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.


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. 

Whitehorse Ledge and Self-Rescue

I spent the last two days with Katie and Chris, a couple from Mass who are quickly becoming more and more proficient in their climbing. Earlier this summer we spent a day together working on building quality top-rope anchors so that they could hit their local MA crags in style and this weekend they returned to be introduced to some multi-pitch climbing in addition to building upon their self-rescue skills.

rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
Chris and Katie below 900 foot high Whitehorse Ledge

The forecast was for some potential early afternoon rain but we got an early start and were first on The Cormier-Magness Route around 9 AM. This relatively new addition to such a historic cliff really is the best 5.6 option on the Whitehorse slabs in my opinion… it really does live up to some of the Mountain Project hype… just be cool with typical Whitehorse run-outs and you will love this climb!

rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
Katie following the classic “Wheat Thin” arete, which would be considered P2 after starting up Beginner’s Route…
rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
Chris finishing P2 with Mount Kearsarge in the background
rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
Hanging out at P2 belay
rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
Colors were really starting to pop!


rock climbing Whitehorse Ledge
2nd to last pitch

We topped out at about 12:30 PM and relaxed with some lunch before heading down. It was great to see so many families and new hikers out enjoying the foliage… though it would have been nice to see them carrying a few basic essentials! Lots of “no-pack” hikers out there this weekend! Getting off my soap box and on to a different one our second day together was slated for self-rescue practice. This boded well because the weather forecast was pretty dismal with 70% chance of heavy rain by 10 AM.

The thing about practicing self-rescue skills is weather is irrelevant… we can practice rain or shine, often in the comfort of the indoors! While I have taught dozens of these courses I took a few minutes before Katie and Chris arrived to write down a rough outline of the skills I wanted us to cover. They arrived just after 8 AM and started with some discussions on what gear we should be carrying and looking at various examples of when these skills could be needed.

rock climbing self rescue
Rescue skill day rough topic outline…

We spent about 2 hours covering various knots, systems, and techniques involved in being able to problem solve your way out of a jam. By 11 AM we saw a break in the weather system and decided to grab a quick bite for lunch and head to the cliff for some more “real life” practice.

rock climbing self rescue
Katie stacks the rope while prepping for some rescue practice at Cathedral Ledge
rock climbing self rescue
One of our two anchors we used in our scenario
rock climbing self rescue
Chris learns about the initial awkwardness of rope ascension having already “Escape the Belay”
rock climbing self rescue
Katie has reached her “victim”, in this case Chris, and is getting ready to perform a Counter-Balance Rappel…

After running through this rescue scenario three times we still had some time and when I realized Katie hadn’t yet completed a full rappel I knew that was how we would wrap up our day. We went over to the Barber Wall and conducted a lower/belayed rappel followed by some short roping to cross the soaking wet slabs back to the climber trail but what I want to focus on right now is the fore-sight Katie and Chris have in their climbing career…

They are approaching climbing with the right mindset; enthusiastic, optimistic, and with due caution. Katie is a recently appointed AMC trip leader who has gained the skills needed to lead others on hikes in sometimes perilous places. Chris is confident and openly optimistic but willing to acknowledge quality practice and study is imperative to a solid grasp of mountain climbing skills. The two of them combined make a very powerful pair in my book, and I am really glad I was able to spend a couple more days with them on the journey to safer mountain-craft.

Katie, Chris… keep doing what you are doing. Read, climb, practice, climb, read some more, climb, ask questions, climb, and never stop improving! Thank you for keeping me involved in your climbing education and I look forward to our next day out!

Interested in some private instruction to improve your self-rescue skills? You can book a private course by using “DavidNEM” in the promo field when booking here. Please email me first at my contact link or at to make sure I have the date available and discuss personal goals and…

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

Sterling Rope Factory Tour

Ever wonder what goes into making your climbing rope? Yesterday I had the opportunity to head over to Sterling Rope in Biddeford, ME with 6 other EMS Guides for a tour of their factory.


It is one thing to read a companies credo in a catalog or on their website. It’s quite another to experience it in person.

We left EMS North Conway around 8 yesterday morning and arrived at the factory at 9:30 where Sterling’s Market Manager, Matt, and head of Research & Development, Josh, greeted us and gave us a quick briefing before passing out safety goggles and leading us out to the factory floor. The first two things you’ll notice when passing through the factory doors are the immense size of the factory and the constant loud drum of dozens of machines producing some of the best ropes in the world.

Sterling Rope Factory Tour

We started on the far end where huge pallets held tons of spider-silk-thin nylon, dyneema, and polypropylene awaiting various treatments and processing before they would be braided into different styles of core for dynamic and static ropes. We were reminded to keep our hands away from machines since you would not see this thin material being spun at such high RPMs.

Sterling Rope Factory Tour
Lots of spinning & whizzing

I got to climb up a small ladder and watch as the rope cores were treated with Sterling’s proprietary DryCoat Treatment. Many rope manufacturer’s only treat the sheath of the rope. Sterling’s treatment of both the core and the sheath greatly increase the water resistance of your rope, which effects just about every property of the material from strength to durability.

Next we made our way over to one of the coolest machines, the “braider”. After all the work that goes into making the core of our climbing ropes is finished, these machines artfully braid the protective sheaths over the core at a mesmerizing speed. This machine is off while we are shown the core strands.

Sterling Rope Tour Braider
Sterling Rope Tour Braider

Then I captured some slow motion video on a nearby machine to see the process. You can see the final product sliding out inch by inch, at probably about an inch every 2 seconds in real time…

We then got to walk though the final product areas. Who needs 700 meters of the amazing Fusion Nano IX 9mm rope?

Sterling Rope Factory Tour
700 meters of 9mm? It would retail for over $2000 if cut to standard lengths.

After touring the distribution center we made our way over to the highly anticipated Sterling Drop Test tower. This tower allows Sterling ropes to pass rigorous UIAA tests that simulate a really bad fall onto a rope. Most climbers notice when purchasing a rope how many of these “worst case” scenario falls their rope is rated for. Off the top of my head I’d say I have owned and used ropes that passed anywhere from 6-12 of these falls. The fall imitates a fall factor around 1.77 with a 80Kn weight (about 176lbs).

And again in slow motion:

On the 7th drop the rope failed (and I was not ready with the camera). The snap was loud and impressive. It was interesting to feel how flat and warm to the touch the abused rope had become after multiple test falls, especially since we did not let the rope rest between drops.

After that we made our way to the Pull Test machine. This hydraulic beast can exert over 222Kn (50,000 pounds!) of force on ropes & gear in a measurable and controlled environment. We were encouraged to bring old slings and gear to destroy here in the name of science. Well, maybe in the name of pure fun. But science too.

Our school manager, Keith, had a plethora of slings and belay loops to test, with an emphasis on investigating the different rappel extension options we choose to use on such a regular basis while guiding and recreating. We also wanted to see if worn belay devices could pose a threat when pre-rigged on a rope. Ian had brought a damaged fixed quickdraw from the last bolt on the classic hard Predator route at Rumney NH. Jeff had a pine sap infused sling he wanted to test. Over the next hour or so we broke about 20 pieces of gear in the machine.

Sterling Factory Tour
Snapped Dyneema smells like burning nylon
Sterling Rope Tour
Ready to test
Sterling Rope Tour
That’s science son!

Some video of the tests:

The Results:

Sterling Rope Tour
The Results

So what were the main take home points?

Most methods of rappel extension are more than strong enough.

The single girth hitched dyneema sling actually broke at a slightly higher force than the nylon. While strength isn’t the biggest issue with this method I will often choose to girth-hitch the enforced tie-in point of the harness rather than the belay loop, namely to increase the life of the harness. While belay loops are incredibly strong one well documented fatality from a belay loop breaking after prolonged wear always lingers in the back of my head. I would also keep in mind the lower melting temperature of dyneema and watch those rappel speeds when the rope is passing close to the loaded dyneema sling.

A well used belay device that has developed a relatively sharper edge on the “outgoing” side significantly reduces the load needed to cause failure

Tthough still under a relatively high load (more than 10Kn). Even so while pre-rigging 3 people on a steep rappel it would be a bit more comforting to know belay devices where in good condition and not heavily worn. No need to be the “first” to draw attention to this potential catastrophic failure. Replace your belay device when it develops an edge on the out-going side.

The frayed quickdraw from Predator failed under 4Kn

This definitely draws attention to the quality of fixed draws that might be hanging on your project. Inspect fixed draws!

Thanks to Jeff Lea I also now know that sap does not weaken my slings. It’s still pretty messy so I’ll continue to avoid it when possible.

This visit to Sterling was highly educational and informative. I’ve been climbing almost exclusively on Sterling ropes for the last 3-4 years. I have regularly used the Sterling Evolution Velocity for cragging and top-roping and reserve my Sterling Fusion Nano for leading waterfall ice. Sterling also happens to be the official supplier of rope for EMS Schools. If you are in the market for a new rope this is a company you should be considering!

Do you own a Sterling rope? Which one and how do you like it? What other brands/models do you like? Let me know in the comments below!

See you in the mountains,


Sterling Rope Factory Tour

Self Rescue Course

Yesterday I spent the day with Christopher and Laura at Cathedral Ledge covering the topic of self-rescue. By taking this course they’ve started a process of becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant climbers. Access to climbing gyms and to climbing clubs in almost every state has allowed people to learn the basis of rock climbing quite quickly, but often new (and old) climbers don’t take the time to master a few basic skills that could get them out of jam much faster than waiting for a professional rescue to take place. The actual skills one should be fluent with if they aspire to be self-sufficient are;

Belay Escapes – Hauling Systems – Rope Ascension – Counter-balance Rappels – Belayed Lowering

Laura utilizing a 3:1 improvised haul to help Chris through a crux move
Ready to haul
We also covered some belay station management issues during the day
Learning a counter-balance rappel after ascending the rope to get the mock-injured leader after an accident

Knowing these skills can prevent chilly nights on ledges while waiting for help, and increase your climbing proficiency as you add some tricks to your bag.

The methods I use to teach these skills are practical, hands-on, comprehensive, and adapted to your own pace. If you have any questions about the real-life applications of these skills or the course in general, please let me know.