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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Ortovox Trad 25 Backpack Review

I’ve been using Ortovox avalanche shovels, probes, and beacons for over 5 years now so I was pretty excited when I got the opportunity to try out the new Ortovox Trad 25 Backpack. Designed for multi-pitch rock climbing with some unique forward thinking features this is definitely a contender for best design in this category.

Ortovox Trad 25 Backpack Review
Ortovox Trad 25 Backpack- photo from http://www.ortovox.com

Let’s take an in-depth look at the different characteristics of this pack.

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Comfort

The dense molded foam used in the shoulder straps and back feel almost gel like. It is very comfortable. The shoulder straps are the appropriate width and contour to my 5’9″ frame perfectly. The length is perfect for my 19 inch torso and the pack rides at the right height when I’m wearing my harness. There is a shorter torso women’s version available as well.

Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Gel-like molded foam back panel and shoulder straps
Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Contoured breathable shoulder straps
Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Rides well on the back

Weight


For the amount of features this pack boosts it’s pretty impressive it only weighs one pound 12 ounces (750 grams). You can further lighten the pack by removing the aluminum frame but I found the pack rides so comfortably with the frame intact I left it in.

Capacity


I was a bit concerned 25 liters (1560 cubic inches) would not be enough for my multi-pitch rock climbing/guiding kit. Turned out I had plenty of room and I think this is a generous 25L pack. It is hydration compatible and even with my 100 ounce CamelBak I was able to get my entire kit inside

Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Hydration Compatible
Ortovox Trad 25 Review
My kit

When packing everything in this photo I was able to still get my helmet inside. On a subsequent trip where my partner was packing the rack I fit a Sterling Nano 60m 9.1mm climbing rope inside and strapped my helmet on the outside. For those wanting a bit more room for longer more committing routes the pack does come in a 35L size.

Accessibility


One of my favorite features of this pack is the “circumferential zipper”. While I can still cram my gear in via the lid covered top opening (which features it’s own innovative tightening system) when it is time to rack up I can easily get to my rack, quickdraws, shell jacket, etc.

Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Circumferential zipper access

The roomy top pocket easily fits my headlamp, bug dope, and lunch.

Rope Attachment


Once the pack is loaded up it’s easy to strap a rope on the outside. The top compression straps unhook and expand to fit any size rope and the bungee ice axe attachments on the bottom quickly secure the coil from swinging on your hike in.

Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Options for strapping rope on outside of pack

The fact that this ultralight pack can hold ice axes makes it a great choice for glaciated alpine terrain, though I would probably bump up to the 35L for longer routes.

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Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Tom finds it quiet comfortable while jamming some classic back-country crack
Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Ready for adventure

Durability


The main material seems to be a soft high count denier. I don’t have the exact specs but careful inspection of it reveals high quality stitching and no noticeable stress points. While I have only had the pack a few weeks I feel it will serve well for hundreds of climbs.

Forward Thinking Rescue


Here’s where Ortovox has really done something different. I’ve always known this company to be industry leading when it comes to safety, especially with their commitments to avalanche education. This guiding principle is evident in this pack in a few ways. First, is the simple color choice. As a search & rescue member I am a big fan of high visible orange. It’s one way to be “searchable”. “Be searchable”… that phrase was coined in conjunction with the Recco system that is included in this pack. While this technology is limited in the Northeast right now it’s gaining a lot of popularity in Europe and may gain more traction here. You can learn more about Recco here. Finally, on the inside of the circumferential zipper are imprinted images of alpine emergency signals. There’s also another concealed zippered pocket here that I just found while grabbing this image!

Ortovox Trad 25 Review
Emergency Info/Reference

Conclusion


For multi-pitch rock climbing this pack is a great choice. It’s clear Ortovox focuses on design functionality and safety in every product I’ve ever used from them, and this pack is no exception. If you’re looking around for a solid multi-pitch pack option you can purchase this one right here. Doing so helps support this blog!

Ortovox Trad 25 Review
The author looks at what comes next- photo by Matty B.

Buy on Amazon

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this review please like, share, subscribe, comment, or just send me some positive karma.

See you in the mountains,

-NEAlpineStart

Disclosure: Ortovox provided this sample for the purposes of this review and this post contains affiliate links.