Soft Catch, Hard Catch – On the Lead Wall.
Lead climbing is a more advanced option / skillset in climbing, along with greater rewards, it comes with added risks. I was watching one of our climbers the other night,on the lead wall, as the leader took a fall, a couple of things combined to make it a lucky fall that could have ended up worse. The belayer asked what to do to improve the outcomes and that is why I thought I would go into soft catching a little here today. This is not a criticism of the climber or the belayer, its a chance to spread some information and help keep everyone safer.
Firstly the incident that took place. The leader had lead the headwall, clipped the first of the roof draws and made his way out on to our stalactites, at the second clip in the roof, his grip gave out and he fell. What made the event a close call was a) he was facing back to the wall, making it very hard to protect himself from the fall. b) The catch was a bit hard. With a relatively new belayer, keeping tight lines in a fall and not being so dynamic (soft belay) enough, made the swing more violent and the leader hit the headwall, backwards. Now I’m sure it stung a little, but all in all, just little enough pendulum to not cause any damage.
What to do? Practice and learn how to give a softer catch, It’s a great thing to be blessed with the same climbing partner so sharing some time learning to fall and belay a fall could be time well spent. In the situation last week, a little more slack in the belay (a little!) would have changed the pendulum effect on the falling climber and the belayer going with the fall instead of locking down hard would have also softened that same pendulum effect.
*side note: On our roof climbs we have lower offs at both ends of the roof. Clipping just the furtherest one out also takes you further from the headwall and reduces swing.
Add in a small jump with slightly looser line to make for a much more comfortable and less chance of injury, fall.
It’s natural to want to catch your climber tight, especially on roofes and steep overhangs where getting back on the climb takes a lot of physical effort. Work out the amount of rope to have out together so the line isn’t so rigid and taught in a fall but is softer and then by adding a little spring into your stance as the climber falls (a small jump), you may end up meeting and greeting each other close on the wall but it will save the leaders ankles or worse! Of course you can’t allow extra rope and jumps in every place in a climb, doing this at the second or even third clip can deck a falling climber, so work it out where and when it’s appropriate to give that little extra.
A soft catch is a skill to be practiced and learnt and will keep you in climbing partners that will want you to catch them. Also keep in mind peoples own preferences, some will want a harder catch out of fear or simply not wanting to jug a rope back to the climb. Talk with your partner and discuss what you know and the options and practice in safe controlled environments.
A soft catch on the left v’s a hard catch on the right. (image taken from climbersguide.co)
Hard catches (“getting spiked”) can be bad, they add to the chances of injuring a climber. Soft catches are a skill that should be in your belay arsenal. Talk with and practice with your buddy.
Assisted braking, belay device, a challenge to the master.
I’ve been climbing for over 20 years now and my first introduction to belaying was with figure eights and or stiche plates. Times have changed and the most notable thing belay wise is the Petzl Grigri. Although the Grigri was released in 1991, it wasn’t until a visit to WA Indoor Climbing centre in Jolimont in 1996 and meeting the crazy Frenchman Pascal that I first got a glimpse of this device. It worked a treat and was a safer option to novices than any manual breaking device. Some people still say that you don’t learn proper technique with this device, but there is “a proper” technique and even though its different, should you not fill your quiver with many arrows? Does a boxer only know how to jab?
Anyway, this champ ran untouched by things like the Edelrid Eddy and the Anthron Lory in our neck of the woods and stayed the same reliable unit until its 20 year birthday in 2011 with the introduction of the Grigri2. A smaller, lighter unit with a smaller rope diameter usage allowed, but much the same, none the less. Petzl latest step up in 2016/17 is the Grigri plus. This operates a lot like the Eddy and Lory with panic mode built in (pull too hard on the lever and it locks as well) it also has a switch to soften / stiffen the spring to allow lead feeding a little easier.
The Grigri is the long term, unchallenged master of the assisted braking belay devices over the last 3 decades.
Last year Mad Rock stepped into the game and released the Lifeguard. Very similar (well really very, very similar functionally) to a Grigri. Smaller. Lighter, cheaper and with a tougher spring. For thinner ropes you treat it exactly as you would any manual belay device, with the added braking assistance if you stuff things up. No need to learn that complicated belay technique people whine about (unjustly) with the Grigri.
It is so small I didn’t feel right at first, taking up less than half my palm but we put it through the ropes (hahaha) and had a good play with it. I like it. It is easier to feed rope to your leader, even my 10.5mm (it is suggested at <10mm for easy feed) worked fine but you did need to take a little care.
Anyway, will this up and coming new toy knock the champ down for the count? I really don’t think so but it’s a great alternative, climb safe.
Remember to always seek and obtain proper instruction for the use of any climbing equipment, although these are assisted breaking devices, there are a myriad of ways you can stuff them up if untrained and the results could ruin your day, like really ruin your day.
So a few months back I turned 50! For nostalgia’s sake and to the amusement of the current tenants, we went to the house I was born in, in Cardiff Wales and had a birthday apple on the front wall.
Snowdonia was going to just be a tourist trek and we did indeed see some beautiful places and scalable faces but a cherry on the cake was driving through a totally unknown area and jumping on the brakes at the sight of a sign that smelt of climbing: “DMM”. Founded in 1981 as Moorhouse Engineering in Bethesda, soon to become DMM and moving to Llanberis in 1986, the company celebrated 35 years of manufacturing in 2016. In 1981 the company employed just 4 people, and now thirty odd years later they are an important employer in the area with just over 150 men and women on the payroll.
We took the liberty of pulling in next to the quaint little building and the large factory and offices and after a while of nosing Around were introduced to Chris. Chris was a lovely man who works in the offices at DMM and was only too happy to take time out of his busy day and show us (unannounced), around an amazing climbers dream factory. Massive presses thumped down, torches blazed, metal blocks and rods were forged, pressed, bent and anodised into some of the best climbing gear in the world. Too many steps to jot down in a blog but what an exciting and brilliant place! We spent a good couple of hours going from base materials right through to the manual inspections and finishing tweaks. Family members who were travelling with us commented that at no point in our holiday had they seen Trace or myself smile nearly as much as we did while touring DMM!
I thought it couldn’t get any better, but when leaving Chris pointed us to a time locked pub down the road where we went for a beer. The nostalgia written (literally) on the walls (and ceiling) was captivating. This was the training ground for a guy / team in the early 50’s you may of heard of before; Edmund Hillary. They trained in these mountains for something they eventually bagged a little on the bigger size, ….you know what I mean. There were ropes, axes, boots and so many other enchanting tools from yester year hanging like they had just been left there along with some very special signatures on the ceiling. It was an amazing find. If you ever find yourself in Wales I recommend exploring Snowdonia and the Pen-Y-Gwryd Hotel for a beverage, lunch and a little trip into fantasy of times gone by.
(click any of the images for a bigger view).
Rope types and their falls explained:
Disclaimer: This is a brief view of ropes and there fall catching capabilities and is in no way complete, there is a lot more to know and understand before jumping on the sharp end. This is compiled with my knowledge and experience and should not be taken as gospel. Do your own research and study and always climb within your abilities and only with full knowledge of all of your equipment.
Ropes for lead climbing should only ever be dynamic. You should NEVER lead climb on semi-static rope; any lead fall on semi-static will likely put you in hospital or worse.
There are three types of Dynamic ropes:
The most common, this rope is used as a single strand. It is best adapted to difficult routes which are fairly straight-line, easy routes without change-over belays, and where descent is not by abseil. It is in particular the rope for sport climbing.
A ‘rope’ formed of 2 strands used together of which the leader is tied into both but, unlike twin ropes, two seconds may each be tied into just one of the strands. The leader clips only one strand into each runner so as to reduce drag. Half ropes are recommended for mountaineering, wandering lines and long ascents where abseil descent is necessary. In addition they offer better protection against stonefall or falling on an arete; to limit the drag, and thus the fall factor, you can clip the strands separately
These ropes are always used with the two strands together, remaining parallel. Each climber ties into both strands and these are always clipped together. Its advantage over a single rope is that it allows for abseils as long as the rope. It is lighter than half rope but does not allow for separate strand clipping.
All dynamic ropes have to be tested for conformity to the Standard EN 892 in a test tower at a fall factor 1.77 (see below for fall factors explained).
Single and twin ropes are tested with a mass of 80kg. A single rope, must resist at least 5 successive falls, and both strands of a twin rope combined, must resist at least 12 successive falls.
2. Half ropes are tested with a 55kg mass on one strand. It must resist 5 successive falls. Why 55 kg?Because ropes which hold 5 falls with 55kg in practice hold 2 falls with 80kg, which has been allowed as sufficient security for a half rope which is not used to hold repeated falls on one strand.
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*Factor fall explained: Generally only possible in multi-pitch climbing and whilst on lead, the fall factor( f ) is the ratio of the height ( h ) a climber falls before the climber’s rope begins to stretch and the rope length ( L ) available to absorb the energy of the fall.
Confused? (Ignoring rope stretch)
a) If you climb 5m above a belay placing gear at say 4m and fall you will fall 2m (1m to the piece of protection and 1 more below it) on 5m of rope.
f = 2/5
f = 0.4 Not necessarily a bad fall.
b) If you climb 5m above a belay without any gear placement and fall you will fall 10m (5 to the belay and 5 more below it) on just 5m of rope.
f = 10/5
f = 2 A factor 2 is the worst kind of fall you can apply to a rope (and belay) in normal climbing.
With factors in mind, always place gear or clip bolts as soon as possible when leaving a belay; it’s not the time to be thinking about running it out, not even just a little.
Acknowledgments: Beal Planet, Wikipedia.