Ask a Guide: Dropped Belay Device
On multi-pitch climbs, you carry a lot of gear with you–cams, nuts, draws, slings, carabiners–and of course, your trusted belay/rappel device. Over the years, I’ve seen people drop gear on climbs more often than you might imagine. What will you do when it happens to you?
Dropping your #2 Camalot is a big deal, especially if your route offers up plenty of hand crack, but in most cases you can make do with other gear and plan your protection strategy for each pitch accordingly (if you’re climbing a trad route, that is). Dealing with a dropped cam, nut, or quickdraw does not normally require a higher level of technical knowledge or expertise. But dropping your belay device is a whole other matter; it’s arguably the most critical piece of gear on your harness. If this happens, you’ll need to improvise another way to belay your partner up the pitch you’ve just finished.
Perhaps the best way to do this is with the Munter Hitch. I often use the Munter Hitch exclusively in alpine terrain because it is fast, and it requires only a locking pear-shaped carabiner to build and use properly. It’s not a great idea to use the Munter Hitch routinely for multi-pitch rock climbing, the reasons for which I’ll get into later in this article. But if you are unfortunate enough to drop your belay device three pitches up, it makes for an excellent solution for both you and your partner.
Building the Munter Hitch
The Munter Hitch is best created using a large pear-shaped carabiner like a Petzl Attache or a Black Diamond Rock Lock. This gives the hitch plenty of room to set itself properly on the carabiner and ensures maximum efficiency for both belaying and lowering or rappelling. For belaying your partner up the pitch (standard top-down belaying) it’s important to clip your Munter Hitch carabiner directly to the master point/equalization point/hot point on the anchor, and when doing so make sure that the gate of the carabiner is facing down and out (towards the climber). Orienting the carabiner in this fashion is an important step in using the Munter Hitch properly, and will ensure that you have the best ergonomics for your belay.
Next, simply clip the rope running to your climber through the carabiner (Step 1). If you’re at a ledge, you can actually do this right away without the need to pull up any additional slack in the rope (like you normally would when using your traditional belay device). The pear-shaped carabiner makes for a handy little ratchet the as you pull up the rope; it will stack itself very neatly on the ledge. After you’ve pulled up all the slack, what will become your brake strand will either be coming out of the left or the right side of the carabiner, depending on how you are oriented at the belay. It doesn’t really matter which way you’ve set this up, just realize that if it’s coming out of the left side you will be using your left hand as the brake hand, and vice versa.
Next, you need to create the twist in the rope to create the loop, which will then go on the carabiner to make the Munter Hitch (Step 2). This can be hard to explain in writing, so see the photos and video below to get a better feel for what this looks like. Using what will become the brake strand, simply make a loop/twist in the rope where the rope lays on top of itself and then rolls on to the carabiner (Step 3). Once you’ve done this, you have created the Munter Hitch and are ready to belay your partner (Step 4). Always remember to lock your carabiner before you start to belay!
A Few Important Considerations
A critical piece of information to consider when using the Munter Hitch to belay or lower your partner is that it is NOT a hands-free belay device. Devices such as the Black Diamond ATC or Petzl Reverso are very common self-locking belay devices that many climbers use on multi-pitch climbs for good reason, as they allow you to operate the belay and perform other tasks at the same time. Not so with the Munter Hitch; never let your hand leave the brake strand while using it to belay.
Another disadvantage of the Munter Hitch is that it will introduce twists into the rope – especially when you place it under a load such as a rappel or lower. If you use it often, you’ll definitely notice that your climbing rope will start to twist and generally be more difficult to deal with over time.
Dropping your belay device halfway up a multi-pitch rock climbing can and probably will happen to you at some point in your climbing career. Practicing and mastering the use of the Munter Hitch can make the difference between successfully completing your climb and figuring out a convoluted solution in a potentially stressful situation. In that case, you’ll also be glad you brought your cell phone and a headlamp. You’ll need them!