Safety, Systems, and Thoughts on Thinking

When it comes to safety and systems, shouldn’t we think as objectively as possible? I think so, and I try. I suppose there’s “that one time when…” fear that can affect our thinking, or a “that looks sketchy!” impulse that can override rational thought. But exceptions and extreme examples shouldn’t cloud our thinking with climbing systems. Consider the sedentary dude, shoveling down cheeseburgers, going “I heard about this runner guy who ran every day and keeled-over with a heart attack – that’s why I don’t exercise.” Or: “My cousin knew this guy who one time was in a car wreck and they said if he’d been wearing his seatbelt he would have died, so I never wear my seatbelt.” Yeeeish.

Anyway, in May I posted some tips on multi-pitch efficiency, specifically using an auto-blocking belay plate. A couple of comments, here and on my Facebook page, echoed random things I’ve heard elsewhere (paraphrased below), and it got me thinking about how we think.

CF Scariot on Spear Me the Details, RMNP.

1. “I never let someone use an auto-blocker, because they might not know how to lower me.”

Whew. Where to start? Indeed, should you find yourself following a pitch and you fall, causing the auto-blocker to lock-up, and need to be lowered, and the person belaying you up doesn’t know how to do it, yes, that sucks. As Malcolm noted from his personal experience (in the comments), indeed it sucks, and he correctly noted that it’s essential to know how to use the device properly, which includes knowing how to slowly release it to lower. Here’s a great video, and it’s important to practice.

How heavily should that factor into someone’s belay device selection? While I hope it’s not one or the other, if it were, what sucks worse, getting stuck or getting dropped? And, which is more common, or more likely?

Here’s how I think of these things: what’s the likelihood of the situation, and what are the consequences?

An auto-blocker prevents getting dropped while seconding. Accident reports are full of dropped climbers. They rarely escape injury or death. And so, compared to the frequency and severity of getting stuck for awhile on the rare pitch that you can’t follow and can’t yard-up on, while your belayer takes awhile to lower you…

For me it’s a no-brainer: I still love the auto-blocker, not only because it’s more efficient (the original topic of my post), but it’s also safer.

2. “Never use the rope in the anchor – I mean, what if you have to escape the belay?”

This had nothing to do with the original topic of my post, but my photo (reposted to the right–>) of using the rope prompted some replies. That’s cool, it’s a good topic, let’s address it. To answer:

Well, then you escape the belay like you would otherwise – after you mule-off the climber to free your hands, you transfer the load to either a bomber piece or, if you need to, first equalize a couple pieces with a sling and then transfer the load. The basics of escaping the belay still apply, and having the rope incorporated in your anchor prevents you from escaping the belay, then you probably don’t know how to escape the belay in the first place. Personally, I know how to do it. But in 18 years of devoted climbing, I’ve never had to. Perhaps some of the folks who worry about this have had bad experiences in the past, but I asked a handful of similarly experienced climber friends, and all answered the same: nope, never had it happen.

Not to say it’s something to ignore. Escaping the belay is an essential skill – but one you’ll likely never use. And if you have to, then encountering a situation where you’re prevented from escaping for the sole reason of being anchored-in with the climbing rope is so infinitesimal, if even possible, that you should probably just say at home (“What if the entire mountain collapses?” “What if my harness breaks?” “What if a hundred-year flood unleashes on the approach?”).

Furthermore, using the rope to anchor yourself – whether to connect the individual pieces, or to connect yourself to a single equalized power point (depending on the situation, like swinging leads versus block leads, you choose accordingly) – is safer. Off of every belay on a multi-pitch climb, the potential exists for a serious shock-loading leader fall. I’ve caught some and taken some, and it concerns me far more than the likelihood of the above-addressed rare-to-non-issue of being somehow “stuck” in the anchor. The rope is the safest part of your system due to its dynamic properties, and it makes a whole lot of sense to include it in your anchor. All kinds of data (easily found) show the energy-absorbing abilities of a rope versus more static pieces like slings and daisy chains. Related post here.

To be sure I wasn’t missing something, I asked several IFMGA-certified mountain guides (this is the highest standardization worldwide for mountain guides, the equivalent of a doctorate degree in mountain guiding, requiring intimate knowledge of systems, safety, and climbing risk assessment). Unanimous: nothing wrong with using the rope. In fact, all said that they prefer it for the reasons described above: it’s the safest piece of equipment you have for absorbing impact.

I also asked Kolin Powick, who runs Black Diamond’s quality control and testing program, and to whom we owe gratitude for the ton of useful testing and education info, posted here. He summed it up perfectly: “I use the rope all the time in the belay. I mean you have it with you – why the hell not. Plus it provides a bit of dynamics to the system given that it’ll stretch a bit. And IF I needed to escape the belay, I’d figure it out – because I’m not an idiot. I’ve also never needed to escape the belay in 15 years of climbing.”

Overall, yes, learn your gear. Learn your systems. Know how to lower from an auto-blocked belay device. Know how to escape a belay and transfer the load. And, I’d say, develop your systems and make your decisions based not on emotion or old-school dogma or far-fetched exceptions, but on likely scenarios and their consequences. It’s the best way, I think, to strike that balance between speed and safety. And far better than staying on the couch.

21 thoughts on “Safety, Systems, and Thoughts on Thinking

  1. Watched this unfold during the 2003 Ouray ice festival. Approached Malcom Daly about this and his reply was “it’s essential to know how to unload and lower before using a autoblock”.

  2. Flipping through the accidents in north america collection at our local lieberry I am hard pressed to find accidents involving a belayer dropping or failing to hold a falling follower while using a belay device on their body.

    Am I missing something? Sources baby, what are your sources?

    15 years and never caught in a rain storm or melting waterfall, or snow storm, or accident, with a quick escape(rappell) downward needed? Or the need of the extra rope to reach a belay?
    Now that is impressive.

    Did you ask them their guides if they make their anchors out of the rope (are you getting wet? am getting wet, so lets unweight the rope, set up a different anchor, get rope off old anchor, test different anchor and then rappel) or tie into the anchor with the rope(std important protcol as you mentioned)? Big difference in questions though.

    • hey john — walter sobchek (over the line!!! that’s a foul, smokey, mark it zero, dude) — damn, you were quick in making it to the library and perusing accidents. speed-reading alaskan style! anyway, i don’t have sources on people getting dropped. i just read about it frequently — most certainly you do, too. your key point being whether it’s dropping a second, and indeed, seems i mostly hear about the leader being dropped. i’m hard pressed to imagine it has never happened with a second, though. agree or not? you really think it never happens while seconding? and, when it does (unless you insist it never has — hard to believe), what are the likely consequences?

      we’ve got different ideas on frequency and results, obviously.

      on the other hand, i know of one case of a “stranded” second due to the safety of an auto-blocking device — malcolm getting stuck for 20 minutes. must’ve sucked, but in the end it couldn’t have been that big a deal, i’d say (sorry mal!). though we can’t be sure because we don’t have probability statistics, i’d take that risk over the risk of getting dropped. sucked for mal, yes. nuts aching, probably. tragic? life threatening? (is this where you go, “yeah, but what if the blizzard of 1846 is comin’ in off the bering sea?” and, yes, then you’re screwed.)

      so we weigh things. risks and probabilities. clearly i think the advantages of an auto-blocking belay device (impossible to drop the second; much faster belay transitions) outweigh the risks (aching nuts for 20 minutes). that’s my system, anyway — obviously, yours is different.

      the endless “what ifs” ya got here, and the last time (btw, i addressed the “what if you need an extra meter of rope, then what?” thing in our last round of back-and-forth), well, indeed they are endless. i haven’t had a problem over the years, in a lot of lot of lot of climbing, judging how to set up a decent anchor that’s adjustable enough to shift a few feet out of the way of dripping water or whatever, and despite yer “no rope in the anchor!!!” dogma, i maintain that an intelligent climber can still escape quickly, and that it’s exceedingly rare to do so, and, geez, anyone unable to deal with the non-rocket-science of figuring that out should, indeed, probably stick to one system so they don’t get too confused. advantages to that, but it, too, has its downsides. personally, i and a lot of other climbers have found that being flexible in how we set things up — including using the rope (the safest piece of shock-absorbing gear we have) — tends to be a good thing.

  3. Kelly, I, too, have heard of many climbers being dropped but how many of those have been following a pitch? I don’t recall any from recent ANAMs and don’t have annectxotal ones in my memory banks. What I do know is that most of the belay stations I se set up which incorporate autoblocs for the second. Would be completely inadequate if the se one had to be lowered.

    I’ll bet you an evening of Ed’s Margarits that there’s a death by non-lowering before there is a death by dropping the second.


    • yeah, as with the johngoodman comment, good point on how many have been while following/seconding. i blathered on about it above, and i’m not sure. i’m sure it happens, but with what frequency? i don’t know. and of what consequence? i’d imagine pretty bad (no way you can catch hold of the brake hand and stop it once it gets going). lit hit something bad, or splat bad. conversely, beyond your N of 1 personal experience, what are the cases (and consequences) of not getting lowered?

      but i can totally see why you aren’t psyched on their use, given your personal experience. on the whole, though (and again, i’m not the one who had to deal with that, which surely sucked), i still have a hard time imaging that the risk-benefit would be in favor of avoiding auto-blocker use.

      so, death by non-lowering? well, i guess, like at a sea cliff or in a storm, etc etc (trying to think if such a situation would realistically be mitigated by a non-auto-blocker…). it’s easy to dream up a fatal situation with any system in climbing, though, so i’m not sure i buy it. maybe someone hanging and suffocating or something? hmmm. versus the possibility of splatting from getting dropped?

      in other words: you’re on for the evening of margs bet! actually, lets hope there’s no deaths from either, but i’ll still look forward to the margs with ya.

  4. Thanks for the video on lowering from the autoblock mode. I’ve had to lower slowly with the biner a few times, which works but is not very efficient. It seems that when climbing with unexperienced climbers, such as a guide would do with clients, etc… the likelihood of needing to lower the climber is actually significant.

    • yo mike, yeah, it’s a good thing to know. i’m amazed at all this on-and-on here making it sound like it’s the most complicated maneuver in the history of climbing or whatever; it’s not that bad. practice, yes, but it’s not like it requires a ton of it in my experience (and you know well that i’m not the sharpest tool in the shed…).

      indeed, guides need to, and do, know how to do it. when i was guiding i remember having to do it a few times (again, wasn’t rocket surgery or nuthin’).

      don’t think i’ve ever had to do it in my personal climbing, though.

      hope all’s well with you!

  5. With the students I have them imagine their follower got hit with a rock and will bleed out from a head injury if not lowered and then stabilized.
    50% of the time they end up dropping the follower to the ground on at 9.81 m/sec2 and the bleeding out is no longer a problem…
    Which raises the question, “How many injuries have their been in rock climbing classes from folks learning how to lower using an auto-block device and fubarring it?” Now who would win that marg?

  6. marg bet on that being greater than the other two
    sceanrios combined? Or is it an unfair bet because it is the other two sceanrios combined?

  7. db/jg/bm — damn, you can’t let it go! cool, don’t use the auto-blocker. talk about the never-ending “what if” project ya got going here.

    to clarify something i hadn’t thought of, didn’t think it necessary: using the auto-blocker, and, for that matter, lead climbing (which is when you’d then use an auto-blocker, since it’s for bringing up the second) is not for the mentally challenged. i mean, it’s not that hard, but if your students or whatever are gonna kill themselves trying to learn it…well, if something relatively basic like this is that tough for them, and they’ll get hurt or killed or maimed in even practicing it, yikes. again, yeah, it’s not for people just learning to tie-in or whatever. don’t know what to say, other than that i’m writing these tips for people who, i suppose in retrospect, i assume have some very rudimentary knowledge of the equipment, systems, and so forth. again, if you’re using an auto-blocker, then you also know how to lead climb. that should entail some basic knowledge. as rolo wrote to me: “regarding the self locking device, with a one hour tutorial can know everything there is to know about lowering someone almost immediately. it is easy to do and safe, it just requires having practiced it before. the ATC-guide type of devices are the best thing ever.”

    but again, obviously this assumes a very basic level of competency in systems and equipment.

    ya don’t have to like it, and i’m certainly not saying you should teach it to people who can’t tie-in or buckle-back their harnesses (obviously; just like you’re free to climb with a swami and not use those fancy springy cammy things, etc :). but to latch on to a never-ending list of “what-ifs” and be so adamantly against an obviously useful tool really makes little sense.

  8. just for marg fun. find a 400 pound climber and an 80 pound climber.
    Watch 80 pound climber lower said 400 pound climber on an overhang from a locked autoblock. how many margs before it is all said and done?
    regardless of 80 pound climbers retardness (400 pound climber retardness obvioius) it is an entertaining show. Why?

  9. hey Kelly,
    in case you were interested, here’s an accident involving misuse of an auto-blocker while lowering a second:

    I myself have received (and given) many a bumpy ride and really hate getting lowered with it, so if there’s any reasonable possibility that lowering will be necessary, I’ll redirect through the anchor. I think that’s been the case maybe one or two times, though.

    but, more often I’ll use a gri-gri……. okay, now that the heckling has died down, I’ll say why. it’s auto-locking, it’s easier to lower a second with, and you can take in rope about 100x more easily than the reverso or guide. yeah it’s much heavier, but the energy you use hauling a thick rope through a reverso at the end of every pitch is pretty significant. that said, belaying a leader on a trad route with a gri-gri has its downfalls so I usually have a reverso/ATC as well, but here’s an interesting perspective on that from the ever-mindful Ryan Stefiuk:

    so would I take it on a long alpine route?… I dunno, I’ll let you know if I ever get to trying one 😉

    thanks for the interesting discussion anyway Kelly, keep them coming!

    • thanks, Reggie, and hope you’re doing well and getting after it. can imagine that there’s probably lots of accidents both with regular and auto-blockers, and even gri-gris (they can get away from ya when letting out slack lowering, or rapping on a single strand). for sure seems that there’s no perfect way, nothing absolutely fool proof, and, as with most climbing decisions, a series of factors that one must weigh when making their choices. i have a couple of buddies who also like the gri-gri for multi-pitch routes. one of them is a fan of one gri-gri and one auto-blocker — former for belaying the leader, latter for bringing up the second.

      maybe the most important thing of all is to be comfortable (including knowledgeable, like fully knowing how to use the equipment) with whatever system ya go with. i figure it’s good to be well versed enough in things to where if one thing isn’t working, you have enough skills in your tool box to adapt.

      take care, kelly

  10. I’ve been dropped when seconding, fell of about 10 meters up, belayer cought me just as I was touching the ground, had he cought me 0.01 seconds later I wouldn’t have walked out of there.

    He bought a autoblock the week after. Best investment in his climbing career if you ask me!

    • yikes, Edvin, glad he caught you when he did! yup, i’m with you — though i haven’t had that specific experience, that’s one of the things that, in my mind, anyway, makes the auto-blocker so good. i’m far more worried about getting dropped than being stuck on a top-rope.

      as others have also noted, of course it’s also key to know how to lower correctly with an auto-blocker, too — indeed, it’s always important to know how to use your gear. some people’s failure to use it correctly doesn’t make it a bad piece of gear any more than, for example, someone’s not tying-in properly would somehow mean that the type of rope they use is faulty. so, yeah, i agree that the auto-blocker is worthwhile!

  11. Dear Kelly,

    I was going to go climbing today, but then I decided my time would be better spent spraying mildly-insulting abuse in comments on a blog. I know that my visceral, knee-jerk reaction to the slightest suggestion that mine might not be the best way of doing something will make me a better climber and also prove that I am awesome.

    And I should know, I’ve posted over two thousand times on


  12. I’m a member of the AHS (autoblock haters society) too. First of all, I don’t believe there is any evidence at all that seconds are being dropped by conventional belays; such events are extremely rare and I’d guess, have unusual circumstances attached.

    Here are some of my objections:

    (1) Autobocks encourage belay inattention. Everyone celebrates the fact that the belayer can do other stuff while belaying with an autoblock. Well, while they are doing that other stuff, the second is still climbing, building up slack in the rope. Having the second take a leader fall is a lot more likely when the autoblock-distracted belayer is chowing down or changing their outfit.

    (2) Autoblock belays are lousy belays. By which I mean that the second is continually being pulled on (when the belayer wakes up and takes in the slack). Having the second climb on partial tension may make sense for guides, and on big routes where getting up fast is the primary concern, but for those of us who would like to climb the pitch even though we didn’t lead it, having an autoblock belay sucks. Whenever I mention this, the members of the ALS (autoblock lovers society) always say they never do this to their seconds, but whenever I climb with one of these experts, I always get pulled.

    Even if they aren’t pulling you while you are moving up, you are almost certain to end up on tension if you want to step down. And if the rope runs diagonally or horizontally and you want to step down or back, the fact that you aren’t getting any slack means the belay is likely to make you fall.

    (3) Autoblock belays can be hard to release, and the circumstances that make them hard are unpredictable. Mal’s 20 minute episode is one of several I know of personally, and in all the ones I know of, the belayer “knew” how to release the gadget. In one situation I know about, the belay device, when loaded, ended up bearing against a very small corner and could not be released by any standard tactic because it couldn’t move in the necessary direction. This can be hard to anticipate because the fully loaded device may end up in a very different position than the one it is in during ordinary non-loaded belaying. The very knowledgeable belayer in the situation I just mentioned had to do essentially a full belay-escape procedure that totally unweighted the belay device in order to release it.

    (4) Autoblock belays encourage building anchors you can use for that purpose. Such anchors are not always the best available.

    I think autobock belaying is a specialized technique for special circumstances and/or styles of climbing. In the specialized context they are a useful addition to the climber’s arsenal of tricks. But what I see happening is that the are becoming the de facto standard for all belays, and I see nothing good about that.

  13. Maybe this is a bit off topic, but I was just wondering. Not saying it`s wrong, but if you only use one rope to equalize the belay, like the picture, then you only have one loop comming out of the equalized knot. What happens if that one single point (loop) fails? Is it redundant?
    So, if we don`t have redundance, we can save time by only using one piece at the belay.

  14. I love the autoblock. Sad that it is too complicated for so many.

    I think it is pretty simple. Lowering, which I’ve done on several occasions, is pretty easy. Giving slack is fairly easy when called for. I don’t use it if the belay anchor is low (it’ll kill your back). I alsoi don’t use it if the pitch traversed a bunch, or if I think I need to give a touchy feely belay, or if I know it is likely I’m going to have to lower someone. I’ll try to use it if I need to eat something or adjust clothing. Use your brain. You can make that decision on every single pitch.

    I don’t understand the objections about the quality of the belay for the second. Who cares? The second can deal. They are the second. They are there to belay me while on lead. If I am pulling on you, you aren’t climbing fast enough, duh. You are on toprope, quit complaining.

    I think Kelly’s probably thinking about blazing up a multipitch alpine route at a good clip, while others are envisioning dinking around at the local crag.

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