Choosing Belay Devices in Indoor Climbing Gyms
Mirror mirror on the wall, which belay device is the fairest of them all?
That, my friends, is a trick question. At this moment in time, there are no official industry standards, guidelines, or regulations for belay device usage in indoor climbing gyms. Belay device usage and restrictions are left to the discretion of gym owners and management.
Essentially, it all comes down to choice.
As with all controversial topics in this world, there are two extreme schools of thought on belay device usage in indoor climbing gyms:
- On one end of the spectrum, you have the gyms that only allow assisted braking devices (ABDs) and outright ban the use of tube-style devices
- On the other side, you have gyms that teach classes on tube-style belay devices and allow the usage of all belay devices
- Then there are many gyms that fall somewhere in the middle – either regulating what devices can be used for top rope or lead climbing, but don’t outright ban devices altogether
It should be said loudly and clearly that there are no wrong or right answers.
Each gym is entitled to its own policies on belay devices. However, it is important to evaluate the pros and cons of all sides of the argument – if only to understand why some gyms operate one way and others operate another way.
But, before we dive into the reasons for belay device preference and usage in gyms, we must first discuss the devices themselves, the general risks of belaying, and the importance of employee education and training.
Belay Devices as PPE
The most well-known and established manufacturers of climbing equipment spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the research, development and testing of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Belay devices are considered Category 3 PPE–equipment that provides “protection against risks that can result in very serious consequences such as death or irreversible damage to health." Category 3 PPE is subject to the highest level of inspection, testing, and legal regulation.
When PPE-rated belay devices are used according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, they should behave as expected and catch a falling climber. Some devices may be more comfortable or user-friendly than others, but that is an argument of preference and not performance. Tube-style devices, when used correctly, can function just as well and just as effectively as an assisted braking device.
If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be rated as Category 3 PPE and legal to produce, distribute, and sell.
Types of Belay Devices
For the purpose of this article, the only two categories of belay devices that will be discussed are tube-style devices and assisted braking devices (ABDs).
An example of a tube-style device.
Tube-style devices are “passive” braking devices that rely on the use of a brake hand on the rope, below the device, to arrest a fall. Essentially, a friction hitch is created when the rope is looped through the carabiner and the tube-style device with a hand on the rope below the device. The hitch is only complete and secure when a hand is properly placed on the brake end of the rope. These devices do not allow for a human margin of error.
ABDs provide an extra locking action that pinches the climbing rope, assisting the belayer with arresting a fall. ABDs can be further broken down into two categories–mechanical and geometry.
Geometry-based ABDs often bear a similar resemblance to tube-style devices but provide a mechanical locking advantage via a deep notch carved into the tube of the device.
This groove-like feature essentially creates a pinch point for the rope between the device and the carabiner – providing an assisted catch for a falling climber.
It should be noted that the same manufacturers of the world’s most popular ABDs including Petzl, Black Diamond, Edelrid, Mammut and Trango all make tube-style devices as well as assisted-braking devices. Both styles are still relevant today, and both have uses that extend outside of the indoor climbing world. There is a world where both styles of devices can exist in perfect harmony.
Belay Device “Failure” – It’s Usually Human Error
All belay devices are subject to failure if not used correctly. There are several websites, blogs, and social media channels dedicated to evaluating, reviewing, testing, and “breaking” climbing gear. These resources, in addition to manufacturer websites and instructions included with the packaging, are crucial tools for climbing industry professionals looking to manage and mitigate risk with belay devices.
Although assisted braking devices do a better job catching and holding a climber, these devices don’t mitigate the risks associated with lowering a climber.
Recently, a viral video of an indoor lead climber hitting the ground after falling ~30 feet circulated the internet. The belayer was using a GriGri, arguably one of the most widely used and recognized belay devices on the market. The accident was easily preventable and was a direct result of human error. And this brings us to the most important puzzle piece of all: the human variable of belaying at indoor climbing gyms.
The Human Variable
Despite our wonderful cognitive capabilities, humans are inherently imperfect animals. We make mistakes, we forget things, we are subject to unforeseeable events and biological irregularities. Regardless of the steps that gym owners and managers take to manage risk, we will always be at the mercy of human nature.
Consider this hypothetical scenario:
A belayer faints mid-belay. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, anemia, diabetes, low blood pressure, seizures–all these often unpredictable conditions can lead to a fainting spell.
Best case scenario? The gym has a regular floor watching policy and staff are actively monitoring the gym floor when the belayer realizes they are about to lose consciousness. The belayer signals to the gym staff for help. The properly trained employee responds immediately with a fireman's belay, notifies the climber to stop, and performs a proper belay escape. The original belayer faints, but the gym employee has gained control of the brake rope and is able to lower the climber safely to the ground.
In this hypothetical scenario, a potential accident was successfully averted in the moment because of employee training and preparedness. Indoor climbing gym managers cannot predict the unpredictable, but we can prepare for the unexpected with education and training.
Part 2 will explore strategies for mitigating risk, no matter what belay device you decide to allow into your facility.
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About the Author
Ashley Routson is the General Manager of Planet Rock Climbing Gyms in Madison Heights, MI. She is a proud graduate of THE Ohio State University, where she was a member of both the varsity swimming team and varsity rowing team. Ashley came to the indoor climbing industry after nearly two decades of working in the restaurant and craft beer industries. She is also the author of The Beer Wench's Guide to Beer--a comprehensive book detailing all things craft beer. When she isn't pulling on plastic rocks in the gym, Ashley loves moderate trad and sport climbing in the great outdoors.