A what? A GriGri? What does that mean? What is that? The first time you heard the term GRIGRI in regards to rock climbing, you probably had some questions. Climbing has a lot of different terms, phrases, and products that have very interesting backgrounds.
A Gris-Gris is a talisman or amulet with African Voodoo origins that protects its wearer from evil and brings good luck. The GRIGRI belay device was named by Michel Suhubiette, a climber with the gear manufacturer Petzl. He made the suggestion, and the design team ended up going with the name.
Rock climbers tend to be somewhat superstitious and are always challenging the odds, so carrying a good-luck charm is not uncommon. Petzls innovative device was intended to improve the odds for climbers. The purpose of the GRIGRI, to improve the safety and fortune of climbing, perfectly matches up with its namesake.
There are lots of other theories about the name GRIGRI, but the gris-gris African talisman is the story Petzl gave me when I asked them about it. Other theories including children and obscure French words are just conjecture.
When Was the GRIGRI Invented?
In 1991 Petzl finished up the design and testing for its new assisted-braking belay device that they believed would revolutionize climbing and establish their presence in the industry.
Prior to the GRIGRI, climbers mostly used figure 8 style devices or sticht plates for belaying. These devices do work, and did lay the foundational principles behind modern belay devices, but the growth of rock climbing required new innovations.
Petzl’s design team was inspired by a simple concept that we are all familiar with- seat belts in cars. If you pull on the belt slowly, it comes out easily; however, if you tug on the belt an internal camming mechanism stops it from moving.
The GRIGRI functions in largely the same way. The climbing rope can slide through the device in either direction as long as the belayer moves in a controlled manner. If the climber should fall and suddenly jerk on the rope, the friction shifts the cam on the device and pinches the rope, arresting the climber’s fall.
Over the past decade as climbing gyms have expanded in popularity and spread throughout the world, many of them have decided to only allow climbers to use assisted-braking devices like the GRIGRI.
The safety features of the GRIGRI help prevent accidents and lower their overall insurance costs. Because of its popularity in climbing gyms, most climbers have experience with a GRIGRI and are familiar with how it works.
What are the Differences between the Different GRIGRI Models?
The original GRIGRI was replaced by the GRIGRI 2 in 2011. The GRIGRI 2 accommodates smaller ropes better, and is more ergonomic. In 2017 Petzl released the GRIGRI +, which included additional safety features like an anti-panic handle and top rope belay mode. Additionally, they traded out some of the aluminum pieces for stainless steel, which makes it last a lot longer.
In 2019 Petzl replaced the GRIGRI 1 and 2 with a new version, simply called the GRIGRI. The newest GRIGRI uses the improved cam from the GRIGRI + without the extra price and bulk.
Advantages to Climbing with a GRIGRI
One of the biggest advantages to the GRIGRI is that it allows climbers of different sizes to belay each other. With other devices, including the sticht plate’s descendant the ATC, the belayer has to exert varying levels of force on the rope in order to stop it.
The belay device helps, but the belayer has to grip the rope and pull hard to stop. This is compounded when a climber weighs significantly more than the belayer. With a properly loaded GRIGRI, the device helps the belayer by assisting with the stopping power.
The other main advantage to the GRIGRI is that it is never distracted by other climbers, dogs, kids, or cell phones. It doesn’t get lazy or tired. It doesn’t panic and can’t get knocked out by a falling rock. The cam is designed to engage if the climber falls, whether the belayer is paying attention or not.
Disadvantages to Climbing with a GRIGRI
The biggest disadvantage to climbing with a GRIGRI is that the same technique doesn’t work as well with other belay devices. A climber who learns to climb with a GRIGRI may have a hard time climbing with an ATC- which is the most common belay device because of its price point.
GRIGRI belayers get accustomed to the device doing a lot of the work in stopping falls. When they switch over, they may let the rope slip through their hands because they don’t grip it as hard as they need to.
Another difficulty in belaying with a GRIGRI is giving slack to a lead climber. As a climber, hanging precariously from a ledge while clipping a bolt or placing pro, the scariest part is pulling the rope up to clip into a carabiner. This is when the most slack is out, which means you will take the longest whipper.
With an ATC, the belayer can feed slack to the climber very quickly, and the climber can pull up the rope as fast as he or she wants. When feeding slack to a lead climber though, sometimes the cam engages as if the climber was falling.
This means the GRIGRI grabs the rope and the climber has to start over going more slowly. When hanging onto the rock by your fingertips, this can be really frustrating.
There are certain techniques for keeping the cam from engaging while feeding slack, but that overrides the safety of the device. Experienced belayers may hold down the cam with one hand and pull out slack with the other. If the climber falls in this instant though, they could fall a long ways before the belayer catches them.
The other disadvantage to the GRIGRI is the price point. A tubular belay device like an ATC costs around $20 USD. The cheapest iteration of a GRIGRI costs more than $80 USD. Many climbers don’t spring for the more expensive device solely because of the increased price. They’d rather spend money on other expensive climbing equipment.
Other climbing brands have come out with similar products, including the Mad Rock Lifeguard, the Click-Up Plus, the Trango Vergo, the Wild Country Revo, and the new Beal Birdie (read my review here). They all work pretty well, with slightly different advantages and features, as well as price points.
The GRIGRI isn’t a fail-safe, and isn’t perfect; but it helps to mitigate some of the risks inherent in rock climbing. Its wide availability and popularity make it a tool that every climber should know how to use.