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Tech Tip: Answered Why do we bottom belay?

Discussion in 'Tech Tips and Gear' started by ratagonia, Apr 3, 2014.

  1. Rapterman

    Rapterman

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    I would rather have a fireman's than any other form of protection!
    (for rappelling:D)
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  2. Canyonero

    Canyonero

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    I used to kind of think fireman's belays were overkill. But that was mostly because most of my rappelling was getting off climbs- using an ATC to rappel down two strands of fuzzy 9-10 mm rope. Now that I've been canyoneering a while, and spent far more time on single skinny ropes with people of varying skill levels, I agree it's use should be routine. What a shame to have someone splat next to you when all you had to do was put 20 lbs of downward pressure on the rope hanging next to you.

    Obviously it's important to learn proper rappel technique, know how to set and add friction etc, but geez, a fireman is so easy and works so well and barely slows a group down at all....why not? The only reason I can think of not to do it is to slightly speed up the group's movement and perhaps keep the belayer away from the rockfall zone.

    Edit: Or if it is a marginal anchor, but even then, it's only adding 20 more lbs to it, and that is an exceedingly marginal anchor if 20 more lbs puts it over the edge.
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  3. AW~

    AW~

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    I looked on the internet as to why canyoneers bottom belay and there wasnt much of anything besides a unanimous acceptance of belaying and how to instructions.

    Risk reduction in rock climbing
    http://personal.strath.ac.uk/andrew.mclaren/Smith.pdf

    This paper says belaying gave us the impetus to have our technical equipment. In other words those who were saying one should be skilled & experienced were dying, while those who were belaying were improving safety. They didnt think a rope that is designed to allow an arrest a type 2 fall is only for dumb noobs.

    The website references a book from the 1920s called "Mountain Craft", 654 pages, which is available for free download from Google. I didnt read the whole thing LOL, but its obvious that a bottom belay has more to do than just arresting a fall. It speaks to habits, which it proposes are all the more important to learners but just as important to adaptation to the terrain for 'natural' persons. Without making a white paper out of this, I would translate thse trust&communication issues to canyoneering as follows:

    1) The bottom belayer learns(at a minimum reinforces) from the rappeller through observance.
    2) The bottom belayer learns about the rappeller himself/herself as far as it goes....and the rope.
    3) Navigation: distance estimation....'the {canyoneer} shortens his glance to accept a reduced distance between the 2 stable points of judgement'
    4) A bottom belay ensures continuous travel....while the rappeller focuses on getting down, the belayer has already adapted to the terrain at hand and is ready to pack away asap and can do a better job of keeping the rope in condition. The belayer may also help by guiding the rappeller by sharing something they see but the rappeller may not know for certain.

    There were probably others, mostly dealing with risk management and psychology, but Im not reading a 654 page book on mountaineering to find out.
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  4. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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    Then it wasn't actually sincere, was it?

    :moses:
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  5. SCard

    SCard

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    I read this thread with interest as I have trained many, many young men in rappelling, belaying, and canyoneering. For me, training one to belay is part of training one to rappel.

    One instance in particular sticks out in my mind where a fireman belay probably saved one young man. I had one young man, 18 years old and about 6'7'' and probably 230 lbs. (more that I weigh) in my group. He was a swimmer and was physically fit. He had previously demonstrated an extreme fear of heights and rappelling. I knew of his slow speed, his tentative nature and his extreme fear. I was with Spidey taking a group, including this young man, through Pine Creek several years ago. I went first on the last rap with the intent to specifically belay him on this rappel given the scary start of that rap and his tendencies. This boy got over the edge and was rapping VERY slowly. He had a death grip above and below the rap device with both hands. It appeared that he was almost lowering himself rather than rappelling correctly and trusting his gear. He was descending an inch or two at a time. As he came closer to me I could see him sweating profusely. When he was about 40 feet from the deck, he lost it. He completely let go. I had my hands high and there was no slack in the rope. I was able to catch and stop him about 10-15 feet from the deck and lower him the rest of the way. I admit it took just about everything I had to completely stop him but it worked. My group fireman belays everyone. Gratefully this kid has given up the sport of canyoneering.

    About 12 days ago, a tear was brought to this old canyoneer's eyes as I was belaying the last rap of Birch Hollow. I was with a large group of Young Men and I could hear all my boys calling: "On Belay", "Belay On", "Rappelling", "rappel on" while spread out on the last three raps in Birch. My boys rap, unhook and belay the next canyoneer on rope. It is what we train and what we do, at every rap. Of all the kids I have taken (knock on wood) we have never had an injury on rope despite slips and a couple of let-goes. And yes, in every situation where someone let go, they reached high to grab the rope thinking they could grab on and stop. The belayer in every situation was able to stop the rappeller very quickly and without incident.

    I am a huge proponent of the bottom/fireman's belay as I have seen it work effectively many times with both noobs and experienced canyoneers.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2015
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  6. ratagonia

    ratagonia

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  7. Anna

    Anna

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    Regarding the points made about backups hindering competence, faith that one's primary method works, and/or focus on the task at hand: many of you have surely introduced many new people to canyoneering, and seen them progress to competent canyoneers in their own right. Of course a fireman's belay should be used for newbies, it seems stupid not to. But eventually their competence increases, and they will (hopefully) think and gain more understanding of the reasons behind the techniques they use.

    How to handle the progression from "newbie always needing a backup" to "competent canyoneer" with the smarts and skills to make their own decisions regarding backup? Wait til they bring it up? Initiate a talk about these things? Make sure they have a perfect rappelling system from the beginning and never really rely on the backup?

    Fwiw, I always ask for a fireman's belay >25 feet or so if it's possible. But this discussion has made me realize that I sort of DO rely on it for if I screw up, rather than making 1100% certain everything in my rappelling system is perfect. And how bad that mentality could be. Sometimes I've rappelled with less friction than I should, and would have fallen to my death if my hand left the brake strand, because I knew I had an autoblock or a fireman's belay. That's just stupid, and I won't be doing it any more. Maybe I'll take a break from the backups for a bit, and then return to them when they are actually backups...
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  8. El Cu Cuy

    El Cu Cuy

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    I'm sure the people that have fallen were 1100% certain they were rigged correctly, at least I would hope they were. Why not keep the fireman belay and change your mind set? The problem isn't the extra layer of safety it's being complacent. Would you take the airbags out of your car to make you drive safer?
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  9. Brian in SLC

    Brian in SLC Brian in SLC

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    Maybe. There's been a debate on that.

    http://www.wired.com/2011/07/active-safety-systems-could-create-passive-drivers/

    Interesting to ponder...with climbing, do solo free climbers get killed with less regularity than roped climbers (as a percentage of user days/hour?)?

    "Play the game for more than you can afford to lose... only then will you learn the game." - Winston Churchill
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  10. 2065toyota

    2065toyota

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    I currently own 3 vehicles that don't have air bags and I still drive them :)
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  11. AW~

    AW~

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    This. And Id speak up too if someone is being complacent. Its not their decision to be complacent or not when another person is affected down below.

    In a kind of meetupish situation, I was in a large group of people who knew some people, but not others. So Im providing a bottom belay and the rappeller let go. It was a shortish rappel so the person barely suffered any effects. Assuring me everything was OK, I paused the person for a few more seconds just in case. Just a bit lower on the drop was stable rock if you dont fool around with it too much. To my surprise, the rappeller stomped the rock to check its stability, and dislodged it. And by dislodging it, slipped and let go again. I dont know how it would have turned out if I had been hit by the rock, and my plan was hoping my helmet could deal with it....twas scary since I was caught in narrow confines.

    I probably screamed at this stranger after the dust settled. If I recall correctly, there was a minor argument with people on the top because it seemed everybody but me thought a bottom belay was all about the rappeller. But no, its not all about the rappeller. Its also about me...as I stormed off. Just try and rappel by bounding down like Gryllis without my consent hehehe...you'll see me as your bottom belayer disappear faster than you can do the first bound:)
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  12. Kuenn

    Kuenn

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    It never ceases to amaze me that people will let go of the rope, when something unexpected happens while on rappel. Duh?

    Like you're driving down the road and another car pulls out in front of you... and you... let go of the steering wheel!?! :rolleyes2:

    Good on you for hanging in there. I'm sure they thanked you later?
    Ram likes this.
  13. AW~

    AW~

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    Didnt see em again, but it was a bad outing...many errors made by me and others, but no one was seriously injured..whew. Even that bottom belay...well I cant really take any credit since that was the first time I actually arrested a fall. It shouldnt have been, as people should do this in practice before they go canyoneering with others.

    I didnt help out by losing my nerve after the second arrest. We show our in canyon proficiency on whatever aspect by being vigilant that we can be constructive to each other.... The route sucked too LOL.
  14. AW~

    AW~

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    *This post is extra...Needs to be deleted.
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2015
  15. gajslk

    gajslk

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    Someone complacent who rigs wrong and falls on your head as you bottom-belay could ruin your whole day ...

    Gordon
  16. Kuenn

    Kuenn

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    Last edited: Aug 15, 2015
  17. Anna

    Anna

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    Good point here...and good points on both sides, actually. It seems that these types of decisions are very personal and depend a lot on individual personality and experience. What's right for one person isn't necessarily right for another. After reading this thread, the problem I noticed with myself (not to say this applies to everyone, or even to anyone else) is that it's maybe been harder to change my mindset when I know there is that extra margin of safety there for me.

    It's not necessarily exactly like taking airbags out of your car and then driving as usual, where someone else's driving decisions/mistakes could easily kill you even if you are a perfect driver. When rappelling in a canyon, it's (more or less) only your decisions/mistakes that will affect whether you reach the bottom in the same condition you left the top. That's more like driving on an empty road after removing the car's airbags...and I do think that might make me drive better.

    But I don't know. I really really really like fireman's belays. They are so easy to do, and might save someone's life if an inadvertent mistake is made or if a rock falls (assuming it misses the belayer), which is why I have up til now always given and taken them without much thought. So maybe I'll try to change my mindset first and see how it goes.

    Whichever way works for a person, I think we all agree that there is no room for complacency in a canyon. The problem for me is that I didn't consider how stupid and complacent my rappelling practices in the past really were, because having a fireman's belay (or autoblock, I always use one in dry canyons where a bottom belay isn't available) gave me a sense of safety that shouldn't be there. Being made aware of that was embarrassing and thought-provoking. Regardless of how someone ends up rappelling in a canyon, that complacency is a bad thing. Knowledge that you are safe, and a sense of security because you're doing the right things is great, but complacency is not.
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  18. Kuenn

    Kuenn

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    Good points, Anna.

    Ultimately? Yes, I totally agree.

    But as you and others have alluded to, the atmosphere established by the group can play a major role - complacency or rowdy - for that matter. When a group enters an avenue (especially one that is technical... but not always), rowdy or complacent, it's an adventure-like Petri dish where mistakes can and often do happen, and rapidly. Don't get me wrong, I like to have fun and cut-up (maybe too much, on occasion) just as much as the next person. But there are times to ratchet up or down, depending on the prevailing mood.

    Back to the bottom-belay/fireman's. I've never had one administered on me in the field. Thankfully, I've never needed it. But I have experienced it many times during training sessions. On occasion, I will just let go of the rope to test the belayer. Oft times they are a bit slow (for my liking) in catching me. And oft times I'm just about to grab the rope. It's a boat load of fun - try it sometime... as long as they're your friends. :eek:

    EDIT: Left that thought dangling out there... So what exactly was my point regarding bottom-belays? Yes, certainly they are better than not having one. However, don't place too much confidence in them. It takes a sharp eye an alert partner to recognize when to engage the fireman's belay. Hopefully they do so in time, but even when they know it's coming (i.e. training sessions) it can border on inert.

    Yes, yes, to your first point; ultimately you are in charge of reaching the bottom safely.
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2015
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  19. Anna

    Anna

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    Yes, that's very true. It isn't 100% you who determines your fate in a canyon. It's a lot more up to you in a canyon than when driving, but the group environment definitely has some influence. Visiting a canyon in large groups (>4 or so) seems like it's quite different from going with a smaller group...joking, rowdiness, and noise happen more often. This could potentially lead to more mistakes, but in addition, it also seems (to me) that the more people you have together in a canyon, the easier it is to get a kind of sense of security, which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the reality in the canyon. Not sure why that is. It's definitely very possible to do stupid things in small groups, but it just seems easier with more people.

    I'm actually a bit of a party pooper in canyons, at least around the main obstacles. I do enjoy the scenery and talk, otherwise why even visit?, but I spend a lot of the time thinking and concentrating to try and minimize mistakes, especially in a new (to me) canyon. That may reflect lack of experience or paranoia more than anything, but it definitely seems quite a bit harder to concentrate with more people.
  20. Yellow Dart

    Yellow Dart It's only hubris if I fail.

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    One more thing that can happen when always bloacking/prussicing, is that if you have to crank down on it hard after a long rappel (so the block material is very hot) eventually it could get hot enough to melt. Like it did here, in Coral last October. Context: that was a brand new cut-that-morning 200' CanyonFire, and the melt happened on the 50' mark (so he had gone down 150' on a very slick rope).

    Not taking a side, as we use both when appropriate, but we fireman most anything over 50' as our modus operandi, and shorter if the person asks for it.

    DSC01292.JPG

    And before I get a :moses: from @ratagonia , this was before we saw the light and started wearing helmets. Bones always has a helmet on while firemanning these days.
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