Multi-Pitch Efficiency: the auto-blocking belay plate

Ever since writing my big exposé on the sordid underbelly of alpinism (“I Just Want to Be Held”), I’ve been inundated with requests. No, not requests for climbing partners. Rather, terrified requests from doe-eyed young alpinists: “But…how can I finish that big route before dark? I don’t want to be the big spoon. I don’t want to be the little spoon. I just want to get down in time to swill margaritas like Big Daddy Cordes!”

I’m here to help.

Morgan Boyles nearing the top of Siniestro Total, on Aguja Principal, Frey, Argentina.

A lot of things can keep you from getting benighted, stuck huddling with some slovenly dude for warmth on a godforsaken ledge in the middle of nowhere. For one, you could stay home. But otherwise, speed rules. (Unless you’re bouldering, in which case it’s all about bongo drums and the bong taking long enough rest periods to maximize ultra-crushing-power [say it with an Arnold accent].) Finishing big routes before dark isn’t always about climbing fast, but about climbing efficiently. A lot goes into this, and maybe I’ll babble more in future posts, but one of the simplest ways to speed-up multi-pitch climbs is through efficient belay transitions. And one of the single biggest time-savers comes from using a simple piece of gear: an auto-blocking belay device, like the Black Diamond ATC-Guide or the Petzl Reverso.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would climb a multi-pitch route these days with a regular tuber or figure-8. Auto-blocking devices, an evolution from plaquettes or “magic plates” previously used mostly by savvy climbing guides to manage multiple clients, absolutely rule. They’re exponentially more efficient, addictively so (I haven’t used a non-auto-blocker on a multi-pitch climb in over a decade). They’re safer, too. They rappel and feed-out rope to the leader like normal, but, when configured correctly, they automatically lock-down if the second falls. Magic.

The only downside is that when it locks on itself (if the second falls), letting out slack or lowering someone (which you rarely do on multi-pitch climbs) is a minor hassle – read-up on how to do it in your gear’s instruction manual (here’s a video). Also, since you’re belaying directly off the anchor, obviously the anchor must be bomber. In some sketchy situations (like alpine mixed climbs, to be redundant), your stance might be part of the anchor, in which case you’re belaying off your waist.

Important: when belaying a leader, it’s business as usual – kind of like the “business in the front” part of a sweet mullet. These devices are not like Gri-Gris, which aren’t appropriate for most multi-pitch trad climbs (they’re too heavy, lock up too statically, and they don’t rappel easily – though if you know how, you can get clever and do single-strand raps). You still have to keep your hand on the brake when belaying the leader. Killing your partner is extremely poor form.

OK, here’s the system:

The magic of an auto-blocking belay device, in action.

• Lead the pitch (Dude, there I was, blahblahblah…), secure yourself to a good anchor (good and organized, with a clear, central “power point” – avoid making a rat’s nest of separate slings and quick draws clipped everywhere), call “off belay.”

• Clip your auto-blocking belay device directly into the power point with a locker, pull up the slack, and put your partner on in auto-blocking mode. It’s not rocket science, but if you configure it backwards your second will deck if she falls – same as any belaying mistake. So tug the second’s strand as a quick test to be sure it locks.

• Call “on belay” to your second. Then pull on your jacket, eat, drink, take a leak, organize the rope and gear, whatever, multi-tasking as you belay. Unless your second is constantly moving, you can – and should – do all these things in quick bursts, when you’re not pulling in slack. Time-honored, safe, and super efficient. If the second falls while you’re drinking Kool-Aid and waiting for the Rapture, the auto-blocker catches her.

There you have it. An easy way, with a simple piece of gear, to help get your groove on. Even more, it’s part of the crucial un-benighted multi-pitch mindset: keep moving, think ahead, always be doing something. No spooning. It’s way better that way – trust me on this one.

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~ by Kelly Cordes on May 30, 2011.

23 Responses to “Multi-Pitch Efficiency: the auto-blocking belay plate”

  1. Kelly,
    As an old, fat, post-cardiac, multiple-amputee with a brain injury, moving efficiently is key to my getting up anything that has more than 3 pitches in a day. The auto-block is a terrific tool for efficient movement AS LONG AS THE BELAYER REALLY KNOWS HOW TO DO IT. The big problem with the auto block is the belayer being unable to lower a hanging climber. As one who hangs and needs to be lowered frequently, I almost categorically refuse to let anyone auto-block me. Story: I was trying to follow the first pitch of Athlete’s Feat last year and couldn’t pull that crux mantle. The belayer had me on an auto-block and it took him more than 20 minutes to lower me the 20′ to the ground. This was after confirming with him that he knew how to lower, had practiced it, had the proper equipment at hand and that the the belay anchors were in an appropriate location. In the case of the first belay on AF, there are tow bolts at eye level to the ledge. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

    So what’s my point? It’s that most people who say they know how to lower off an auto-block really haven’t practiced it to the point where they can actually lower a free-hanging climber. Maybe they’ve just read the instructions or watched a video. Or maybe they even practiced it around a tree or something. While it’s no harder than setting up a crevasse rescue or a Z-pulley haul for river rescue, as with both of those techniques, people need to practice it over and over in different situations, anticipate the need to do it, set up their belay in a manner that doesn’t interfere with the auto-block lower, have the equipment at hand (At least one long sling, carabiners and a prussik or 2) and know how to control the sudden release of friction when your device turns over.

    For all of the above reasons, I still prefer a Münter Hitch in most situations. A Münter accomplishes all of the efficiency requirements of the auto-block with none of the liabilities.

    I’m just sayin’

    Mal

    PS: When are you going to rage about the SERENE cordalette anchor chaos out there?

    • Thanks Mal, good points on the importance of truly knowing how to lower someone when weighted. Every system has its plusses and minuses, no doubt — none are completely perfect. Belaying with a Münter Hitch or non-auto-locker has a notable downside as well: the possibility of dropping the second if he/she falls. Of course this only happens if the belayer screws up. Likewise, not being able to lower the second on an auto-blocker is only an issue if the belayer doesn’t know how to use the device properly.

      Yeah, agree with you: “The auto-block is a terrific tool for efficient movement AS LONG AS THE BELAYER REALLY KNOWS HOW TO DO IT. ”

      Myself, I’m a big fan of the auto-blocking device (obviously, as I wrote).

      As per the SRENE thing — you’ve done a great job of ranting on that one yourself, I can’t touch it!

      Thx,
      Kelly

  2. Eek.
    A) I’m with Mal, releasing a weighted auto-block is not as clear cut as the directions make it appear. Practice on an overhang with a large guy as the “dead” weight and a 100 pounder on the belay end to see how it really works. Pretend the follower has a head injury and set a clock and watch him bleed out….

    B) When did equalized anchors and daisy chains go the way of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment for the under 40 crowd-look it up)? That set up is scarier than Palin quitting her job to be school teacher or taking a job with NOW. (What you say? Sarah currently has a job?).

    C) There is no central power point. What happens if the leader is leading a block? You untie and switch ends? While hanging off a handy jam sans rope? As Rolo would say, Impressive, no?

    D) I believe in the old adage, Never take your hand of the rope while belaying….
    unless you are taking a photo.

    e) The easiest way to finish that big route before dark is to climb faster.

    • Hey Bernie,

      A) Yup, it is important to know how to do it (see above reply to Mal). I think it’s been well established that a variety of systems can work, there clearly is not one right-or-wrong way to do things. And having the skill and judgment to assess situations and anchors is key. You hear all kinds of bullshit spouted all the time by way of “rules” — like “NEVER trust your life to one piece of gear!” for example. What horseshit. We do it all the time. One harness. Usually one rope. One ‘biner to your belay device, and only one belay device. A single point anchor can be bomber (how often do we belay off a huge bomber tree? that’s just one tree…). Stuff like that.

      B) You’re absolutely wrong about that anchor being sketchy. You’ve been going to too many Palin rallies. The left fork has two solid equalized pieces, and the right is a perfect cam (they’re all tucked back in and you can’t see them). And, in fact, they are all equalized. Clove to the left, clove to the right, brought together in a figure-8 power point. Bomber. Clove hitches are great for this, because you can micro-adjust each side to get as close to true equalization as possible short of a sliding-X (which has its downsides as well — no system is without its drawbacks).

      C) In this case, we were swinging leads, not doing block leads. If block leading, there are different ways to do things, not that complicated. Ya adjust as needed. It’s like gimping along on one leg, ya do it how ya have to do it (make your partner carry things). Anyway, the power point is obvious. It’s the figure-8 that everything comes in to.

      D) Good point on the photo. Other cases I find useful, though: if using an auto-blocker, ya can use both hands to find yer wee-wee to take a leak (two inches of dick under three inches of clothing can be a challenge).

      E) True as well. And for the gimped and slow, we incorporate efficient systems — helps get me down in time for margs.

      • regarding C) above… now that i think back to the day i took this photo, though we’d planned to swing leads, i did end up taking the next lead (block style). was pretty easy — my partner cloved himself into one of the two branches (both of which were bomber), and backed himself up with a clove to the other. still absolutely bomber. good pieces in good granite.

        it did take a little longer to do that than if i’d have not been in with the rope, but that, too, is a trade-off: for a long setup like this (pieces in different cracks), i’d have needed a cordalette, which then takes time with the cluster of packaging it back up afterward.

        it’s not that complicated for a person to clove himself in to this system, versus, say, cloving himself in to a cordalette power-point or whatever. wasn’t a problem, though there are always many ways to safely do these things.

    • The anchor is not, in any way or form equalized.

      For a short discussion.

      http://gravsports.blogspot.com/2007/01/equalizing-belays.html

      In simple terms, the second you tie a figure 8 knot for a power point you have made an uneualized anchor. This is not up for debate. Unless you take issue with Newton, Issac that is, not fig.

      • Yup, you’re right about the figure 8 and it not being equalized. As I wrote in the last reply to ya:
        “…you can micro-adjust each side to get as close to true equalization as possible short of a sliding-X (which has its downsides as well — no system is without its drawbacks). “

      • What ya wrote in your reply was

        ” And, in fact, they are all equalized.”

        As long as your readers understand why the anchor is not equalized (as your reply reply notes, you obvious do)
        it is all goot. Even Arrhenius would be happy.

      • true — i wrote that as well as the previous. contradicted myself on the one hand, and qualified it with “as close to true equalization as possible.” at any rate, another part of why i like using the rope with cloves to each branch is that micro-adjustment and also the dynamic properties of the rope, which might help in the sharing of the loads. in the testing i’ve seen over the past couple of years on this stuff, it seems that probably the most important things aren’t necessarily the trade-offs between true equalization or not (with the shock-loading issue, which seems perhaps not as bad as we once thought), but the importance of having good pieces.

        in the case of the photo we’re arguing about, where i have 3 bomber pieces (overkill), configured in a safe manner, i maintain that the anchor is absolutely safe. i think it’s insane to try to suggest that it isn’t.

  3. Hey Kelly,

    In the interest of efficiency and simplicity, I’ve been messing around with creating equalized traditional anchors with the rope, instead of slings, cord, etc. As you show in the picture above, a two point set up is pretty straightforward. Do you have any suggestions, ideas, etc about 3+ point anchors with the rope? Do you often just go with 2 bomber pieces?

    Also, with the rope anchor, how do you (the leader) go in direct? Do you clove off one piece, the master point, or use a personal anchor to the master point?

    Any input or comments would be appreciated!

    Cheers,

    Paul

    • Hey Paul, yeah, I like using the rope, too. It has disadvantages, like the difficulty of escaping the belay (hardly impossible, just requires extra steps), but has a huge advantage in incorporating a dynamic element into the anchor. It’s usually faster, too, and can create less of a cluster.
      This shot above actually has three pieces — ya can’t see with that angle (sorry!) — the left fork, with the sling coming out, that does to two pieces. Ya can think of them sometimes like mini-anchors within an anchor. That left fork goes to two pieces, equalized with a sling. You can use a sliding-X, or equalize tied-off in an 8, or clove to each (with slack in the middle, between them) and tied-off at the end (I think that’s what I did there, can’t remember — this is nice b/c it uses less sling material).
      You can use the rope-only (skipping the mini-anchors to which you clove, as in the above) for three pieces using variations to what I’ve heard called a “Super-8″ — I posted a photo here, with one way to do tie it (I’ve seen others) to 2 or 3 pieces: http://mountainproject.com/v/106530662
      I’ll go with 2 bomber pieces only sometimes. Depends. It’s total bullshit when people say things like “NEVER use less than 3 pieces!” It always depends. I’ve seen 4-piece anchors made by people who don’t know how to place gear well enough to where it’s way sketchier than using a single good piece would be. The most important thing, I think, is to be sure it’s bomber. Sounds simple, but it’s true. Two pieces can be a bomber anchor. Hell, one can (though it sometimes makes me a bit nervous).
      With the rope used to anchor, I’ll often just clove-in to the best piece first, which feels secure to me (it’s just my body weight, for which a bomber piece is plenty; think about directionality, though, esp if swinging leads — how would the piece do for an upward pull, like if the leader fell on the next lead?). Then, of course, I’m still “backed up” by the other pieces that the rope then goes to. Another way you could do it would be to clip yourself to the power point with a sling or personal anchor, as you mention.
      Thanks,
      Kelly

  4. Why waste all that time with two uneqaulaized anchors and two clove hitches?
    Wouldn’t be more efficient to just belay off a hand jam?

  5. I mostly agree, except I think that gri-gri and the cinch are actually awesome for fast multipitching and alpine rock. Both climbers are on auto-lock the whole time, the follower can self-belay, you are *that* much closer to a jugging setup, and the follower/gri-gri belayer can manage any haul or tag line without taking the leader off belay. I know it’s a little heavier, but I have done a long route (including down the ‘gucci) without the “one gri +one reverso” setup in quite a while. Plus it makes it WAY nicer to untangle and scout that overhanging stormy middle-of-the-night rappel when you can take your hand off the rap device. (first rapper uses the gri)

    • sounds like a good system, blake. i’m probably stuck in the mindset of my old model gri-gri (bulky, heavy). the gri-gri type devices lock up more statically than the micro-slip or whatever that happens with a more standard-type, thus putting greater load on the pieces and the climber, from tests that i’ve seen. but i think those tests were done with the device locked onto something (the only way to do it and keep the variables constant, i suppose). in reality, knowing how to give a soft-ish catch would probably mitigate that. but seems it could be a factor if you’re climbing sketchy gear routes. indeed, removing your hands from the rap line when scouting the rap descent would be a big asset. any slippage with icy ropes?

      as always, plusses and minusses to everything. sounds like a pretty good system, though.

      • never noticed a gri-gri (even old style) slipping on wet or icy ropes down to 9.2mm. However, there is a pretty sudden switch from “locked” to “rappeling” with very little room to descend slowly on steep raps. kinda freaky to suddenly be flying down the rope in the dark when you just barely moved the grigri handle, but it always locked up.

  6. Rope stretch will make the system more dynamic, but less eqaulized.
    But as ya said, if the protection is secure the rest is gravy on the hair (to paraphrase).

    I do question having the rope as part of the anchor (unless required by lack of rack).

    for instance. your at your anchor above, it starts pouring. You need to rap. Now what?
    C1 “You wet and cold?”
    C2 “Nah am fine.”
    C1 “I’m soaked and shivering so hard I can hear my spleen knock agaisnt my kidney”
    C2 “okay, I’m soaked to. Is your clove hitch cinched down like…”

    Your partner needs more rope to reach a belay, Qiucklie now what?
    “Johnny hold on, just a sec, be right with ya, oh look a wolf.”

    And 87 other situations like such. As my mom used to always say, “Keep the dope hidden and keep the rope out of the system you dope.”

    • “Rope stretch will make the system more dynamic, but less eqaulized.” But I stay with the keep the rope out of the system if ya can (situational like gravey).

      I retraact the less eqaulized part. Might, might not, as baby newton used to say to his dad, “physics hard.”
      Senior Newton hading Newtong an apple, “Don’t sweat it issac. Ya can always be a professional climber.”

      • Legit concerns, and having the rope in the system has its drawbacks (as does nearly everything). The things I like about it include speed and having the dynamic properties of the rope in the system — hugely safer in some instances (certainly if, while swinging leads, the leader takes a high-force fall or whips onto the anchor straight off; yikes, shouldn’t happen but sometimes it does, and might be one of the more common of the super rare but super dangerous circumstances?). Then again, one could build an anchor with other materials, then clove the rope to the power point, which puts some stretch in the system. I do this sometimes as well. It depends on the situation for me; I try hard to avoid getting set in the same mindset for everything.

        As for the situations you mention above, yeah, if suddenly it pours and you’re bailing off the anchor as-is (versus stripping it down to a nut or two, reconfiguring it anyway), indeed it adds a cluster to things.

        And if extra rope needed for a long pitch? Not much of an issue with how I like to do it, which sounds sketchy but I don’t think it is (below) — by the time the leader is that far off, I try to have the anchor broken down to me cloved to a single bomber piece anyway, which usually has the rope nearly in a straight line to me. Though not having the rope cloved-in at all could indeed give the leader a wee bit more. Breaking down most of the anchor in advance — sketchy? I don’t think so. By the end of the pitch, there should be a bunch of gear between the two of ya already, so a catastrophic “a piece fails, we’re gonna die!” situation isn’t likely. And I’m totally fine with my body weight hanging off a single bomber piece — after all, a single bomber piece reliably holds the exponentially greater forces (leader falls) that we place on our climbing gear.

        But indeed it’s not for everybody, and, as with other methods, it can be a cluster if not managed well. Can also be fast, efficient and safe. Guess it depends.

  7. Madoff, has mad luv for breaking down anchors part way for efficiency.
    me do this for a dynamic hanging, “Then again, one could build an anchor with other materials, then clove the rope to the power point, which puts some stretch in the system. I do this sometimes as well.”
    with the addition of an unwieghted daisy for back up cause my pops always told me to double bag.

    Would be fun to have an anchor race to see how much time using the rope in the system actually saves even when there isn’t any situations.

    fun chattering with ya. Off to go trade up at block 9. It is amazing what ya can get for a promised pack of cigs next week…

  8. Kelly – thanks for writing this article up – and the pic of your anchor is super helpful.

    Can you possibly give a quick description of how you would manage that photo of your anchor in a block leading situation. Mr Gravsports gives a bit of an ice specific block leading dot point list here (http://willgadd.com/simple-tricks-for-speed-on-multi-pitch-ice-routes/) – and I’m just wondering if you could knock out a really basic step by step list of:
    1) what the leader does after building an anchor like the one you’ve shown
    1a) In particular – where does the 2nd clip in to enable an easy swap of the rope stack – and to allow the leader to easily unclip his clove hitches to head off on the next pitch
    2) What are your rough sequence of steps when the second arrives fully gassed at the belay to get the leader going again as quickly as possible?

    Would be much appreciated!

    I’d come climbing with you to learn all this if I could… but I’m in Australia which is a bit far away…

    Cheers mate,

    Jayd

    • Hi Jay,
      Thanks for the note and heads-up to Will’s post (I’m swamped with work right now, haven’t been checking stuff out much). His system seems great, and he’s so dialed with this stuff. As with anything, good to practice it a bit to make it smooth. But to your question, how I’d manage block leads with the anchor in my photo.

      Can be a little tricky with blocks. Just a few changes. There are probably other ways, but here’s what I usually do, with type of anchor shown in my photo. Actually, there are two ways I do it in these cases.

      First, if I know in advance that we’re leading in blocks, I’ll often make the main power point (which is the figure-8 with the rope in the photo) with a sling. Rather than clove hitches on each piece in the photo, you’d have another sling coming down from there, with its bottom as the power point (either in a sliding-X or tied-off in an 8). Make sense? So, then you just clove yourself into the power point. When your partner comes up, he/she does the same. This only requires each person to have a locker on them, which ya always do, for anchoring-in. Because of the huge safety advantages to having the rope incorporated in the anchoring system (did you see this, btw? Good info. The last graf of text in the first section summarizes the value of the rope: http://dmmclimbing.com/knowledge/slings-at-anchors/ ), when possible I try to set the all-sling anchor/power point a bit higher up, to incorporate a decent bit of that impact-absorbing rope between me and the power point.

      But in the exact situation as my photo, step by step, as per your numbers

      1) I’d build the anchor as shown, and if I had spare ‘biners, then while the second is coming up (in this case he was coming up to my right) I’ll clip ‘biners to both of the anchor slings in advance for him, and think about how he should clove-in, to avoid making a soup kitchen out of the ropes when I head off on the next lead.

      1a) The second cloves in first to the right-side sling, making sure his rope goes straight to it and is to the right of any other strands (avoiding tangles). Then he goes from that clove to the ‘biner on the left-hand sling and makes another clove, and cinches it up. Note that he’s not equalized, but with solid pieces, as per in Will’s post, I’m not worried about it right here. He’s just standing there on now-proven pieces, he’s in with the rope, no shock loading, etc. Granted, if I were to whip right off the belay on the next lead, that could be bad. But using the rope greatly reduces forces on the anchor. Trade offs. And remember to place a piece pronto on the next lead, and/or clip the rope through a biner or draw on one of the anchor pieces (as high as possible), to reduce any off-the-anchor fall factor to less than factor 2.
      -rope flip: I’m on the left, partner on the right, his anchor strand is running directly up to the rightmost anchor piece. Thus, the flip (flip it right over his anchor strand rope) should go well, no tangles.

      2) In the scenario you set here: snug-up the second on the auto-blocker so he can lean back and catch his breath. Take the strand coming out of the auto-blocker and clove it into the rightmost piece (in this anchor picture) for him (keeping it to the right of all other strands, so not twists/tangles). Clove him into the other sling, too. When he’s got his wind back, he can unweight the auto-blocker so you can take him off, and then snug-up/adjust his clove as needed. Flip the stack and start robbing gear off his harness or gear sling, thus re-racking yourself. Think ahead (you’ll be rested/recovered by the time he arrives) and do whatever you can in advance – for example, maybe already have a biner/draw clipped to the top piece, which you’ll clip as your first on your next lead.

      I hope some of this helps and isn’t too confusing. Again, when I know I’m doing block leads I usually use a sling anchor for the power-point, and then incorporate the rope (again, emphasizing the benefits of incorporating the rope and its shock-absorption in the anchor system) by cloving-in to the power point.

      Cheers,
      Kelly

      • Hey Kelly,

        Thank you so much. Awesome reply and you have done a great job of explaining the steps (which I know can be hard to do!).

        I can see it does make sense to use a sling if block leading, and I watched the DMM video (along with a few others – great resource) – which was a bit of an eye opener!

        However it is really handy to also get your ideas on how to block lead using just the rope also.

        I’ll be off next weekend to practice this on some easy ground… want to get it dialled before heading to New Zealand soon where it’ll hopefully have me sipping margaritas BEFORE dark after a successful summit day.

        Cheers,
        Jayd

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