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.