have certain limitations. They aren’t as smooth as the Mechanical ABDs, require some more learning curve, and are usually harder on the elbows and the shoulders to release the rope.
Amongst the ones I have played with include, Camp Yoyo, Mammut Smart and Edelrid Megajul.
Camp Yoyo has atrocious amount of friction. It makes for a fascinating device for those who are obsessed about belay device designs, but outside of this academic interest, Camp Yoyo seems like a dinosaur in the digital age.
Mammut Smart is an inexpensive lightweight ABD for top roping and for gym usage.
Edelrid Megajul is way more versatile device that is both a Tube Style Plaquette and a manual ABD. It certainly has its cult following. If I were allowed only one belay device, it would be Edelrid Megajul.
I have skipped talking about mono-tubers (which have a following for sport climbing), or self-belaying devices, or other hybrid belay devices like Omega Pacific SBG II (which is a nice hybrid of tube style and figure eight device).
WHAT TO CONSIDER IN BELAY DEVICES
Most common belay devices used for roped climbing, whether on rock or on ice, are tube style belay devices or tube style plaquettes, followed by Assisted Braking Devices. But a single belay device doesn’t apply well for all situations. One must chose a belay device based on the type of climbing.
What is considered by climbers when making a choice include the following:
- Type of device. Further notes on the same listed above. But typically, the most popular are Tube Style, Tube Style Plaquettes or Guide mode Tubers, and Assisted Braking Devices (ABDs).
- Weight. Typical weight of most devices is sub 100 grams for manual devices and sub 200 grams for ABDs.
- Rope diameter range. This is not an actively considered, but this is critical, when your range of climbing may include thick gym ropes and then skinny doubles.
- Compactness of device
- Ability to provide top rope belay. Most basic requirement. An ideal balance is between control of the rope when fed through the device, and smoothness of belay
- Ability to provide lead belay. Primary consideration is that the friction is such that a smooth belay is not inhibited and provides no risk of short roping. Usually, not a problem with Tube style devices, but is a serious concern with ABDs.
- Ability to bring up the second, while climbing on multi-pitches. The ideal feature here is the ability of the device to auto-lock off, and yet smoothly operate when actively engaged. However, basic tube style devices can bring up the second safely, but won’t auto-lock. Only Plaquettes or related or ABDs can assist in braking.
- Ability to convert to lowering or to lower a loaded rope, for the second, on multi-pitches.
- Ease and control while rappelling on the device. While Figure Eights and other dedicated descenders may provide smoother rappels, that doesn’t translate such devices to ideal belaying devices.
- How much does the device dissipate heat while rappelling. This will define if the device is capable for multi-pitches or for long exits.
- Double rope usage. For any climbing beyond sport routes, an ideal device is one that can be used to belay double ropes, or rappel on double ropes.
- Some devices can be used as progress capture devices, or secondary device for ascending ropes. Some can be converted to ascending in the midst of a rappel. These could be useful in self-rescue scenarios.
- Some devices can be used to provide an assist to the follower on multi-pitches or simply for hauling gear, using a 3:1 or even 5:1 hauling methods. Most Plaquette style devices or ABDs could do so.
- Impact force in case of a leader fall as a consequence of the catch by the belay device. See the section under ABDs to understand this better.
- Assisted Braking capability, either through mechanical mode or manual mode. The ideal balance again is between control (as defined by friction) and smoothness of belay. For example, Camp Yoyo has tremendous friction, but is hard to pay out slack.
- A subset of requirement for ABDs is anti-panic mode, which allows for auto-locking off of the rope, incase the lowering mechanism is not correctly operated.
- Durability isn’t one of the major things most are concerned with. However, do not that even metal abrades with rope usage. Some belay devices abrade more quickly than others based on the metal used in pursuit of weight savings. One of the memories I have of Thamel Market in Kathmandu, which is literally the dumping ground for old devices and a flea market rolled into one, is the condition of different devices. Figure eights abraded to half their size, Reversos abraded to the point that you could use them to slice apples, and still being offered for sale.
A belay device choice is sometimes a function of personal prejudices as well. Most belay modern UIAA certified devices should work just fine, and at the end of the day it boils down to user capability with the tools. Whatever choice you make, in terms of the Belay Device, learn everything you could about it, and how to use it right.