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I recently visited a new climbing gym and was instructed to belay directly off a ground anchor without any attachment to my harness. I've been to other gyms that belay with ground anchors but with instruction to also attach the carabiner to the climbing harness.

What is the benefit of belaying directly off a ground anchor, and when is it advisable to do so?

Note: this was for top rope

  • sounds a bit weird to me, maybe they've had trouble with people belaying incorrectly in the past. Not something you'd ever typically do outside so why do it inside? – user2766 Aug 24 '16 at 14:06
  • Is this for a top-rope belay, or a lead belay? – Ben Crowell Aug 24 '16 at 15:07
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    My guess is that this is how they teach total beginners to do a top-rope belay, and they do it because it simplifies the setup and eliminates some possible modes of failure. You won't have a failure because the belayer forgets to lock the carabiner, or because the belayer panics when they get picked up off the ground. – Ben Crowell Aug 24 '16 at 15:18
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    It just feels weird, because without tension from the climber I imagine the device slumping back to the floor. It would almost need to be a GriGri, because the concept of "brake position" would be out the window, and I can't see such a gym using a munter. – requiem Aug 24 '16 at 16:20
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    @requiem I recall grigris on each rope/belay. It was still awkward – Chris Mendez Aug 24 '16 at 16:33
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Other answers seem to address the use of ground anchors, but I think you're asking specifically about having a ground anchor with the belay device attached to it, and not attaching the belayer.

I've worked at gyms with this system, and the main argument is that the belayer doesn't need a harness. It's common in gyms that draw most of their revenue from children's events that the chaperones/parents won't climb at all. If you can get away without renting them harnesses, it saves time and reduces the amount of rental gear you need to dedicate to the group. This setup also allows the gym to have the belay devices (usually Grigris) semi-permanently attached to the anchor with a maillion so that inexperienced belayers can't set up the device improperly.

Many counter-arguments can be made, but the primary issue that arises is that the system breeds complacency. Since the belayer isn't directly attached to the system, they can be less engaged, and stop paying attention (or wander off..)

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Advantages

  • Weight difference
    This is reduced to whether the belayer has enough strength to control the brake strand (which is almost always the case, only extreme examples like small children are an issue). Belaying traditionally the belayer can be pulled against the wall and/or towards the first express. This can also result in a collision with the climber.

  • Prohibiting bad belaying position
    Belaying too far from the wall can lead to ground falls. With a fixed anchor, this is no longer possible.

Disadvantages

  • Dynamic fall catching
    There are several methods to break a fall dynamically. One is to actively move your body into the direction of pull. This is especially useful when belaying with a semi-automatic belaying device and in general when belaying a much lighter climber. With a fixed anchor and a semi-automatic belaying device there is only the dynamics of the rope, no intentional slip when breaking possible.

  • Paying out slack quickly
    You cannot give out rope quickly by making a step forward. This is the smoothest and fastest way to initialise paying out slack before pulling rope through the belaying device.

  • Non-universal approach
    This method only works with fixed infrastructure. Learning it this way means that if you go to a place without ground anchors, you need to learn a new belaying technique.

Conclusion

I do not consider ground anchors a useful measure. All the advantages it provides can also be gained by proper rules/instructions when belaying "normally". And most importantly I believe it is the best way to learn one method, and learn it properly - belaying decides over life and death.

  • Ah, you beat me to it. And I think your answer is better. – Roflo Aug 24 '16 at 14:10
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There are a few reasons you could use a ground anchor, although none of them are optimal solutions:

  • The climber is significantly heavier than you (though in reality you should anchor the belayer to the ground).
  • When you might need to lock the belaying device and take a few steps for a moment (of course: don't just leave the climber there, and you should still be paying attention).
  • When you'll be switching belayers (but really, why would you do this?).
  • When you decide this is more comfortable (or safer) for you or the climber.
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    When you might need to lock the belaying device and walk away for a moment. Nononononono. It is not acceptable for a belayer in a gym to leave a climber hanging on a grigri and walk away. If there's some reason they can't continue to belay, they can lower the climber, or, in a real emergency, the climber might be able to anchor to the wall by clipping a quickdraw to their harness. A grigri is not meant to be locked and used without a backup, because it can fail. There are documented climbing accidents in last year's Accidents in North American Mountaineering caused by this. – Ben Crowell Aug 24 '16 at 15:12
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    The climber is significantly heavier than you. A better way to deal with this is for the belayer to belay from the harness, but tie in to a weight on the floor. – Ben Crowell Aug 24 '16 at 15:15
  • @BenCrowell btw... I never assumed a grigri (I'm kind of a grigri detractor). Back to the previous issue: do you think my answer is better? (slightly so?) – Roflo Aug 24 '16 at 15:20
  • If you didn't have a grigri in mind, what do you mean when you say "lock the belaying device?" Are you talking about tying off with a mule knot and an overhand backup? – Ben Crowell Aug 24 '16 at 23:27
  • yes, that's one way to lock off you belay device OK, but probably not more than one in a hundred people in a climbing gym know how to do that, so I can't imagine it plays into the reasoning behind having such a setup. This is the kind of setup that is designed for total newbie belayers, as described in Corey Kelly's answer. – Ben Crowell Aug 31 '16 at 4:55

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