The Origin and History of Belay Devices

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Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 24, 2012 - 09:06pm PT
I just recently picked up this early Salewa Sticht plate and though that it would be fun to explore the early history of this innovative piece of hardware.


These were around in 1970 when I first got into climbing but hadn't been available for long at that point. I don't have good enough catalog coverage to pin down the first appearance in the US. Anyone know the first date and plate shape?






east side underground

climber
Hilton crk,ca
Nov 24, 2012 - 09:12pm PT
"On Belay, Murry"
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 24, 2012 - 09:17pm PT
I got ya Murry!

Wait a minute, you're all runout- Factor Two?

Lemme add an extra biner!
healyje

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Nov 24, 2012 - 09:22pm PT
Those spring belay plates are still the best device around to teach people to belay with as they don't lock back.
Ghost

climber
A long way from where I started
Nov 24, 2012 - 09:22pm PT
I was a hippy back then, so it was only right and proper to sneer at Sticht plates and use a hip belay.
McHale's Navy

Trad climber
Panorama City, California & living in Seattle
Nov 24, 2012 - 09:29pm PT
Yates below, but I don't know when I got it. I was experimenting with links of chain also in the late 60s and very early 70s. I used carabiner breaking systems for quite awhile until figure 8s came out, rather than wrapping with plates. I recall liking the links and then plates for walls since you could fall asleep at the belay without causing a disaster.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 24, 2012 - 09:32pm PT
Except for getting to say "California" not much Hip about that belay.

I liked the idea of a chunk of metal to abuse just fine.
hooblie

climber
from out where the anecdotes roam
Nov 24, 2012 - 09:36pm PT
origin, history i dunno. seemed like sophistication using one after having melted the coattails
and freed the feathers of a fancy new down jacket holding a fall "the old way"
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 24, 2012 - 09:49pm PT
How old is that Yates unit? Was it sold in Seattle?

Ah yes, the Missing Link...who thought of the idea and made them to sell. THAT is the question.

MSR used to sell simple chainlinks for balaying but the Hot Link always seemed to get dropped.

I recall a small rectangular single slot Sticht and a large round single hole that showed up ahead of the two plates shown in the OP.

Somebody please check the German literature for any early writing or adds by Sticht as I bet he got his product out there early.
McHale's Navy

Trad climber
Panorama City, California & living in Seattle
Nov 24, 2012 - 09:58pm PT
You talking to me? I probably bought the Yates in Boise in the early to mid 70s. Yates would know when they made em!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 24, 2012 - 10:26pm PT
The one and only Yates.

Dan- Do you recall how the belay link concept came to you?
SteveW

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Nov 24, 2012 - 10:43pm PT
Mine's old too--but knott that old. . .Steve, I have a 1973
vintage Sticht plate. Used it for many, many years. . .

But I think Tarbuster still uses his!
McHale's Navy

Trad climber
Panorama City, California & living in Seattle
Nov 24, 2012 - 10:46pm PT
Steve, I don't. I know I did not invent it. We just copied the idea - I'm sure it was going around like a virus at the time.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Nov 24, 2012 - 11:11pm PT
I recently went through the 1960s Summit mags and don't recall seeing an add for belay plates. Trying to pin down the entry point for this technique and hardware is a compelling historical inquiry.

Pitoncraft and organized belaying arrived in the Sierra via the Canadian Rockies just ahead of Underhill arriving to teach it to the Sierra Club.

This belay technique could have filtered in from many directions.
klk

Trad climber
cali
Nov 24, 2012 - 11:35pm PT
i haven't seen any examples in the ol;d catalogues and mags i've looked at. two caveats-- first, i've never specifically looked for the first appearance of mechanical belay devices and i haven't researched past the early 60s stuff.

sliding friction knots go way, way back-- presumably folks used them in climbing in the early-middle 20th century if not before.

have you emailed salewa? interesting that salewa was an early adopter if not a pioneer. the simple fact that we refer to it as a "sticht" plate suggest a german origin. since the germans (the tirolians, actually) pioneered pitoncraft, that would make sense. but i always thought of the sticht plate as something best suited to a hip belay, an innovation that seems to have come out of berkeley. when did the austrians switch to hip belays? if no one here knows, i'll ask around. many of the french i climbed with as late as the early eighties were still using shoulder belays. a sticht plate would be awkward with a shoulder belay, but it would work well in rescue or guide situations with an overhead anchor.

on a tangent:

Underhill arriving to teach it to the Sierra Club.

if "it" means pitoncraft and modern belaying, he didn't, at least in california. i can't find any evidence that underhill was personally familiar with the state-of-the-art in pitoncraft. the sc photos of what he taught the californians show a standing shoulder belay of the sort common among french and swiss guides since at least the late 19th century. no pitons. i know that miriam had climbed in the dolomites with a guide who was genuinely competent in pitoncraft, but i don't know that he ever did. if you have found detailed accounts of him demonstrating competence in pitoncraft in the rockies, i'd love to see it-- as best i can tell, he (like most of his favorite guides in the western alps) viewed pitons as a german perversion.
mouse from merced

Trad climber
The finger of fate, my friends, is fickle.
Nov 24, 2012 - 11:59pm PT
1978 ad. I trust Royal, if he's the pimp. :)
1987 bandwagoneer's ad.

Help me Jesus and a hip belay are all I've ever used. Thank God I never had to catch screamers as a daily routine. It's why the BDs are so popular. Along with certain other (six letters) relay devices...
healyje

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Nov 25, 2012 - 04:33am PT
I began climbing in 75, and strictly used a hip belay. I remember seeing guys with Sticht plates, and it seemed like a good idea...I just couldn't afford one.
We only hip belayed and initially cast a very dubious eye towards stitch plates which persisted for some time as we were unwilling to forgo the feel and immediacy of hip belays. And I still hip belay quite a bit and teach it as well. It's a foundational skill from my perspective.
Rudder

Trad climber
Costa Mesa, CA
Nov 25, 2012 - 04:36am PT
We only hip belayed and initially cast a very dubious eye towards stitch plates which persisted for some time as we were unwilling to forgo the feel and immediacy of hip belays. And I still hip belay quite a bit and teach it as well. It's a foundational skill from my perspective.

Same here... and Harding didn't need to belay device to climb the nose! ;) Didnt' where no helmet either, damn it. lol
healyje

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Nov 25, 2012 - 10:59am PT
When leading we did augment our hip belays with a single non-locking biner on the leader side of the rope - completely bomb.

Steve: Except for getting to say "California" not much Hip about that belay.

Our experience on traveling was most people sucked at both hip belaying and stancing. They always had the rope up on their waist rather than down on their actual hips and that mistake alone makes for a painful and basically worthless belay. Most also didn't really 'get' the art of stancing as integral to belaying.
Mighty Hiker

climber
Vancouver, B.C.
Nov 25, 2012 - 11:47am PT
There was a belay gadget made by MSR, in the early 1970s. A red anodized plate, about 2 x 8 x 10 cm. It had several holes in it, plus a screw/bolt tensioning adjuster, or something along those lines. IIRC, the idea was that you could thread the rope in various ways through the thing, and thereby create more or less friction. Beyond that, I don't remember how it was to be used, etc. It wouldn't surprise me if Larry Penberthy had seen early models of simple belay devices from Europe, and gone from there. Maybe the thing I saw was a prototype - somehow a teacher at my high school who was a hiker had gotten one. I never saw another one, or learned anything more about it.

In the mid-1970s, the English (at least) were sometimes using figure 8s (reversed) as belay devices.
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