Hi This is probably my number one question, so I’ll try and answer it in a way that’ll hopefully make sense to others:
Was the Silent Partner the best soloing device?
Is the SIlent Partner better? Well, the answer is yes it was, with the emphasis on the ‘was’. The SP was designed from the ground up as a rope soloing belay device, which means it was both overbuilt, so very strong, and designed to have the highest degree of ‘catch’ in any and all types of falls (sideways, upside down, the ropes set incorrectly). It also tried to design out problems such as cross-loading, which could result in a device that locked, but a locker that broke; doing this by having a two karabiner clip-in point, which also locked the plates together (it was impossible for the rope to escape from the device). Having used my SP for nearly twenty years, and have taken significant falls on it (including 100+ foot), and done both aid and free, when you put all the aspects of the device together, then it was the best device on the market.
What has happened to the Silent Partner
There is a very good pierce in Climbing (Rock Exotica Silent Partner sells for $1400 on eBay) about the background to the demise of the Silent Partner (as well as the Soloaid and Soloist), but basically Rock Exotica lost money on the device, which I think retailed for $200 yet only sold about 100 a year. I think this issue may be highlighting how lucky climbers are - or how we take these things for granted - that often the gear we complain about being expensive, such as a carbon fiber axe or portalege - is really the deal of the century. In any other sport, such as road cycling, gear as specialist as what’s on offer to climbers, would be ten or twenty times more expensive. It’s also true that the mindset that the customer views any expensive climbing gear (like BD Superlight cam) as a ‘rip off’, means companies either just don’t push the design envelope (they think there's no market), or really niche gear just dies on the vine. If the Silent Partner had cost the same as an iPhone 10, which is made in the millions, then it would still be manufactured, and could well have been worth the cost to those 100 customers a year. When I bought my SIlent Partner it seemed like a very expensive piece of gear, but really it was almost a one of a kind, and it allowed me to repeatedly experience adventures money could not buy, and now it’s potentially worth ten times what I paid for it! But the device is dead, and although Rock Thompson at Rock Exotica says he might come up with a new design unless he rethinks the pricing and customers buy them, I’d not hold my breath. This means the only place to get an SP is eBay.
What’s wrong with the GriGri?
Before I continue I must state that the Petzl GriGri is not designed for rope soloing, it is an assisted belay device designed to be used by experienced climbers. Petzl, and all manufacturers, have to remain with a very strict legal boundary in terms of their equipment being used improperly, modified or any anyway misused because when you do this, people can and do die. Personally, I cannot recommend anyone use anything but a Silent Partner either, as it was the only device designated for rope soloing, but I can share my experience of using the GriGri, and its use by others.
An imperfect solution
The problem with the GriGri is that lacks what makes the SP so good, in that it's not 100% reliable in all fall vectors (sideways, upside down), and even if the cam was to lock there are many other things that can fuck you up (handle depressed by a sling or your body, fifi hook jammed in the mechanism). You also only have one connection point, which has led to at least one failure (Tom Randall - yes that Tom Randall - took a huge whipper rope soloing and broke the HMS krab connecting him to the GriGri, but was saved by his back-up knot). Furthermore, pilot-error has to lead to many accidents with the GriGri, with the rope being put in the wrong way (I’ve done this several times myself), or just poor basic belay skills. Does this mean the GriGri is out? No, it just means:
- You need to be 100% proficient in using a GriGri, to the point that it’s second nature.
- If you have not put in hundreds of hours using a GriGri you should not be trying to rope soling with it.
- You must understand how it works and its limitations, and how it functions with different rope diameters.
- You must understand the effect of twisting and levering and cross-loading forces on the device and its connectors.
- You must have realistic expectations of how well such a device will cooperate with your ambition
Not the system, but only one part of it
Just as no one looks at a Swiss watch and imagines it functions because of a single cog, safe rope soloing is undertaken using many different pieces, from belay set up, ropes, knots, rope bags, connectors, back-up systems, no one part more or less important as the whole. To fixate on say the Silent Partner, and pay $1400 on one, may indicate that someone views the device as the linch-pin when really you’re the pin, and before embarking on some rope soloing escapade, you need to have tried and learned all techniques and all devices you can.
So can I use a GriGri or what?
The GriGri has been used very effectively by many climbers, often doing very impressive things, including Keita Kurakami’s free roped solo of the Nose and on one-day speed ascents of El Cap and many solos. But for every wad whose questing up El Cap, there are fifty who have flayed around at the base and local crag and given up, as to achieve mastery over your GriGri requires a very high degree of competency, which requires a great deal of skill, which requires a great deal of training. This means climbing really easy routes, to begin with, lots of them, then easy multi-pitch routes, learning as you go (how big does the loop need to be between you and the back-up knot, what rope moves best through the device etc). Rope soloing is not something you do because you’ve not got a partner for this weekend, just as sailing around the world by yourself is not because no one wanted to come, it is about mastery, which includes knowing you could get killed doing it.
A great place to start is to watch the videos on Yan Camus YouTube channel, as he talks a lot about rope soloing devices and rope soloing tech, and covers a lot of the problems in a way that’s easy to understand (upside downfalls for example). All assisted braking belay devices should work, but often there are variations on the spring or frame strength that make them less effective, and I think the Edelrid Eddy is the only other device worth trying out. I get a lot of questions about the Wild Country Revo, which I suspect came about due to Pete Whittaker’s use of the Silent Partner, and although I’ve never used it, my ‘spider senses’ tell me to avoid it, mainly due to its construction, and that, unlike a cam, you’re not really sure what strength criteria was built into the device, and so going out of bounds of normal use might be more dangerous than with standard meat and two veg device (or two slabs all alloy and a steel cam). On the GriGris side of things, I think the GriGri+ has some advantages for rope soloing over the standard GriGri, such as being able to adjust spring strength and a handle that releases if pulled too hard (important if the handle gets caught in a sling).
This is not intended as an instructional piece (check out the rope soloing articles on this site, or my book on the subject), but I need to stress the use of the correct connector, as this is the weak link in the system. I would advise using a 10mm steel rapid link (very heavy, but VERY strong and resistant to cross-loading), that is designed to hold the device in the correct ordination on your belay loop, either using rubber bands or something like the Petzl Tanga. Put finger tape on the collar of the rapid-link to make it easier to tighten (having a small alloy spinner, multi-tool or second rapid-link to act as spanner for undoing the rapid link is handy, but don’t tighten it with a spanner when leading, as it should be removable with your fingers). One style of rapid-link worth looking at is the 8mm twisted rapid link, as this allows the device to sit flat against the body, so it catches less.
The increasing use of Micro Traxion to adjust the dead rope has meant more climbers are climbing without a real back up. With a Silent Partner you can guarantee to some certainty that the device will lock, and so no back-up - in extreme cases, such as speed climbing - people have taken the risk. But for roped soloing with any other device having no back-up is suicidal, as a failure for the device to lock would see you just zip off the rope to your death. This fact demonstrates again that the device is only part of a system, a system that you must understand is very close to free soloing in reality, in that fall should not be part of the game, so as not to test the system, but staying on the rock!
The final piece of advice
Rope soloing is the cave diving of rock climbing. It is both a highly skilled and highly dangerous endeavour and unlike free soloing easy routes down the local crag to feel good about yourself - often to make up for a lack of actual skill or ability - rope soloing is not for the novice or the have a go hero. Undertaking highly complex techniques, high off the ground, without really knowing what you’re doing is neither fun nor the pathway to old age. So my advice is always to not do it - don’t solo period - as it’s always best to climb with another human being and not with a lump of cold metal.