A couple years back an interesting story made its way around climbing Internet forums. In it, an experienced (relative to his partners) climber led a team of two others up the Shawangunks classic, High Exposure. High E is only a 5.6, but it’s a Gunks 5.6, which means it involves a roof of substantial size. Awkward in the extreme, the move past the roof has sent more than one unprepared follower into the ether. And let me tell you, that particular ether is immense. It’s not uncommon for the hapless second to end up dangling in mid air, unable to even touch the rock to resume climbing.
Unfortunately, this particular leader rigged his second and third climbers in a cow-tail configuration. That means two followers on one rope, tied into the end 3-5 meters apart. The cow tail’s fatal flaw is that, if the last climber falls, he takes the second climber with him. It is as close to unavoidable as it’s possible to get, and this party was, of course, unable to avoid it. Even more unfortunately, the leader was belaying with a plaquette-style device, perhaps even an immensely popular Petzl Reverso 3 or Black Diamond ATC-Guide. He was unable to release it and lower his team to the ledge from which they started. Long story short… with the last climber out of reach of the wall, both of them hung in the air helpless as a two-inch trout, until some other brainiac attached the third climber to an intermediate anchor and instructed her to cut the rope. (Yes, cut the rope. Don’t even go there. That’s not the point of all this.)
The point is, how many Reverso 3 and ATC-Guide users have actually tried to release a dangling follower — under a full load with the climber hanging free in the air? I have a sawbuck that says very few.
Petzl’s recommended release and lower method is difficult to accomplish under full load.
Black Diamond and Petzl recommend similar methods. BD recommends girth hitching a 10mm Dyneema runner (a thicker runner won’t fit) to the ATC-Guide’s nose hole, redirecting that sling through a carabiner clipped to the anchor above, and then pulling down on the sling to reorient the device and release the autoblock. Petzl eliminates the sling by recommending you clip a carabiner through the Reverso 3’s nose hole and use it as a lever to accomplish the same thing.
Neither method is perfect. The ATC-Guide comes closest with its sling redirect, but it also requires the belayer to adjust the angle of the device to control friction by adjusting his or her pull on the sling. And the Reverso 3? You may never get that far, because with dead weight on the line, it’s as difficult to release as Charlie Manson. If you manage it, you’ll find it even more difficult to adjust the angle of the device.
With a tiny addition to the ATC-Guide method and a slightly larger tweak for the Reverso 3, however, both devices function magnificently.
Redirect the sling and the brake, attach the sling to you, and then weight it fully to open the device wide. Keep your hand on the brake!
Okay, you’re atop High Exposure marveling at the view, basking in your own after-send glow and belaying your beer-swilling, pizza-munching college roommate, who climbs about as much as the mercury in a South-Pole thermometer. Clipped to your anchor is an autoblocking device in “guide mode.” Your partner squirms into the roof sequence, burps pepperoni and Budweiser in just the wrong way and boom-bing-bang, he’s twisting in the breeze.
Here’s what you do.
1. Rig your device — it doesn’t matter which one you’re using — as in the Black Diamond method. Girth hitch your runner to the nose hole and redirect it through a ‘biner higher on the anchor.
2. Now clip a second runner to the first and clip the other end of it to your belay loop. Tie it short if necessary. You’ll need to be able to drop onto it without weighting your anchor tie-in.
3. Redirect the brake strand of the climbing rope through a second ‘biner, also high on the anchor.
4. Hang on to the brake, and drop onto the sling hard enough to invert the belay device and open it wide. Your weight will keep it open and the redirect on the brake will enable you to control the lower easily.
Things change a bit with other devices, such as Trango’s B-52, but the gist is the same: redirect everything. As with all things climbing, practice, practice and practice some more in a controlled environment before you need to bust this — or any plaquette lowering technique — out for real. You’re a cut-the-rope kind of climber if you don’t.