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Some of my climber friends are pretty fast climbers with a speed of about 20s for a 10m long route. The really fast ones use auto-belaying-systems seen on speed climbing competitions.

Those auto-belaying-systems are not available everywhere, so sometimes it can be done manually with a conventional belay device.

The belaying procedure can become pretty hectic and exhaustive to pull in this much rope in such a short time. Are there special techniques or portable belay devices that relieve the belaying person?

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Special devices: @imsodin is right in suggesting a GriGri.

For the method:

The common trick is to have two "belayers." One attaches the GriGri on their harness as usual. The second person stands facing the primary belayer and pulls hand over hand on the rope (essentially pulling away from the primary belayer, through the GriGri). The primary belayer can help by pulling slack down towards the GriGri from above. This should let you belay most climbers quite quickly. But, as always, if at some point there is a lot of slack between the belay device and the climber, the climber must slow down to allow the belayer to catch up. Taking big falls on static rope with slack is dangerous for everyone.

Some background:

The two-belayer-one-GriGri method was pretty common at local and regional speed climbing competitions in the US until 2018. It was even used at IFSC comps until 2016. In fact, USA Climbing Rule 7.2.1 stated that all routes must be

belayed from below

and this was the accepted practice.

However: Following an incident in 2018 in which a speed climber took a bad fall that was attributed to this belaying style, USA Climbing removed this rule, allowing auto-belays to be used. Similarly, the IFSC and USA Climbing both use special speed auto-belays for speed climbing competition.

I can't definitively speak to which is safer, and I'm not sure anyone can. Hopefully this doesn't need saying, but this should only be done indoors with express permission of the gym staff. Note that some gyms double-wrap their ropes at the top of the climb--don't speed climb with this setup as the friction is both annoying and creates more heat, which is bad for the ropes.

  • 7
    There's a first-person account here from the climber whose 2018 fall led to the rule change. It appears that: (1) there was no belayer #2 present, just a belayer #1 with a Grigri; (2) belayer #1 did not know how to use a Grigri and simply hauled in the slack without pulling it through the device at all. – Pont Jul 18 at 17:55
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    That's a great thread. I think it demonstrates (1) the general danger in trying any new belaying style at all (2) the importance of communication and safety checks. – John Hughes Jul 18 at 19:25
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I'd very much recommend using a GriGri or one of the newer device with the same mechanism. Reason being, the braking mechanism is not dependent on the position of the braking hand. Thus you can pull in rope in whatever way you want, as long as you have the braking strand in any of your hands at any point it's safe. This removes a lot of the stress as compared to e.g. belaying devices of the "tuber style" (ATC, Reverso, ...), where you need to make sure that your braking hand stays below the height of the device at all time. With a fitting rope you can pull in rope really fast with a GriGri.

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    While the braking mechanism isn't usually dependent on the position of the braking hand, it's important to understand that sometimes (rarely!) the auto-braking mechanism fails, at which point you really want the brake end to be at least perpendicular to the working end. – John Hughes Jul 18 at 16:27
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    My point is just that you should be careful only "pulling up" through a GriGri (although I know you don't suggest this specifically!). – John Hughes Jul 18 at 16:28
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    I've always been under the impression that if the cam for the brake mechanism got jammed open (dirt, ice, etc), then the GriGri essentially turned into a mediocre ATC, and so having your hand in brake position would be advantageous. Purely hearsay, though. – John Hughes Jul 18 at 17:36
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    I haven't thought about that failure mode. Also purely from looking at the device, no experience: If something blocks the jamming mechanism, I would expect said thing to also block the rope (or sever it), in which case it doesn't matter what you do again. The failure mode I know is a continuous application of force (e.g. rope drag), where the rope will slowly start slipping without engaging the breaking mechanism. In that case a bit of pulling on the breaking strand will engage the break mechanism, regardless of position. – imsodin Jul 19 at 13:25
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    I believe it's ok to put your thumb on the level to feed slack quickly (according to climbing.com/skills/…). You just have to make sure that (a) you still hold the brake-end of the rope firmly and (b) you are not actually gripping the entire Gri-Gri with your brake hand. – John Hughes Jul 19 at 21:12
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If they're top-roping (or when you need to pull in a LOT of slack lead belaying) you can take your hand off the load side and put both on the brake side. Then you can pull hard and straight away from your hips while thrusting your hips backwards, which pulls in a solid 4+ ft of rope at once. Then, you reset your hips and slide your top hand back up to the belay device, then follow with the other. A cycle takes about half a second, and is very intuitive once you've done it a couple times. This technique allows you to take in a lot of slack without bringing your brake hand over the belay device. It does look kinda goofy, but it's better to look foolish than drop your partner.

I should also add, this is a little awkward to do at first, especially on lead. Without your top hand, the belay device will want to drop down and hang at groin level unless the load side is already taut. This makes it kinda weird to pull slack, especially during the reset section. It's not super difficult to do but it's worth yarding out some rope with both climbers on the ground to practice.

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Ask them to slow down since their speed is affecting your ability to provide a belay. Don't deviate from your standard belay method

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    This is clearly true, however it's also a valid goal to try and climb fast, so it should also be valid to try and adjust your belaying to allow for faster climbing - of course always while maintain safety first. – imsodin Jul 18 at 14:30
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    This would have been a reasonable answer if the question had been "What can I do to alleviate this situation?". But the questions were, specifically, "How to belay quickly ascending top-rope climbers?" and "Are there special techniques or portable belay devices that relieve the belaying person?". (I don't think that telling the climber to slow down really counts as a special technique.) – Pont Jul 18 at 15:59
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If someone is going quickly I prefer to alternate my brake hand. This way I don't need as much time to "reset". It also allows me to grab large amounts of slack at once. You just need to be comfortable enough with your non-dominant hand on the brake side, which isn't an issue for most.

Steps:

  1. Pull slack with left hand and brake with right hand; right hand is low on the brake side. (standard motion)
  2. Put left hand over right hand on the brake side, high up, just below belay device
  3. Put right hand on climber's end of rope high above belay device
  4. Repeat but opposite. So pull slack with right hand a brake with left hand.
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    This is a fair answer, but this should absolutely never be done without an assisted braking device. "You need to be comfortable enough with your non-dominant hand." I think my assessment of comfort might not be adequate for the climber who falls to her death. – John Hughes Jul 18 at 16:21
  • This technique seems error prone. All it will take is one mistake while switching hands and a fall at the wrong time. – Qudit Aug 5 at 23:01
  • This alternation of the brake hand isn't very different from the hand over hand method which is a very common and safe belay alternative to PBUS. There is always at least one hand on the brake line. Any belay technique if done incorrectly is dangerous. It just comes down to practicing techniques on slower climbers so the technique is second nature for faster climbers – noah Aug 5 at 23:38
  • @noah Any belay technique can be done incorrectly, but some are easier to mess up than others. If you are constantly switching hands, that adds a lot of potential for error. – Qudit Aug 6 at 7:31

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