No S&%t, there I was: four bolts up on “Forgive Yourself,” a three-star 5.12a at the Zen Wall near St. George, Utah. I really wanted the onsight. The sweeping 90-foot wall of red and black sandstone crested above us like a wave and another 30 feet dropped off below the belay ledge. The place was quiet, secluded, and there was nothing in view except an expanse of desert nothingness–hence the name, Zen Wall. It was a wonderful way to spend Christmas with my girlfriend.
There being little chalk to guide the way, I backed off a misread path toward the fifth bolt, and as I stepped down to a rounded knob of micro-conglomerate, Pop! I was floating in air. Instinctively, I reached for the rope and immediately felt a burn on the inside of my fingers as they slid down the cord. In that moment, this is what crossed my mind: “Relax, the Vergo will catch you.” I took my own advice, relaxed, let go and gave into the fall. After coming to a stop 30 feet above the ledge, I looked down and saw that my belayer had been hit by the flying baseball-sized chunk. She was crouched down and checking herself for damage. Though she kept her hand on the brake, I must say that I was glad the Trango Vergo was the belay device of choice that day.
Having been a die-hard fan of the Petzl Grigri for more than 20 years, I now proclaim that after less than three months of using the Trango Vergo assisted braking belay and rappel device, I am officially a Vergo convert. A light sadness trickles through my body in making this bold statement. Grigris (and wonderful belayers) have caught thousands of my falls, large and small, and kept me from hitting the ground; the Grigri has been right there with me at some of my finest and most memorable moments. Yet here I stand (or sit in front a computer) and type this pronouncement.
My assigned duty as an Alpinist Mountain Standards reviewer is not to sell items, but rather to give assessments that are as objective as possible. With that said, even though I am not here to sell the Vergo over the Grigri or any other belay device, I want the reader to know that the five stars I am giving this device do not come purely from an intellectually clinical perspective–there’s some real juice behind these words. Selling point numero uno, dos, tres y cuatro, para mi, all come down to this single function of the Vergo: when it clinches onto a rope, it really clinches; and I truly cannot emphasize “really clinches” enough.
To provide a little background, an assisted braking device refers to a belay and rappel device that, without any, or with little effort provided by the brake hand, pinches the rope and stops it from moving farther. For reference, the Black Diamond ATC is the standard non-assisted belay device and requires an active brake hand holding the brake end of the rope to create enough friction to catch a falling climber. The Petzl Grigri, on the other hand, is the standard assisted braking device, so much so that at my local climbing gym there are multiple posters on the walls showing how to load and use the Grigri–just the Grigri, not other devices. In most situations, should the brake hand happen not to be holding the brake end of the rope at the moment when a climber falls, the Grigri will catch the climber on its own (though of course handless use is against the manufacturer’s recommendations).
Since the Grigri has set the standard for assisted braking tools for more than two decades, this review will focus on the pros and cons of the Vergo often in comparison to the Grigri. For the record, a short list of other comparable mechanically assisted braking devices includes the Wild Country Revo and the Beal Birdie.
As mentioned already, when the Vergo cinches, it really cinches. This is 90% pro and 10% con. Until you feel it in your hands while belaying, you won’t truly be able to appreciate the sense of security the Vergo offers. When I pull in slack while toprope belaying my partner, or when catching her when she falls, it’s similar to the feeling of a really good hand jam, a sinker jug at the end of a pumpy crux, or a 3.5-inch cam placed deep into a splitter crack in varnished sandstone. Bam. No question, this puppy ain’t going nowhere. When I’m lowering my lightweight 8-year-old son on a toprope climb using thin ropes and with lots of friction at the anchor, the Grigri often doesn’t completely catch–the rope slowly slides through the device because there isn’t enough weight to engage the cam. Same scenario, the Vergo easily holds tight. Whether catching lead falls during an accidental hands-free moment, holding tight on a fixed line while equipping a new route, or being used by a new belayer with sloppy brake-hand work–the Vergo’s right there tight on the rope. I’ll get to the 10% con in a bit.
You know how the brake end of the rope can become twisted and jam in the Grigri while lead belaying or lowering if you don’t mitigate it by rolling the brake end of the rope over top so that it forms a loop on the right side of the device? That’s not a problem with the Vergo. The Vergo has less of a curve through the mechanism, and with the rope held straight down while lowering, like with the ATC, there is no twist that happens.
Trango recommends holding the Vergo sideways when lead belaying and feeding the rope out to the side instead of directly up toward the lead climber. Surprisingly, I found this maneuver to be a simple transition from what I’ve previously done using other devices and even easier on my middle-aged shoulders.
When used as a tool for rope soloing on a hanging fixed rope, the Vergo performs slightly better than the Grigri because of the relatively straight flow of the rope through the device. Both devices catch hold of the rope in a fall, but the Vergo slides more smoothly up the rope as it is pulled by the ascending climber’s belay loop. Though I did not test the Vergo for rope soloing on lead, I believe it would function at least as well as the Grigri.
Pictures of hands, climbers, and arrows are found on both sides of the Vergo as well as directions written on various parts to orient the belayer to the device. On a four-day climbing trip to St. George prior to the one mentioned above, my girlfriend was new to climbing and had less than four months of experience at the time. She only loaded the rope into the Vergo in the wrong direction once. I can’t even begin to explain how at ease I felt up there on my projects knowing the Vergo was down there attached to her belay loop.
There being no perfect device, I quickly found the one major downside to the Vergo. Where the Grigri can belay like an ATC because of its need for a certain amount of force to engage the pinching mechanism on the rope–and this also being one of the downfalls to the Grigri because of its tendency to slip or come unlocked (unassisted) without said force–the Vergo has its equally prevalent dark side. With unrivaled clinching comes equally unrivaled difficulty in releasing the clinch–the 10% con. When the lead belayer short-ropes the leader by not giving enough slack–and the rope comes tight on the leader while they are trying to make upward progress or attempting to clip into protection–the Vergo can be a bit challenging to release and get that much-needed slack to the leader. Pulling on the lowering lever would appear to be an obvious solution, but in reality this method is awkward and time-consuming, as it requires the movement of the brake hand from the lead-belay position to the lowering position. Not fun and it can reduce safety. In the heat of the moment this is like trying to turn quickly left in an intersection to avoid a car accident while one hand is holding a donut and the other a topless cup of coffee. The best solution to the problem I could find, which was confirmed by a Trango rep, is to bump the palm of the hand down firmly on top of the Vergo. With enough force this method works very quickly, though the leader might feel a slight tug–also not fun.
The other two downsides of the Vergo are tiny and hardly worth mentioning. Occasionally the lever stays upright after lowering the climber because the back end of the lever temporarily gets caught behind the hole where the carabiner goes. This flaw does not impact safety as far as I can tell; the lever only sticks for a moment and then falls back into place on its own. Number two: the Vergo weighs 195 grams (6.9 oz.), the Grigri weighs 175 grams (6.2 oz.) and the Grigri+ comes in at 200 grams (7.1 oz.). We’re not talking a big weight difference here, but I was surprised that the Vergo weighed more than the standard Grigri, though less than an ounce. The Vergo’s tighter, lower profile (which rests nicely against the body when climbing) made it seem lighter than the Grigri to me.
Common with the assisted braking devices, and any belay device for that matter, is the frequent occurrence of crossloading: when the locking carabiner spins so that the device pulls against the spine or the gate of the carabiner. This problem is an easy fix with a belay-specific locker such as the DMM Belay Master or Ceros; or simply bank on the hope that the 8 kilonewtons (1,798 lbs. of force) that most locking carabiners can hold when crossloaded is far beyond the amount of force that will be reached.
The Trango Vergo comes in blue, purple, gold, and a new color–black. Ropes spanning 8.9mm to 10.7mm in diameter are suggested by Trango, though at 10.7mm the friction while lead belaying will be quite noticeable (this attribute is true with the Grigri, too). The Vergo’s black lowering lever, like the Grigri, makes lowering easy, sometimes too easy. Watch out when using new, thin ropes as they can pick up momentum surprisingly fast (also true with the Grigri and just about any other device). I suggest using a belay glove and warning anyone who hasn’t used the Vergo before. As with the Grigri, it takes time to learn how to lower someone smoothly or to rappel using the Vergo without jerky bounces.
Guides, this paragraph is for you (and for anyone else doing all of the leading on multipitch climbs and belaying off the anchors from above). I want to reiterate the utility of the immediate clinching function of the Vergo. For a lightweight device, the Black Diamond ATC Guide is a brilliant assisted braking device (when used in guide-mode) for belaying a follower off of an anchor. The problem: after a full summer of rock guiding, the shoulders tighten and begin to creak from the degree of friction within the device and the necessary extra muscle needed to pull the rope through. Using the Grigri saved my shoulders, but required me to be vigilant about keeping a hand on the brake end of the rope; otherwise the weight of the rope going down to the follower pulls the brake-side of the rope slowly, sometimes quickly, through the Grigri, adding slack between the climber and the anchor. Guides are taking photos, taking off or putting on shoes, rearranging anchors to make space for the coming climber(s), getting a quick snack or sip of water, looking at topos, and managing ropes.
Though I’m not an old dog yet, I can say that middle-aged dogs can learn new tricks. Down to Shelf Road tomorrow and up to Lincoln Falls for some ice next week–the Vergo is going and the Grigri is staying in the gear bin. I hope the Trango team can eventually improve the design so that it’s easier to release after tensioning the rope. Until then, it’s good enough for me.
Mike Lewis, M.A. is an IFMGA/AMGA Mountain Guide living in Berthoud, Colorado. Mike has been guiding and instructing rock, ice and alpine climbing and skiing since 1993 throughout the US and internationally.
Clinches tight no matter the weight of the climber or amount of friction in the system
Easy to use and teach to others
Lowering lever makes lowering smooth
Clinched rope can be difficult to release
Lever sticks up occasionally
Slightly heavier than a regular Grigri