Select Gyms Ban Standard Tube-Style Belay Devices From Lead Wall

 

With its 1991 creation, the Grigri was the saving grace for the many belayers worldwide. For those ready to embrace the nuances of the device, gone were the days of straining to hold a dogboning climber or, in some cases, struggling to catch big whips. ATCs and other similar devices were tossed aside because the Grigri made it easier for belayers to catch and hold the weight of their partners.

Other devices entered the market that had the same assisting capabilities of the Grigri, such as the Edelrid Jul (and all the iterations of it), Trango’s Vergo, Black Diamond’s ATC-Pilot and Beal’s Birdie. Some of them assisted in braking via moving parts, like the Grigri, while others assisted due to their geometry. Collectively, the class of belay devices is known as Assisted Braking Devices (ABDs), and they began to push out classics like the ATC, which is a tube-style device. 

Recently, several gyms have banned the use of tube-style belay devices for lead climbing. “This is not an attempt to ‘water down climbing,’” wrote Ascent Studio Climbing and Fitness on their site. Across the board, safety is the priority for gyms enacting this avant-garde regulation. “Because of an ABD’s ability (when properly used) to assist in “catching” a climber … we think they are the only choice for use in our facilities.” wrote The Front Climbing Club’s press release. 

While research is limited, the studies that have been conducted on belay devices do, in fact, indicate that ABDs are safer than tube devices. A 2012 study conducted by the DAV Safety Research Group observed 360 people in Germany and Switzerland and found the error rate of ABDs was about one-third of the rate for tube devices. Only errors resulting in high risk of ground fall were considered in that statistic. 

Gym Climber caught up with Jon Lachelt, owner and general manager of Ascent Studio Climbing and Fitness, to get the scoop on what prompted their policy change.

 


 

What prompted the decision to enforce an ABD only policy?

We had considered it ever since learning about the similar decision made by The Front gyms. We knew it would be a big step, and frankly we were nervous about making a switch that had the potential to alienate many loyal customers. In our first two years in business we had two incidents where lead climbers decked from falling above the fifth clip. In both of those cases, the belayer was using a standard tube style device and made a mistake in belaying at a crucial moment when they were distracted. The belayers lost control of the belay strand and the climber fell completely un-arrested flat onto their back. Thankfully, neither of those resulted in injury and both climbers walked away.

Then last fall, we had another incident, this time on our main lead prow. The climber had almost reached the top anchors (~45 feet off the deck). Again, the belayer was using a standard tube style device and lost control of the belay strand. Thankfully, in this case, the belay was also using an Edelrid OHM, which added some friction into the system. The belayer was able to take control of the rope above their belay device and arrest the fall just as the climber’s feet hit the deck. Again, there was no injury.

 

Did you talk to other gyms with the same policy? If so, what did they say?

We didn’t talk to other gyms about their experience, but did review the literature coming out of Europe on the subject (such as the study mentioned above). Lead climbers who are belayed with a tube are, according to this study, at a higher risk than those who are belayed with a semi-automatic braking device.

 

How have members reacted? What has been the biggest hurdle in enacting the policy?

Interestingly enough, when we seriously considered this policy change, we realized that a majority of our lead belayers were already using ABDs. When we opened in 2016, we went with the Jul2 for our rental belay device and we taught all of our youth classes on that device. So most people in the gym are at least aware of the existence of these devices, and even if they don’t already use an ABD themselves, they climb with and around others who do.

Since we also require and strictly enforce a PBUS belay (a belay method that stands for Pull, brake, under, slide), our staff is experienced with those uncomfortable conversations where we have to ask someone to make a change in their belaying. Telling them we require an ABD is actually easier since there isn’t any implication that they are doing something “wrong.” We try to be careful to let people know that we don’t think their ATC is bad or dangerous, nor that ABDs are a panacea. We just believe they are the next step in reducing risk.

During the transition (which is still ongoing) we’ve run free ABD clinics. Climbers can try out the various ABD devices that are available, learn how they work and find the one they are comfortable with. Most people are excited when they understand the benefits and realize that the transition is easier than they anticipated. We also eased the transition by borrowing a tactic that The Front used—selling ABDs at a steep discount to our members. I think people appreciated that this wasn’t a covert opportunity to increase revenue.

Since the change, I think we’ve had one person cancel their membership citing this policy as their reason. Who knows if they had other reasons for making the change. A few people have pushed back, but mostly we get positive comments. Some people commented that they had been thinking they should switch and our policy change just gave them the impetus they needed.   

 

Do you predict that other gyms will follow suit?

I think that eventually most gyms will move to this, especially as they see other gyms making the transition. It just makes sense as a way to reduce risk without changing the experience of the climber. It’s a similar transition that climbers went through when we stopped belaying with a munter hitch and ditched our stitcht plates.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think most long-term climbers who are honest with themselves know that they have made mistakes in belaying. I for one am thankful that belay devices have progressed. I’ve belayed for over 30 years and never had an accident using my ATCs, but am much happier using a device that gives me an extra measure of assurance should I make a mistake. Plus, it’s just so much nicer that when my climber is hanging on the rope, my belay hand doesn’t get worn out waiting for them to recover. 


 

Also Read

Access Fund Challenges Indoor Climbing Gyms With New “InsideOut” Education

  • Show Comments

  • J Healy

    It’s a commercial risk management consideration based on the overall gross incompetence of today’s demographic.

  • Alonzo

    I work at a gym and I actually try to avoid selling ABDs, especially to newbies, as I’ve found that they promote lazy belaying.

    • Peter

      I’ll echo Alonzo’s comment. I usually belay with an ABD, and I can definitely say that I sometimes cut corners. Using an ATC forces me to focus on my belaying, which eliminates those errors.

    • David Ehlers

      Exactly my take on it. I don’t climb with people who use ABDs.

    • steve

      well said

  • Trevor McConnell

    Initially out of the gate, I wanted to blast those gyms that have taken on this new policy. I have chosen to re-read it a couple of times and digest. I realize foremost, that I am not the owner of a gym and therefore do not lay my head down each night, wondering if I will be woven into our culture of litigation. With that as my disclaimer, I would like to also point out some other areas of concern, regarding the decision matrix.

    I have been involved in the teaching/ guiding industry, as a paid belayer for 25 years, this year. I have seen many trends. Regarding the quoted study performed in Europe, as well as the first had accounts based in the U.S. how many of those incidents were on over hanging walls? If the belayer was not standing in the correct position, i.e. in a location proximation to where they could see the climber, then more then likely, they were to far from the wall. As the belayer experiences the sudden energy of the fall, they will most likely be pulled into the wall, triggering an out stretched arm/hand response, which precludes the hand from being in the wrong position on a typical “Aperture Device.” Which leads me to the next point of concern or question.

    Before we called them “Tube Devices” they were and remain “aperture devices.” And folks, if we are going to quote European study, then lets give them credit and not call it a Tube Device, but a “plaquette device.” Regardless of the semantics, what’s important is the aperture size versus rope width. Gradually we have seen rope widths become smaller, while maintaining significant strength. Its incredible how strong ropes are. But with a smaller diameter rope, you now create less force on the wider aperture devices. The down side to narrower ropes is that there is less friction created within the design of the device.
    My points are the following:

    While I understand that an ABD seems ideal, I would like to point out your biggest win, you wrote that you have high experienced staff. The way we belay with any of these devices, remains the same PBUS. AND when done correctly, meaning the belayer is in the correct location and being attentive, then, I would argue that safety difference between an aperture device and an ABD, is marginal at best. I would also argue that we are using way to small of diameter rope, given the larger aperture devices we use. But lets be real, are our belayers often in the right location or being attentive?!?! What I don’t think the article gets at, is that belayers are not either of these things. Once again, we choose not to look in a mirror for the person at fault!

    Back to my point about overhanging walls. I suspect that the vast majority of incidents are done on over hanging walls. But dear lord, the community of climbers would just revolt if we got rid of those, or how about getting rid of leading all together? So my point is also this. PEOPLE, start to take ownership! Its true, if you really want to significantly reduce risk, then take away all leading, especially that done on over hanging walls. I am NOT advocating for that, but what I am saying is that we are long over due for a look into the mirror. The issue is NOT the belay the device, the issue is ourselves.

  • Sean

    There is already a huge disconnect between what is taught in gyms and how things are done outdoors. These failures to teach and model proper techniques have led to incidents, accidents, and fatalities. While reducing risk in the gym this is exponentially increasing it when these new climbers move outside. Gyms have a responsibility to their membership to develop proficient and safe climbers. This is a move in the wrong direction.

  • David

    Note that only errors that resulted in a high risk of a ground fall were included in the study cited. I am curious as to how the two types of devices fare with regards to other types of incidents, i.e. while lowering, falling injuries without decking, etc.

  • Ryan Wood

    It would be smart to publish an article for those that are unaware of the actual assisted breaking actions associated with the different devices and which are better for specific situations, specifically, why an ATC is better for a trad lead on smaller gear, etc.

  • Michael Browder

    Well, Gyms. You are worried about alienating customers–you’ve just alienated this one. Forget about me visiting you.

    • wesley

      You mad, bro?

      Seriously, if this is the sort of thing that makes you mad enough to not visit a gym, you should probably stop climbing.

      I bet you are over 40, and rage on the mountain project forums about how the sport is being watered down. You chop my bolts at JTree bro. I’m just trying to make the first 10 feet of Double Cross safer, ya know…

  • Joel

    For what it’s worth I got dropped to the ground belayed on a gri-gri. The belayer used 4 fingers with the left hand to pull the cam back so rope would feed easily and their right hand to feed rope. That left no hands holding the brake side of the rope.

    Another friend of mine got dropped to the ground on lower (different belayer) on a gri-gri because the belayer pulled the handle wide open without holding the brake side and held it open.

    No device can overcome bad belaying. Though some may make it less likely. I’ve been playing with the Revo which while heavy and expensive seems to teach good belay habits and offer some coverage for belayer mistakes.

  • Al Pine

    The safest belay device is a competent and attentive belayer. Gyms should be focused on teaching meaningful belay skills which are transferable across devices rather than proliferating incompetence.

  • Guillaume Paradis

    They pay less insurance this way. It’s the only reason. Money not your safety…

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