Neil Foster reminisces about some belay devices of yore and reviews three innovative new devices: the Petzl Reverso 4, Mammut Bionic Alpine and Grivel Master Pro.My first impressions of these belay devices was just how far these particular pieces of every day climbing hardware have developed during the time I have been climbing, and I found myself thinking back to the different belay devices I have used over the last 35 years.
I think the first friction belay device we used was a large Clog figure of 8. This was intended as an abseil device, but could double as a makeshift belay device, albeit one where independently controlling double ropes was awkward, to say the least.
Next we progressed to the ubiquitous Salewa Stitch Plate, and I used these for many years, owning versions with a single slot for an 11mm rope, one with two different slots – a wider one for 11mm ropes and a narrower slot for 9mm ropes, and the one which became my mainstay – the twin 9mm plate. Originally these comprised a single round plate, but this had a tendency to jam if trying to pay out slack quickly. Things were improved somewhat when Salewa later added a substantial spring to the base of the plate, ensuring the plate was always held away from the krab.
After many years of using a sprung stitch plate, I joined the revolution when I tried a Black Diamond Air Traffic Controller or ATC, and I remember being impressed by how much easier it was to pay out rope smoothly using this device compared to my stitch plate. I used ATCs for several years, though every time it was a failure of the carrying wire swaging adjacent to the device, which rendered my device redundant, long before the body itself had shown any signs of significant wear.
More recently I have been using a Wild Country VC Pro, which added smooth teeth to controlling side of the device, giving an excellent rope handling with extra control. I've also spent some time with the Petzl Reverso 3, tempted by its ultra-light-weight and attractive green anodising!
The devices I have been trying in this test are mostly evolutions of the ATC, being lightweight and suitable for twin ropes. Perhaps the biggest new enhancement to these devices is the reverso or guide mode. This allows the belay device to be suspended directly from a bolt belay (on a multi-pitch sport route more typically found outside the UK) via an eye at one end of the device. The lead climber (or guide!) is then outside the system, able to easily control the ropes of his second, or seconds, which will auto-lock should they fall off.
I have not tested the reverso mode on these devices, not least because it is a technique I have yet to properly learn. But I have climbed with European climbers who use it all the time on multi pitch routes with decent bolted belays, and it seems to be a very fast and flexible system once you have mastered the technique. If you want to know more about belaying in reverso mode, I suggest googling for instructional videos on such devices – there are good examples from Petzl, or Grivel, which will explain the technique much better than my attempt at describing it.
And so to the devices on test...
Having only recently bought a Reverso 3, I was particularly intrigued to test the latest incarnation of this line of impressive belay devices from Petzl. The device looks just as large as the others on test, but when you pick it up, it seems to weigh next to nothing. Remarkably Petzl has managed to shave 25% off the weight compared to the Reverso IV's predecessor, with thinner outer walls, and a couple of holes adjacent to reverso suspension-eye accounting for most of that saving.
This is a device incorporating gentle 'teeth' in the control end, and I found these gave perfectly adequate friction when both belaying and abseiling. That you can get such functionality, as well as reverso belaying capability in a device weighing just 59g seems remarkable to me. However, the thin walls of the device are a little susceptible to scuffs and general wear. As with any piece of hardware which comes into contact with ropes, occasional checking for sharp burrs is sensible, and this device seemed to be the one most prone to marking.
That said, the Reverso IV is a brilliant, simple, effective lightweight piece of kit, with a competitive price.
The Mammut Bionic Alpine is very similar in overall size and shape to the Petzl Reverso IV, and once again it is much lighter than it looks. Mammut have cut the weight by incorporating a long hole in the sidewalls and central wall of the device but the remaining metal feels chunkier than in some other devices. It's suitable for rope diameters 7.5mm to 10.5mm.
Again the reverso capability is key to the functionality of this device, which Mammut say is optimised for alpine multi-pitch rockclimbing. For ordinary cragging and abseiling I found this another very capable, smooth device, with gentle teeth at the control end again providing plenty of friction.
The Bionic Alpine feels rather more substantial than the Reverso IV but the weight difference is scarcely discernible. For those who find the Petzl just a little too insubstantial, this would make an excellent choice.
The Grivel Master Pro differs from any other device I have seen by the addition of a pair of protruding hooks at one end. These are intended to offer additional friction when either belaying, or abseiling, by hooking the controlling ends of the rope over the hooks. The normal controlling side of the device already incorporates a set of gentle 'teeth' or v-slots, and the position of the hooks forces the rope to take maximum advantage of these slots, as well as the extra friction afforded by the hooks themselves.
Although these hooks are unique to the Master Pro, I didn't find them that useful, probably because the main slots of the device seem so well designed. They feature cooling holes in the main sides of the device, as well as the central spine. These are supposed to help disperse mud and ice, something I rarely encounter in the climbing I do! That doesn't mean I can't appreciate such features however, since they are responsible for shaving all important grams from a device which, like the Mammut, looks much heavier than it actually is.
In the video below, Stevie Haston demonstrates the key functions of the Master Pro, as well as some more esoteric ones such as the footloop ascender function. For those who like to get the most from their kit, this is certainly a versatile device.
In use I found the Master Pro to be very well made, with a smooth, high quality finish. Belaying was smooth and the device rarely jammed. Abseiling was equally fuss-free. Hooks notwithstanding (and to be fair, though I didn't feel the need to use them, the hooks never got in the way) the Grivel Master Pro is an excellent choice.
There are lots of quality new belay devices on the market, many featuring reverso functionality which enables leaders to bring up a second (or a pair of seconds if climbing on separate ropes) with autolock capability. This technique is widely practised on continental multi-pitch sport climbing with equipped belays, though it is seldom used in the UK. The devices are getting lighter and smoother to use and the perhaps reflecting the smaller materials content, they represent excellent value for money. I could happily live with any of the other devices and my favourite was really only down to personal preference rather than some inherent improvement in functionality.
Of the devices I tried, the ones I kept coming back to were the Grivel Master Pro and the Petzl Reverso IV. It seems that one of my mates (who all had a go with the various devices on test) also took a shine to the Grivel, since that one seems to have disappeared completely! But that is not the only reason that for all my trad climbing in 2012, the Petzl Reverso IV has been my belay device of choice, giving excellent belaying and abseiling control, whilst at the same time weighing so little that I hardly know I am carrying the thing. It is a superb achievement by Petzl.
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