Over the past decade, auto belays have exploded in popularity and are now available in many climbing gyms around the world. If you’re used to climbing with a partner belaying you or don’t have any climbing experience, auto belays can feel strange at first. As a result, many people are initially hesitant to trust them.
Auto belays are very safe devices that make it simple for climbers of all ages and experience levels to climb and train without a partner. In this article, we’ll go over all the essential information about auto belays, including how they work, safety tips, the pros and cons of using an auto belay, and how much they cost.
What is an auto belay?
Auto belays are devices that automatically take slack as a climber ascends the wall. If the climber falls or intentionally lets go, the device stops the fall and gently lowers the climber to the ground. Auto belays are usually affixed to the top of the wall, allowing a climber to top rope the routes underneath the device without the assistance of a belayer on the ground.
These devices consist of an internal belay mechanism, outer housing, a long lanyard (usually this is nylon or Dyneema webbing, but there are also auto belays that use rope), and a locking carabiner. There are three main types of auto belays: 1) magnetic, 2) friction, and 3) hydraulic. The mechanisms inside the devices work in different ways, but the result is the same: a safe system that gives climbers the ability to ascend routes without a partner.
Are auto belays safe?
Auto belays today are incredibly safe when used correctly. The devices must undergo rigorous safety testing and regular servicing, and they are equipped with backup braking systems in the unlikely event of equipment malfunction. As a result, most auto belay accidents are caused by human error.
If you’ve never used an auto belay before, let a staff member at your gym know, and they will instruct you how to use the device. Even if you are familiar with auto belays, always do a safety check before starting to climb.
A standard auto belay safety check includes the following:
- Check that your harness is fitted well and fastened correctly.
- Without unclipping the carabiner, pull down on the webbing or lanyard, then release it and make sure it retracts properly.
- Clip the auto-locking carabiner to your belay loop or other designated attachment point on your harness. Ensure the gate is completely closed with nothing obstructing it and confirm it is locked. Do not let go of the auto belay during this step, or the lanyard will retract back to the top of the route.
- Do a final check of the system, including your harness, carabiner, and attachment point. If everything looks good, you may begin to climb.
- If you’ve never used an auto belay before, it’s a good idea to do a small test fall near the ground to see how it feels and build your trust in the system. It’s easier and less intimidating for many people to let go of the holds close to the ground than high up on the wall.
Once you’re climbing, pay attention to the slack in the webbing or rope. If it fails to retract, stop climbing immediately and call for assistance. Stop climbing when you reach the auto belay device at the top of the route – never climb above it or next to it. When you’re safely back on the ground and done with the route, unclip the carabiner from your harness and reattach it to the designated place towards the bottom of the wall.
Please note that the exact instructions and safety advice may vary slightly depending on which auto belay model your gym uses. Always check with gym staff first to ensure you understand how to use that specific device.
Pros and Cons of Using an Auto Belay
There are both advantages and disadvantages to using an auto belay device, and they are not suited for every climber or type of climbing. Below, we’ll discuss the pros, cons, and best use cases for auto belays, as well as situations in which they are not ideal.
- Great for new climbers: Most people will try climbing the wall before they know how to belay. Using an auto belay allows new climbers to build their skills on the wall at their own pace without needing a partner or learning how to belay someone else. When they’re ready, the climbers can then learn to belay using a standard belay device and begin trading off climbs with a partner.
- Convenient: Auto belays are a fantastic solution for climbers who prefer to climb alone, don’t have a climbing partner, or want to climb on their own schedule without needing to coordinate with someone else.
- Ideal for children: Some young climbers have parents that climb or know how to belay, while others don’t. Auto belays make it simple for parents to introduce their kids to climbing without needing to learn how to belay or hire an instructor to belay their child.
- Fast retraction is perfect for speed climbing: Many auto belay devices can take slack faster than a human belayer can, making them well-suited for speed climbing competitions. The world’s fastest speed belay has a roll-in speed of 5 meters per second, which is faster than a world-record holder can ascend the wall.
- Excellent training tool: With an auto belay, climbers can do laps on a route for endurance training without needing to ask a partner to belay them for long periods. They are also a great solution for climbers who want to try “mock leading” a route, which allows a climber to practice lead climbing basics without the additional risks. When mock leading, a climber is tied into a lead rope to practice clipping in while also safely secured from above by the auto belay (this is also possible using a standard top rope set up with a belayer on the ground).
- Facilitates social distancing: COVID restrictions have impacted climbing gyms worldwide and significantly changed the way they operate. Auto belays make it easier to maintain space between people in the gym since there is no human belayer required.
- Smaller selection of routes: Most gyms do not equip all of their routes with auto belays due to the cost. As a result, depending on an auto belay at the gym usually means you have fewer routes available to you. Additionally, most gyms with auto belays only have them available for top-roping, so climbers seeking to test their lead skills will still need to find a partner.
- Can’t take a break in the middle of a route: If you fall or weight the rope to take a break, the auto belay will lower you to the ground and you’ll have to start the route from the beginning. This can be frustrating for some climbers, but at the same time, it’s useful for learning how to rest on the route – a crucial skill that climbers must develop as they seek to climb harder grades.
- Takes time to trust and get used to: For experienced climbers who have built trust in standard belaying systems and their climbing partners, transitioning to an auto belay can feel strange. Some climbers don’t like these devices despite their benefits and prefer to climb with a partner.
How much does an auto belay cost?
Each auto belay system costs upwards of US$2,000 and can run as high as about US$5,000. In spite of the considerable upfront cost, auto belays have many benefits for climbing gyms and their customers. For example, using these devices allows gyms to host more events like birthday parties, team building outings, and classes without hiring additional staff. The devices also add value and flexibility for customers.
Can you self-belay?
Yes, there are several methods to self-belay while rock climbing. Auto belays are by far the easiest and safest method of roped climbing without a partner, and indoor gyms generally do not allow self-belay unless it’s using an auto belay device.
If you find yourself wanting to climb outdoors on a rope without a partner, there are methods to do so; however, these techniques are dangerous and not recommended.
Auto belays are very safe belaying systems that are now available in climbing gyms across the globe. From helping new climbers develop skills at their own pace to facilitating elite speed climbing competitions, auto belays have many different uses. Although most people find that auto belays make climbing indoors more convenient, they are not right for everyone. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether an auto belay suits your climbing style and needs.