Many years ago, the leader's main fear in a fall was the very real possibility that the rope would break. Ropes were made of the natural fiber hemp, and if a belayer held on too strongly, the rope would snap, even in a fall that by today's standard is not long. To prevent this, early editions of this book said that beginners had to study the theory of something called dynamic belay technique and practice it every year by holding simulated falls with heavy weights. Today, this is no longer necessary. Everyone takes for granted that a belay, correctly set up and executed, will eventually hold any fall. Modern ropes seldom, if ever, break (although they can be cut by a sharp edge of rock).
Today, the leader's main fear in a fall is the failure of his protection. Protection is explained fully in Chapter 10, but its general purpose is shown in figure 7-23. The topmost piece of protection stops a leader fall. If it is pulled out of the mountain, then the climber falls much farther, until the next protection gets a chance to hold the fall. Unfortunately, the protection is the weakest link in the belay system. This is partly because the force on the protection is greater than anywhere else, 50 percent greater than in the rope between the top protection and the climber. But the major factor is the uncertainty of the protection itself. Usually the limiting factor is not the breaking strength of the hardware, but the firmness of its fit in the rock and the quality of the rock (or ice) itself. Climbing lore is replete with true horror stories of supposedly "bombproof" protection that pulled out of the mountain in a fall, or even after a firm test tug. Therefore, the older belay techniques for reducing forces, described below, arc still relevant. They are not necessary to save the rope and the climber's life, but many experienced climbers know them and occasionally use them to protect the protection. Be forewarned: there are few simple rules. Many decisions involve some trade-off between benefit and risk. The best choice is seldom clear. However, if you understand how a belay works,
Fig. 7-23. If the topmost protection fails, the climber will fall an additional distance, which is twice the distance to the next protection down.
you can, at least, decide what would be a bad choice in certain situations.
We will progress from simple concepts of belay physics to complex ones. A little history can illustrate the principles.
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