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We saw a family of four at Elephant Rock in City of Rocks, Idaho. They were toproping Rye Crisp (5.8), one of the most popular routes in the City. We climbed a few adjacent routes and made small talk with the Dad. At first glance he seemed pretty competent. He said he'd been climbing at the City for over 30 years, which his slung hexes and frayed wires seemed to support. The kids flailed around on the bottom of the route until they were content and then lowered back to the ground. When Mom went to climb, I noticed they were using two ropes tied together to facilitate the toprope. The knot came into play when Mom got about halfway up. As the knot approached the belay device, Dad yelled, "find a good stance, I need to switch the ropes over." Mom sounded panicked, "What do you mean? What should I do? Do you have me?" The daughter interjected that she would be off belay 60 feet off the ground, as though this is common practice on their family outings. Without tying any sort of back up, Dad takes Mom off belay, fumbles with the rope, and struggles to reload his assisted-braking device. At least a full minute went by before she was back on belay. Mom was clutching the flake and shaking in fear throughout the ordeal.—Nick, via email
LESSON: At no point should there be death-fall potential during a casual day of toproping with the family. Situations like this can easily be avoided with a little common sense. Let's think it through together: First, we are a dad. We're at the crag with our family. Our wife is toproping a long route that requires two ropes. We are belaying our wife. The knot connecting the two ropes reaches our belay device. In order for our lovely wife to continue climbing, we'll need to move the belay device above the knot. We love our wife, so we don't want to take her off belay. We also don't want our children to watch their mother deck from 60 feet up because we are a good father. That is not what good, cool, rock climbing fathers do. So how do we solve this problem? How do we get a belay device above the knot? Do we have another belay device? If so, we can just set it up and put her on belay above the knot, then detach the first belay device. We will make our kid (or another climber) do it so we don't have to take our hand off the brake strand. Seamless! If we don't have another belay device, we'll need a way to hold the rope while we disconnect the belay device we're using. Let's tie a figure eight on a bight and clip it to our belay loop (using a locker!). Our harness will hold the rope. We can now go hands free to detach the belay device and reattach it above the knot. Once our wife is safely back on belay, we can remove the knot, and she can resume climbing. Now we can congratulate ourselves for being a good, cool, and safe rock climbing dad. We're so cool that our family loves us a lot and our children will never go through a rebellious phase in their teen years. High five, us. (End fantasy.)
Those are just two ways this problem can be solved. Neither of them add much time or effort to the process, and both methods increase safety dramatically. My point isn't that these are the only two ways to change over a belay. My point is that there are usually a lot of solutions to any technical climbing challenge. Sure, you might be able to get away with briefly taking someone off belay when they're 60 feet off the ground, but why do it if you don't have to? Take a second to think through your situation with a critical mind. No one should ever risk their life to toprope a 5.8.
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