A belay device acts as a brake on the climbing rope by applying friction to it. The device, plus the belayer's quick "braking hand" (which locks off the free end of the rope), helps keep tension on the rope and protects the climber at the other end. It is an essential device for climbing safety.
This REI video walks you through the basics of choosing a belay device:
For a closer look at your choices, read on:
The 2 most popular belay-device choices are tubular and assisted braking. A third option is the figure-8. Which one you choose depends on the kind of climbing you do.
These are the most widely used belay devices. The rope is folded and pushed through the device and clipped with a locking carabiner to the belayer or directly to the anchor. Friction caused by the bent rope's contact with the belay device slows down and stops the rope, helping to protect the climber. Some models have ridges or "teeth" to create even more friction. Tubular belay devices are suitable for any kind of climbing.
Advantages: Tubular models are compact, light and easy to use. They work with many rope diameters and can accommodate single or double ropes. They don't twist or kink ropes and can be used for rappelling as well as belaying.
Drawbacks: Some people, especially lighter-weight climbers, find tubular belay devices to be slow for rappelling.
Example: The Black Diamond ATC (Air Traffic Controller) is a popular tubular device. It has a loop on one end to keep it attached to the carabiner when you insert or remove the rope. This prevents dropping the device.
Assisted-braking belay devices have a camming mechanism that locks down on the rope when a sudden force is applied to it. They operate much like your car's seatbelts. The rope is threaded through the inside of the device, which is clipped to the anchor or dirrectly to the belayer. These devices are used mainly for sport climbing, either at a climbing gym or outdoors.
Advantages: These devices help the belayer to stop the climber's fall, though they still require a bit of tension from the braking hand to initiate the assisted-braking function. They feed rope smoothly and make it easy to lower the climber in a controlled manner.
Drawbacks: Assisted-braking devices can put high shock loads on climbing protection during a fall. As a result, they are not recommended for lead trad climbing and are best suited for use with extremely secure top-rope anchors. They should be used only with supple, 10 to 12mm single ropes. They are not recommended for use with wet or icy ropes.
Example: The Petzl Grigri 2 is a very popular assisted-braking device used in many gyms and by sport climbers.
As belay devices, figure 8s are limited to top-roped setups. They are shaped like the number 8, with one larger and one smaller hole. A bight (bend) of rope is fed through the large hole and looped around the outside of the small hole till it rests on the "neck" of the figure 8. The small hole is clipped to the climber or anchor. Figure 8s are frequently used for search and rescue, caving and traditional climbing as rappel devices.
Advantages: Figure 8s are efficient and smooth for rappelling. They dissipate heat efficiently and can be used with just about any rope diameter.
Drawbacks: As belay devices, figure 8s offer inadequate braking for anything but top-roping (unless used like a belay plate with a bight of rope going through only the small hole). They also require more attention and more force from the belayer's hand than other devices, and they put a twist in the climbing rope, which can make rope handling difficult.
Example: The Black Diamond Super 8 can be used for belaying as well as rappelling.
Shop REI's selection of belay and rappel devices.
So, you top out on the pitch you just led, you're setting up to belay your partner and you suddenly drop your belay device. Now what?
Fortunately for you, there are 2 methods of belaying without a device: the Münter hitch and the body belay. Warning: It is your responsibility to master these techniques before using them in an emergency situation.
The Münter hitch comes in handy when you find yourself without a belay device or extra carabiners. It's created by looping the climbing rope around a large locking carabiner into what is known as a running knot. The rope feeds through this knot in either direction. If the climber falls, the belayer pulls on the rope's free end and the knot acts as a friction lock-off. The Münter hitch is a fast and efficient way of reeling in a lot of rope.
There are some drawbacks to this method, which is why it is reserved as a backup. It requires a forceful brake hand and is not always reliable for stopping long leader falls. You need a large, pear-shaped locking carabiner that will allow the knot to slide through. It will not work with a regular locking D. And like the figure 8, it puts kinks and twists in the rope.
As the name implies, your body acts as the belay "device" that puts friction on the climbing rope. This is the simplest belay method, as it requires no special equipment. The belayer anchors the rope behind him or her, wraps it around the waist, typically with a carabiner clipped to the harness waistbelt to keep the rope from sliding up the back. If the climber falls, the seated belayer pulls the braking hand quickly and forcefully across his or her body to the ground. While simple to set up, the body belay requires proper seated position, proper arm movements and strength. It can also be uncomfortable for the belayer to take all the climber's weight on his or her body. For these reasons, the body belay is used as a last resort.
To learn these techniques, get qualified instruction and refer to instructional books such as Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, published by The Mountaineers Books.
Shop REI's selection of climbing books.
By Julie Eiselt
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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