The race is on to unseat the Petzl GRIGRI 2 from its throne as the reigning champ of assisted-breaking belay devices, and the Trango Vergo is the newest challenger vying for that title.
But does the Vergo live up to its hype? Or is it doomed to end up in the bargain bin of your local gear consignment store?
Let’s take a look in this Trango Vergo review. And because the GRIGRI 2 is the standard by which all devices in this category must be compared, I’m also going to reference and compare the Vergo to the GRIGRI 2 when it’s appropriate.
The Vergo is a brake-assisted belay device that works with single ropes from 8.9mm to 10.7mm in diameter. The GRIGRI 2 claims to work with ropes in the 8.9mm to 11mm range, with an optimal performance range of 9.4mm to 10.3mm.
The Vergo is pleasantly light at 195 grams, but not quite as light as the GRIGRI 2, which is 170 grams. For all intents and purposes, though, there is no noticeable difference in weight or size/bulk between the two devices.
The Vergo is $10 bucks cheaper than the GRIGRI 2, coming in at $89.95. (Although I just noticed the GRIGRI 2 is currently on sale at Backcountry.com)
Finally, on a super macro level, both the Vergo and the GRIGRI 2 virtually function the same way. You operate the device such that you can easily pay out slack to a leading climber, and, in the event of a fall, the device cams up and pinches down on the rope to hold a fall. When it’s time to lower a climber, you simply grab onto the brake side and pull back on a lever, which allows you to control the descent of a lowering climber, or even yourself on rappel.
But, you all already knew all of that shit, so let’s take a closer look.
I didn’t watch the “how-to” video or read the instruction manual before attempting to use the Vergo. I did this on purpose because I believe it’s a good test for any kind of gear. It’s a test that answers the question: Can an idiot use it?
For this idiot (me), the answer is, big-time no. My first experience with the Vergo was short: both short-lived and full of lots of short-roping. I literally short-roped by climbing partner 20 times before he got to the fourth bolt. The situation was that he was actually clipping up and pulling through the first six bolts of his project in order to work the upper moves, so there was a lot of fast feeding and then quickly taking up the slack. It ended up being a demanding, if perfect, test for the device, but it was super frustrating for both of us as I struggled to operate the Vergo.
The consistent problem seemed to be that I couldn’t figure out how to easily release the Vergo’s camming action in order to switch from holding my partner’s weight to quickly feeding out slack once he pulled onto the wall.
I switched back to the GRIGRI 2 for the rest of the day, then went home to study up on how to actually use the Vergo.
From Trango’s video, I learned a few things that weren’t immediately obvious to me. First, the Vergo is designed to be held in a very particular way with your brake hand. Second, feeding slack requires a completely different, perhaps counterintuitive, motion.
Bottom line is that my GRIGRI skills, honed over the last 16 years, didn’t translate over to the Vergo. This isn’t necessarily a critique as much as it’s an observation that there is going to be a learning curve for using the Vergo, no matter how much experience you have. I had to learn an entirely new way to belay. Further, there was a learning curve that I endured while learning to belay with the GRIGRI, so, again, this isn’t a critique of the Vergo as much as it’s a reminder to seek proper instruction, even you “experts,” before using the device.
Another thing I learned from the video is that, when you clip the device to your harness, the “LEFT” arrow icon, which is printed on the side of the device, must indeed be pointing to the left. I was actually able to figure out this part by myself, but I wasn’t sure how important this step actually was. Would the device not work if you missed this step? Turns out, no; not necessarily. It is important that the LEFT arrow points left insomuch as it positions the device to be used and held as it was intended. Clipping it the other way won’t necessarily cause the device to fail.
I headed back the next day and discovered that, when used as intended by the manufacturer, the Vergo performs quite well. When someone is climbing at a normal pace, the Vergo feeds as well as, if not better than, any other device I’ve used. It’s really ridiculously smooth.
Feeding slack requires a motion in which you pull the rope away from, and directly to the left of, the device using your left hand. It’s a counter-intuitive motion. It takes some getting used to the fact that you aren’t feeding slack toward the climber; instead, you are tossing out an armful of slack to the left of him or her.
Fortunately, it’s an easy motion to learn. And, coincidentally, it’s an orthopedically friendly motion in that it forces you to work on those external rotator cuff motions, while drawing your shoulders back and maintaining good posture. Something we could all use more of in our lives, to be sure.
The smoothness and ease of feeding slack to a climber who is climbing at a normal pace its really where the Vergo shines.
Releasing the Cam
The most challenging maneuver to learn, at least for me, was releasing the cam once a hanging climber pulled onto the wall and started to climb.
The trick, which honestly took me a full day to really figure out, was to use the left hand to pull the rope down and to the left. Essentially, it is the same maneuver as feeding slack, with some subtle differences that I don’t really know if I can articulate (or if they even matter).
Once I got comfortable with that move, releasing the cam was no problem.
To hold the Vergo properly, you have to “pinch” the device with your right (brake) hand, placing your pointer finger in the supposedly ergonomic groove that’s been designed on the backside of the device, and placing your thumb on the plastic thumprint on the front side of the device. The rope runs along the crease of your palm.
I’ve read that a PhD. in ergonomics helped with the design, and I’ve also read other reviewers who have praised the Vergo for its fine compatibility with the human hand. I must say, however, that I don’t agree with this assessment. In fact, I find the Vergo to be rather awkward to hold. The simple fact that I wasn’t able to intuitively stumble upon the appropriate hand position without instruction, to me, illustrates at least some design shortcomings.
What’s worse, however, is the fact that even once I understood how to hold the Vergo, I didn’t find it comfortable or easy. For example, if I took my hand off of the device to shake out a kink in the rope, I found it could be difficult to return both pointer finger and thumb back into their designated positions on the device. It’s a very precise position. And in those harried situations where you might need to deal with a rope kink in the midst of feeding slack for a clip, the additional demand of precision can become a detriment to functionality.
The bigger issue, though, is that I just don’t fucking like actually having to hold a belay device in order for it to work. This critique derives out of the (sort of) unique method that I use to belay with a GRIGRI, in which my brake hand virtually never touches the device. Obviously, considering the fact that there are still a bunch of lizard brains out there who continue to squeeze their GRIGRIs while their partners are keeling through the air—the more they fall, the more they squeeze!—my belay method, in which you never have to actually touch the GRIGRI, is a superior, safer technique (and one that, apparently, I should probably share with my readers at some point.)
The shockingly common error of gripping the GRIGRI and preventing it from locking up has been a mystery to me. It’s also an issue that has sent the climbing industry scampering to pioneer a safer solution, without compromising any of the ease or functionality that makes the GRIGRI king.
Question is: has Trango cracked that code with the Vergo?
Answer: No. It’s still possible to hold the Vergo in a way that will prevent the device from locking up.
If you simply grab the Vergo as if you’re shaking hands, as I’m demonstrating in this picture, the device will not lock up. In fact, the rope will run through it like greased lightning.
I don’t know why you’d ever grab the Vergo using this hand position, but I also have a hard time understanding why so many belayers drop their partners using GRIGRIs as well as other devices. At the end of the day, user error is the sole factor in why a few people have dropped their partners using the GRIGRI. I think it would be nice if this issue were simply an engineering problem (and not an educational one) to be solved—and maybe one day some company will.
I digress simply to say that it hasn’t happened yet.
In lowering scenarios, the GRIGRI adds, roughly, a 180-degree bend in the rope that allows for some additional control over the speed of descent in addition to micro-tuning the force that you are applying to the lever.
That was one feature I missed when using the Vergo, which orients the rope into, virtually, a straight line unless the camming mechanism is engaged. Thus, when lowering your partner, you’re pretty much relying entirely on the lever to adjust speed, while firmly gripping the rope with your other hand.
The other issue I had during lowering scenarios had to do with the ergonomics of the lever itself, which is a little too much of a crescent shape, in my opinion.
There are a few little issues that I experienced. They aren’t necessarily major concerns or problems for me, but I do want to point them out for readers who are interested in knowing as much as possible before making a purchase.
When lowering my partner, who then wished to stop in mid-air, I found that the lever on my device would stick in an open position. In other words, when pulled to the edge of its range, it would stay open, but only when the cam was engaged on the rope. To fix, I would simply tap it lightly, and then the spring mechanism would recoil the lever shut.
There were a couple of other times that, after releasing the cam, the lead end of the rope would get snagged underneath the Vergo’s long lever. This only happened a few times. I haven’t been able to figure out what, exactly, I did to produce this result (or, rather, what I’ve been doing since to avoid it).
I asked Trango about this situation and they responded by saying that others users have experienced this scenario, but also that most users seem to figure out how to avoid it quickly. That was exactly my experience, too. Essentially, they had a choice between a design with a long lever that would increase control on the descent, or a short lever that wouldn’t get tripped up in the rope. They chose the longer lever.
As I mentioned, I don’t believe it’s fair to penalize the Trango Vergo for what, to me, felt like a lengthy learning curve simply because that aspect exists for virtually any belay device.
However, I do think it’s fair to compare the Vergo to the GRIGRI 2. And on that comparison, the Vergo, to me, falls short.
If you’re a new climber who is looking to purchase your first assisted-locking belay device, I think the Vergo might certainly be worth a strong consideration.
If you’ve got tons of experience with the GRIGRI, but you are wondering whether the Vergo might be a replacement or an upgrade in terms of safety, then I would probably suggest sticking the GRIGRI. The Vergo is certainly a solid contender, but to me, the GRIGRI is still king.