Braking position

A common problem of belay methods with various belay devices (eight, ATC, Sticht plate, Reverso, and others) is the fact that these devices provide the rope with sufficient braking action only in one optimal direction of loading. You can easily grasp this if you acknowledge a relatively simple point. The more the rope is stretched, wound, multiple times, the sharper the angle in which it is bent, the more it can be braked due to friction from the belay device during descent. The majority of belay devices enable various rope positions. By means of simplification, comparisons to the letters “U” and “S” are used. In the “U” position, the rope is actually bent only once in the belay device, the braking action is small and the rope easily slides. Whereas in the “S” position the rope is bent multiple times in the belay device, the braking action is greater, the rope is braked more heavily due to friction. Sometimes this increase in the braking action is described using terms like “locking the rope” (in the belay device), “choking the rope”, “braking position”, etc.

Schematic diagram of locking (S) and unlocking (U) rope positions in a belay device.

Schematic diagram of locking (S) and unlocking (U) rope positions in a belay device.

It is also based on the knowledge that it is human nature during a threat (when startled) to pull the hands toward the body, to cringe, and to clench the fingers. This is a conditioned reflex. The belayer at a belay station who is catching an unexpected fall by the leader is not particularly calm. He has good reason to be startled.

And now, by way of example, let us demonstrate the heart of the problem. An example of direct belaying of a leader on a face stance: If the belayer wraps the inactive part of the rope leading from the belay device in his hand, it is more or less likely that he will pull this part of the rope towards him – toward the body. If the active part of the rope leading from the belay device is pulled upward (toward the intermediate protection), so far so good. The conditioned reflex corresponds to the correct reaction; the rope is correctly set in the braking position. However, once the leader falls directly into the belay station (that is, she does not have intermediate protection and is falling below the stance), the belayer’s pull of the rope hand toward the body is incorrect. The correct reaction at this moment would be to lift up the hand that holds the inactive rope emerging from the belay device and set it into the braking position. This is, however, contrary to reflex, and is not simple to accomplish.

Placing the first intermediate protection point will change the direction of loading of the belay station.

Placing the first intermediate protection point will change the direction of loading of the belay station.

Possible solutions to the problem:

  1. The belayer must concentrate, must be cool-headed, and until the leader builds her first point of protection, the belayer must be prepared to set the rope in the braking position even despite his own reflexes. Do not underestimate this! The belayer must not be distracted by anything, he must concentrate. But watch out! The leader’s fall could cause all intermediate protection points to be torn out. Therefore, from the beginning of the fall the belayer will pull the inactive part of the rope toward the body, correctly and in keeping with reflex, because the belay device will be loaded in an upward direction toward the highest intermediate protection point reached. But afterward, once the intermediate protection is torn out, the leader will fall directly into the stance, and the belay device will now be loaded in a downward direction. Within 2-3 seconds an absolute reversal of the situation will have occurred. And all of this will take place under complete chaos – the leader is falling downward, pulling out chocks and pitons from the cliff, rocks are falling… and the belayer must keenly react against his own natural reflex. Indeed, this belayer must be quite cool-headed and experienced.
  2. Belay indirectly. In this case, the belayer has a guarantee of the existence of the first intermediate protection point, as he can have the first intermediate protection point placed as part of the belay station, and therefore the rope will lead when loaded from the belay device upward. He has the belay device clipped to the harness and therefore has a guarantee that he will reflexively set the rope into the proper braking position. Of course, the usual disadvantage of indirect belaying is present here. The belayer will be yanked by the catching impact during the fall, afterward he will be loaded with the constant pulling force of the hanging fallen climber and will face a more complicated challenge when leaving the belay station.

Sometimes belaying is carried out from a belay station even when you are on the ground, where you have nowhere to fall. In such a case your problem with the change of direction is eliminated, as it is not possible for the leader to fall under the belay station, that is, under the ground. The only thing the belayer should watch out for is his posture toward the belay device during direct belay (that is, when the belay device is directly fastened to the fixed part of the station, e.g. to the trunk of a tree). The belayer should be standing with the body in such a way that during reflexive pulling on the inactive part of the rope, the rope will be set into the braking position.

In conclusion it must be said that there is a wide range of belay devices, differing more or less in their construction, moreover their development is always in progress, resulting in minor changes in their structure. In the end, however, their functioning is known best by their manufacturer, and therefore it is definitely recommended when using belay devices that you operate according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

This content is preview from e-book.

Title Part 3Mountaineering Methodology – Part 3 – Belaying and Rappelling

ISBN 978-80-87715-09-3

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

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Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).

Title Part 3 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 3 – Belaying and Rappelling

ISBN 978-80-87715-14-7

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play.