Which Belay Device For Which Use?

What belay device should I use?

“What belay device is that?” was the question that popped up from my friend @sammyspindel on a short Instagram story clip of my anchor while belaying a client up the last pitch of Upper Refuse on Cathedral Ledge a few days ago. The question generated some great back and forth conversation and ultimately provided the motivation for this post, so thank you for the question Sammy!

What belay device I use is largely determined on what type of climbing I am doing. In this post I’m going to explain the advantages, disadvantages, and helpful strategies of some of the most popular options out there. I will attempt to break it down based on type and style of climbing (gym, sport, trad, alpine, ice, top-rope, multi-pitch, party of 2, party of 3). My hope is you’re able to make some informed choices over what belay device(s) you decide to use. I’ll try to work through these options from simplest to most complex.

Here we go…

The Munter Hitch

Every climber should learn how to use a Munter Hitch. This incredible hitch has served climbers well for over a hundred years. This skill can save the day when your partner drops their shiny new flavor of the day belay device off the top of the 3rd pitch of a 7 pitch climb or when your ropes are two icy from a dripping ice pillar in below freezing temps and you can’t get them bent through your tube-style device. All you need is a pear shaped locking carabiner. I prefer the Petzl Attache or Petzl William Locking Screwgate. Avoid auto-locking carabiners to facilitate tying the hitch onto the carabiner, something I demonstrate in this first video. The second video shows how this can be converted into an auto-locking Munter!

Practice this skill at home. Practice while watching the news. Learn to tie it with your eyes closed. Learn to tie it with one hand. Learn to tie it onto the belay carabiner on the anchor with one hand. Advanced users/aspiring guides: Learn to tie it on to a carabiner so it is already in the “belay” orientation. Learn to it on a carabiner so it is already in the “lower” orientation. Then learn to tie it in both those orientations when the carabiner is on your belay loop (I still struggle with mastering this last step as looking down at the carabiner turns my head upside down).

Some key points about the Munter Hitch…. IT DOES NOT “TWIST” THE ROPE! Improper use of the hitch will introduce serious “twists” and kinks into your rope. The solution? Always keep the brake strand parallel with the load strand. In that orientation you can watch the way the rope moves through the hitch without creating twists. If you hold the brake strand anywhere but parallel you will introduce twists. This is quite un-intuitive when using this hitch to rappel as our muscle memory wants us to pull back or down with the brake hand while rappelling. The proper hand position (and maximum braking power) is obtained by holding the brake strand straight up and parallel with the loaded rope. I know, crazy right? Moving on…

Standard Tube-Style Belay Devices

Almost every climber everywhere has owned and used a classic “tube-style” belay device. It’s as standard as needing a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. There are more options in this category then ever before. While there are subtle differences in weight and design they all function relatively the same. While a summer camp or outdoor club might opt for the cheapest option I’d suggest for the majority of recreational climbers to go for one of the most popular models in use that includes a “higher friction” side to assist with braking and rappelling. The two models I see the most of are the Black Diamond ATC-XP and the Petzl Verso.

Some notes on this style device. I no longer carry one opting instead for the more versatile models that can be used in “plaquette” mode (more on that in a minute). That said for top-rope and lead, single pitch, gym, sport, and trad climbing there is nothing inherently “wrong” about choosing one of these simple devices.

Tube Style Devices with “Plaquette” Mode

For little additional cost and weight you can carry a tube style belay device that can also serve in “plaquette” mode. This is ideal for lead climbers who wish to belay their partner directly off the anchor after leading a pitch. This European style of belaying has become much more prevalent in American climbing in the last few decades for good reason. At its core it is more comfortable for the belayer and much simpler should the second climber need assistance to pass a crux. The time tested choices here are the Black Diamond ATC Guide and the Petzl Reverso 4. Newer options that are gaining solid following’s are the DMM Pivot which makes direct lowered off the anchor while in “guide mode” easier and the Black Diamond ATC Alpine Guide that is optimized for working with skinny twin ropes.

Black Diamond Alpine ATC Guide
Black Diamond Alpine ATC Guide
DMM Pivot Belay Device
DMM Pivot Belay Device

Single Strand Brake Assisting Devices

This category covers devices like the Petzl GriGri, Petzl GriGri+, Black Diamond Pilot, and the new to the scene Wild Country Revo. While noticeably heavier (and pricier, except for the BD Pilot) than simpler tube style device than these devices have more applications then I think most people realize. Devices like the Petzl GriGri are just at home in the climbing gym as they are on large sandstone big walls (especially given the additional durability of the GriGri+). Some climbers may avoid using one of these devices due to needing to carry a second belay device for rappelling. Well, two things… first you can rappel with these (blocked-rappel options), but more importantly and something I will get into towards the end, what’s wrong with carrying two devices? It opens up a lot of options and solutions to potential climbing issues!

Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review
Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review
Improved Belay Check
Petzl Grigri+ – photo by Alexandra Roberts
Wild Country Revo Belay Device
Wild Country Revo Belay Device
Wild Country Revo Belay Device
Wild Country Revo Belay Device

You can see my full review of the Petzl Grigri+ HERE!

You can see my full review of the Black Diamond ATC Pilot HERE!

Double Strand Brake Assisting Devices

This covers some more niche options like the Edelrid Mega Jul,  Mega Jul Sport, and Mammut Smart Alpine Belay Device. These have the added benefit of brake assistance when lead belaying but can still allow for smooth double rope rappels. These are not as ideal for direct belaying off a top anchor like in a multi-pitch setting so I do reach for this option very often preferring my DMM Pivot or the standard Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4.

Lowest Friction Plates

Now we get to the device that sparked this whole post. My Kong Gi-Gi. This device’s most notable quality is that when used in plaquette mode it takes the least amount of force to belay two single rated ropes at the same time. I’ve found no device that comes close to the ease of belaying two single ropes when climbing with two seconds and using “parallel” technique, a common guiding tactic to belay two seconds at the same time.

Kong Gi-Gi Belay Device

While belaying directly off the anchor shouldn’t seem tiring I’ve known many guides who developed elbow tendinitis from the repetition of pulling two ropes through plaquettes up thousands of feet of moderate climbing over a decade or so of guiding. It can serve as a rappel device if needed, though that requires an extra locking carabiner and is a relatively low-friction rappel device (third hand back-up strongly recommended).

So what should you carry?

I guess it makes sense to break this down by end-use… there are so many tools available to us these days but here’s my take on optimizing your belay device load out:

Gym/Top-Rope Only

If you’re really not sure you even like climbing but want your own belay device you can keep it simple an pick up a simple tube style belay device like the Black Diamond ATC-XP or Petzl Verso. I think the higher friction side is worth the extra cost. If you are addicted to climbing you might as well invest in a single strand brake-assisting device like the Black Diamond Pilot, Petzl GriGri, or Wild Country Revo.

Outdoor Sport/Single Pitch Climbing

At this point I think owning two devices makes sense. The Black Diamond ATC XP or Petzl Verso plus a a single strand brake-assisting device like the Black Diamond Pilot, Petzl GriGri, or Wild Country Revo will make weekend trips to Rumney or your local sport crag quite enjoyable!

Multi-pitch Trad

If you’re going more than one pitch off the deck a plaquette device like the Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4 is an easy pick. I’ve started carrying my Petzl GriGri on multi-pitch trad routes for a multitude of reasons since it greatly simplifies rope ascension in a rescue scenario but also works great for hauling bags on big wall. “Lifer’s” with big wall aspirations should seriously consider the added durability of the Petzl GriGri+.

Multi-pitch Ice

Here I’d go with the standard plaquette device like the Black Diamond ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4 and the knowledge of the Munter Hitch mentioned at the beginning to help deal with icy ropes. I leave single strand brake-assisting devices home when ice climbing as they tend to not work as well on ice ropes and weight is a premium. If you climb on really skinny floss like 7.7mm twin ropes you should look at the new Black Diamond ATC Alpine Guide!

Climbing in a party of 3 (Guiding-Style)

Parties of three typically climb in either “Caterpillar” or “Parallel” style. Basically “Caterpillar” is the leader climbs, then belays the first second, after the second arrives with the 2nd rope belays the 3rd climber. It’s slower but a better choice for harder routes and newer climbers as the other option “Parallel” means the leader takes both ropes and belays both seconds simultaneously. A lot of issues can crop up to make this a mini-epic. However for skilled leaders and guides this is often a method that can see a three person party move as fast as a two person party.

Combos

As I mentioned earlier carrying two belay devices can make sense in a lot of situations. These are the combos I find myself using most as a climbing guide:

Multi-pitch rock with one guest

Petzl GriGri + Petzl Reverso 4

or

Petzl GriGri + Black Diamond ATC Guide

Group Top-Roping

Wild Country Revo, Petzl GriGri (or Petzl GriGri+), Black Diamond Pilot, or the new Wild Country Revo

Guiding Multi-pitch Ice

Kong Gi-Gi + Petzl Reverso 4

or

Kong Gi-Gi + Black Diamond ATC Guide

Summary

At the end of the day there are an amazing array of belay devices to chose from. The above suggestions are just my personal experience with what has worked well for me. When I started this post I thought I would cover every device out there but there are just way to many options! Hopefully the suggestions and comments I’ve made help you pick a system that works for you! Let me know in the comments if I left out your favorite belay device or if you found any of this useful and…

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

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Personal Gear List

I often get asked what gear I personally use so I’m creating a more permanent post that I will update when ever I upgrade something in my kit.

The Essentials

Hydration: My standard day trip hydration strategy starts with a 32 ounce wide mouth Nalgene bottle. I will occasionally supplement with some Nuun Electrolytes + Caffeine tablets and often add a 25 ounce Thermos filled with hot tea or an espresso style drink.

Nutrition: Left over pizza from Flatbread Company is hands down my favorite food to carry in the mountains but can strain the food dollars a bit. GrandyOats is the best granola I’ve ever tried and is almost always in my pack. I’m currently reviewing some tasty offerings from Patagonia Provisions and will share that experience soon! I also occasionally carry some soup or homemade chili in a Hydroflask Food Flask.

Navigation: I make my own custom maps using CalTopo and import them into the Avenza app on my iPhone. I’ll also print a hard copy to use in the field and carry the Suunto MC-2 Compass. I currently use the Garmin 3 HR Watch but wish to upgrade to the Garmin Fenix 5X Sapphire GPS Watch.

First Aid Kit: I start with an Adventure Medical Ultralight .7 First Aid Kit and supplement with with a few extra pairs of Nitrile gloves, extra medications, iodine tablets, and a sam splint. I also stuff my backup headlamp and knife in my first aid kit so if I have my kit the next two items are definitely with me!

Headlamp: I currently use the Petzl Actik Core Headlamp and a Petzl Zipka Headlamp stuffed in my First Aid Kit as a back-up. I would like to get the Petzl Nao+ Headlamp for night skiing and riding.

Knife: A simple folding knife is always in my first aid kit, like this one.

(much more coming soon)

 

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



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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 Review: Black Diamond ATC Pilot Belay Device

Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review

The new Black Diamond ATC Pilot is an impressive addition to the growing number of “brake assisting” belay devices on the market.


What it is

From Black Diamond:

The lightweight Black Diamond ATC Pilot represents an advance in technology for the world of assisted braking devices. Providing an added level of security to your belay, the ATC Pilot threads similarly to other tubular belay devices and accommodates ropes from 8.7-10.5mm. The durable steel braking surface has no moving parts, and the smooth and secure control allows for gradual lowering. With an easy rope payout, the ATC Pilot makes single-pitch projecting burns less tiring for the belayer and more secure for the climber.

 

  • Accommodates ropes from 8.7-10.5
  • Provides an added level of security to single pitch belays
  • Smooth rope payout
  • Controlled lowering
  • Steel construction
  • Ergonomic, non-slip surface
  • Single rope use

How we tested

Over the course of two months I carried the Black Diamond ATC Pilot Belay Device for almost two dozen days of climbing between Rumney Rocks and crags all over Mount Washington Valley along with a couple trips to the Salt Pump Climbing Gym. We used a Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner (our favorite belay carabiner). More significantly I handed it to my clients and regular climbing partners every chance I could to get their opinions as well as determine really how intuitive this device would be in the hands of both longtime veteran climbers and first-day-ever climbers. Over the test period I had at least 10 different people belay me while lead climbing and top-roping, some as young as 10 years old!

Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review


The results

We found the Black Diamond ATC Pilot to be incredibly intuitive with a quick learning curve to become proficient in both lead and top-rope belaying. Experienced climbers felt that using it felt very similar to operating a regular Black Diamond ATC or Petzl Verso. Clear images on the device and a lack of moving parts helped even the newest, and youngest, of our testers properly install the device on the rope.


Top-roping Belaying and Lowering

Belaying on a top-rope system is quite simple with the Black Diamond ATC Pilot. Using the universal belay technique belayers had no problem removing slack from the system. When it came time to lower minimal coaching was required to have the belayer lower the climber. The biggest advantage during the lower is the lack of moving parts or levers make this device feel less likely to have an inexperienced belayer defeat the camming mechanism causing an uncontrolled fall and possible injury.

Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review
Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review

Lead Belaying

Belaying a lead climber with the Black Diamond ATC Pilot is quite simple and we found that newer belayers could “keep up” with the lead climber’s progress easier than other brake-assisting devices on the market. With just slight upward pressure on the thumb lever (while keeping the brake hand around the brake strand) slack could be payed out as easily as any tube style belay device and at least one tester felt it could be payed out even smoother than a Petzl Gri Gri+ in experienced hands. In the event of a fall it is highly unlikely for a belayer to keep upward pressure on this lever and intuitive to slide the brake hand back down the strand for a secure catch.


Assisted Braking

The amount of braking will vary based on rope diameter and age, along with the amount of friction already in the system (top-rope vs lead catch). We found skinny new single ropes like our Sterling Fushion Nano IX 9 mm would slowly slip in a top-rope system (but were easily locked off with proper brake hand position). The slightly thicker Black Diamond 9.4 mm used in the video below would hold fast. Regardless the device must not be treated as “auto-locking”. A brake hand is required 100% of the time.

Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review
Black Diamond ATC Pilot Review

Rappelling

While the Black Diamond ATC Pilot is not designed for rappelling it can safely be used to descend a single strand rappel. Care must be taken as without gloves on your hand will come in contact with the carabiner which will create some heat on a long or fast rappel. We would likely still carry a traditional belay device like the Black Diamond ATC Belay Device if we were planning on doing a lot of rappelling.


Video


Summary

The Black Diamond ATC Pilot is a great addition to the growing amount of assisted braking devices on the market. While it’s obvious this would be a good tool for gym and sport climbers we believe it could also earn a place with climbing guides and instructors. It’s an excellent choice for a new belayer due to its intuitive use and extra layer of security it provides while maintaining a simple design. The symmetrical design also makes this device equally effective for those who are right or left handed, something that many similar devices do not do. We also find the light weight and competitive price of this device to be a compelling reason to add it to your kit. You can check it out from the following retailers:

Shop Local!

International Mountain Equipment, North Conway NH

Eastern Mountain Sports, North Conway NH

Shop Online!

Backcountry and adding our favorite Black Diamond RockLock Magnetron Carabiner to go with it gets you to free two-day shipping!

Bentgate

EMS

Mountain Gear

REI


Technical Instructions from Black Diamond

Special thanks to AJ at Mountain Life International and Jeremy Ray for their assistance in making the above video.

Disclaimer: The author bought this item with his own money. All opinions are his own. Affiliate links above help create reviews at Northeast Alpine Start like this at no additional cost to you! Thanks for reading!

 

Kids Climb Free! Auto Road Alpine Climbing!

I’m excited to announce two new programs at Northeast Mountaineering! First is a summer long promotion we are running where kids climb for free with a paying adult!

Kids Climb Free!

Rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
All smiles (and awesome helmets!)

This is an awesome way to make a Family Rock Climbing Day an affordable adventure!

Normally the rates would look like this for this 8 hour program:

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

So a family of 4 would cost $480. With this new promotion two paying adults would total $300 and both kids would climb for free! That’s $180 savings and all kid rental gear is included!

You can book this here and use promo code “kidpower” to get the discount and enter “DavidNEM” in the reservation notes so they know you heard about this awesome offer from me! Let me know at nealpinestart@gmail.com if you would like to request me to be your guide so I can check my calendar!


Alpine Climbing via Auto Road Approach!

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

Huntington Ravine has some of the best alpine rock climbing in the East! Traditionally the climbing is reached after a 3 hour hike and after the technical climbing is over a 2+ hour hike down. By using the Auto Road we can access this terrain after walking downhill for 30-45 minutes. When we top out of our climb it’s about a 30 minute walk back up to the car. There are three classic climbs I’ll be guiding this season:

Henderson Ridge, a great introduction to alpine climbing with moderate climbing (5.4) and some cool situations.

Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, the ultra-classic 6-7 pitch 5.7 alpine ridge climb on Mount Washington. This is a must do!

Cloud Walkers, a two-pitch 5.8 that ends with a long double rope rappel back to the ground.

These trips are for experienced climbers. You should have your own gear and a fair amount of multi-pitch experience. We will also re-schedule or cancel if the Higher Summits Forecast calls for afternoon rain or thunderstorms as “retreating up” is problematic.

The rate for this program will include the Auto Road entrance fee!

1 person: $250 per person
2 people: $175 per person

To book this program first check directly with me on availability. Let me know what date you are looking at by emailing me at nealpinestart@gmail.com. Once availability is confirmed you can book directly on the Northeast Mountaineering website here and put “DavidNEM” in the reservation notes to further flag the reservation.


From climbing with the kiddos at the in-town crag to moving through big terrain high above tree-line I just love to share climbing with my guests. I’m excited about these two new options and hope to see you out there, in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start