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[su_heading size=”16″]SA Mountain Editorial – Issue 70[/su_heading]
How safe is your belay device?
A few weeks ago, the very day after I had returned from a 5-week climbing trip abroad, I arranged to go climbing with my old climbing mate, Willie Koen. I just wanted to have a nice friendly and relaxed day at the crag, clipping some bolts, supping a mug or two of the old Darjeeling, shooting the bull, and absorbing Cape climbing back into my system.
The day started out perfectly. Beautiful, windless winter’s day at a sunny crag. No one around, and the rock was dry and inviting. We started off slowly, climbing a few easy routes to loosen up the joints and tendons, then climbed a few slightly harder ones. After about four routes, it was time for the obligatory cup of tea. We sat there chatting about my trip, and climbing in general, and how spoilt we are here in Cape Town and the Western Cape. Table Mountain, Montagu and the beautiful Cederberg.
Then, as we prepared to do some more routes, two young women popped around the corner and started climbing near us. They climbed a few routes and we started climbing another route, all the while chatting a bit with them, as one does.
Over the last few years, I’d had my eye on a line in that very same area that I thought may make a good route. I had top-roped it before and wanted to come back and trad it. But that day I thought it would probably be better if I bolted it so that more people could enjoy it. So we decided to set up a top-rope again to reacquaint myself with the route and possibly mark where the bolts should go.
Top-rope in place, I set off up the route. Nice climbing to a little roof, undercling and longish move over the overlap to a rail/ledge. Move off to the right to stand on a good ledge, then move up awkwardly using two little incuts on a small ledge at chest height, stem up with your feet, till you have the height to reach up to a big layaway flake, then fairly easy after that to the top.
All went fine and, as I lowered off, I asked Willie to stop me at the awkward move with the two little incuts. I just wanted to check it out again and work out where the bolts should go. I grabbed the two holds, stemmed up with my feet, and as I was about to reach for layaway flake, the whole top of the ledge came away in my hands, sending down a block the size of a small microwave. I fell off, of course, and was stopped immediately, as Willie was using an assisted braking belay device. Fortunately the two ladies were way off to one side, and Willie was standing a few metres away from the base of the wall, as we were top-roping.
The block dropped down between my legs and I looked down to see the missile about halfway between me and the ground. I shouted, but I was only about 10 metres off the ground, and things happened so fast. The block smashed onto a huge boulder, chopping our rope in two, and exploded into a bunch of fist sized chunks that shot off in multiple directions, one hitting Willie in the groin. Fortunately we were okay, and Willie lowered me to the ground, all of us a little shaken, and the ladies ran over to see if all was okay.
We immediately stuck on another brew to calm the nerves, and the thought struck me that if Willie had been hit in such a way that he released his grip on the brake end of the rope, and was using a conventional belay device, I would’ve been the very next thing to come smashing down onto that boulder.
These days, with so many different makes and models of assisted braking belay devices on the market, for single and double ropes, it definitely makes a whole lot of sense to be using one of those rather than a conventional device. It can mean the difference between a fireside story and a funeral.
Be safe in the hills
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