Choosing Belay Devices in Indoor Climbing Gyms, Part 2

CWA Blog,

Belaying in indoor climbing gym

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 in a two-part series on belay devices in indoor climbing gyms. If you have not done so, read Part 1 below!

READ FIRST: Belay Devices in Indoor Climbing Gyms, Part 1

Continuing where we left off, let's talk about risk mitigation.

Floor Monitoring

Most people are familiar with the role of the lifeguard at a pool. A great way to mitigate the risks of indoor rock climbing is to have properly trained staff monitor the techniques used by climbers in the gym from the floor.

These employees should be actively looking for potential hazards and correcting any behaviors at the moment, whenever possible.

Is the harness being worn to the manufacturer's standards? Is the climber tied into the rope through both hard points? Does the figure-8 knot look correct? Is the belay device loaded correctly? Is the belayer demonstrating a safe and controlled belay technique? These are just some examples of what to look for when walking the gym floor.

Several potential accidents and hazards can be recognized and corrected before the climber even leaves the ground.

The more we train our employees on how to recognize and correct risks, the less risk  our customers face in our facilities.

Belayer Rescue Training

Regardless of a gym’s belay device policy, proper rescue training assists efforts for indoor climbing gyms to mitigate risk. Though not a requirement of the CWA Industry Practices, climbing gym employees who have rescue technique skills are valuable assets.

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This training should not stop with instructors or floor walkers. I require my entire staff, including managers, front desk employees, routesetters, team coaches, and youth program coaches, to be properly trained on floor rescues.

Since this article is focused on belay devices, I am only going to discuss belay rescues–however, it should be noted that rescue training should include climber rescues as well as auto-belay rescues.

A backup fireman’s belay, essentially holding the brake rope underneath the belayer's device, is a simple way to prevent an accident or injury when the belayer is not demonstrating control of the brake rope.

In a situation where the belayer’s device is not loaded correctly or the belayer is no longer able to safely and correctly belay, a belay escape might be required.

A belay escape is, for lack of a better definition, a situation where the belayer is “freed” from the act of belaying. Many variables affect the situation, and there are abundant resources available to teach and learn proper belay escape techniques. Each situation requires quick judgment and seamless action in the field.

The following is a basic description of a belay escape, with the understanding that all situations are more nuanced than those described below.

  1. First, the climber is told to stop climbing.
  2. Then, the second belayer attaches a second belay device to the brake rope strand below the device of the primary belay device.
  3. Once the second belayer has connected themselves to the rope and established control over the brake.
  4. The primary belayer can disconnect their device from the rope.>

Risk Management

One of the strongest arguments in favor of instituting ABD-only policies in indoor climbing gyms is risk management. Essentially, these gyms are looking to mitigate human error and prevent belayer-caused incidents as much as possible by restricting the use of certain belay devices inside the facility.

The reasoning behind this is simple. If a belayer loses control or has zero control of the brake rope during a fall on a tube-style device, the climber will almost certainly hit the ground. If a belayer drops the brake hand during a fall on an ABD, the device itself is more likely, but not guaranteed, to catch the climber and prevent a fall.

There are additional arguments to be made about limiting the use of belay devices.

The Brake Rope

Any article on belay devices would be incomplete without at least a mention (or rant on) of the importance of the brake rope. All belay devices require proper protection of the brake side of the rope, typically in the form of a designated brake hand, on the brake rope, at all times.

As mentioned above, ABDs can provide extra support in the case where a belayer loses control of the brake rope. This assistance can come with a price, however.

If a new belayer lets go of the brake rope during a fall, and the assisted braking device catches the falling climber for them, there are little to no perceived consequences. This can lead to lazy and passive belaying. After all, if the device is doing all the work, why should it matter if the brake hand leaves the brake rope from time to time?

Teaching a new (top rope) belayer on a tube-style device has its advantages. These devices require a manual braking action, forcing the belayer to be engaged with its climber at all times.

Catching a fall on a tube-style device requires a complete arrest of the brake rope, and allows the belayer to feel the full weight of the climber on the other end. The consequence of dropping a brake hand on a tube-style device is severe, which means the belayer needs to be active and engaged at all times.

As an instructor, I tend to be a bit of a showboat. I love demonstrating how the friction “lock” of the tube-style device works from the ground level. On a fixed line, I will arrest the brake rope under my Petzl Reverso and swing into the wall, hitting the wall with flat feet and bent legs. I will swing back and forth a few times. And then, I let go of the brake rope, allowing my students to watch me fall to the ground. If I’m feeling extra spicy, I’ll show them the magic of friction while I ascend a few feet off the ground on my Reverso. With each action, I reinforce the importance of the brake hand, in the brake position, on the brake side of the rope.

This level of performance is certainly not necessary, but my purpose with this anecdote is to illustrate how dependable this device can be when used correctly.

The Climbing Wall Instructor Program encourages students to follow up any demonstration with hands-on learning opportunities to reinforce those taught through watching. 

Affordability of Belay Devices

Rock climbing can be an expensive hobby. The cost of the sport is one of the biggest barriers to entry. The costs of day passes, rental gear, and lessons can add up quickly. Those looking to climb more regularly will eventually look into membership rates and invest in their climbing gear. Tube-style belay devices are typically the most affordable option available to new climbers.  Fortunately, ABDs are becoming more affordable with the advent of new technology

Some ABD-only gyms, like DYNO Detroit in Detroit, MI., mitigate this cost to the customer by tethering GriGris to all the top ropes. Other gyms might provide free rental devices and complimentary device instruction for customers that do not have the required equipment upon arrival.

Ascent Studio in Fort Collins, Colo,. requires ABD usage for lead climbing inside its gym (but not top rope). Ascent will provide its customers with a complimentary Edelrid JUL2, if they do not own an ABD device. If the customer is unfamiliar with the JUL2, Ascent employees provide complimentary training before that customer gets on the sharp end.

If your gym currently has an ABD-only policy or is thinking of converting to one, it is important to consider the financial impact that this decision could have on your customers.

When Ascent Studio transitioned to the ABD-only policy for lead climbing, they offered a steep discount on ABD devices and supported the transition with free staff-lead device clinics.

Freedom of Choice & Personal Responsibility

Gyms that require certain belay devices, while restricting others, run the risk of denying customers the freedom of choice. The longer someone has been climbing, the more likely they are to have a personal preference for belay devices and belay techniques. Requiring an experienced belayer to switch devices runs its own risks.

As gym managers and owners–where and when do we draw the line between risk management and personal responsibility? This is a question that I constantly find myself asking and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever find the perfect answer.

I firmly believe that indoor climbers must assume some risk and responsibility and that gyms cannot and should not bear the full burden of responsibility themselves.

At the end of the day, as gym managers and owners, we can do everything under the sun to prevent accidents, injuries, and serious harm to our customers and community, but climbing will always remain a risky sport

Regardless of the belay devices we choose to allow inside our facilities, the proper education and training of both our staff and our customers will continue to be, in my humble opinion, the greatest tool for risk management and mitigation.

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About the Author

Ashley RoutsonAshley 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.