Tech Tip: Tying Off Your Belay Device

You are four pitches up a moderate multi-pitch climb. Your partner just crushed the crux moves and is about 140 feet above you when you hear the yell. The rope comes tight on your belay device. He is out of view and there is no response to your calls. What now?

In today’s Tech Tip we’re going to cover what is often the first step in a rescue scenario, tying off your belay device. This skill, at the very least, will allow you to go “hand’s free” so you can perhaps get your cell phone out of your pack and call for help. Even better if you have the right skills you might end up transferring the climber’s weight to the anchor and ascending the rope to them to provide potentially life-saving first aid, then build a system that will help you bring them back down to the ground.

But it all starts with being able to tie-off your belay device.



“Self-Rescue” skills are something every climber should acquire and practice even if you don’t intend to lead climb. The systems can seem complex, and sometimes they are, but they are not that complex. You can learn them. Accidents will happen. The longer you climb the more likely you will need them. I recommend you try to get them before you wish you had them.

Self Rescue Skills Course

If you would like to brush up on your self-rescue skills with me send me an email at nealpinestart at gmail and we can find a date that works for you. This course is best done with one of your regular partners so you can be prepared to rescue each other should an accident occur.

Cost

1 person: $250 per person
2 people: $150 per person
3 people: $130 per person
4 people: $120 per person

 Course will be booked through Northeast Mountaineering once we have picked a date.



Disclaimer: Climbing is dangerous and attempting anything described in this post can lead to serious injury or death. You are solely responsible for your safety. 

How to Choose the Best Locking Carabiners (and Giveaway)

 

How to Choose the Best Locking Carabiner

Locking carabiners are an integral part of the climbers kit. In this post we are going to take a close look at the notable differences in styles, shapes, and mechanisms along with making suggestions as to where in the climbing system certain models are best suited for both convenience and greater security.


Screwgate Locking Carabiners

Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners

The most common style of locking carabiner is the traditional screwgate. This style has a “sleeve” on the gate that can be twisted until the sleeve is over a potion of the carabiner reducing the chance of the gate opening in any situation. A common error for beginning climbers is to screw this sleeve to tightly when locking the carabiner and finding it difficult to unscrew after the carabiner has seen load. Best practice is to simply screw the sleeve to where it stops easily turning then stop. Do not give it that “extra” turn. Then perform a quick “squeeze” test to verify the carabiner is locked. These carabiners are suitable for any use in the climbing system from belaying and anchoring to creating a top-rope master point. I prefer a screwgate as my personal anchor carabiner while multi-pitch climbing since auto-locking styles do not facilitate tying a clove-hitch on to the carabiner as smoothly as a screwgate that you can leave unlocked until you want to lock it. You can see that process in this quick video:

I also think a pair of the Petzl Attaches is the best choice for a top-rope master point and I carry two dedicated to this use. The reason these excel at this use is Petzl designed some grooves in the sleeve that interlock with the forged ribs of a reverse and opposed Petzl Attache. When used in this configuration the slightest of load basically eliminates the ability for these carabiners to unlock by vibration or even intentional hands. If you’ve ever arrived at a top-rope anchor to discover a locking carabiner has become unlocked during your session you’ll appreciate this added security feature in addition to the more well known “unlocked” red indicator, a nice visual clue that the carabiner is not locked.

Petzl OK Locking Carabiner and Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley
Petzl OK Locking Carabiner and Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley

Another screw gate carabiner I carry is the Petzl OK Locking Carabiner.  This carabiner is in a symmetrical oval shape which makes it ideal for use in both aid climbing and big wall climbing with the Petzl Ascension Handled Ascender. For improvised rescue (both multi-pitch trad and glacier travel) it pairs perfectly with the Petzl Tibloc. For use in a self-belay top-rope system (or a more robust rescue system) it pairs perfectly with the Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley pictured above.

Petzl William Locking Carabiner
The Petzl William Locking Carabiner easily organizes 6 quick-draws, 4 alpine draws, and my two “mini-quads“.

I do carry one larger Petzl William Locking Carabiner shown above which has a few advantages over the smaller locking carabiners I have already mentioned. If I need to lower someone with a Munter-Hitch the wider “rope end” shape of the carabiner offers smoother lowering even when using thicker ropes. There are also some situations where a large locking carabiner can make a convenient easy-to-use “master-point” at the anchor when climbing in parties of 3 or more. I also find this carabiner to be a convenient way of keeping my quick-draws and alpine draws organized before or after the climb.

One final thought on screwgate carabiners… it has been noted that these mechanisms can be less prone to “gunking up” in dirty environments. For ice climbing I have not found them to be less prone to getting iced up then any other style of carabiner. See the maintenance section near the end of this post for tips on prevention.


Twist Lock Carabiners

The next style we are going to look at is a locking mechanism that requires some care to be safely used. Twist Lock carabiners have a spring loaded sleeve that self-rotates into the locked position when the gate is closed. The advantage is the carabiner locks itself quickly. Popular models in this category are the Black Diamond Twistlock Carabiner, the Petzl Am’D Locking Carabiner and the Petzl Sm’D Locking Carabiner (both available in other locking styles). There is potentially less security in this style in the event of moving rope or a wrongly clipped belay loop that could press across the locked gate unlocking and opening it in an alarming fashion. This is best shown in a quick video clip:

 

While there are not many documented cases of this style failing there are a few incidents where this style might have contributed to a climber becoming disconnected from their rope system. Details are sparse enough that it could be fairly considered rumor. Regardless these carabiners are best used within the climbing system where there will not be moving rope going through them and their position can be monitored to ensure no unintended “unlocks”.

Some examples of where I would discourage their use:

  • Rappelling with a tube style (Black Diamond ATC/Petzl Verso) device. It is conceivable that the carabiner could rotate into a position where either the climbing rope or the belay loop of the harness could press against the spring loaded sleeve in a manner that could cause it to open like demonstrated in the video above.
  • Anchoring in on multi-pitch climbs, especially if in a larger climbing party. For starters it is a little less smooth tying a clove-hitch on to the carabiner when the carabiner looks itself when ever the gate closes. Also any moving rope, cordage, or slings above your anchor carabiner run a risk, however small, of passing over the gate in a potential fashion to open the gate.

Some examples of where they would be appropriate:

  • Rappelling with a figure-8 style device. While not very common in rock climbing circles these devices are still preferred for caving, spelunking, canyoneering, and rescue. The difference between this and a plate style device is the moving rope does not pass through the carabiner greatly reducing the chance of it coming into any contact with the gate. Care should still be used when loading the system that the belay loop is not twisted and the carabiner is in position to be loaded properly along its main axis.
  • Belaying with a brake assisting device like the Petzl GriGri2 or GriGri+. Since the climbing rope does not go through the carabiner with these devices the risk of unintended opening is almost nil. Care should still be used when loading the system that the belay loop is not twisted and the carabiner is in position to be loaded properly along its main axis.
  • Added security at static points in a climbing system. For example to secure one leg of a multi-leg static top-rope anchor. Once the system is set up and loaded there is virtually no risk of anything coming in contact with the sleeve. Essentially Twist Lock carabiners are best used in places where they will not be exposed to much moving material.

Triple Action Locking Carabiners

Petzl OK Triact with Petzl GriGri2
Petzl OK Triact with Petzl GriGri2

This category offers a fair amount of extra security over Twist Lock carabiners. While there are some variations within this category essentially a Triple Action carabiner requires three “actions” to unlock and open. In comparison it could be argued a Twist Lock under the right (or wrong) circumstances only requires one action to unlock and open (see video above). Popular styles include:

Petzl William Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock

Petzl Am’D Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock

Petzl Sm’D Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock

Petzl OK Locking Carabiner: Available in Ball-Lock and Tri-Act Lock


Let’s look at the main difference between Petzl’s two Triple Action options. The following is from Petzl.com:

BALL-LOCK

Petzl Ball-Lock Carabiners
Petzl Ball-Lock Carabiners

ERGONOMICS

Advantages:

• Rapid auto-locking

• Visual locking indicator

Disadvantages:

• Sleeve must be unlocked each time the carabiner is opened

• Tricky sleeve operation, especially with gloves, requires practice. System is less “ambidextrous” than the others

• Two hands needed to insert a device into the carabiner

SAFETY

Advantages: 

• Security of triple action locking (excluding rubbing and external pressure)

• Rapid auto-locking

Risks:

• Chance of improper locking when the carabiner closes (e.g. sling caught between the nose and the gate). The user must verify that the carabiner is properly closed and locked, even when using an auto-locking system

TRIACT-LOCK

Petzl Triact Locking Carabiners
Petzl Triact Locking Carabiners

ERGONOMICS

Advantages:

• Rapid auto-locking.

Disadvantages:

• Sleeve must be unlocked each time the carabiner is opened

• Tricky sleeve operation, requires practice

• Two hands needed to insert a device into the carabiner

SAFETY

Advantages:

• Security of triple action locking (excluding rubbing and external pressure)

• Rapid auto-locking

Risks:

• Chance of improper locking when the carabiner closes (e.g. sling caught between the nose and the gate). The user must verify that the carabiner is properly closed and locked, even when using an auto-locking system

• Sensitivity to mud or other foreign objects that can impede auto-locking

This style of carabiner is an excellent choice for dedicated belay/rappel carabiners, plate style belay devices, and brake assisting devices like the Petzl GriGri2 and GriGri+ (review here).


Some other Triple Action options

DMM Big Boa HMS Carabiner: Available in “Locksafe” option

DMM Aero HMS Carabiner: Available in “Locksafe” option

DMM Rhino Carabiner: Available in “Locksafe” option

Mad Rock Hulk HMS Carabiner: Available in “Triple Lock”

CAMP USA Guide XL Carabiner: Available in “3Lock”


Magnetic Auto-Locking Carabiners

Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner

While a small category in the industry this is my most favored style of auto-locking carabiner. Namely the Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner. This innovative style uses a magnetic system to lock the carabiner the moment the gate shuts. To unlock the carabiner one must pinch both sides of the gate. This motion is quickly mastered with either hand making this a very easy style to operate (yet next to impossible to create a scenario where the rope or a belay loop could mimic this pinch). After three winters of use I’ve had no issues with the mechanism getting iced up. Essentially I find these to be the fastest and most secure option in two places in my climbing system. First I use one for my main belay/rappel carabiner. Zero chance of forgetting to lock this important attachment and while it seems trivial the few seconds saved at every transition can add up. Second I use two on my plaquette style belay device.

Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner
Black Diamond VaporLock and RockLock Magnetron Carabiners with the Kong GiGi

Pictured here is my KONG GiGi but the popular Petzl Reverso 4 and Black Diamond ATC Guide would be a common substitute. Since some may ask about the GiGi I’ll add here that I typically am guiding with two clients so often I belay two ropes simultaneously. This can trash a guide’s elbows and shoulders over decades of yarding up rope and the Kong GiGi helps by having less resistance when pulling slack. I do also carry a Petzl Reverso 4 for rappels and as a “back-up” should anyone drop their belay device on a multi-pitch climb.


Maintenance

Depending on the environment you climb in you may need to do some light maintenance to keep your locking carabiners functioning properly. In the Northeast I don’t find my locking carabiners needing much attention and probably give them a tune up every 3-5 years if they haven’t incurred enough wear to be retired. Climbing in soft dusty deserts might require a more regular maintenance cycle. Luckily it isn’t that hard. If a gate or sleeve is sticking or feels “gritty” wash the carabiner in a warm soapy wash. An old toothbrush can help if they are really gunked up. Rinse well. Apply a quality lube like Metolius Cam Lube. I’ve also had great results with Teflon based bike lubricants. DO NOT use WD-40 as this spray really attracts dust and dirt and you’ll find yourself back in the kitchen sink pretty quickly.


My Kit

After reading all this you might be wondering how many locking carabiners I carry. I see quite a few newer climber carrying an excess of locking carabiners on their harnesses. If you think carefully about your climbing system you can streamline it which will help make you a more efficient all-around climber. Here’s exactly what I carry for multi-pitch traditional or alpine climbing:

Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner paired with my Petzl Reverso 4

Black Diamond VaporLock and RockLock paired with my Kong GiGi

Petzl Attache dedicated to being my anchor carabiner, doubles as my third-hand back-up during rappels

Petzl William Locking Carabiner for racking my draws, munter-hitches, master-points

If we will be top-roping I add two Petzl Attaches per top-rope system I’m setting up.

So that’s only 5 locking carabiners with specific jobs for multi-pitch climbing and another 2 for top-roping. As always if you find yourself short a locking carabiner somewhere you feel you need one you can use two non-locking carabiners with gates reversed and opposed.


Related

Tying a Clove-Hitch on the Carabiner

Tying a Munter-Hitch on the Carabiner

Gear for Top-Roping

Improved Belay Checks


Summary/Giveaway

Hopefully this post has been informative and will help you optimize the amount and style of locking carabiners you spend your money on. There are so many options out there these days and it is helpful to recognize where one style may more more convenient, or even more secure, than another style. Drop a comment below on anything related to this post and your name will be entered into a drawing for a brand new Petzl Am’D BallLock Carabiner! Drawing will be held on October 31st at 12 PM EST and winner announce here and contacted via email.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



Links above are affiliate links. By making a purchase you support the content created at Northeast Alpine Start at no additional cost to you! Thank you!

Swing leading or leading in blocks?(And Giveaway)

Swing leads or block lead?
Photo by Brent Doscher

For many breaking into the multi-pitch rock climbing world swing leading seems to still be the default method of moving the rope up a climb when the two climbing partners are of relatively similar experience. Indeed this was my go-to option for my first decade of multi-pitch experience. It was in 2006 that I picked up a copy of Craig Connally’s “The Mountaineering Handbook- Modern Tools and Techniques That Will Take You to the Top“, that I was first introduced to the idea of leading in blocks.

Over the years block leading has become my default method when recreationally climbing and I’d like to share some opinions on the matter to hopefully encourage you to try this method the next time you’re heading out on a 4+ pitch adventure. First to clarify if anyone reading this doesn’t already know, swing leading means after the leader has finished the first pitch and the follower arrives at the anchor the follower becomes the new leader and leads the next pitch, basically “leap-frogging” each other up the cliff. Block leading means the leader leads multiple pitches determined by various factors such as route length, physical and mental stamina, and proficiency at different types of climbing, before handing over the leader responsibilities to to the follower for the next “block”.

It has also been suggested to me that block leading is somehow “rushing” or not enjoying the climb. While it is convincingly faster than swing leading block leading feels more comfortable to me, for the reasons I will outline below.

Warmer

This one is quickly realized when one enters the realm of multi-pitch ice climbing. Without a doubt swinging leads on a multi-pitch ice climb can lead to very cold belayers. Consider this; you’ve just finished leading a Grade 3 pitch and you are warm and toasty while constructing your anchor and yelling “off belay”. You might even make the classic beginner mistake and decide not to dig out your belay jacket as you assume your partner will make short work of the last pitch. 20 minutes later your partner joins you at the anchor. You can feel the chill now, so while they re-rack and get ready for the next pitch you decide to dig out your belay parka before you start to feel even more chilled. They head up on the next lead and cautiously negotiate some tricky spots while you get a bit cooler. By the time they yell off belay you have been at this anchor for over 45 minutes waving your arms around to stay warm. Block leading = half as much time stuck at a belay anchor for both climbers!


Physically easier

While climbing efficiently on multi-pitch terrain the follower should be encouraged to climb like they are following, not leading. The security of a good belay from above should allow the follower to not second guess every move. Try to climb quickly and save the team some time. On moderate terrain or slab the second may even arrive at the anchor winded from moving so quickly. That’s ok, they get a break now. The leader has also had a chance to recover, and is fresher than the follower. This is even more apparent when the pitches are long. The difference on a 180 foot pitch is climbing 180 feet without a break or climbing 360 feet without a break. Night and day.


Mentally easier

Climbers often get into a focused “leader mind-state” once they get warmed up and staying in that role is easier for a few pitches than switching it every pitch. On an eight pitch route of similar pitch difficulty I’ll often flip a coin or give my partner the choice, first four or last four? If I’m leading first I can be on point for those first four pitches then enjoy the rest of the climb as my partner sends it to the top. If she takes the first four pitches I’m mentally primed to take over at the top of the fourth pitch.


Strategies

There are some ways to make block leading (and even swing leading) more efficient. Some tips:

  • If one member is better at a certain style of climbing than the other assign blocks accordingly
  • Use auto-locking belay devices like the Petzl Reverso 4 or Black Diamond ATC Guide, or brake-assisting devices like the Petzl GriGri2. While belaying the second the leader should also eat or drink if needed, study the route above, consult the guidebook (or Mountain Project), and be pretty ready to take off soon after the follower arrives.
  • Have the second clip the cleaned gear from the last pitch directly to the leader’s tie-in section of the rope while the leader quickly organizes the rope. They leader can then quickly re-rack once they have finished organizing the rope. It’s been suggested that swinging leads might be quicker since the second might have most that rack at this point but in reality re-racking should only take 30-45 seconds.
  • How the rope is best prepared for the next lead while block leading depends on the situation. If there is ample flat space on a belay ledge the best method is to just stack it on the ground and when the follower arrives perform a “pancake-flip”. This takes less than 5 seconds and with practice will not result in any tangles. If it is a hanging stance then lap coils over your tie-in should start off small, and progressively get bigger on each side. Once the follower is clipped into the anchor the lap coil can be “flipped” onto the follower’s attachment to the anchor and the smaller loops closer to the leader will be on top, greatly reducing any potential snags while they are leading.
  • When it is time to switch blocks the follower, who is about to become the new leader, need not clove into the anchor if they were belayed on an auto-locking belay device. They simply hand the original leader their belay device, wait until they have been put on belay, then take the original leader’s belay device and start leading the next pitch.

    Summary

    You don’t need to be trying to set any speed records to reap the benefits of block leading. You can still dangle your feet off the belay ledge and take selfies with your partner while enjoying a mid-climb wine & cheese spread when block leading. But if you have ambitions to climb big multi-pitch routes like the Armadillo and Moby Grape block leading can literally save you hours on-route and make the difference between reaching the car at sunset or two hours after dark. On smaller less committing routes it might just get you to happy hour in time. You should give it try!


    Giveaway!

    Click here to enter to win a brand new still in the package Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package valued at $64.95! You can find my review of this new device here. Contest ends September 30th!

    Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package
    Black Diamond Big Air Pilot ATC Package

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Sendember and Rocktober!

These two months are easily my favorite months to get out rock climbing and while Fall is historically a slower time for rock guiding in the Northeast it’s one of the best times to get out and climb! The cliffs are quieter, the black-flies and mosquitoes are long gone, and the cool temps and lower humidity just make rock climbing the thing to do. And don’t get me started on the foliage that is actually starting to show!

Here’s a list of some Fall climbing objectives I’d like to highlight if you think you might want to get out and climb with me before the snow flies.


Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Mount Washington

Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle
Guiding Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, photo by Peter Brandon

This 7 pitch, 900 foot, classic alpine ridge is a must do for every eastern trad climber! Since I have a season pass to the Mount Washington Auto Road I’m offering “Euro-approach” style guided trips to this alpine mecca. Basically by using the Autoroad we save 5 hours of hiking and spend more time climbing! The road closes on October 21st so message me soon if you have a date you’d like to do this!

Requirements: Should be comfortable down-climbing 4th class terrain, and following 5.8. Previous multi-pitch experience required.


Lakeview, Cannon Cliff

Lakeview, Cannon Cliff
Oliver on the 2nd pitch with a good view of the lake! Full trip report of that day here.

This climb was once listed in a climbing magazine article called “Ten Classic Climbs under 5.10”, which is what got me to first climb it in 1994. It’s an excellent introduction to moderate alpine multi-pitch climbing with lots of relaxed slab climbing (some loose rock), and two steeper fantastic pitches at the top. A real pleasure on a nice Fall day!

Requirements: Should be comfortable following 5.6. Previous multi-pitch experience required.


Whitney Gilman, Cannon Cliff

Whitney-Gilman Ridge
Larry after just topping out the 4th pitch, the famously exposed “Pipe Pitch”

The most exposed 5.7 in New England, this sharp alpine ridge is another “must-do” for all eastern trad climbers. After dozens of ascents I still can’t help to marvel over the historic first ascent of this climb that was at one-time, the hardest climb in the US!

Requirements: Should be comfortable following 5.8. Previous multi-pitch experience required.


Endeavor, White Ledge

Endeavor, Whites Ledge, Bartlett NH
Endeavor, Whites Ledge, Bartlett NH photo by Drew Lederman

This is a locals Fall favorite! 5 pitches of excellent climbing ending with a stellar 200 foot jam crack and some of the best Fall foliage views to be had!


Gym to Sport Skills

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Corey McMullen

The transition from gym climbing to outdoor sport climbing can be a bit daunting. I’ve been refining my single day curriculum to help ease this transition all summer while teaching clinics at Rumney Rocks. I’ll help you make that transition so you are not left at the top anchor wondering if you set everything up right.


Self-Rescue for the Trad Climber

rock climbing self rescue
Chris learns about the initial awkwardness of rope ascension having already “Escape the Belay”

Do you know how to go “hands-free” on your belay device so you can get your cell phone out of your pack? Better yet can you “escape the belay” so you can go get or provide help? Or better still can you escape the belay and climb up a loaded rope to render potentially life saving first aid?

These skills should be high on the list of anyone who wishes to simply follow multi-pitch climbs! You might need to rescue the leader should an incident occur! Over the years I’ve streamlined this 8 hour day into what I think people should know if they plan on climbing more than one pitch above the ground. Grab your partner and dedicate a day to learning how to practice this skills with me!


Cost

All of these courses are offered at the following rates through my employment with Northeast Mountaineering.

1 person: $250 per person
2 people: $150 per person

If you would like to book any of these contact me first at nealpinestart@gmail.com with the date or dates you are interested in. I will quickly get back to you on availability then you can lock the date down through Northeast Mountaineering using “DavidNEM” in the notes box to help flag the reservation.


Fall is almost officially here and the leaves have started to show some color in most of the notches. I hope you get out there and enjoy the best rock climbing weather the Northeast has to offer!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Affiliate links above help support this blog at no additional cost to you! Thank you!

Review- 50 Non-Textbook Anchors I Trusted My Life To, by Mark Smiley (IFMGA Guide)

Mark Smiley 50 Anchors Online Course Review

Last week Mark Smiley released an online learning course focused on building anchors for traditional and alpine rock climbing. If you are following this blog Mark probably doesn’t need an introduction as his name is quite well known in the industry, but if by some chance you haven’t heard of Mark here’s a quick recap of him from his Smiley’s Project website.


Buy the Discounted Course HERE 25% off ends September 8th!


Experience

FILM MAKING:

-Created 45+ webisodes during a 4 year climbing project: Plays: 400K Loads: 3.8M Embeds: 3.1M

– Contract film work for: Gore-Tex, La Sportiva, American Mountain Guide Association, and others.

PHOTOGRAPHY:

– Published in Alpinist, Rock n’ Ice, Climbing, Extraordinary Health, Outside Magazine, 50+ webpages.

MOUNTAIN GUIDING:

– Organized and led 7 international expeditions, 5 Alaska Expeditions, and many domestic trips in the US.

– IFMGA Certified Mountain Guide by the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA)

I’ve been following Mark through Facebook and Instagram for years and linked his “Creating Safe Bail Anchors” post to my Tech Tip page a couple years ago. When I saw he was offering a hour and half online course focused on upping my anchor building game I decided to invest in it and give it a review. I’m pretty sure a lot of my readers have heard of this new program and might be on the fence as to if it is worth it or not. To help with that decision here’s a recap of what the program offers. After reading this you’ll be able to decide if it’s something that could help your climbing (and score a bit of a discount on the purchase along the way!)


What is an online course?

This might seem rudimentary to some but it deserves a little clarification. Especially as it pertains to this course. Basically when you purchase this online course you get lifetime access to the “chapters” that the curriculum has been divided into. These chapters are more than just video though… they include text below to supplement the material covered on screen. Occasionally relevant links are made to appropriate research papers that support claims made during instruction.

Mark Smiley 50 Anchor Online Course Review

In addition each chapter has space to publicly comment and question anything suggested during the chapter. While not replacing “live” learning this is far more interactive than simply trying to learn a skill via say… YouTube!

Buy the Discounted Course HERE 25% off ends September 8th!


How much does it cost?

Before I get into the course content I’ll go over the course costs and offer a bit of a comparison. This course costs $199 (before a 25% off exclusive discount I list at the end). This is about equal to a day of semi-private 2:1 or 3:1 guiding with a highly trained guide. Comparing the two though is a bit apples to oranges. This is concentrated info around a diverse and complicated subject. After sitting through the 26 chapters and reading a lot of the accompanying text and external links I can say that the value is most definitely here, and that comes from a climber of 25 years of trad experience. What truly adds value to this course though is once you are enrolled Mark will send you an invite to a private Facebook group that is strictly for posting anchor pics, asking questions, and getting constructive feedback by an IMFGA trained guide.

Mark Smiley 50 Anchors Online Course Review

This simple addition to the service is what makes this a great value for both new climbers entering the field to seasoned vets ready to up their game. Oh, and Mark offers a 30-Day Money Back Guarantee… so if you don’t feel you get your money’s worth reach out!


What will I learn?

This question must be broken down by two user groups. First, aspiring traditional climbers, then experienced climbers with a few seasons under their harnesses. The first group might seem a bit overwhelmed. While Mark is an engaging and well paced presenter there is simply a ton of info thrown at you in an hour and a half. Don’t expect to understand or retain it all after one sit-though. The good news is this isn’t a single private guided day where you try to remember everything the guide said. You can watch these chapters over and over until you feel you gain an understanding of the concepts. As Mark points out a few times through-out though you can still benefit from a qualified professional or mentor in order to build more real-life context.

For the experienced climbers out there (and a lot of my friends and partners) what will you learn from this that you haven’t learned already? Well that will vary from person to person but for me I gained a better understanding of bolt anatomy, type, inspection, and strengths. I learned more about pitons, from inspection to best clipping methods. I was reminded about the use and benefits of “the swamp knot”. I learned some better analogies to help with teaching quality nut placements (loved the flashlight analogy Mark). I learned a slick way to incorporate a cam into a slung horn anchor that I can think of at least 3 places I wish I knew that trick over the last few years.

Mark Smiley 50 Anchor Online Course Review
How to properly clean up that rat’s nest!

While the overall focus of the course is on anchors you will pick up other tips that will help your climbing. Most noticeably how to occasionally “terrain belay” and move faster in 3rd and 4th class terrain with greater security than just soloing the terrain. You’ll learn how to build better bail anchors. On that note huge props for Mark’s “Just say no to stupid anchors” campaign that essentially encourages you to add that second piece if you need to bail without worrying about the financial loss… Mark will replace that piece for you (details in course). Finally I learned how to better clean up “rat nests” and upgrade rap anchors with quick-links as a service to my fellow climbers. I’ve got a few anchors locally in mind that will get some TLC very soon!


Summary

Online learning isn’t anything new. Applying it to climbing education in such a fashion kind of is. Mark is spearheading this here and I have hopes of following him with some less technical type courses (namely using CalTopo and Avenza for creating BA trip plans and maps) but when I see the quality of a course like Mark’s I realize I need to up my game to create a quality of product worth selling. Mark’s done it here, and I’m glad I bought in.


Exclusive Discount!

I am super excited to be able to offer an exclusive discount on this course for Northeast Alpine Start readers! From now until 11:59EST on September 8th you can get 25% off the course tuition by entering promo code “alpinestart25” during checkout here (or just use this link). That brings the $199 course down to $149.25 and gets you lifetime access to Mark’s private Facebook group to help solidify your learning.

Buy the Discounted Course HERE 25% off ends September 8th!

After two decades of climbing it has become obvious to me that the learning never stops. This online course is an excellent addition to a multi-faceted approach of gaining new skills and I doubt few would ever regret the investment.


Continuing Ed.

As an Ortovox Athlete I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t also mention the recently released Safety Academy Lab Rock. This is a fantastic online learning tool you should check out! It’s totally free! It does not however cover the types of anchors Mark covers in his course but I think the two courses combined compliment each other quite well! Also if you are looking to pick up some old-fashioned good ole’ reading on these subjects heres my list of the best instructional climbing books out there!

Thanks for reading.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer: Affiliate links support the content created here at no cost to you, thank you! The author purchased this course with his own money, but if you purchase the course through the discounted link above the author will receive a small commission. All opinions are those of the author. 

Do you need to back-up your tie-in knot?

Back up tie-in knot?
Image by @coreyoutdoors

The short answer is no. I recall reading an article in a popular climbing magazine about a decade ago where an IMFGA guide was encouraging climbers to stop “backing up” their tie-in knot. While the logic in the article was quite sound tying “back-up” knots above your standard Figure Eight Follow Through is still somewhat popular even ten years later.

Backing up your tie-in knot
A commonly used back-up knot is the barrel knot tied over the lead line

We crave redundancy. Change is hard. “Safety” is elusive. “Experts” are everywhere. While researching this topic and polling various climbing forums opinions were all over the place. There was a mix of old school “this is how I learned 25 years ago” and new age “our climbing gym requires us to or we fail our belay test”.

Why not tie a back-up knot? Why not tie 3 back-up knots just in case the original and first two back-ups fail? To answer these questions with some amount of detail we need to break it down piece by piece, and that’s what we will do, but first let’s set the baseline.

By “tie-in” knot I am referring to the popular Figure Eight Follow Through. This is what the majority of climbers learn is the best knot for attaching the rope to the harness. Some climbers praise how the Double Bowline is somewhat easier to untie than a Figure 8 Follow Through. This is true, but the Double Bowline comes with enough caveats that I think it should not be used as your primary tie-in.

Tying the Figure Eight Follow Through Knot
An easy way to measure if you have enough tail is to “hang ten”

So for the purposes of this article we will be referring to the Figure Eight Follow Through whenever using “tie-in knot”. So why not back-up? Let’s start with the most important and work towards the minutia…

Strong Enough

Simply put a properly tied Figure Eight Follow Through is more than strong enough. How strong is it? In pull tests it breaks at about 75-80% of the ropes full strength. Do you know how much force it takes to break a climbing rope? Enough to not worry about a 15-20% reduction that is for sure! It is slightly stronger than the aforementioned Double Bowline.

Tying into climbing rope

Secure Enough

By “secure” we refer to the ability for the knot to loosen and untie itself through normal use. By design, once tightened, the Figure 8 Follow Through does not loosen. In fact it can be so tough to loosen it that some climbers who work steep overhanging sport projects and take multiple whippers while projecting might choose the easier to loosen Double Bowline in its place. Unless you are taking multiple whippers on overhanging climbs I’d encourage you to stick with the more well known and recognized Figure 8 Follow Through. Note the Double Bowline does require a back-up for security!

Tying into climbing rope
A bad example of tying in… loop formed is way to big and “back-up” knot is likely to jam on gear while following and easily work loose

Properly Tied

That means six inches of tail after the knot is dressed and stressed. To dress the knot try to keep the strands on the same side while tightening the knot. Sometimes I’ll end up with a strand crossing over a strand leaving me with a knot that isn’t “pretty”. This twist does not significantly weaken or reduce its security in anyway. The sometimes heard phrase “a pretty knot is a safe knot” alludes to a pretty knot being easier for a partner to quickly inspect. You do not need to re-tie your knot if you only have a twist in it (but make sure the proper strands run parallel).

Simplicity Rules

Climbing systems are complex enough. We do not need to add complexity for the illusion of being “safer”. Our focus when tying in should always be on tying the correct knot properly, not tying extra knots “in case we mess up the important knot”. That should never happen. Especially if you take your partner check seriously and have a second set of eyes look at your knot before you leave the ground.

Extraneous knots above the tie-in knot make it more difficult for a partner to visually inspect the important knot during the partner check. Not tying “back-up” knots saves time, even if just a little. While following a climb “back-up knots” can catch and jam on protection or quick-draws before you are in a good stance to un-clip them. While lead climbing having a cleaner profile at your tie-in can lead to smoother clips.

The Yosemite Finish

The ideal Figure 8 Follow Through Knot should have a “loop” about the size of your belay loop and 6 inches of tail. No more, no less. If you would like to “secure” your left over tail to keep it from “flapping around” consider the Yosemite Finish. While this is an excellent way to finish your knot it is often tied incorrectly, with climbers partially “un-finishing” their properly tied Figure 8 Follow Through when tucking the tail back into the knot. To maintain full strength and security the tail must wrap around the rope before being tucked back into the lower part of the knot. This maintains original knot strength and security and creates a really low profile knot to facilitate clipping, cleaning, and even rope management at crowded belays. Here’s a short video I created to show the process.

Summary

The majority of climbers these days learn the basics at climbing gyms and the majority of these gyms likely encourage or require this un-necessary redundancy. I offer that we should focus more on better partner checks and proper belaying techniques rather than wasting time backing up things that don’t need to be backed up. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and share within your climbing circles if any of this was helpful!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

UPDATES:

I reached out to UIAA for this article and while they didn’t get back to me in time for press-time I would like to now add their response to my inquiry on this subject:

From my point of view the only “UIAA approval” that could conceivably be construed from our materials currently online and in publication would be from materials in the UIAA Alpine Handbook, which has at least been circulated among enough commission members to be regarded as “UIAA approved” – which is NOT the same as “UIAA recommended”, after all there are “many ways to skin a cat”, and it would be an endless task to try to list them all!

Pages 143 and 189 of the UIAA Alpine Handbook show the use of the rethreaded Figure of 8, which is indeed shown without a stopper knot. However this does not mean that adding a stopper knot is therefore “not UIAA approved”. Adding a stopper knot adds a level of redundancy – and redundancy is a key component of the anchor system (eg the US favoured “ERNEST” and “SERENE” acronyms). If a bowline is used for tying in, the stopper knot is an essential component of the attachment. For a figure of 8 it is an optional extra. 

 Pros and cons of adding a stopper knot:

 Pro: 

    • We need to bear in mind that guidance about tying in has to work for novices as well as for people who have enough experience to make subtle judgements.
    • The stopper knot should be butted up tight against the main knot. This stops the tail creeping out of the knot during extended use.
    • If the stopper knot comes undone, it provides a visual early warning that the knots may not be fully tensioned
    • If the knot isn’t properly “dressed and stressed” the stopper knot will prevent catastrophic failure unless it also comes undone (BUT all knots should always be checked….)
    • Different diameter ropes have different recommendations for the length of the tail. At least if you can tie a double stopper the tail is DEFINITELY long enough.
  • Con:
    • Takes extra time to tie and untie
    • Regularly works loose while climbing, even though the main knot remains perfectly secure
    • A serious disadvantage is that inexperienced/tired people might clip in between the knot and the stopper if the stopper isn’t butted tight against the main knot (BUT it should be).

 We can see from this list that the pros and cons are fairly equally balanced. I would be wary of telling people NOT to use a stopper. By all means recommend that they don’t need one, but you are making a rod for your own back if they make a catastrophic mistake that a stopper knot could have prevented from escalating into an accident. 

 

Thanks to Jeremy Ray for helping capture the images and video used in this post.

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Alexandra Roberts

After teaching an anchor building clinic last week my guest started an email chain with me looking for some specific recommendations on improving his top-rope “kit”. After making a few suggestions I realized I get these questions a few times a year and there are probably others out wondering what an optimized top-rope kit looks like.  So here I share what I think are the best of the best from ropes to carabiners, belay devices to harnesses and helmets, these are my “first picks”.


Climbing Rope

Sterling Marathon Pro Dry Single Rope

Sterling Marathon Pro Climbing Rope
Sterling Marathon Pro Climbing Rope

I would recommend this 10.1 mm rope in the 60 meter length. With a higher ratio of sheath-to-core this rope will hold up to hard use for many years. It comes equipped with a middle mark, which is a feature I insist on for any of my ropes if it’s not a bi-pattern rope. Some might question the added expense of getting a dry treated rope for top-roping. In addition to not taking on 5 pounds of water when you get caught in the rain dry treatments also help resist dirt and friction which adds both life and smoother handling. I pretty much only shop “dry” ropes these days despite the added cost.


Rope Bag

Arc’teryx Haku Rope Bag

Gear for Top Roping

Protect your investment in your climbing rope with the Cadillac of rope bags. This model has an integrated ground tarp and can compress the rope into a pack-able size when carrying a larger backpack to the crag.

Gear for Top Roping
Photo by Corey McMullen


Static Rope

1st Choice Sterling 7/16 in. WorkPro Static Rope 61m

Gear for Top Roping

2nd Choice Mammut Performance Static Rope 50m

If you will be top-roping anywhere that anchors are located a bit far back from the cliff edge you will need a static rope for extending your master-point out of the edge. Examples where static rope is helpful, if not necessary; Square Ledge, Pawtuckaway, Stonehouse Pond, Otter Cliffs, etc. Tubular and flat webbing IS NOT a substitute for static line as they both have enough stretch in them that they will quickly fray where they run over the cliff edge during repeated climbing cycles.


Cordelettes

Sterling PowerCord Cordelettes

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

I recommend 2 in the 5.5 meter (18 foot) length. I use the Flat Overhand Bend as my joining knot on these instead of the more traditional Double Fisherman so that they are easy to untie for more anchoring options. Most often they are deployed in a Quad construction, around a large tree, or in a pre-equalized 3 piece gear anchor.

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Corey McMullen

Slings

Black Diamond Nylon Slings

Gear for Top Rope Climbing

I’d recommend two 120 cm nylon slings and one 60 cm sling. The longer slings are most often deployed around medium size tree anchors, used in a pre-equalized fashion on two bolts, or as part of a larger more complex gear anchor, and will have two dedicated carabiners (see section below). The 60 cm sling is most often used in a “sliding-X” configuration.


Belay Devices

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Alexandra Roberts

Petzl Grigri+                   Black Diamond ATC Pilot                  Petzl Verso

The Petzl Grigri+ is a top-tier choice that comes with a bit of sticker shock. That said it is an incredibly well designed piece of gear. Check out my 1000+ word review of it here and decide for yourself! The new Black Diamond ATC Pilot is a much more affordable option that has a simple design and still includes a “brake enhancing” feature. My detailed review of that device is here. These two devices only accept one strand of rope so the classic Petzl Verso is carried for rappelling. Each of these will have a dedicated locking carabiner that works well with the device.


Carabiners

            Petzl Attache          Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner     Petzl William Ball-Lock

I put more thought into what carabiners I use and where than most. There are some designs out there that make more sense in certain places of your rope safety system. I carry 4 Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners , one Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner Screwgate, and one Petzl William Ball-Lock Carabiner.

For the master-point (where your climbing rope will be running). I use two dedicated Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners. Along with the red “unlocked” indicator these carabiners have a feature many people don’t realize. When used at the master point with gates reversed and opposed the grooves on the screw-gate are designed to lock into the ridges of the opposed carabiner when under even just a light load. This prevents them from vibrating into an unlocked state even during the longest top-rope session. Even curious hands (I take a lot of young kids climbing) wouldn’t be able to unlock these with the tension of the rope on the carabiners. These are “dedicated” to this purpose so they wear evenly and I’ll replace them once they show a few mm of wear.

I also use one of the Petzl Attache Locking Carabiners for my Petzl Grigri+. Call me OCD but I like the Petzl/Petzl match up here. Likewise I match my Black Diamond ATC Pilot with a Black Diamond Mini Pearabiner Screwgate… it fits perfectly. For my Petzl Verso I use the Petzl William Ball-Lock Carabiner. The wider rope end of a larger pear shaped carabiner allows smoother and less “kinking” rappels. I also like the auto-locking mechanism of the “Ball-Lock”, a much more secure design than some “2-action” auto-locking carabiners.


Helmet

         Petzl Boreo Helmet                                          Black Diamond Half Dome

Yes, I recommend a helmet for top rope climbing (despite using some images in this post of helmet-less heads). I won’t say I wear mine 100% of the time, but I always have it with me. If I am climbing or belaying it is on. If I’m hanging around directly under climbers I have it on. The two models I endorse as excellent all around lids are the new Petzl Boreo (full review here) and the iconic Black Diamond Half Dome.

Photo by Corey McMullen
Photo by Corey McMullen

Summary

Gear for Top Rope Climbing
Photo by Alexandra Roberts

As I mentioned to start these are my top-tier choices. You can definitely save a bit of money by sacrificing some of the features I like, from dry treatment to middle marks, “brake enhancing” to unlock indicators. These are simply what I think are some of the best options in this category currently being offered. Please comment below with your own recommendations, ask me to clarify any of my choices, or just say hello!

In the coming months I hope to have a clearer picture of what you, my reader/follower, would like from Northeast Alpine Start. A recent Instagram poll revealed Tech Tips are more desired than Gear Reviews so I’m already working to add more skills to my growing list of Tech Tips. Feel free to comment or drop me a message on what you would like to see more of here!

 

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