Selecting the Best Belay System for your Program
July 14, 2011
Michael Doyle, Assistant Director, Outdoor Recreation
Michael Phaneuf, Assistant Director, Challenge Course
Campus Recreation Services
University of Maryland, College Park
Climbing walls, ropes courses and adventure centers continue to grow in popularity and are more accessible than ever before. They are no longer just found at summer camps, university recreation centers and secluded retreat centers. By the time first year students arrive on your campus, they will most likely have participated in a ropes course as part of a class field trip or climbed a rock wall while on a cruise ship, or even climbed a portable, pop-up structure while attending a minor league baseball game. Today, climbing structures attract different user groups, have different purposes (recreation or education), and are funded and staffed based on user groups and program purpose/mission. One of the most critical decisions to be made when building an adventure facility such as a climbing wall or ropes course is which belay system to use. With the growth of the industry, technological advancements have been made to make climbing and belaying easier on participants and staff alike.
When deciding the type of climbing structure that best fits your program, there are several factors to consider:
- What populations will be using your facility?
- What is the mission of the program?
- What type of programming will you offer? (Open climbing, facilitated workshops)
- How will you staff your programs?
- What funding do you have for staffing, gear, maintenance and inspection?
The answers to these questions will then help you decide on the most important element of your climbing program: which belay system to use. Belaying is the act of keeping a climber from falling to the ground when ascending. Traditionally, rock climbers have used the human belay system which involves ropes, anchor points and friction devices. Technology and program innovation has given way to new systems known as auto belays that don’t require another person to hold a rope for the climber. There are several different types of auto belay systems and one of the most commonly used is a hydraulic pulley and cable system that allows climbers to ascend freely and regulate descent.
Auto belay systems have a number of benefits which have contributed to their popularity. They include, but aren’t limited to:
- There is no need for a climber to have a belay partner.
- A smaller ratio of staff to participants as one staff member can supervise more routes at a time.
- Automatic catching of a climber in a fall or when beginning to lower with no risk of “human error” or a belayer being distracted.
- For the most part, easy installation as they can be installed where traditional top rope anchors (in a gym setting) already exist.
- Convenience of Auto locking carabiners attached to the auto belay.
When looking at the positive aspects of the auto belay systems on the market, it’s wise to examine the benefits the human belay system as well. They include, but aren’t limited to:
- A second set of eyes to check the climber’s harness and that they are clipped in correctly.
- The ability to adjust tension or slack on the rope to the climber’s preference.
- The ability to hold climbers in place while they work a route or plan their next move.
- Ability to belay climbers larger, or smaller, in size than the recommended weight limits of auto belay devices.
- Ability to make decisions based on what climbers need as they climb or if climbers get themselves into a potentially awkward or dangerous situation.
- Ability to be used on taller routes as auto belay devices have a maximum height limit (This varies per manufacturer).
Neither method above is perfect or suitable to every situation. There have been accidents reported in the use of auto belays as well as with the traditional human method. Climbers have been dropped or injured by inattentive belays who get distracted by their surroundings, and climbers unfamiliar with how auto belays work have been injured or put in dangerous situations when they climb faster than the device can take in slack or when they forget to clip into the system at all. In the latter case, accidents occur because there is the assumption that the auto belay device does everything, and no human decision making is needed.
Each method has positive and negative aspects. When looking for advice on training and what methods work best for your needs, talk with the company or vendor who will be constructing your climbing structure and see what they recommend or if they have concerns you as the owner may not have thought of. Two organizations to also consider working with are the Climbing Wall Association (www.climbingwallindustry.org/index.php) and the Association for Challenge Course Technology (www.acctinfo.org). These two professional organizations will be able to offer consultation and put you in contact with professional vendors in the industry who adhere to national standards with regard to structural integrity and program design.
Regardless of which system you choose for your climbing structure, the safety of your participants and the usefulness of the system depend on your staff and their training. Some useful questions to ask:
- Does your staff know the inherent risks with your chosen method for belaying participants?
- Does your staff consistently observe the auto belay devices while in use? What about observing human belayers?
- Does your staff train new participants in how to manually belay or how to use auto belays?
- How does your staff know someone has been trained?
- Does your program cater to clients who don’t meet or exceed the weight limits for auto belays?
- Does your program make sure that all equipment is being used according to manufacturer’s recommendations?
- Does the manufacturer have safety checks in place to minimize equipment failure?
By answering these questions and by talking with professional organizations in the industry, you will have a better understanding of the risks involved with each system, what methods are better suited for your unique situation, and what your staff need to be aware of to keep your climbers as safe as possible.