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On safety techniques

By Tuan


1. Helmets
2. Knots
3. Belays: technique and self-locking devices

1. Helmets

|> Do you guys wear them for protection against small rock falls or for
|> protection in case of a fall (of yourself) ?

Both. The falling objects that I am fearing the most are those sent by my own
partner: ice and gear, since I am directly in the line of fire.  Most ice
climbers cannot climb without throwing down tens of pounds of ice per pitch.
Furthermore, in some situations, nobody can climb in a clean manner. As to
dropped gear, last week a piece of gear that I was not able to identify
bounced on my helmet, and also one carabiner that I dropped hit noisily the
portaledge where my partner was lying.

At the Chamonix hospital, they know about climbing accidents: there is perhaps
more fatalities on one year in the Mont-Blanc range than there has been in the
whole history of Yosemite or Denali climbing. A large part of the serious
accidents are head trauma resulting from falls.

I find that helmets, in addition to the safety provided, do not get into my
way, carry the headlamp better than my forehead, allow me to rest with the
head against the rock/ice, prevent knocking the head against little overhangs,
and give some protection against the elements, be it water, wind, or sun. The
main (admittedly serious) drawback is that they do not look too good on
pictures. Ice climber F. Damilano wears one everytime, except for photo

2. Knots

- for tying in: eight/bowline

 The bowline is not a very safe knot for general use, and it is because it can
get undone by itself. One guide told me that he was watching another climber
on a multipitch sport climb, close to his own climbing route. Then he saw the
rope drop from the other climber's harness, without him noticing it !  In
order not to disturb him, he did not say anything, until the climber was close
to a bolt and about to clip it. Then he told him not to try to clip his rope,
but clip himself and wait... is it scary enough ? By the way, the bowline is
OK with a backup knot, and is easier to untie after being weighted than other
knots. I use it on shorts climbs, and prefer the 8 otherwise.

- for tying to the belay: clove hitches

Besides being adjustable, they're faster to tie and untie, take a whole 
lot less rope, are less bulky, and you can tie them with one hand. 

- for rappelling: double overhand

The double overhand is a safe knot. When I was first shown the knot, I
did not believe it, and a lot of my partners still don't trust it. The
reason is that it is not something that we have learned before.  Rope
manufacturers Petzl and Mammut recommends the knot. The best evidence
is the fact that this knot is know taught at ENSA (the French national
guiding school).

The significant advantages of the knot are that it is very simple, very easy
to tie and to untie, and that it is less prone to jamming than other knots due
to its geometry and size. It won't slip if the ropes are of the same diameter.
Otherwise, the best choice is the (traced) 8.

3. Belays

A. Technique:

1. When I belay a second, I always do so from the anchor. 
- The idea not load the anchor in order not to strain it is absurd:
on one hand, it is almost always a bad idea to leave slack in the
belay system (several reasons). On the other hand, if you are in
tension on your anchors, then you just load it with your additional
weight. There is no shock involved in a second fall.  And by the way, 
a "belay" anchor which you do not trust to support the fall of a second 
is a mere joke. I would never call this a "belay". 
- With the belay systems that I use (eight, New-Alp plate, munster
hitch) it is more easy to belay from the anchor than from the body.
This is particularly clear if you try to belay two seconds, or if
your second is hanging from the rope under an overhang.

2. When I belay a leader, I always do so from my harness.
- A leader fall generates a significant impact. Here your body acts
as a dampening element and makes the belay a little dynamic even if
you or your belay device locks the rope.
- With the belay systems that I use (eight, belay plate, Grigri), 
it is far more easy to belay and lock the rope from the harness. 

Note that the two techniques can be combined (ie you belay from the harness
but you run the rope throught the anchor), which makes swinging leads even

B. Self-locking belay device for the second: the New-Alp plate.

* advantages:
- Self-locking: your second(s) is always on belay no matter
what's happening, you don't have to hold his weight when she
is hanging.
- Good to belay simultaneously and independantly two seconds
- It works better with two hands, but it can be operated with
one hand
- Work better than most devices with frozen ropes
- Can also be used as a rappel device (makes a good backup to the 8).
* disadvantage: 
- Difficult to give slack if the rope is in tension

 It is straighforward to understand and use it since you have
seen one, but not so easy to explain. The plate looks like this:

                     /     ___     \
                    /     |   |     \          
                   /       ---       \
                   |   _        _     |
                   |  | |      | |    |
                   |  | |      | |    | 
                   |  | |      | |    | 
                   |  | |      | |    |      (Front view)
                   |  | |      | |    |
                   |  | |      | |    |
                   |   -        -     |

You clip the plate to the belay with the upper hole. The two rope comes through
the two lower holes, this way:

0 stands for a standard carabiner: it is the insight of this system !

           . ...
          . |   .      (Side view)
         .  | O .
         .  |  .

        .   |.
       .    .
      .   . |
      .   . |
     .     .
    .       .
    .         .
the second      your hand

C. General belay/rap device: figure 8 or Pyramid

This is a matter of personal preference.  If you have to use
cone-shaped belay device, of the few on the market, which are quite
similar, the Trango Pyramid seemed to work the best (seems to be an
evolution of the bd atc, which is itself an evolution of another
device). While I think this device is great for belaying a leader, I
don't like it much to belay a second (remember that I belay from the
anchors) and I find it awkward to rappel with, so I prefer to use the
8.  There is widespread concern in America that the figure 8 does not
provide enough friction to catch a leader fall. However I can state
with certainty that the figure 8 had caught more leader falls than any
other belay device, since it is the device of choice in sport climbing
countries (where it is often used in "sport mode" where you pass the
rope behind the biner and not behind the 8 to be able to feed slack
even more easily) and I have not heard so far of people being dropped
because of the fig 8.  Some argue that it wouldn't work that well in a
trad setting with possibly more severe falls and multipitch climbing,
but I have never heard of any convincing proof. My opinion is that the
cone-shaped device might provide more safety but that the fig 8 is 

D. Self-locking belay device for the leader: Grigri

Most people believe that they are safe. Those who don't like them generally
object against the idea of a "automatic" belaying device. They find it more
complicated than necessary (= requires some adaptation and has to be carried)
think that it could give bad habits to beginners and induce others to pay less 
attention while belaying. On the other hand, the non-dynamic aspect has
draw only little complaints. It seems that with the Grigri the shock
is a little more sharp than with the 8 (both for belayer and climber),but 
from what I've heard it seems relatively minor.

The Grigri has advantages for lots of climbing situations:
- sport climbing: easier to hold your partner when he is dogging
- mountainnering: you are still on belay even if your partner is
hit by rock/ice (I don't use the Grigri in mountainnering, see limitations
above, plus you have to carry it).
- big wall: you are still on belay even if your partner gets asleep after
belaying for 3 hours, or if he needs his hands to do something else than
holding the rope (advantages of such a device was already apparent before
the days of gym climbing. see Harding/Rowell on South Face of Half-Dome).
Personally I use mostly the Grigri for this purpose.

I've also been told that it makes a great self-belay (lead) device,
more safe than the Soloist. I've heard that most of the high-profile
recent solos in the Alps have used it, but I have yet to experiment
myself. A modification is necessary to allow the rope to self-feed
smoothly. This was explaned in a posting by Nate: 
"The triangle fold of metal near the biner end of the device is ground
off. This modification allows hands free feeding of the rope. A 4-5mm
hole is then drilled on the brake release side of the device opposite
of the biner. This allows a 4-5mm cord to be theaded through and a
loop knotted for attatchment to a chest harness. I would suggest
seeing this modification on someone else's device before you try
it. The plastic handle is not modified."

However it has some limitations: 
- it locks the rope easily. You have to feed the rope and be careful so
it doesn't lock. (quite opposite to conventional systems)
- no dynamic belay. In most of cases, no big deal, since the rope stretches,
there will be some give in the system as the tie in knot tightens, the
harnesses pinch the climber's and belayer's waists and the belayer comes up
tight against his anchor. There are still a few situations where you would
like a dynamic belay. The first which comes to mind is when you have dubious
anchors. A particular case of this situation is when you have no real anchors
at all, like in snow climbing. Giving a dynamic belay on a steep snow slope is
a delicate affair, yet it is almost necessary on a lot of major alpine climbs.
In this case usually a hip belay is prefered, so all the belay devices (not
only the Grigri) are out.
- cannot use double ropes

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