What is Guide Mode?

Guide mode is when a belay device attaches directly to an anchor, and the climber is belayed from that anchor at the top of the climb (often called belaying a climber “from above”). It got it’s name because guides typically climb a route first, then belay their clients up afterwards, using this feature.

To belay in guide mode, the belay device needs a metal attachment point to hang from the anchor. For tube devices, this is an extra metal loop on the back of the device. For a mechanical assisted braking device (like a GriGri), you would clip into the anchor vs clipping into your belay loop.

Guide Mode Enable 1

This isn’t a feature just for guides. Any rock climber climbing a multi-pitch route will likely want to utilize guide mode. Since many multi-pitch climbers rappel the route, they expect to use a tube belay device that accepts 2 ropes (vs a GriGri style device which cannot perform a standard rappel). Below is the most common style of tube belay device has the features for guide mode.

Guide Mode Diagram 2

Tube Devices with Guide Mode

Guides and multi-pitch climbers are the main users of this feature and they tend to prefer to carry a tube style device with guide mode. Attached to the harness, this ‘guide tube’ belay device can be also used to belay from the ground or rappel from above like any other tube device, which makes it one of the more versatile pieces of kit climbers can carry. There are even some models out there that have assisted braking capabilities, which can offer a truly multifunction experience.

Edelrid has long adapted all of their belay devices to include the assisted braking feature. Because of their extra features, Edelrid’s belay devices can take a little more time to master, but many find the do-it-all approach to be well worth the time.

Mechanical Devices with Guide Mode

Currently, all mechanically brake assisted devices can belay one follower from above on a single rope. They can be preferred by some climbers for their easy lowering levers and simpler setup, especially if they intend to walk off rather than rappel the route (as rappelling usually requires two strands of rope). It is worth noting that if you don’t have a device to rappel two ropes on a multi pitch climb, you will require some extra skills and kit to get down safely in case of weather or emergencies.

Again, the versatility of a guide tube style device is why it is so prolific among those who climb multi-pitch routes.

Here’s an image from Petzl that demonstrates a single rope in guide mode on a GriGri:

belaying from above with the Petzl Gri Gri
Assisted braking devices like the very common Petzl Gri Gri can belay from above when fixed to an anchor. It is important to always keep your hand on the brake strand in the event the device becomes blocked open in this orientation. Image courtesy of Petzl.com

How Guide Mode Works

For tube style belay devices, the extra metal loop at the back of the device is what is used for anchor attachment. By hanging the device on the anchor from this loop, the rope becomes oriented so the climber’s end presses on the brake end, blocking its ability to move toward the climber and essentially creating a progress capture.

A petzl Reverso being used in guide mode
The person in this photo is belaying from above. Note that the belay device is hanging from the anchor instead of a belay loop. 

Belaying from the anchor in this setup makes belaying much less strenuous than from a harness. The belayer only needs to pull down to take in slack and doesn’t have to brake the rope manually to hold the climber’s weight. It also removes the belayer from the rope system so they can move more freely, while still keeping the climber safely attached and attending to the rope.

Devices with 2 slots allow belaying one follower or two followers, each climbing on a separate rope. This technique is also useful to safely move fast in easy or low angle terrain or with larger parties. And the two slots enables the ability to rappel afterwards.

How to Set Up a Guide Belay Device

Setting up a ‘guide tube’ device requires a bit more kit and knowhow. Fortunately, you’ll only need one additional locking carabiner and a solid anchor to attach it to.

Copy of Kernmantle Rope 3
1: Hang the device from the anchor by the guide loop using a locking carabiner, making sure to orient it so that the rope slots face the side you intend to belay from. 2: Pass a bite of rope into a rope slot with the climber's end on the TOP. 3: Clip a second locker through the bite and lock it down. (We recommend a round stock locker for easier movement of the rope.)

Normally when belaying from below with a tube device, we’d attach the belay device to a carabiner to our belay loop. With a guide tube, we hang the device from the anchor using the guide loop first, then clip our belay carabiner through the bite of rope passed through the device. The whole system now hangs freely from the anchor allowing the belayer to position comfortably to take in slack and manage the rope as the follower climbs below.

Lowering in Guide Mode

Many guide tubes have a smaller hole opposite the guide loop to assist in releasing the ‘autoblocking’ nature of the device. By clipping the nose of a smaller carabiner in this hole (or passing a sling through it), you can create a handle to gain a bit of mechanical advantage and lift the device to unblock the rope and allow it to pass backward through the device.

Lowering a follower in guide mode
By clipping a carabiner into the 'lowering hole' on a guide tube, you can gain some mechanical advantage to lift the device into a horizontal position, essentially defeating the 'autoblocking' of the rope. This still takes quite a bit of force and can be tricky to do smoothly. Another way to accomplish this is using a sling and redirect method, shown in the 3rd image without the rope for clarity.

This can be necessary if your follower needs to be lowered a bit to, say, retrieve a missed piece of gear or to lower them to the bottom of an overhanging section so they are no longer suspended mid-air. You can also employ this feature to safely lower a climber all the way back to the ground.

Important note: Most devices do not make lowering in guide mode easy. Lowering feels more like an on/off all or nothing movement. It can be easy to accidentally drop a climber, especially if all the climbers weight was on the rope at the time of lowering. The DMM Pivot featured in the photos above, has a pivoting mechanism that helps enable the possibility of a gradual lower.

Do I need Guide mode?

If you only climb indoors in the gym: Nope.

If you [plan to] climb multi-pitch climbs outdoors: Yes, it’s highly recommended.

More Scenarios

  • If you’re only single pitch climbing, you won’t make much use of guide mode.
  • All mechanical assisted braking devices offer the option of guide mode, though only for one rope, and can be fine if the top of the crag offers trails and access for walking off instead of lowering.
  • If the crags you climb at prefer a rappel ethic over lowering off when cleaning gear from routes, a device with 2 rope slots is required kit, and getting one with guide mode can’t hurt if it’s in your budget and you expect to get into taller climbs in the future.

Rappelling Note

If you need to buy a tube-style device to rappel because you’re starting to single pitch climb outdoors, it wouldn’t hurt to buy a device that enables guide mode, for future, higher, climbs.

Jeff Jaramillo

Jeff Jaramillo

Jeff currently lives in the Midwest and spends most of his free time answering questions nobody asked. When not plugging gear on moderate warmups and calling it a day, he can be found whining about whipping on bolts in the gym or at the local pub waxing poetic about climbing saving humanity and the planet.

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