Unbelayvable: How Not to Use a Grigri Edition

Every Monday we publish the most unbelievable stories of climbing stupidity submitted by our readers. See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition, online or in print. For more Unbelayvable, check out the Unbelayvable Archives.


>>I took this photo in Andonno, Italy. The leader had just set off on a difficult looking pitch and was grunting his way up an early crux. At some point the belayer decided the climber was past the worst of it, took both hands of his grigri, picked up a Coke, and enjoyed a few sips before bringing his attention back to the wall.—Submitted by Tim, via email 

>>I grew up climbing with a dramatic little teenager who was as funny and motivated as he was ridiculous. This little teenager grew into a V13 boulder and notable climbing videographer, but I have to share one of the endless “unbelayvable” moments from his early days. I was climbing one of the steep lines at The Hole in the Kaymoor area of the New River Gorge and was yarding up slack to make a clip, which of course I blew, and I took a healthy whipper. After the rope came tight, I heard my belayer say, “Well, we know the grigri works.” I looked down to find him hanging a few feet off the ground with both hands on a sandwich. I was alarmed and yelled something at him, to which he responded, “Why are you so mad? I obviously wasn’t paying attention.”—Submitted by Doug Hartman, via email

>>I was in Rumney a couple years ago, and I saw someone leading while his belayer held a grigri with one hand and a beer in the other. Moreover, the belayer was having a conversation with someone else. He wasn’t paying attention to the climber at all.—Submitted by Julie Chenevert, via Facebook


>>I took this photo of a guy belaying a trad leader with a grigri.—Submitted by Jaska, via email

LESSON: Assisted braking devices are among the most welcome gear innovations of the past few decades, and the grigri is one of our favorites. Still, it must be used properly to be effective. Go to any gym or crag and you’ll find no shortage of people discovering new and interesting ways to misuse one. I get a lot of Unbelayvable submissions on just that subject. Instead of repeating myself week after week, I’ve decided to knock them out all at once in this Special All-Grigri Edition of Unbelayvable.

The foremost error shared by all of these submissions is that the belayer is not keeping a hand on the brake strand. In Petzl’s own instructions, they lay it out in no uncertain terms, “Always hold the brake side of the rope!” And you should. The grigri is an assisted braking device. It’s not an automatic braking device. There are at least four situations where the grigri’s camming device will not engage on its own:

1. With super-skinny ropes.2. With an extremely light climber.3. On routes with bulges or significant rope drag that reduce the forces of a fall.4. Hanging on the rope (versus falling) mid-route. To help the cam engage, the belayer sometimes may need to step back or sit down as he locks off with his brake hand.

It’s also possible for the device’s cam to slow a descent without fully stopping it (more likely on thinner ropes). Holding the brake strand in the proper locked position will allow the grigri’s cam to engage more readily. Bottom line: Keep a hand in the brake position, no matter how hungry or thirsty you are. In most cases your climber should be willing to wait five minutes for you to eat a sandwich, or you should be willing to wait 20 minutes for your climber to finish their route so you can eat a sandwich. The grigri is not for multitasking.

Another major error by these belayers is that they’re not paying attention to their climbers. The grigri might catch a fall on its own. OK, the climber is safe. But the belayer isn’t out of the woods. Anyone experienced in catching lead falls knows that you can be yanked up and into the wall by the force of your climber. When that happens, it’s best to be ready and brace for impact with your legs in front of you. Of course, if you’re facing the other way, drinking a beer ,and chatting with a friend, the result might be your head bashing into stone. Keep yourself and your climber safe by being an attentive belayer.

Finally, these absentee belayers aren’t providing a dynamic belay. When you belay with a tube style device and your climber falls, the rope will slip through the device a little bit before the catch. This helps to reduce the impact force of a fall. Grigris catch the rope immediately, resulting in a harder fall. This makes it more important for the belayer to jump during a fall to provide a soft catch (when appropriate). The climber will appreciate the cushy stop, and reduced wear on their knees and ankles. This goes double when belaying a trad leader, like in the last submission. In trad, a softer fall also means less force on the climber’s protection. Less force means the gear is more likely to stay in the wall. Might as well stack the odds in your favor.

For more information on proper grigri technique, check out Petzl’s in-depth video, Belaying with a Grigri.

See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print. Got an unbelayvable photo? Send it to