Friday, July 18, 2008

Being a Better Belayer

So for many this may be old news, but a recent story has made me concerned about people misusing auto-locking belay devices like the Petzl GriGri or the Edelrid Eddy. A couple months ago, Splitter Choss and the Climbing Narc fostered some discussion about the "proper" way to use a GriGri. If you've not seen this video, created by Petzl, and you belay with a GriGri, I suggest you watch it:

The video shows 2 ways of lead belaying with the GriGri without taking your break hand off the rope. It also shows a 3rd method, which I think the majority of people I observe at sport crags generally use, where the break hand is taken off the rope to let out slack when the leader needs to make a clip. I think this was the way I was taught to lead belay with a GriGri and I have passed plenty of lead belay tests without being reprimanded, so my impression is that this is a generally accepted method of using the device.

The problem is that it isn't really an acceptable way to use the device. It fosters bad habits - I've seen plenty of belayers not returning their break hand to the rope, even when not letting out slack. It encourages the idea that it's ok not to hold on to the break rope, which is a bad habit to pick up if you also belay with a traditional (non-auto-locking) belay device or in the unlikely (but still possible) situation that the leader falls and the auto-locking belay device does not engage.

The reason I bring this up is that I recently heard of a bad climbing accident that occurred due to similar misuse of an Edelrid Eddy, which is an auto-locking belay device similar to the GriGri (it must be "pinched" so that the cam will not engage and slack can be let out). A climber was leading a sport route in Maple Canyon when he took a fall. The belayer did not have his break hand on the rope at the time. The Eddy did not catch on the relatively new 9.2mm rope and the belayer did not manually arrest the fall. The climber therefore took a 50-foot fall to the ground and suffered serious injuries, although luckily a full recovery is expected.

The moral of the story is clear: although auto-locking belay devices are great and make the life of a belayer much easier, they cannot be trusted absolutely to catch any fall. They do not grant the belayer the freedom to let go of the break rope.

When I encountered the discussion on the Climbing Narc's post, I was initially unsure that I even could change my method of belaying (I used to use the "bad" method, #3). I have quite small hands and I like to wear belay gloves, so I was unsure that the rope could still feed easily through my break hand while I was simultaneously pinching the belay device. However, Luke and I have both adopted method #2, which in fact works quite well, even with small hands and belay gloves. It requires a little more rope management so the rope will feed easily, but I think the increased safety is well worth this extra effort. I would never want to drop a leader because I was being a lazy belayer. I also think it's important, since I use a Reverso (just got the new one!!!) just as often as a GriGri, to foster good belay habits (i.e. not taking the break hand off the rope) rather than bad ones.

So to make a long story short, I wrote this post and brought up the video again because I think the biggest problem with auto-locking belay devices like the GriGri or the Eddy is a lack of knowledge. People just don't know that these devices are not a substitute for belay skills and safety. So now you know. Please think about the friends that you're belaying and make sure you're being a safe belayer.



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