In September, a pair of local climbers had a bit of a scare when the leader took an unexpectedly long fall at Mt Ninderry. Although the exact method of the failure isn’t entirely apparent, the fall resulted when the camming action of the Petzl Grigri failed to initiate.
“I was ready for the catch, but as he fell, I lost my footing and the rope just kept sliding out the grigri,” explained the belayer. “I suspect that as I was trying to find my balance, my hands were putting pressure on the device in some way, preventing the camming action to happen. It’s not totally clear what happened, I wish I could see a replay and analyse.”
Contrary to popular belief, the Grigri is not an “autolocking” device. Rather, Petzl describes it as a “belay device with assisted braking.” Despite this, it is seen by many climbers as foolproof, which can often cause beginners and experts alike to marginalise or entirely disregard the inherent risks of belaying.
In reality, proficient use of the Grigri requires a higher level of training than many suspect, especially in the context of lead belaying. Incorrect use can and does result in accidents, and the evidence for this is clear, at least anecdotally. Including the above example, I have personally seen two serious near-misses, and a quick Google search relates the tale of Ashima Shiraishi being dropped some 45 feet by her old man, who is probably about as close to a professional belayer as we’re ever going to see.
But of course, anecdotal evidence is the thinnest kind. Admittedly, I am not a big fan of the Grigri and my tendency is to give unwarranted weight to these isolated incidents. But that is not a particularly useful approach to the problem, so I thought it might be more helpful to make a detailed examination of Grigri use in order to define methods of failure and ways in which they might be mitigated.
Is there a problem?
First of all, let’s take a look at the actual incidence of belaying accidents which occur with various devices. This can give a fair indication of whether a problem actually exists, and if so, how widespread it might be.
Although the technical specifications and limitations of climbing gear are well known due to extensive testing from the UIAA and other various entities, the use of said gear is often poorly understood (at least in any meaningful scientific manner). With climbing now in the Olympics, the sport has well and truly hit the mainstream, and it will be interesting to see if this results in an increase in scientific study. As of now, however, we are very much in the dark ages regarding our understanding of climbing trends.
The best data I could find regarding belaying errors comes from “The Climbing Gym Study of 2012” conducted by the DAV Safety Research Group. It should be noted that this is not a particularly meaningful dataset – there seem to be a few inconsistencies in the data, failure methods are not particularly specific or consistent, and the data relates to errors rather than accidents. In short, this is a study that tells us “how well do German gym climbers belay” rather than “how often do accidents/near-misses occur with various belay devices and why?”
That said, we can draw some conclusions from the data. The study concluded that errors occur in belaying with all devices, and that statistically speaking, those errors occur less frequently with a Grigri than with a tubular device. Nevertheless, there are a shocking amount of belay errors occurring for an apparently infallible device.
“0.75 errors per belay action were counted with the Grigri,” the study reads, and stating that 25% of users were observed to let go of the brake strand and block the camming mechanism whilst paying out rope. A further 25% were observed to let go of the brake strand without blocking the cam, meaning that half of the (admittedly small) sample were making egregious belaying errors.
The study looks at belaying errors in depth, but isn’t entirely clear about the rate of accidents relative to various devices. This is better explained by a different (but more limited) dataset, also compiled by the DAV from reports of gym accidents between 2012 and 2013. The numbers tell us that 56% of belayers use an ATC and are responsible for 45% of accidents, as compared with 14% of belayers using a Grigri and are responsible for 5% of accidents. By device, that equates to an accident rate of 0.8 for tubular devices and 0.36 for Grigris.
Again, there are major limitations with this data, but it certainly suggests that Grigri’s are much safer than ATC’s. This makes sense logically – it stands to reason that a device with a mechanical backup is statistically safer than one without.
But the other data also suggests that people are simply getting lucky – you might recall that a quarter of Grigri users were observed to entirely disable the mechanical operation of the Grigri when paying out slack, whereas only one seventh of ATC users were observed making a comparable error (not keeping the brake hand down consistently). As the study dryly states, “should the climber fall at that moment, this could be catastrophic”.
To me, the numbers say this – the Grigri is remarkably safe, but many of its users aren’t.
What is the problem?
The factors which contribute to cause Grigri belaying accidents can be divided into two separate but intertwined categories – cultural and technical.
Let’s start with the cultural factors. The Grigri has a reputation for ease of use, and this ease, when coupled with the common but erroneous belief in the “foolproof” nature of the device, has conspired to put the Grigri into the hands of many inexperienced belayers. In most cases, these newly-minted climbers lack many skills and attributes. Specifically, they lack:
- Adequate experience in arresting falls
- Adequate appreciation of the forces and mechanics of belaying
- Adequate understanding of the technical limitations of various belay devices
- Adequate knowledge of methods to mitigate such limitations.
Such expertise is not largely necessary for top-rope scenarios, a context in which the Grigri (and especially the recent Grigri+ model with the “panic” feature for safer lowering) truly shines. But in a lead climbing context, belaying with correct technique is far more complicated than with an ATC. Despite the inherent complexity of lead belaying, Grigri users are often chronically undertrained in correct use, leading to a myriad of rogue belaying techniques with the potential for catastrophic results.
To put it bluntly, someone who hasn’t caught a bunch of falls on an ATC (e.g. several hundreds of them), shouldn’t be using a Grigri to belay a lead climber. Why? Because they don’t have the adequate muscle-memory that comes from a history of ATC use. Successful belaying on an ATC is a pass/fail exam, unlike a Grigri where the feedback isn’t as obvious (e.g. did you arrest the fall or was it the device?).
Additionally, many climbers (and beginners are naturally at greater risk) don’t have the mechanical aptitude to identify and mitigate possible problems in a technical scenario as complex as the operation of a Grigri. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask Petzl, who state that “It is difficult to make an exhaustive list of all incorrect techniques.”
This is where we get into the technical side of the problem. Ignorance of the possible modes of failure leads to ignorance of best practice for belaying technique. As a result, according to the manufacturer, there are literally so many varying techniques for belaying with the Grigri that it is impossible to document them. As such, the specific modes of failure are almost equally manifold. Petzl also specifies that “incorrect belay technique is the primary risk factor in an accident, especially when the belayer is surprised by a fall.”
So what constitutes incorrect technique? Let’s look at the big-ticket items:
These examples are where the data and the anecdotes collide. The DAV study suggested that half of all Grigri users were seen to give slack without holding the brake strand, and that half of these blocked the mechanism at the same time. You can do a study yourself – pop on down to your local sport crag and see if you can observe any of the above idiosyncrasies among the belaying techniques to be found there. My guess is that the prevalence of bad technique is even higher than the study suggests… after all, it was conducted by observing the Teutonic efficiency of German belayers, whereas most Australians are simply handed a Grigri and told “she’ll be right, mate”.
How do we fix the problem?
There are two solutions here – the first is simple, the second less so.
The first solution is to use the right belay technique. Despite the many and diverse DIY belay techniques floating about, Petzl specifies One Technique to rule them all. They have even made a video about it! You can watch it here, but the short version is this:
- Keep the brake strand gripped with three fingers
- Bring the index finger under the curved rail to support the device
- Bring the thumb over the top of the device and depress the cam
It behooves us all to remember that lead belaying on a Grigri takes significantly more skill, practice and dexterity than common wisdom would have us believe. Don’t wait for an accident to review your belay technique. If in doubt, seek professional training with an accredited guide.
The second solution is to adjust our attitudes toward the Grigri. Repeat after me – “The Grigri is a belay device with assisted braking. It is not an autolocking device”. Although accidents are rare, they happen, and the Grigri is not an infallible device.
The mantra surrounding belay devices should be this: “The right tool for the right job”. Before choosing a Grigri, you should consider if it is indeed the best device for the nature of the climb. The Grigri excels in top-roping scenarios, as well on steep and difficult terrain where falls are clean and frequent (e.g. hard projecting at Coolum). In other contexts, you should think critically about the limitations of the Grigri and decide whether it is right for you. Remember – to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The flipside of all this is that the Grigri has the potential to save lives, and sometimes unexpected events occur even to the most experienced of climbers. Some years ago, Pinnacle Sports ambassador Tiffany Melius had cause to be thankful that her belayer was using an “assisted braking device” during a routine climb in Thailand. After copping a quickdraw to the scone, the belayer was knocked unconscious, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the results could have been significantly more drastic had an alternative device been employed.
Therefore, the intent of this article is not to demonise the Grigri or similar devices, but to encourage critical thinking and best practice in our safety systems. When used correctly, the Grigri is a remarkably safe device. When used incorrectly, it has the potential for catastrophic results which many users fail to give credence to.
Whatever device you choose to use for your next climb, remember the three golden rules – look good, climb hard, stay safe.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.