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For Safety’s Sake, Don’t Do This: Belay With Hands Only

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Every Sunday we publish the most unbelievable stories of climbing stupidity submitted by our readers. See something insanely unsafe? Email and your story could be featured online.

I was toproping at the gym when I heard my belayer talking to someone below. She sounded agitated. I looked down and saw a 12-year-old girl falling off the route next to mine, just a few feet off the ground. I was confused. Was my friend giving her beta? What was going on? And why was the girl clipped to a Grigri? It turned out her mother was “belaying” by holding on tight to the belayer’s side of the rope with her bare hands. The girl had the Grigri clipped to her harness with the rope running through it. She was not tied in. On the wall behind us, the woman’s other two daughters were using the same system. We called the gym staff over to educate the group. It seemed like the poor mother just wanted to take her daughters out for a fun activity, but hadn’t done her research. Luckily, the girl was trying to climb 5.9 in sneakers and didn’t get very high.—Carolin, via email

LESSON: I’ll be honest. I’m not sure there’s any real worthwhile advice to give here. These people need to seek qualified instruction before they ever climb again. And that’s kind of it. This is a total failure of a toprope belay. So just for fun, let’s instead examine the system as a toprope solo system, because that’s basically what they unintentionally created.

First, let’s look at the setup. Mom is functioning as the anchor, holding the rope in place with her hands. This is the extent of mom’s contribution. Daughter is connected to the rope with a Grigri. In order to minimize any potential falls, daughter will need to pull the slack through the device as she climbs. Whether or not she knows she needs to do this is unclear. When daughter reaches the top of the route, she will need to descend the rope by rappelling with her Grigri. This is because she will have climbed half the length of the gym rope, and there won’t be enough slack left to lower her to the ground. She almost definitely does not realize this.

Now let’s think about the anchor, Mom. The rope is running through a top anchor and then fixed at the ground via Mom’s hands. Unfortunately, Mom anchors fail notoriously easily. Even a very short fall can cause the rope to slip through a Mom’s hands. If Mom fails, the entire system has failed and the climber will fall to the ground. Right off the bat, this setup is unacceptable.

Let’s say that Mom had to go the bathroom, so she tied a figure eight on a bight and clipped the rope to a real ground anchor with a locking carabiner. The rope is now secure, so let’s check out the rest of the system. Daughter is using a Grigri as a self-belay device. This is expressly discouraged by Petzl, the manufacturer, on this page titled Self Belaying is Prohibited. That’s pretty damning. As the page admits, some people do use a Grigri for self-belays, but it’s not ideal and potentially dangerous. Don’t use a product outside of it’s intended use when there are plenty of good products designed for self belaying.

So the anchor (Mom) and the device are both wrong for this application. Another big problem is that there’s no backup. Having a backup is critical in toprope solo systems. There are many different ways to create a backup, but most systems use two devices on two different ropes or two devices on the same rope. The important thing is that you’re not relying solely on one device. And it never hurts to tie knots in the rope every x feet as you climb up, either.

Wrong device. Bad anchor. No backup. I give this solo toprope system, which the climbers did not intend to create, a zero. Don’t do this. Obviously. But if you do want to learn how to toprope solo properly, Petzl has a whole heapof good information you can read online as a primer.

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