In the modern climbing era it’s become regular practice on multipitch routes to belay from above with a belay device that has an assisted-braking function. In common-speak, we are talking about “auto-locking” or “self-locking” plate devices such as the DMM Pivot. When you’re belaying a following climber off the anchor from the top of a pitch, these devices assist your brake hand by directing the climber’s end of the rope into the device above the brake-end of the rope as it comes back out. When weighted, the climber’s end pinches the brake-end and keeps the climber from falling. The manufacturers of these devices recommend keeping a brake hand on the rope while belaying and catching a fall, hence the proper phrase used for these devices–“assisted braking” rather than “self-locking.” Other examples of this type of belay device include the Petzl Reverso 4, Black Diamond ATC Guide, Cassin Piu 2, Edelrid Mega Jul, Kong Gigi, Mammut Smart, Mammut Bionic Alpine Belay, and the CAMP Ovo.
The DMM Pivot is the only device on the market with a pivoting clip-loop for assisted braking, which adds less than an ounce of weight compared to the Petzl Reverso, the Pivot’s closest competitor in shape and design. The Pivot’s swiveling loop allows its angle to adjust to increase the ease of releasing the brake and lowering a seconding climber from an anchor above.
During more than six months of guiding, climbing, and ski-mountaineering in diverse alpine and rock environments in Colorado, Alaska, Canada, France, Italy, and Switzerland, I compared the Pivot to other popular belay devices (especially the Petzl Reverso 4 and Black Diamond ATC Guide) in a variety of situations such as toproping, crevasse rescue, belayed skiing into steep couloirs, top-belaying multiple climbers at a time on multipitch rock and alpine climbs, rappelling, and rock rescue practice. In real-time scenarios and improvised testing stations at my local climbing gym, in the field, and at my home, I tested the efficiency and ease of releasing the various assisted braking systems. I practiced releasing the brake using carabiners, nut tools, and redirected slings with one and two climbers at a time, and lowering climbers full pitch lengths.
When I was using the Pivot in “guide mode” (a term referring to the assisted braking function) and releasing the brake to lower a second, the Pivot performed exceptionally well and better than the Reverso, ATC Guide and other devices. Releasing the brake using leverage with a nut tool (multiple sizes of nut tools worked, which is not true for all devices on the market), a carabiner, or redirected sling required noticeably less bicep effort and manipulation than other devices. Some devices simply locked up and did not lower at all.
The design of the Pivot’s rope channels (the two holes where a bight of rope goes through) is similar to the Petzl Reverso 4 and quite different from the Black Diamond ATC Guide. The Pivot and Reverso’s channels are shorter in length and thinner in width than the ATC Guide. The ATC Guide has deeper, longer, and wider-ridged outlets–the V-shaped part of the channel where the brake end of the rope exits the device. The ATC Guide has three ridges in the V-shaped outlet while the Pivot has two and a half, and the Reverso has two.
On the positive side, the Pivot (and Reverso) offers more friction and holding power than the ATC Guide, especially when you’re using thinner ropes, 9.2mm in diameter and smaller (DMM says the Pivot can be used for ropes 7.3mm to 11mm). This is a great feature when toprope or lead belaying in normal plaquette style. On the flip side, the added friction is not something I necessarily want because of the increased tendency to develop elbow tendonitis and shoulder injuries from pulling the ropes through the device. For most weekend warriors multipitch climbing in a team of two, this is not a concern. For folks like myself who are climbing more than twenty days per month, and who are often doing the majority of leading and then belaying one or two seconding climbers from above, this is a big deal. Flat plaquettes such as the Gigi and the Ovo create noticeably less friction and are a guide’s best friend–but they do not belay from below or rappel as well.
Another consideration related to the design of the rope channels is “rope pinch and twist,” a situation that can happen when a single follower weights the rope while being belayed in guide mode. With a thin-enough rope the weighted climber-side of the rope can slip to the side of the brake-end and get pinched in the rope channel; with a simple 180-degree twist of the carabiner, the assisted brake will release–not good. Rope-pinch happens relatively often when a seconding climber falls and abruptly pulls his/her rope into the V-Shaped groove to the side of the brake-end of the rope. Once the seconding climber begins climbing again after a fall, the belayer simply pulls (sometimes hard) the pinched rope out from the V-shaped groove and all is well.
However, if said fallen climber wants to be lowered, the belayer will initiate a release of the brake by levering the device with a carabiner, nut tool or a redirected sling. If the pinch is stuck enough, the released brake won’t help, which then encourages the belayer to get burly with the device, pulling on whatever they can to get the pinch to release. Pulling on the brake end of the rope or the carabiner can make the carabiner do the above-mentioned 180-degree twist, which completely releases the braking mechanism of the device. Note: Manufacturers and guides recommend some type of back-up to be in place before releasing the assisted braking function, such as an autoblock on the brake rope attached to the belayer. See the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2016, Fall on Rock: Lowering Error, P. 63. With all of that said, rope pinch-and-twist can happen with surprising ease on the ATC Guide and the flat plaquettes compared to the Pivot, simply due to the difference in the width of the channels.
Overall, I found the Pivot to be a solid piece of equipment, and until a plaquette style belay/rappel device comes out that is light, requires little effort to belay in guide mode, belays both thin and thick ropes well, releases from an assisted brake with ease, and belays and rappels smoothly, the DMM Pivot will stand as a gold-standard item. Because I have a quiver of belay devices, I have the privilege to choose the right device for my day of climbing. The Pivot has become a regular tool in my guiding and climbing. I specifically choose the Pivot when I am belaying from above using ropes less than 9.2mm in diameter, and when I know rappels will be part of the descent.
Mike Lewis, M.A. is an AMGA Certified Rock and Alpine Guide living in Estes Park, Colorado. Mike has been guiding and instructing for 23 years throughout the U.S. and internationally. Learn more about Mike at LunchboxJackson.com.
Lightweight, ease of releasing the assisted braking function, belays thin ropes well
Higher friction when belaying thick ropes