Sign In   |   JOIN NOW!
Some Thoughts on the Grigri
Some Thoughts on the Grigri

by Randy Smith

During the past 25 years, a revolution in hardware technology has helped to redefine the sport of climbing. Throughout that time, nothing has intrigued the imagination of climbers more than the prospect of developing an automatic belay device. I know that over the years, I have certainly tested quite a few, by numerous manufacturers, most of which still live in a box under my desk. Each were innovative and all were tested with great anticipation. Time and time again, it seemed the final conclusion was a resounding "almost". When the Grigri first appeared in the mid-90's, I was understandably skeptical. I didn't even give the Grigri a try. After almost a year, I tried the Grigri and was surprised, possibly even impressed. I remember thinking, "Wow someone actually did it". In retrospect, I should have expected it to come from a company like Petzl. Petzl is known for their innovation and quality product development. Of course my skepticism always lingers, so I still found myself wondering if there were a down-side to using the Grigri.

It appeared to be simple to use and utterly dependable. Philosophically the classic concern has been that any automatic belay device might lull a belayer into a passive state of attention. This would not be good. This was the only concern that surfaced for a number of years.

However, in recent years several Grigri-related incidents have raised new concerns. I am aware of three accidents occurring while Grigri's were being used as a belay device. None involved failure related to arresting the initial fall. Rather, the accidents occurred during the lowering after the arrest was complete. It appears that the lowering lever is a bit like the power steering in a '61 Ford....A bit too easy to use. Two of the accidents involved belayers with very little experience and the third appeared to be a somewhat intentional speed lowering.

I had the opportunity to observe the circumstances of these incidents, and I must admit there is not enough data to draw any sweeping conclusions. None the less, I believe some limited knowledge can be gained from the analysis that may prove to be helpful.

Observation 1 - No matter how much we preach to the contrary, there has always been a group among us inclined toward speed rappelling and speed lowering. A belay device that allows lowering without any requirement for actually holding the rope, seems to feed their vice.

Observation 2 - The availability of a relatively automatic belay device seems to be a good excuse for some programs not to thoroughly train belayers. Similar concerns from safety experts are expressed all the time. The fear about many new safety innovations is that they breed complacency. "If my airbag will save my life, I guess I don't really have to worry about using my seat belt." Bob Ryan often refers to the phenomena as "using up your margin of safety." It appears this particular device actually requires quite a bit of practice. At least in developing the skill necessary to safely lower loads of varying sizes. The lever on the Grigri also reminds me a bit of the old prusik self belay often used as a rappel backup. There is the natural tendency to pull harder in an emergency, while in the case of a prusik or Grigri, the required response is to actually let go. It takes training and practice to develop these necessary skills.

Observation 3 - There appears to be the potential for one additional lowering-related hazard. This particular prospect was related to me by another ACCT Vendor Member. It seems on occasion, as lowering is initiated after a fall arrest, the climber might naturally, grab the wall in an attempt to resume climbing. If done right as the belayer begins to lower the climber, there is a tendency for the belayer to pull the lowering lever harder because the rope is not moving through the device as expected. If the climber lets go again, a split second later, the rope begins to speed through the device very quickly and the climber heads for the ground at the same rate of speed. In this case, the closer the climber is to the ground, the less time there is for the belayer to react and re-arrest the resulting fall. I'm told this happens commonly in climbing gyms where Grigri's are very popular.

Although much more obvious, the following reminders should also be kept in mind during training. The rope must be threaded through the device in the proper direction (the directions are stamped right on the side). The shell must be closed and secured with a locking carabiner which, in turn, is clipped to an adequate anchor. Your hand should not be on the lever anytime during the belay, except to effect a lowering after the fall has been arrested. The belay rope must be of proper diameter. These reminders seem obvious, however, at least one accident happened after repetitious use of the belay system. Suggesting that one of these things may not have been re-checked prior to use. While practice is good, monotony requires diligence!

Overall, I am actually very impressed with the performance of the Grigri. I certainly feel that it has earned a place in the climbing and challenge course industry. When properly used, it seems to have a track record of arresting falls without fail. I wish I could say that for all other types of belays! As with any form of technology, we definitely need to understand and respect its limitations. It seems that every aspect of safety eventually comes down to one critical issue. Staff need good and thorough training and lots of practice. Maybe that's not high-tech, but it continues to be sound practice!

This article appeared in Parallel Lines, the Newsletter of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT)
Parallel Lines   Summer 1999   Vol. 7 No. 2
© ACCT, All Rights Reserved
Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal