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What is the best belay | rappel | autoblock device for traditional alpine mountaineering?

The best belay, rappel and autoblock device to have on your Alpine Bod Harness may be the new Trango B52.  (Or is the best the Black Diamond ATC-Guide?) This is why I think so and so!

In 1971, Royal Robbins, in his landmark book "Basic Rockcraft", describes only the "body belay" where the belayer's body, braced in the correct position and perhaps anchored, provided the necessary friction for a dynamic belay of the lead or following climber who was tied into the rope by a bowline on a coil or a swami belt alone.  Rappels described by Robbins were the dulfersitz or long rappels controlled by a "brake" assembled from six to eight oval carabiners with gates opposed.  The traditional mountaineer at least knows and has practiced the super easy, super fast body belays.  I never had to use the clumsy carabiner brake.

By 1973, Royal Robbins published "Advanced Rockcraft" including a chapter titled "Gadgets". Robbins wrote "Although I personally prefer climbing methods that are spare, there are climbers (and the number is growing) who see advantages in equipment not strictly necessary".  The Gadgets Robbins described were Safety Helmets, Seat and Chest Harnesses, Descenders (the figure eight) and the Sticht Belay Plate.

Some folks still use the figure eight descender or rappel device.  It is best suited for larger ropes (10 to 11 mm), and can be dangerous with smaller diameter alpine ropes (7.6 to 9 mm) because the amount of friction can not be controlled.  Suggested use of the small end as a belay device is very questionable.

The Sticht belay plate can be found in second hand stores and on the racks of some very old climbers.  Some (the Sticht plates not the old climbers) were equipped with a coiled spring wire to keep the carabiner away from the plate so the rope could be paid out more easily.  I have always found the Sticht plate hard to use.  It is either on, (jammed) or off.  (A nifty use is to place the plate (sans spring) in front of the anchor pulley in a crevasse rescue to serve as a prussic block.)

A few years ago, Trango offered the Pyramid.  It was designed both for belaying and for rappelling.  Black Diamond  produced a similar device a few months later that they called the Air Traffic Controller or ATC.  The Trango Pyramid is a little easier to push a too fat rope into and could be used in two modes, providing two degrees of friction.  The Trango Pyramid has fins which can dissipate rappelling heat better than the ATC, according to popular belief.  I think most mountaineers prefer the Trango Pyramid over the ATC.

Both the ATC and the Trango Pyramid loose friction on the smaller diameter 7.6 to 8.9 mm alpine ropes.  Trango did a novel comparison test of the braking force required by several devices.  There is no standard for this test, but field reports seem to support their findings according to Malcolm Daley.  The Trango Pyramid required 24.7 pounds of force for a 10.7mm rope and 36.9 for an 8.4mm rope.  The ATC required 22.3 and 36.7 pounds of force.

Petzl offered the Grigri.  Sport climbers take note: do not bring your Grigri to the mountains.  The Petzl tech notes state: "The Grigri is designed for indoor climbing or sport climbing, NOT for alpinism or adventure climbing. The Grigri is NOT a substitute for skilled, vigilant belaying!"  The Grigri is designed as an automatic rope lock in the event of a fall.  This action may rip sketchy alpine anchors from the not necessarily perfect alpine rock.

Now Trango has produced the B-52!  It is much lighter (60g) and more simple than the Reverso.  It weighs 60gm and the Reverso weighs 81gm.  It looks more like the ATC or Trango Pyramid, but the advanced design makes it easier to load the rope through long slots and easier to feed rope to the leader.  It is a very smooth rappel device for ropes from 8 to 11mm.  The B52 will also function as an autoblock with a locking carabiner from your SARENE anchor clipped through the long slot that takes the upper belay rope.  (The alloy body of the B52 reportedly tested very strong in this configuration.  It was tested on an Enstron dynamometer and reportedly the carabiner broke before the B52.)  The Trango test showed the B52 required 19.2 pounds of force for a 10.7mm rope and only 23.2 for an 8.4mm rope, very important for the traditional mountaineer.  The B52 retails for about $23.00!  It's  bomber!
--Robert Speik
Copyright© 2004-2010 by Robert Speik. All rights reserved.


   B52A.jpg (22289 bytes)   B52.jpg (56735 bytes)


Well, time passes and the World Turns: the BD ATC-Guide

I just received my new "Full Function Belay and Rappel Device" direct from Black Diamond Equipment: the BD ATC-Guide. The BD ATC-Guide device certainly looks less tricky to use than the B-52! Here is an illustration of the BD ATC-Guide so you can compare:



The link below leads to the second generation of the BD ATC-Guide (with lightening holes). I now own both versions!


Here are the three most obvious improvements over of the BD ATC-Guide (102g) over the Trango B-52 (60g) that we can note:
There is a very big and stout looking hole to link the ATC-Guide device to the anchor (not your harness!) when using it in the Guide mode. I will do this infrequently. I am not a Guide. But in a rescue situation, it might  be great to have a self stopping system to belay a companion downclimbing a pitch, etc.
Note that the above is a perceived improvement over the B-52, which requires clipping a carabiner through the (strong) "frame" of the little device.

There is an obvious handy little hole at the other side, to ease or release the grip of the device on the rope(s) when used in guide mode. Move this by hand or with your handy prussic cord using a biner on the anchor as a pulley to re-direct the releasing pull to your harness biner.

Here is the best improvement, in our opinion:
The BD ATC-Guide has two little slots on a narrowed section that grips each side of the rope(s) when used in the "HFM" (High Friction Mode). Used in the "RFM" (Regular Friction Mode) the device works like the old reliable BD ATC.

OK, Bob, what is so good about this?
Well, traditional mountaineers use skinny (light weight) ropes. The BD ATC-Guide will hold a belay or rappel or follower on rope diameters from 7.7mm to 11mm, single or double. So will the Trango B52 but I think the ATC-Guide is harder to mis-use.

It looks like the BD ATC-Guide device may hold skinny ropes better than the B-52, due to the little slots in the narrower profile. I will try to find out if tests have been made.

However, the original ATC-Guide is 1.41801327 ounces heavier than the B52!

(The ATC-XP and the ATC-Sport both have these little slots in a narrower profile and can be used in the HFM mode. The ATC-Sport is really for single rope top-rope belays only.)
--Robert Speik
Copyright© 2010 by Robert Speik. All rights reserved.





Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated

The Three Sisters and Broken Top
South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister (the sinister sister) and Broken Top in the Three Sisters Wilderness near Bend, Oregon USA
Copyright© 2004 - 2011 by Robert Speik. All rights reserved.



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Here are links to the manufacturers instructions for this gear.  The notes above are only meant to point you in the right direction. Read the manufacturers instructions. Do your own research and learn to use your gear with an experienced person, practicing techniques on belay at the local crag with friends before lugging it up the hill to attempt a technical peak. --Webmeister.
Trango B52
Black Diamond ATC-Guide

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