Assisted Braking Devices

Assisted Braking Devices have been a part of American climbing for a long time. By 1992, American climbers and belayers were alternately condemning and commending the new tools, and most of those perceptions persist today.  In many cases, the GriGri is unfairly given credit for securing belays in an unprecedented way.  In other cases, the GriGri is maligned as symbolic of complacency, poor belaying, and laziness.  Over the years, American belayers have over-heard epithets like:

“The GriGri promotes lazy belaying.”

“The GriGri has an automatic brake.  You can’t mess it up.”

“GriGris might be great for toproping or sport climbing, but it’s unsafe to use them for trad.”

“GriGris are the industry standard for belaying a toprope.”

These statements and the reductive thinking behind them have inhibited Assisted Braking Devices from taking their logical place in American climbing.  This article will seek to unpack and explain some of the historical and cultural underpinnings of assisted braking devices like the GriGri in order to explore how these devices have gotten to the point that they are neither appreciated for their contributions to climbing nor adequately respected for their complexity and intricacy.  

To get there, we will need to clarify the current and historic role of backups in any technical system related to climbing.  We will need to explain how these tactics long preceded the invention of the GriGri, because they are still just as important in the era of assisted braking devices as they were before GriGris hit the scene in the early ’90s.  Then, every climber will be better equipped to discover what Assisted Braking Devices offer to the overall security of a belay or rappelling system.

This article will qualify the use of Assistant Braking Devices according to the following principles:

  • Assisted Braking Devices, when used correctly, provide a reliable backup to any belayer.  
  • Assisted Braking Devices, when used correctly, offer the greatest movement economy when delivering slack to a lead climber.
  • Unlike Manual Braking Devices (like any tube style device),  ABDs have widely variable performance characteristics from one model to the next.

Backups

In climbing, we use backups all the time.  We use them as an integral part of our systems and we often use words like redundancy and security when we’re talking about backups.  In every case, the basic concept is the same: a climber relies on one system to stay safe, and there is another system that acts as a back-up in case the primary system fails or malfunctions.  

Let’s look at some of the most common examples:

Climbing

climbing backups.jpg


Rappelling

Anchoring

Backups are a great idea, and they help us have a lot more confidence that we’re going to survive an error, a slip, an oversight, or a freak occurrence.  When we choose not to use a backup, we’re often flirting with unnecessary risks.

Let’s look at some examples:

Free Soloing

Lowering with an MBD without a backup

lowering sans backup.jpg

It is not common to think of backups in this way. However, when a climber analyzes the role of backups and looks at all climbing practices through that lens, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that holding a climber’s weight with a manual braking device and lowering a climber with that same device is tantamount to free-soloing. Unlike free-soloing, though, belaying usually involves two people; they are both complicit in this arrangement.

Before Assisted Braking Devices were an option, conservative belay teams relied on backups that are still options today. 

Since climbers are often standing around in groups of three or four, it's easy to offer a backup belay.

Since climbers are often standing around in groups of three or four, it's easy to offer a backup belay.

If a backup belayer is not standing behind the belay device, in the braking plane of the device, the value of the backup might be nominal.

If a backup belayer is not standing behind the belay device, in the braking plane of the device, the value of the backup might be nominal.

These backup knots, tied every 10 to 15 feet, provide a backup to the belayer when she does not have someone available to provide a backup belay.

These backup knots, tied every 10 to 15 feet, provide a backup to the belayer when she does not have someone available to provide a backup belay.

While a friction hitch can provide an adequate backup for lowering, it takes practice to tie this hitch while holding a climber,  and it won't work on every harness' leg loop design.

While a friction hitch can provide an adequate backup for lowering, it takes practice to tie this hitch while holding a climber,  and it won't work on every harness' leg loop design.

A careful observer of these traditional forms of backup will notice that an incompetent belayer (or pair of belayers) still has the capacity to injure a climber.  So, an unstated but obvious addendum to the application of any backup to any system is that incompetence is presumed to be negated. It’s an important distinction to make. Gross incompetence can override all reasonable backup systems, and safeguarding against incompetence quickly becomes impracticable.  

Belaying systems presume functional cooperative competence as a starting point, and backups safeguard unforeseen forces and circumstances that can unexpectedly incapacitate a belayer. So, it’s important to combine fundamental belay principles to any belay device, regardless of the braking apparatus. All devices require a belayer to keep a brake hand on at all times, slide or alternate the brake hand only when the rope is in the braking plane of the device, and use the hand wrist and arms according to their natural strength.

Assisted Braking Device = Backups

An assisted braking device, operated within the fundamental principles of belaying, is an especially valuable tool if climbing teams prioritize backups. If a belayer takes an honest self-assessment of all the things that might thwart the best intentions of a diligent and competent belay, then it is difficult to justify not prioritizing backups.  It is perfectly reasonable, and perfectly human, to accept that any number of sights, sounds, and distractions compete for a belayer’s attention.  Other climbers, friends and acquaintances, passersby, flora and fauna, changes in weather, they all distract even the most committed belayers. In these perfectly predictable and likely circumstances, the assisted braking mechanism of an ABD can provide the ready-to-go attentiveness that the belayer momentarily lacks.

More persuasively, there are occurrences in the climbing environment that can easily incapacitate a belayer, regardless of their position relative to the climber (above or below). If a belayer is willing to indulge the imagination, these hazards quickly accumulate:

  • Rockfall generated by climbers above in a separate party
  • Rockfall generated by a climber in one’s own party
  • Natural rockfall
  • Icefall (for all the same reasons)
  • Avalanche (for all the same reasons)
  • Electricity of all kinds
  • Aggressive Fauna (stinging insects and arachnids, snakes, large predators)
  • Aggressive Flora (treefall, deadfall, prickling plants, poisonous plants)
  • A leader climber falling and impacting the belayer
  • Medical problems (allergies, asthma, diabetes, seizures, other chronic conditions)

Accident archives and anecdotal evidence demonstrate, again and again, that the selection of an ABD provides belayers and climbers with a backup should any of the aforementioned hazards incapacitate the belayer.

On one notable example, a pair of proficient climbers had a spectacularly close call in Eldorado Canyon in 2008. In much the same manner catalogued above, the leader climber dislodged a large rock during a lead fall.  That rock fell and hit the belayer.  The belayer, having selected an ABD, managed to arrest the leader’s fall despite the severe injuries he sustained.  Had the belayer selected a manual breaking device instead, like an ATC, without any sort of backup, the leader would have likely been severely injured as well. As it turned out, the leader was able to run for help and assist rescuers to evacuate his partner.

An ABD is not a panacea for mishap or incident, but it does provide all belay teams, like this team from Eldorado Canyon, with a margin of error. Surely, that’s an adequate incentive for any climbing team to learn more about ABDs, and it’s a sound reason to learn to use them correctly. 

Movement Economy while Lead Belaying

Many assisted braking devices offer the greatest economy of movement when delivering slack to the lead climber. Even though many belayers assert that ABDs have cumbersome mechanics resulting in a jammed rope and an inability to provide adequate slack, most of these assertions are based on a lack familiarity with the techniques needed to use an ABD to belay a lead climber.

The key to this movement economy involves a stationary brake hand. It might be helpful to see fundamental belaying with an MBD contrasted with an ABD to demonstrate this concept explicitly.

Many ABDs, by contrast, keep the brake hand stationary, eliminating an entire step in the belay cycle. As result, there can be a 50% increase in overall efficiency when the belayer delivers slack to the leader.

This movement economy is especially useful on easy or moderate terrain, when the leader is unlikely to fall. One of the greatest hazards to the leader in that terrain might be getting tripped or snagged by an inadequate supply of slack from the belayer.  An imperative to provide adequate slack is also common on low-angled terrain when the leader tends to move in long strides. That kind of movement necessitates adequate slack because the leader’s balance is often precarious and unstable. In any case, it may be valuable for a belayer to opt for a belay tool and technique that provides slack to the leader as efficiently as possible while also adhering to the fundamental principles of belaying.

Variations among ABDs

While the Petzl GriGri tends to represent the entire genre of ABDs due to its popularity and history, it is not the only ABD available. A careful analysis of the various functions, applications, and performance characteristics of each ABD should help belayers make an informed choice when they select a device. 

Applications

ABDs are typically deployed in the following contexts, although many of these applications are not necessarily recommended by the manufacturer. Manufacturers tend to create recommended use guidelines that pertain to the most common usage, and any application outside of that usage is implicitly discouraged. Nevertheless, many climbers rely on these kinds of applications, so it will be important to disclose the nature of each application, even though the manufacturers may not. These applications will be listed from most to least common. An ABD’s ability to perform these applications and functions help climbers decide when and how to use one tool or another.

1.     Belaying a counterweighted toprope. In a toproping scenario, ABDs are commonly deployed by institutional programs, climbing gyms, and professional climbing instructors. The values of an ABD as a backup are especially conspicuous to these users.

2.     Belaying a leader in a counterweight arrangement. The belayer’s body weight anchors a leader’s ascent in protection increments. Sometimes this arrangement is distorted by the use of a ground anchor or a connection that protects the belayer from an upward pull.  An ABD can predictably increase the impact forces generated by lead falls. Impact forces are measurably increased on the belayer’s body, the climber’s body, and the protection/anchor. In most scenarios lead climbing scenarios, however, the differences in impact force would not have catastrophic consequences.  

3.     Rappelling. If a rope is somehow fixed or counterweighted, an ABD can be used as rappel tool on a single strand of rope.

When a single strand of rope is fixed, blocked, or counterweighted, an ABD can be used for rappelling. "Rappelling with GRIGRI takes training, and it is important to system check ensuring proper rigging and connection."-Petzl

When a single strand of rope is fixed, blocked, or counterweighted, an ABD can be used for rappelling.

"Rappelling with GRIGRI takes training, and it is important to system check ensuring proper rigging and connection."-Petzl

4.     Rope Ascension. If a rope is somehow fixed or counterweighted, an ABD can be used as a progress capture in an ascension system.

Many climbing instructors, like this one, learn to use an ABD for rope ascension.  As an improvised progress capture, these tools can be effective.

Many climbing instructors, like this one, learn to use an ABD for rope ascension.  As an improvised progress capture, these tools can be effective.

5.     Direct Belay. ABDs are often used by belayers to top-belay a second climber directly off the anchor. When top-belaying, direct belays are particularly advantageous. ABDs create unique challenges when belaying a leader in direct belay configurations.

Direct belay applications must allow an ABD a full and uninterrupted range of motion.  If the device is laying on a slab or crammed against a protruding feature, the assisted braking function can be compromised.

Direct belay applications must allow an ABD a full and uninterrupted range of motion.  If the device is laying on a slab or crammed against a protruding feature, the assisted braking function can be compromised.

Performance Characteristics.  

ABD manufacturers will each try to convince consumers that their products represent the most secure, reliable, easy-to-use device on the market. The truth is that climbing has diverse contexts with diverse environments, climates, and risks.  That diversity is further compounded by the number people who climb: big people, small people, big hands, small hands, right-handed people, and left-handed.  Some people are missing digits or limbs, and that might make one product more advantageous than the next.

When combined with function and the need for multi-functionality, each device will also have an array of performance characteristics that depend on each individual user’s style, body type, and unique challenges. Asking the following questions of every ABD will guide a user to the right model.  

Stationary Brake Hand: Does the manufacturer recommend a belay technique that allows the brake hand to remain stationary? Many devices do allow for this movement economy, and it is one of the most persuasive reasons to select an ABD in the first place.

Mechanical Braking or Passive Braking:  Is the assisted braking function mechanical or passive?  Mechanical Assisted Braking Devices, like the GriGri 2 or Vergo, have moving cams, clamps or swivels that pin the brake strand of the rope.  They are typically bigger and heavier than their passive counterparts. Their performance can be challenged in wet, snowy, or icy conditions. They can provide smooth lowers, multi-functionality, and reliable braking, though.

Passive Assisted Braking Devices exaggerate the “grapping” quality of any aperture or tube style belay device. The “grabbing” effect is so severe, it effectively brakes the rope, providing the belayer with a backup.

Ergonomics:  Does the recommended use of the tool force the belayer to sustain unnatural, painful, or uncomfortable body positions?  Test the ergonomics of a device in all the application contexts. For example, the body mechanics involved in using a GriGri 2 are quite natural and comfortable for rappelling and counterweight belaying. But, lowering with a GriGri in a direct belay configuration requires an awkward manipulation of the GriGri 2 handle.  

Reliability of Assisted Braking Function:  Does the Assisted Braking Function perform reliably in the widest range of conditions and circumstances?  What are the known malfunction conditions? No ABD is automatic and 100% reliable.  They all have quirky and unique failure mechanisms that range from interference in the braking function’s range of motion, interference caused by precipitation (frozen or otherwise), inappropriate carabiner selection, or rope entrapment.  Manufacturers don’t always advertise these failure mechanisms. 

Multi-functionality:  Does the device perform more than one function in climbing?  Do all the functions of the tool fall under the device's recommended use?  Are some functions discouraged, or are they simple NOT encouraged?

Smooth lowering and rappelling:  When lowering and rappelling, is the belayer able to control the rate of descent and keep that rate constant, without sudden halts or acceleration?  The ability to adjust the rate and the consistency of the rate varies from one tool to the next, and it can be especially inconsistent when using ropes at the extreme ends of the recommended range, ropes that are wet, or with smaller statured people.

Ambidextrous Usage:  Is the device effectively unusable by a right or left-handed belayer?  Does it function equally well with either handedness?  Many devices do not offer a compelling left-handed technique. Left-handed belayers often learn to use their right hands to belay because there is not a recommended technique, or the recommended technique is not as effective as simply learning the right-handed technique.

Size and Weight:  How big and how heavy is the tool?  Are there lighter options that accomplish the same functions and have the same performance characteristics otherwise?  In climbing, the size and weight of equipment can often make a big difference to the overall enjoyment and success of the team. All other things being equal, why not have a lighter, more compact tool?

Rope twisting: Does the device alter the plane of the rope’s travel?  When ropes move continuously in the same plane of travel, the rope is less likely to twist.  When that plane alters, say from a horizontal to vertical plane, twisting the rope is the unavoidable consequence.

Easy to learn, easy to teach:  How long will it take me to learn to use the tool?  Devices that are not ergonomic, have intricate parts and setups, and operate differently than other tools can often be more difficult for a belayer to learn to use correctly.  It shouldn’t take months and months of practice to learn to use a piece of belay hardware.

Climber Communication

 

In the United States, many incidents and inefficiencies are caused by miscommunication within a climbing team. Often, highly consequential information needs to be relayed between climbers and belayers, and miscommunicating that information has unfortunately resulted in grave consequences. At the American Alpine Club, we have been gathering these unfortunate stories for over a century, and many incidents could have been entirely avoided had the team communicated more clearly. However, any skill that involves the use of language tends to resist standardization; it’s a challenge that has frustrated American climbers in all disciplines.

One of the first climbers to try to address these challenges was Paul Petzoldt. In The Wilderness Handbook he writes, “Unindoctrinated by the standard European techniques and philosophies of [the world war-era], I developed some new skills and ideas. I invented the first voice-signal system (now universally used in America).” American climbers have largely adopted and gravitated to some version of Petzoldt’s verbal commands for the last 100 years, because his assertions are as true today as they ever have been. Petzoldt wrote:

The human voice is difficult to hear and understand on a mountain. The belayer might be out of his companion’s sight, words do not carry well around rock projections, wind and rain sometimes make conversations impossible, even at short distances. Because of such interferences, I have developed voice signals that are brief and intelligible even when faintly heard.

Petzoldt’s innovation was insightful, and it informs the concepts espoused in this article. But, the Petzoldt voice signals that sound so familiar to so many climbers, can easily be obfuscated by a busy crag, dialect or nuances in pronunciation, and by the use of names within the voice signals—names distort the syllabic distinction that Petzoldt originally devised.

Communication, as a concept, has to be grounded in something less complex than language or speech or any group of practices that is so easily undermined by the nuances of dozens of individual cultures. It’s important to remember that communication is not always about language. Climbers who do not have the ability to hear, to speak, or to see have always managed to communicate with others, and those individuals climb in the United States as well. There is a need to address climber communication in a way to focuses on the essential goal climbers are trying to achieve, and language is only one of many ways climbers communicate.

In this article, we will explore why communication is so vital to climbers. We will explore the principles that should govern communication in all contexts, and from those principles we will make recommendations that are mostly likely to work in most contexts.

Why is Communication so vital to climbers?

Communication often results in establishing or relinquishing safety systems, like a belay, and establishing or relinquishing a safety system inappropriately can be dangerous.

AND

Climbing environments make communication difficult. Climbers find themselves in cacophonous surroundings (windy and rainy conditions, busy crags and climbing gyms with lots of competing voices, loud environments like roadsides, roaring rivers and streams, chirping and singing wildlife). Climbers are often out of sight of one another, making traditional nonverbal communication difficult.

Climbing environments often make communication difficult.  The sound of the ocean, in this case, makes it important address the fundamental principles of effective climber communication before the climbing starts.

Climbing environments often make communication difficult.  The sound of the ocean, in this case, makes it important address the fundamental principles of effective climber communication before the climbing starts.

Fundamental Communication Principles

Fundamentally, all formal climbing communication serves to mitigate the inherent hazards of climbing. Many of the climbing commands typically employed concern management of the rope system, which in turn affects the belay and the security of the person being belayed. The simple command “On belay” may be the best example of a rope system command. An additional set of commands exists to address the hazard of falling objects, “Rope!” and “Rock!” being the most prominent examples.

Effective formal communication in a climbing system relies on commands that follow three foundational principles:

Communication Agreement. Communication between climbers and belayers should be anchored to a script that is agreed upon prior to the need for the communication.

Communication Precision. Communication should strive to minimize the amount of oral traffic needed to relay information between parties.

Communication Action. Communication should imply an impending action, and therefore should unambiguously initiate that action. Communication also may be used to affirm the completion of an action.

Communication Agreement

Climbing commands are only effective if all members of the climbing party agree on what commands will be used and the explicit actions they imply. For example, there are a number of commands associated with eliminating slack from a belay system, including, “Take,” “Tension,” “Up rope,” and “That’s me.” Each of these commands carries a nuanced meaning that must be known by the belayer in advance in order for her to respond appropriately when her climber issues such a command.

Every climber can appreciate what it's like to call for tension in the rope system.  Paul Petzold originally specified "TENSION" as the preferred voice signal, because it has two syllables, just like all the other commands that involve tightening the belay.  Today, "TAKE" is a common command, but the single syllable can easily be confused with "SLACK," which is the opposite of what this climber wants right now.

Every climber can appreciate what it's like to call for tension in the rope system.  Paul Petzold originally specified "TENSION" as the preferred voice signal, because it has two syllables, just like all the other commands that involve tightening the belay.  Today, "TAKE" is a common command, but the single syllable can easily be confused with "SLACK," which is the opposite of what this climber wants right now.

Establishing different formal climbing commands prior to every climbing outing with a new partner can inconvenience the climbing experience in little ways, but it's almost always worth the a little inconvenience at the beginning of the day in order to avoid an accident. Once the communication agreement has been established, a climbing team can default to that agreement until the conditions or the context necessitates an adjustment.  

There are common tropes and patterns that speakers of American English will recognize, regardless of region or background. Still, slight variations persist from one group of climbers to the next, and climbers should engrain the ritual of affirming their communication strategy before the climbing outing begins. The most common theme in miscommunication-related incidents involve climbers who neglected to have a vital “agreement” conversation prior to their climb. A simple conversation would have alleviated the confusion.

Communication Precision

Another common theme in miscommunication is over-communication. The climbing team might attempt to rely on informal communication and conversation when precise and unambiguous commands are needed. The communication might be redundant and therefore unnecessary. In both cases, the climbing team fails to appreciate that precision (communicating a precise action, no more and no less) is a fundamental concept.

When conditions are challenging, informal communication should be entirely eliminated to prevent miscommunication of important formal commands. For example, if the leader has climbed around a corner and into the wind, she would be wise to only use formal climbing commands with her partner to prevent being taken off belay prematurely.

Similarly, redundant commands over-communicate and create ambiguity. Some novice lead climbers use the commands “Clipping” and “Clipped” to inform their belayer that they will be clipping the rope into a quickdraw. “Clipping” implies that the leader will need additional slack to clip the carabiner; the formal command “Slack” is already used to alert the belayer to introduce slack into the belay system. “Clipping” is therefore a redundant communication.

“Clipped” suffers from problems with both redundancy and ambiguity; two meanings may be implied. First, the leader may be asking the belayer to remove unnecessary slack from the belay system (in which case a number of commands may do the job). Second, the leader may also be asking the belayer to check the clip: is the leader back-clipped? Z- clipped? Often, this task is impractical or impossible for the belayer to accomplish. Finally, both, “Clipping,” and, “Clipped” are unnecessary assuming the belayer is attentive. No system of communication, even if it is fundamentally thoughtful, can compensate for inadequate belaying.

"CLIPPING" and "CLIPPED" are rarely vital communications if the belayer is attentive.  A climbing team that prioritizes precision will eliminate unnecessary communication in order to minimize ambiguity and miscommunication.

"CLIPPING" and "CLIPPED" are rarely vital communications if the belayer is attentive.  A climbing team that prioritizes precision will eliminate unnecessary communication in order to minimize ambiguity and miscommunication.

When communication become challenging, eliminating unnecessary command or conversation allows the climbing team to anticipate essential climbing commands based upon their previous communication agreement.

Communication Action

Communication should have a clear and unambiguous relationship with an impending action. For example, “Off belay,” is often used to initiate the deconstruction of a belay system. As any climber can appreciate, the action that corresponds to the communication is often highly consequential, and in many cases an affirmative response to the action helps signify the severity of the action that has occurred. Climbing teams will often use affirmative responses like “Belay off” to signify the completion of an important action. However, any command which does not include or affirm a call to action can easily be interpreted for something it is not intended to be, and such inactive communication should be avoided.

For example, some climbers use the command, “Safe,” or, “In direct,” to imply that they are secured to an anchor in some way. However, these commands are superfluous--there is no action for the partner to take in response to this command, nor is there a corresponding affirmation. Instead, the climber could simply say “Off belay” if intending to secure herself and belay from above as in a multipitch climb. Alternately, the climber could say nothing at all and simply request “Slack,” if cleaning an anchor on a single pitch climb, for example.

Fundamentals of Communication in Practice

The following examples explore the use of fundamental communication principles in real-world scenarios and demonstrate an application of those principles to scenarios that are familiar to many climbers.

Scenario 1: Casual cragging with lots of other parties.

Perhaps the most frequent scenario in modern climbing has the climber and belayer starting together at the base of a pitch. Whether leading or top roping, the commands used are the same. Drawing on the most common climbing commands in the United States, our climber, Maria, queries her belayer: “Jorge, are you on belay?”

As the formal climbing command is a call to action, Jorge physically checks the entire belay system, ensuring his belay device is loaded correctly, the carabiner is locked, his harness is fitted properly, the rope is running properly through an adequate anchor if appropriate, his climber’s harness is fitted properly, and his climber has tied into her harness correctly. When appropriate, Jorge also ensures both he and his climber are wearing helmets. Only after completing all of these checks and confirming them with his partner can Jorge say, “Maria, your belay is on.”

In their communication agreement, Jorge and Maria decided to use each other’s names in their verbal commands. This strategy is particularly important when communicating in a crowded location or noisy environment, such as a climbing gym or a busy sport climbing crag. In the multipitch setting, preceding the command with a name is equally important as it alerts the recipient that a command follows and ensures that adjacent parties do not misinterpret the other party’s communication for their own.

With climbing teams all climbing side by side, the use of names in voice signals is an advisable part of any communication agreement.

With climbing teams all climbing side by side, the use of names in voice signals is an advisable part of any communication agreement.

Jorge and Maria will use each other’s names to precede all of their verbal commands today, because that is part of their communication agreement, it is a precise way to specify which commands are directed to whom, and the teams needs a way to differentiate between vital commands that initiate action and the informal banter that will surely characterize their time at the crag.

Scenario 2: Multipitch Climbing

Jorge and Maria are now on a multipitch climb. They begin a pitch sharing a stance at an anchor together, so communication is straightforward prior to the lead. However, once Maria tops out the pitch, there’s a need for terse, precise, and unambiguous action-oriented communication. Belays will be deconstructed and the climbing team will be transitioning from one safety system to the next.

In their communication agreement, Jorge had two main concerns. Jorge wanted to know when exactly to start removing his belay device. He had an experience in the past when he thought the leader said “Off Belay.” On that day, the leader was actually shouting to a rappelling party, “I’m out of the way.” Jorge took the leader off belay prematurely that day, and he never wants to make that mistake again. On a completely separate outing, Jorge was taking his GriGri off the rope when the leader started pulling up the rope. The unexpected tug of the rope yanked Jorge’s GriGri out of his hands and it fell all the way down the cliff. Jorge doesn’t want to deal with either of these miscommunication problems again.

Maria and Jorge agreed that names will be less important today on this isolated climb; no other climbers are around. They’ve also agreed that when the leader shouts “Off Belay,” the belayer will immediately shout “Belay Off.” The leader will have one last chance to object, if Jorge has misheard the verbal command. Jorge agrees to wait a short second before deconstructing the belay.

Also, the leader agrees not to start pulling up rope until she hears the belayer shout “Maria, Up Rope.” It’s important for every climbing team to appreciate that Maria and Jorge could’ve agreed on a completely separate sequence here, and a completely separate set of commands to communicate that sequence. The vital point here is the relationship between prior agreement and precision; Maria and Jorge are being conscientious about both fundamental principles.

When the rope is tensioned against Jorge or his attachment to the anchor, he’ll inform his partner by saying, “That’s me.” This signals to Maria that the tension she feels in the rope is due to Jorge’s weight and not some other potential predicament, such as the rope being wedged in a crack or ensnared around a horn of rock. Maria’s call to action with this command is to put Jorge on belay immediately. “On Belay”

Jorge can now prepare to climb, secure in the knowledge that he is belayed from above. When he is ready to climb, he can inform his belayer with a simple, “Climbing!” A reply of, “Climb on!” will see Jorge to the top of the pitch to rejoin his partner.

Note that in the above exchange, Jorge does not query Maria as to whether he is on belay. There is no need as Maria will put Jorge on belay in response to the command of, “That’s me.” Further, Jorge may not be able to see Maria as she concludes her lead. Consequently, he will likely not know for sure when Maria has established an anchor and is ready to belay. In the best case, voicing, “On belay?!” will not elicit a call to action from Maria other than to say “No, not yet,” unless Jorge happens to pick just the right moment to ask. Asking if he is on belay simply introduces unnecessary, informal communication. In the worst case, shouting, “On belay?!” may be misunderstood as “Off belay!” Maria is likely to find this rather alarming if she has yet to complete her lead.

Scenario 3: Communicating without Commands

It is possible for a climbing party to communicate unambiguously without the use of verbal commands, thereby eliminating the potential for poor verbal communication or miscommunication. Provided the party can agree up on a system in advance, this is readily achieved. Let’s revisit the example in scenario 2 to see this in action.

Maria reaches the top of the pitch and secures herself to the anchor. Because they suspected the possibility of poor communication, Jorge and Maria agreed in advance to use only the necessary formal verbal commands. As Maria is secured to the anchor, she shouts, “Off belay!”

Unfortunately, Jorge is unable to hear this command. However, he knows that there are only two reasons that he might need to feed rope to the leader. Either Maria is still leading, or she has arrived at the belay stance and is pulling up excess rope. Since Jorge is unsure which is the case, he simply continues belaying until he reaches his end of the rope. As he did not hear Maria issue the “off belay” command, he has no reason to affirm this command. Instead, he skips this and simply proceeds to the next command, “Maria, that’s me!” He then removes his belay device from the rope.

Maria has pulled the rope until it is tensioned and thinks she hears Jorge shout a command to her, but she’s not positive. Regardless, her next step is clear: put Jorge on belay. She does so promptly and shouts, “On Belay!”

Meanwhile, down below, Jorge is diligently waiting to climb. Prior to starting the climb, Maria and Jorge agreed to a 30- second waiting period. After shouting, “Maria, that’s me!” Jorge waits 30 seconds and then removes himself from the anchor to begin climbing. He does this knowing that Maria will promptly put him on belay after the rope is tensioned, a task that should take no more than 30 seconds. Jorge and Maria could have agreed to any amount of time they felt appropriate; again the prior agreement is the important thing.

After the agreed upon amount of time, Jorge bellows, “Climbing!” and makes a couple moves. He has one last chance to make sure that he is on some form of belay. He’s making sure the rope is travelling up, in the characteristic progression of a belay cycle. In this sequence, Jorge and Maria have accepted that it might also be possible that Maria is not actually belaying. It is possible that she is still leading, and the team is now accidentally simul-climbing. Even though it’s scary and hopefully avoidable, Jorge and Maria appreciate that Jorge will have to climb in that scenario, even if he’s not on belay. What choice does he have?

Meanwhile, back at the top of the pitch, Maria cannot hear Jorge, but she can feel the slack in the rope he generates by climbing. She pulls the rope through the belay system and after a few feet of movement is sure Jorge must be climbing. As a confirmation, she yells, “Climb on!”

Troubleshooting Communication Challenges

Select belay stances and pitch lengths that enable communication, when feasible.

Occasionally, verbal communication is challenging or impossible. This happens most often on multipitch routes and can result from many factors, including a pitch that traverses around a corner or crosses a ridgeline, high winds, or stretching or linking pitches. The best strategy for these situations is simply prevention. Whenever possible, select stances that enable good verbal communication, or even visual communication if possible. Research the route thoroughly to know when your partner might be out of touch. Consider belaying at an appropriate stance even if the guidebook does not indicate the stance as a typical belay point.

This climbing team could have chosen to belay an any number of places.  The huge river gorge, the imposing rough, and the presence of other climbing parties nearby compelled the party to shorten the pitch-length and optimize communication.

This climbing team could have chosen to belay an any number of places.  The huge river gorge, the imposing rough, and the presence of other climbing parties nearby compelled the party to shorten the pitch-length and optimize communication.

The conventional wisdom is that stretching the rope and linking pitches results in a faster ascent as there are fewer belay transitions to be made. However, 15 minutes wasted shouting to a partner 200 or more feet distant certainly bears a greater time cost than two or even three efficient belay transitions.

Visual communication is helpful when verbal commands are inaudible.

Unfortunately, sometimes poor verbal communication simply cannot be prevented. This leaves a few options for alternative communication systems. A visual command system is one such solution. Such a system needs to be established in advance, but can be effective provided that appropriate belay stances are selected. Most often, a negative and affirmative command are all that is needed. For example, when the leader reaches the top of the pitch, she secures herself, then leans out to look down at her belayer and makes a slashing motion across her throat, indicating, “Off belay.” When the belayer has removed the belay device from the rope, he returns the signal. When the leader has put the follower on belay, she leans out and gives a thumbs-up signal straight overhead, indicating, “On belay.”

Beware of Rope Tugs.

A more common approach is a system of rope tugs used by the leader to communicate with the follower when she is off belay. Unfortunately, any system relying on rope tugs introduces significant ambiguity and the potential for miscommunication. For example, the climbing party may agree that three rope tugs from the leader means, “Off belay.” However, the leader might also issue three similar feeling rope tugs as a result of a potentially stuck rope or simple rope drag. If the belayer interprets this as a call to action, though, the leader may find herself unintentionally off belay for the remainder of the pitch.

Many climbing parties enjoy success with the rope tug technique, and their success usually hinges on a smoothly executed rope line, and a discipline avoidance of any rope movement that could be interrupted as a tug.

A second rope can be a communication tool too.

When climbing with two ropes, whether half ropes, a lead line and tag line, or as a party of three, the leader can unambiguously communicate the “off belay” command. Upon securing herself to the anchor, the leader’s next step is to pull up the ropes. By pulling up the trailing line first (or only one of the half ropes), the leader can clearly indicate that she is stopped at the belay stance as the lead rope is not moving.  

Just like the rope tugs, there can be opportunities for ambiguity here.  It helps for the climbing teams to consciously avoid these signals.  If the isolated movement of one of two ropes is agreed to be an "Off Belay" signal, a leader should not move that rope independently unless she is off belay.

Radios, Cell Phones, and Technology

FRS radios are another option and can ease communication considerably over long distances or in poor conditions. However, radios have a number of drawbacks, including weight and costs. Further, radio communication quality varies, both in transmission clarity and range. Additionally, radios rely on battery power, yielding an additional battery to manage. Should batteries die, over- reliance on radios may also leave a party ill-prepared to use an alternative form of communication. Despite these costs, radios can be effective and beneficial in appropriate contexts, such as multi-party climbing, expeditionary climbing, and complex ski descents. Similarly cell phones and text messages have a comparable potential and drawbacks. These technologies all present the same conclusion to a climbing team: do not rely too heavily on technology. Climbers have been communicating quite effectively without these technologies, and those traditional communications skills have value. 

Special Thanks to Contributors

Derek Debruin is from Weber State University in Ogden Utah.  Derek is an AMGA certified Rock Guide and owner of Bear House Mountain Guiding.  Derek wrote much of the content of this article.

Also, members of the AAC Education Task Force were enormously helpful with feedback and commentary on this article.  Special thanks to Mark Vermeal, Jon Tierney, Dale Remsberg, Dougald MacDonald, Aram Attarian.  AAC Staff were also a great help.  Thanks Phil and Whitney in particular.

The Masterpoint, The Shelf, The Components: Anchor Anatomy in Action

The Masterpoint

The masterpoint of an anchor is aptly named. It is designed to be the working focal point for anchoring, belaying, and a number of auxiliary tasks that might happen while rock climbing. Much like the Master Bedroom of a house, the masterpoint is where the residents of the anchor want to be. The Masterpoint offers the most capacious, the most secure, and the most versatile operational/organizational platform available.

Recognizing and utilizing a masterpoint is often so routine for practiced climbers, it is hard to imagine connecting to an anchor in any other way. However, alternative connection options (like the anchor shelf or components) often bewilder and confuse newer climbers.  Without clear direction one way or the other, it is easy to imagine an uninformed anchor resident choosing to reside in the broom closet rather than the master bedroom.

In these sections and illustrations, we will explore why the master point is the MASTER point, variations on what a masterpoint can look like, and why and how the anchor shelf and components can be valuable connections too. Lastly, we'll examine some special cases anchors which may lack a shelf, or in some cases the actual location of the shelf might be confusing.

What is the Masterpoint?

The masterpoint is the connection point of an anchor where all the values of the anchor are optimized and consolidated. We know that the core principles in all anchor constructions have been consistently applied in climbing applications.  Those values are: Strength, Redundancy, Load Distribution, Simplicity, and Limited Extension. So, the masterpoint is the connection point where all those values are optimized and consolidated, where they all come together. Let’s look at some examples:

The Ponytail Anchor is common.  Using a 4’ Nylon sling it creates all the values climbers have come to expect from an anchor.  It is redundant, it distributes load evenly to the components, it is strong, and it is easy to build and take apart. The Masterpoint is where all those values come together.

The Ponytail Anchor is common.  Using a 4’ Nylon sling it creates all the values climbers have come to expect from an anchor.  It is redundant, it distributes load evenly to the components, it is strong, and it is easy to build and take apart.

The Masterpoint is where all those values come together.

Similarly, a simple ponytail anchor with a cordellette provides a masterpoint with the effective strength of four strands of 7mm nylon cord.

Similarly, a simple ponytail anchor with a cordellette provides a masterpoint with the effective strength of four strands of 7mm nylon cord.

The three piece anchor that is so common in trad climbing also provides a working masterpoint.  Here, a 7mm nylon cord effectively produces a 21mm masterpoint and combines all the values needed for an effective anchor: strength, redundancy, load distribution, and simplicity.

The three piece anchor that is so common in trad climbing also provides a working masterpoint.  Here, a 7mm nylon cord effectively produces a 21mm masterpoint and combines all the values needed for an effective anchor: strength, redundancy, load distribution, and simplicity.

An 11mm static rope can be used to combine components in the terrain that may be far apart from each other. 

An 11mm static rope can be used to combine components in the terrain that may be far apart from each other. 

Once tied off, the anchor builder has to select a knot that combines the strength of the components, and retains all the values of an effective anchor.  Here, a BHK is an ideal choice.  It creates a redundant masterpoint.

Once tied off, the anchor builder has to select a knot that combines the strength of the components, and retains all the values of an effective anchor.  Here, a BHK is an ideal choice.  It creates a redundant masterpoint.

The quad is a self-adjusting anchor system, and it is commonly applied to anchors where the direction of load changes direction. The effective masterpoint uses three of the four strands in the nadir of anchors arc.  The fourth strand captures any carabiners or connections if one of the components were to fail.

The quad is a self-adjusting anchor system, and it is commonly applied to anchors where the direction of load changes direction.

The effective masterpoint uses three of the four strands in the nadir of anchors arc.  The fourth strand captures any carabiners or connections if one of the components were to fail.

Similar to the quad, a 4’ nylon sling is also commonly used to create a self-adjusting anchor. Here the masterpoint is inside the Magic X connection point, combining the effective strength of two isolated strands of the nylon sling.  The masterpoint is both strong and redundant, but the two overhand knots can be difficult to untie after heavy loads are applied to the anchor.

Similar to the quad, a 4’ nylon sling is also commonly used to create a self-adjusting anchor.

Here the masterpoint is inside the Magic X connection point, combining the effective strength of two isolated strands of the nylon sling.  The masterpoint is both strong and redundant, but the two overhand knots can be difficult to untie after heavy loads are applied to the anchor.

What is the Shelf?

The shelf is an auxiliary attachment point that has almost the same values as the Masterpoint.  Imagine it as a finished attic, relative to a Master Bedroom.  A finished attic has many of the amenities of the Master Bedroom, but it would be weird to move in to the attic and leave the Master Bedroom empty.  It would also be weird to sleep in the Master Bedroom, but dress in the attic.  In other words, the shelf is a good place to put something that might not otherwise be functional in the masterpoint.  For argument’s sake, the shelf should also present an attachment point that has redundancy, strength, and distributes load to the components.  As a result, some anchors don’t even have a shelf.  Let’s looks at some examples:

The shelf of the anchor has the same essential properties as the masterpoint. For the ponytail anchor with 4’ nylon sling, the shelf clips both legs of anchor above the Masterpoint

The shelf of the anchor has the same essential properties as the masterpoint.

For the ponytail anchor with 4’ nylon sling, the shelf clips both legs of anchor above the Masterpoint

For the cordellette ponytail anchor, there are four strands of 7mm nylon in the masterpoint.  To create that same kind of connection point, the shelf must clip both legs of the anchor above the masterpoint.  That means that two stands of each leg effectively creates the anchor’s shelf.

For the cordellette ponytail anchor, there are four strands of 7mm nylon in the masterpoint.  To create that same kind of connection point, the shelf must clip both legs of the anchor above the masterpoint. 

That means that two stands of each leg effectively creates the anchor’s shelf.