Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
[Note: This article is 20 years old, and so you should check out current methods elsewhere, or buy my book ‘Down’, which covers this subject in detail.]
Note: When talking about magic plates I’m talking about devices like the Petzl Reverso, Reversino, BD Guide and Trango B52.
The Magic Plate style belay device is a great tool, able to be used like a normal belay device or set up to auto-lock when bringing up one or two seconds. It’s in this secondary role where problems can occur, leaving both the belayer and second seemingly stuck and unable to overcome a predicament that was totally unexpected. This happens if the second needs to be lowered, perhaps because they’ve fallen off the route and are hanging in space or off the line of the route, or simply find it too hard to climb. The problem is that unlike other auto-locking devices the magic style plate cannot lower when under load meaning that the belayer can only take in. In order to overcome this situation, the belayer needs to learn a few simple tricks that will allow the device to be unloaded, while still providing a sound belay. This article sets out to show you how to carry out this task simply and safely.
THE STANDARD AUTO LOCK SET UP
For this scenario we have Jane and Mick climbing True Moments/Freebird on Gogarth’s Castell Helen. Jane has set up an equalised belay at the top of pitch 2 and is bringing up Mick using her Reverso so that she can take pictures. Technically on this type of climb, she should be using the device in normal belay mode, clipped to her harness, but seeing as how Mick’s done the route before she thinks it’s okay, plus the belay would be a bit cramped if she belayed off her harness. The belay is a collection of wires equalised to a single HMS screwgate karabiner. Jane is attached to this HMS via a clove hitch tied into one strand of the lead line, with the other strand tied with a little slacker to the strongest single piece in the belay. The Reverso is clipped to the HMS with a second HMS screwgate and both the ropes that pass through it are secured by a small D-shaped screwgate. THE PROBLEM Mick begins to second the pitch, which begins with a traverse, and Jane takes in the rope carefully so as not to pull him off. Halfway along Mick pulls off a hold and takes a big swing to the last piece on the traverse. Although all right he finds that he’s on a part of the wall which is too hard to climb and he either needs to be lowered back down to a ledge or given some slack so he can swing across the wall into Freebird. Jane immediately realises that she can’t give him any rope as the device is now locked down tight. What to do? THE EASY OPTION, First of all, she asks Mick if there is anyway he could get his weight off the rope for a second or two. If this is possible, even slightly, then this is the fastest way to solve the problem. Taking the two live ropes Jane ties them into an Italian hitch and either clips the hitch into a second HMS, or into the Reverso or main belay HMS. The second option should be avoided if possible, because although all the pieces are under load so they shouldn’t be able to escape their opened karabiners it’s still not good practice. Once the Italian hitch is in place Jane takes in the rope tight to the Reverso and unscrews the karabiner that holds both the ropes locked to the Reverso. Asking Mick to take his weight off for a second she quickly unclips the screwgate from the ropes with one hand, which makes the Reverso redundant, while holding onto the ropes coming out of the Italian hitch, which now becomes the new belay (remember that the Italian hitch locks off when the live rope is travelling in the same direction as the other rope, not opposed to it like in a normal belay plate). Jane can now lower and bring Mick up, with the whole incident taking only a few minutes to sort out and at no time was Mick un-belayed. If Jane was to find it hard to remove the Reverso’s screwgate onehanded then she could tie off the Italian hitch so as to have two hands-free.
THE HANGING OPTION
What happens if Mick can’t take his weight off the rope? If this is the case then Jane will need to employ a bit more effort and gear, but again the solution is simple. Jane does exactly the same as on the easy option up to the point where she removes the Reverso’s screwgate karabiner. Tying off the Italian hitch, she attaches a prusik loop (using cord or a sling) to both ropes below the device. Then she attaches a strand or her rope to the prusik and passing it through either of the HMS krabs, attaches the other end to her harness’s belay loop. She then squats down, pulling up on the ropes as she does so, creating a pulley system that should lift Mick a few inches. As soon as the weight comes off the Reverso she unclips the screwgate and then slowly stands again until the rope comes tight on the Italian hitch. She then removes the sling and prusik and slowly releases the Italian hitch and lowers Mick down.
NOT INTO ITALIANS
If you are unfamiliar with an Italian hitch then one option is that once you’ve released the device you may use it as a secondary belay to the hitch. Once it’s not under load you should be able to unclip it from the belay (unless you hitch it clipped to it) and use this as a secondary belay device clipped to your harness, so that you’re effectively paying rope out to the Italian hitch.
Like all these techniques it pays to practise them before you really have to use it, and have the right gear to carry it out.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram