Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Drop!

Last Tuesday night, I was dropped, to the horror of both Bob and me. What exactly happened I can't be sure because it happened so fast, but here are the facts as we remember them.

I was lead climbing a route on an overhanging route in the gym. Bob was belaying me using a Grigri. Both of us had begun using the Grigri for lead belay last summer. I was on the hold I use for clipping the third draw when I exhausted and dropped. I had not reached for the rope to clip nor did I give my belayer any warning. I fell and began to feel the rope take at the point I expected, about 6 feet. Just as my fall was beginning to arrest, I dropped to the ground, squarely on my back. I was not significantly hurt because my free fall to the ground was perhaps 6 feet. This is really bad because 6 feet could have been 60 feet and this could be accident report to be published in Rock and Ice and not my blog.

So what happened! Bob honestly couldn't remember what he had done to let me drop but I think we figured it out. Bob's left hand had rope burns from trying to arrest my free-fall with his non-brake hand above the belay device. In Bob's attempt to catch my fall, he re actively (and inappropriately) opened the cam on the Grigri with his left hand. This a similar motion that one would do to feed out slack when belaying a lead climber. This is easily done when the cam is partially or fully weighted...we tried it! I think the major fault comes the way Bob was taught to lead belay on a Grigri.

Bob was taught that when you feed rope to a climber, you wrap the rope as shown in the picture, place your right hand over the right side of the device with your thumb over the cam. To feed rope, you depress the cam with your thumb and pull out rope with your left hand, if the climber fall, your right hand has not left the rope (brake hand). Fine in theory but not in practice. My guess is that when I fell, Bob had his Grigri set like this and re actively grabbed the cam instead of just grabbing the rope with his brake hand. This is easy to do because it is familiar. What make this set up worse is the looping of the rope. The rope requires friction or a 'kink' for a belay device to work. With the rope looped and not kinked it feeds quite freely, great for feeding out rope but not so great when you are falling with the cam held open. The reason for teaching this belay technique is to follow the mantra of your break hand must never leave the rope. This is very true of a tube device but I don't think it holds true for an auto-locking device. I would have been safer with no hands on the rope. is a link to the Petzl web page explaining what technique they endorse for using the Grigri for lead belay. In short, the brake hand leaves the rope, holds the body and not the cam of the belay device while the left hand feeds out the rope and them the right hand immediately returns to the brake side of the rope. They also have a little cartoon of feeding out slack with a thumb on the cam and a skull and crossbones beside it. I guess I know why.

Regardless of all this, I am still concerned. I went to and searched the forum for drops with a Grigri. Quite the topic! There are two major camps: 1-grigri's encourage lazy belay habits, inattention and have a long learning curve to become proficient with lead belay while tube devices are simple and reliable. 2-Grigri's are safer because of the auto-lock feature. If the belayer is injured (rock fall etc) the climber is still safe. Valid points on both sides. The other point made was it is not the belay device's fault for the fall but he belayers inexperience.

I am very glad this happened at the gym where help was readily available and I am so lucky that the device partially caught or it would have been a 15 foot back slap. Out at Flat Rock the fall could have been a lot worse.

I can't blame it all on Bob, lack of communication on my part definitely contributed. I knew I was going to drop and I should have warned Bob by yelling 'falling' or something. That would have allowed Bob more time to prepare to catch me instead of instinctively trying to catch my fall.

This post was not to rag on Bob, I know he is very careful and knows the full impact of proper belay technique. The purpose was to highlight the pitfalls of one particular belay technique, what should be the proper technique and to explain what happened at the gym.

Remember..."A smart man learns from his mistake, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

its kaleb again
that fall scared the shit out of me...and i question now gri gri's...thats how i learned to do it, ...thanx for the site link though im going to check that out