Belay and rappel devices provide friction that allow you to safely stop a fall or descend a rope. In recent years friction device design has exploded, with many more options available than in the early years of climbing, where the body belay and Münter hitch were the mainstays of belaying, and Dulfersitz or carabiner brakes got you down the rope at the end of the climb. Friction devices may be either passive (i.e., ones with no moving parts), or active (devices that rely on some kind of mechanism, usually to allow the rope to run freely until it is loaded, at which point they lock up).
Passive DevicesDespite the bewildering array of choices, there are only three distinct designs for passive friction devices, and only two of them, the plate/tube and figure eight, can be used for both belaying and rapelling. Since the figure eight design twists the rope as it is fed through, the preponderance of devices on the market, and in use by climbers, are of the tube/plate design. The Kong GiGi shown in this page's primary image is an example of a passive tube/plate device that can also function in autolock mode, which allows the belayer to bring up one or two seconds without having to hold onto the rope all the time. The third style, the bar, is really only useful for rappelling, and won’t be discussed here except to say that all climbers should know how to improvise a carabiner brake.
Active DevicesActive devices, which are typically designed with autolocking capability, are more diverse, as manufacturers via with each other to produce the easiest, most reliable device possible. One of the first in this category, and still a very popular piece of gear, is Petzl’s GriGri. The introduction of devices intended for roped soloing, such a Wren’s Soloist and Silent Partner, has further spurred innovation in this arena. Active devices tend to be much heavier, more expensive, and less versatile than passive devices. They may also be trickier to use, leading to the possibility that inexperienced users can create dangerous situations for themselves and their partners.
Selecting a Friction DeviceFriction devices, whether intended solely for rappelling, for both rappelling and belaying, or for more specialized uses, may differ in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Some of the things to consider when choosing a device include (in no particular order):
- Diameter of rope the device can safely handle
- Whether the device will work with one rope or two
- Amount of friction the device creates
- The ability to vary the amount of friction
- Ease of use
- Autolocking functionality