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Gear Guy

In the (Belay) Loop

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I work in a climbing gym, and an older, experienced climber came in with
the belay loop cut off his harness. He attached his belay carabiner by clipping it through his harness tie-in points. I tried several times in different ways to explain why using his belay loop is safer, but he wasn’t convinced. Do you have an end-all answer to convince someone not to cut off the belay loop?

——Sam Woehl, via

In Florence, Italy, in the Galileo Museum, is a curious object enshrined in a glass egg. It is the bony middle finger of the famous polymath, who died in 1642. Galileo through observation posited that the earth revolved around the sun, a position that put him at odds with the church, whose doctrine had all heavenly objects revolving around the earth. Galileo Galilei was convicted of heresy by the Inquisition and locked away for the rest of his life. His middle finger points to the heavens as a final gesture to the old men of the church who refused to listen to facts.

If Galileo couldn’t convince those guys, I’m not going to suggest that I have an end-all answer that will change a veteran climber’s mind. Your gym likely has a policy against allowing people to climb on modified gear, so you might use the nuclear option and kick him out.

If harnesses were safer without belay loops, they’d be made that way. Thirty years back, few if any harnesses had belay loops, and some didn’t even have leg loops. Does that dude want to get in a time machine and go back and buy a swami belt or a Whillans Sit Harness? How about leaded gas?

There is no good reason to cut the belay loop off a harness.

The problem with using a carabiner to join the leg loops and waist belt is simply that the bulk from the leg-loop strap and waist belt binding in the carabiner can cause the carabiner to load in funky ways.

Carabiners are strongest along their major axis: that is, straight along the spine. Every carabiner is rated for major, minor and gate-open strength. Minor-axis strength is the one to remember. This is basically a straight-out pull on the gate. Minor-axis strength is low, half or less than that of a carabiner’s major-axis strength.

A belay loop does more than just hold the leg loops up in the front. It lets the belay carabiner orient itself to load along its strongest, major axis. Sure, minor-axis loading, or “cross loading,” can still occur, but that’s user error, and there are special “captive-eye” belay carabiners that will prevent cross loading if this is a concern of yours.

A carabiner clipped through the leg loops and belt is prime for minor-axis loading. The locking-collar mechanism, or screw-gate, could snag on the webbing, for one, or the biner might just get stuck against a belly. No one has done a ton of testing on all this because all the different locking carabiner shapes would load differently in the different models of harnesses with their belay loops chopped off, leading to one of those “your results may vary” deals.

That old guy probably cut off the belay loop because he thought it was scary, weak. In fact, the belay loop on a CE-certified harness must hold a minimum 15kN. A CE-certified carabiner must hold a minimum of 7kN along its minor (gate) axis. If a belay loop is twice as strong as a carabiner loaded along its minor axis, you can’t accurately say it is a weak point.

Belay loops can wear out. Todd Skinner, who was the first to free El Cap, died when his threadbare belay loop broke while he was rappelling. Inspect your harness every time you put it on. Replace as necessary. Next!

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 254 (November 2018).

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