Auto Belays

September 18, 2012

Love them or Leave them

Heather Reynolds
Climbing and Outdoor Rec Program Coordinator
Dalhousie University

Before heading to the Climbing Wall Summit in Boulder Colorado this Spring, I received a call from Candie Fisher of Eldorado Wall Company, the company which installed the climbing wall I manage at Dalhousie University. Candie was interested in talking to me about Auto Belays, in particular, the TruBlue Auto Belay system Eldorado is now promoting.

In the event you haven’t heard about auto belays, the concept behind these devices is that the climber clips into a rope or a cable with a locking carabiner and as s/he climbs up the wall, the cable or rope is being ‘taken in,’ or retracted, by the device anchored at the top of the wall. If the climber falls, the device has a braking system that stalls or slows the rope as it lowers the climber to the ground. It doesn’t hold the climber in one spot, rather it generates the ‘right’ amount of friction on the rope to lower the climber at a safe speed toward the ground. Once on the ground, the climber can unclip and secure the cable or rope to an anchor for another person to use, or s/he can climb again. Essentially, the climber does not need a belayer – a person to hold the rope for him/her as they climb.

There are various auto belays on the market. Spectrum auto belay systems mount behind the wall and use hydraulic cylinders and air pressure to mechanically brake and retract the rope. The TruBlue Auto belay mounts on the front of the wall and uses a magnetic brake system, so it does not have a clutch bearing system, hence no parts that wear out. There is also a product called the Belay in the Box, using air pressure to control the cable action. All devices require a regular maintenance schedule and some are more easily inspected than others. The hydraulic systems do require a site visit from a person who can do an inspection of the device. On the other hand, the TruBlue can be removed from the anchor and sent back to the manufacturer for inspection.

At the Climbing Wall Summit I participated in the ‘Climbing Wall Instructor Provider’ course. This course and subsequent certification is designed to ensure consistent instructor criteria for individuals working in climbing gyms. To that end, the course participants consisted of many similarly minded individuals who manage, work in and own climbing facilities, and want to be sure that the instructors meet a standard of instructional safety and ability that is consistent with the industry recommendations for operations and program instruction. Obviously, auto belays were a part of the discussion during the course.

A fellow participant and gym owner, Mike Moelter shared his experience with Auto Belays, which led to his decision not to keep them. Climbers would attempt to use the auto belay on a route for which it was not intended and which would result in a dangerous swing or possible ground fall. There is also the danger of climbers forgetting to actually attach the carabiner to their harness, or to attach it to the wrong part of the harness, resulting in falls from a substantial height.

The lead course instructor, Pat Mackin with Vertical Endeavors, works in a facility with 26 auto belays and extolled the virtues of being able to leave his office and go down to the climbing facility over a quick break get in multiple laps, feeling pumped and getting his workout completed on tight schedule. He also spoke of the need and development of new fail safes to prevent climbers from forgetting to clip in. It seems this is a fairly common problem.

Candie Fisher echoed a similar sentiment about the advantage of these belay systems. She loves the freedom of being able to go to the gym and climb on a rope without a partner. Candie also tells of climbers in the gym who are happy to have them (as are gym owners), because it does make climbing more accessible at a lower cost. Although Candie did address the issues of failure to clip in and stated that these systems should not replace belaying in gyms, she also felt that they should be accompanied with an ‘Introduction on safe practices’, and beginners should have supervision.

Working in a University setting, we have so many more boulderers than rope climbers I wondered if getting a couple of these devices would encourage more rope climbing. On the other hand, I have to admit I am a little old school. I strongly believe one of the most important elements of climbing is accepting the responsibility of personal safety and the safety of a partner. The more removed from the knowledge of how the belay works and how to do it safely (not to mention understanding what can go wrong), I feel undermines one of the most valuable aspects of learning to climb.

Climbing has been changing leaps and bounds over the past twenty years I’ve been involved in the sport. Starting as a traditional style climber without a gym to climb in, weights were the best I could do in the cold months of winter. Now, you can easily train all year and on walls that look more and more like natural rock. We live in a world with less personal time and the need for more time efficiency. In the 90’s we saw the development of mechanical- assist belay devices. As an example, the Gri Gri locks the rope by pinching it when the device is shock loaded and continuously weighted. This enables the belayer a better mechanical advantage in belaying. So it is no surprise that auto belay devices were the next stage of development.

As with any new device for climbing, there have been accidents. One of the initial auto belay systems has been removed from the market due to failures that resulted in injury. There have been incidents of human error. From the research I have conducted, it doesn’t look like the newer devices are any less safe than the other belay devices on the market. The auto belay system does not decrease the risk of injury or accident either. , The bottom line is that regardless of what device is used for belaying, education of proper use and adherence to the manufacturer’s instructions for use and maintenance are essential elements of minimizing the risk.

Deciding whether an auto belay device is right for your facility is based on various factors; these include:
1. The traffic in your gym. The busier your facility is with new climbers, the more worthwhile these devices can be in servicing larger groups with less staff. I do strongly recommend supervision and education on proper use with any user, but particularly with the beginners.
2. Financial profile of your gym is also something to consider. In our facility, we emphasize educating our users. The majority of our revenue in the facility I manage comes from the programs and clinics rather than the membership or day pass climbers. To this end, I would rather incorporate the education of auto belays and accreditation for their use in a program or clinic, rather than offering it as a part of the free orientation to all new users.
3. They type of client you want to attract is a factor in determining whether auto belays are beneficial. There are many gyms that target school groups and large group bookings or camp type program for youth. The way you use auto belays with these users would, theoretically, be different than the avid climber who uses the gym for training purposes.
4. Of course, the target client ties in directly with the mission or vision of your facility. If like Movement Climbing and Fitness, your vision is “community”, then it is wise to consider whether the implementation of auto belays supports or detracts from that vision.

Each facility has its own unique role in the world of climbing and the development of climbers and the sport of climbing. New equipment developed for the sport creates a fantastic opportunity to re-examine what you do operationally. Why you do what you do when deciding to implement new equipment is a necessary and prudent step, and must be based on sound risk management principles.

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