Whether you’re doing your first 5.8 toprope or starting the 10th pitch of a big wall, you need a belay device. These simple tools help climbers apply the brakes to a rope, making it relatively easy to stop a fall, lower another climber, or rappel.
While belay devices are fairly basic, lightweight tools, they are useless without correct belay and rappel techniques. Moreover, many devices require unique techniques— what you learn on one device doesn’t necessarily apply to another. Read the manual, go online, or get competent instruction to learn how to safely belay or rappel with your specific device. Taking this responsibility lightly or getting distracted while belaying can quickly lead to injuries or death.
1. Tubes are the most common devices on the market, as well as the simplest and least expensive. Typically made with lightweight aluminum (some are stainless steel), these devices have oblong slots through which you feed a bight of rope. This bight is then clipped with a locking carabiner to the belay loop on your harness. Friction around the slots and the biner apply braking force to the rope.
Tube-style devices may have slots for one or two ropes; double-slotted devices can be used to belay two climbers and perform double-rope rappels. Tube-style devices require complete manual braking from the belayer.
2. Auto-blocking (AB) tube-style devices have an extra hole that is used to clip the device directly into the anchor on a multipitch climb with a locking carabiner (instead of clipping to the belayer’s harness). When a bight of rope is properly passed through one of the belay slots and clipped with a separate locking biner, the device will hold a climber following the pitch with little to no manual braking from the belayer. With two ropes rigged into the device, the belayer can separately belay two seconds at the same time, taking up slack as each climber moves upward. Once the second arrives at the belay stance and clips into the anchor, the device is removed from the anchor and clipped into the harness like a regular tubestyle device, in order to belay the next lead.
As with any belay device, the belayer must always keep a hand on the brake end of the rope, but an auto-blocker will minimize the amount of physical exertion by the belayer. Because the rope may “lock” into the device under a fallen climber’s weight, some autoblocking devices are designed with a tab or small hole on the opposite end from the clipin hole. This “lock release” can be used to lift the weighted device and thus unlock the rope so the climber can be lowered.
3. Assisted braking devices use either a geometric configuration or an internal moving part to stop a fall with little intervention from the belayer. Some assisted-braking devices, like the Petzl Grigri 2, use a mechanical cam to bite the rope and catch the climber. Others, like the Mammut Smart, use the shape of the device itself to apply force to the rope and stop it from slipping through. Most of them are made for single ropes and designed mainly for sport climbing and toproping, but at least one newer device allows for double-rope rappels and belaying two seconding climbers.
Assisted-braking devices are more expensive and heavier than tubes, but some climbers believe they are safer for less experienced belayers to use. And sport climbing belayers, who may have to catch many falls or hold a hanging partner for hours while he works out the moves on a pitch, appreciate the ease of holding a weighted rope with one of these devices. They also provide extra protection in the event a belayer is knocked unconscious or rendered incapacitated.
Things to remember: A belayer must be careful not to adopt a false sense of security with these devices and always keep a hand on the brake end of the rope. It’s also crucial to learn the manufacturer’s recommended technique for smooth and safe belaying. These devices lock up quickly and abruptly, which means they give harder catches—not ideal where you’re using less-than-bomber protection. And we repeat: No matter what you may have seen or heard—always, always, always keep your brake hand on the rope.
4. The figure 8, one of the original rappel and belay devices, is rarely used today because tube-style and assisted braking devices are more efficient and put fewer twists in the rope. However, figure 8s do provide smooth, easily controlled rappels, and they are preferred by some rescue personnel.
Each belay device is designed to handle a specific range of rope sizes, including single, half, or twin ropes. A rope that’s too skinny for a device’s range may slip and cause disaster. A rope that is above a device’s suggested range will not fit into the rope slots or will create difficulty while feeding slack and lowering. Be sure to check the rope range of the device you’re considering against the size of the ropes you and your partner use.
Some belay devices offer varying modes that create more or less friction for different situations. Grooves or ridges on one end of the device may offer more ease when braking or rappelling. Other devices provide varying friction depending on which way you thread the rope through the slots. Increased friction can be useful when you’re belaying a heavy partner or rappelling on skinny ropes. Less friction may be needed with thick or icy ropes.
The Internet is full of tales of micro-fractures in climbing gear. The story is that a belay device or carabiner dropped against a hard surface may develop tiny fractures in the metal—you can’t see them, but they can cause the device to fail or break. But don’t panic if you drop your belay device from the top of a route; Black Diamond climbing category director and gear innovator Bill Belcourt claims micro-fractures are not all they’re cracked up to be. Always examine your equipment carefully after a long drop, but if there aren’t any visible scars, cracks, or dents, the device is probably fine to use. On the other hand, a carabiner or belay device is pretty darned cheap—if you have any doubts at all, throw out the dropped piece and buy a new one.
4 keys to safe belays
1. CLIMBER: Never leave the ground before double-checking:
Have you tied the rope to your harness properly?
Are your harness buckles doubled back?
Is your partner’s belay device rigged correctly and carabiner locked?
Are you on belay? Don’t assume—ask.
2. BELAYER: Pay attention to the climber. Always. No excuses.
3. BELAYER: Either tie in to the free end of the rope or put a stopper knot in the end so it can’t accidentally slip through your belay device as you’re lowering your partner.
4. NEVER take your brake hand off the rope.