Updated May 21, 2020
If you want to learn more about auto belay devices for climbing you’re in the right place!
Here is an overview of what you’ll learn in this article:
- What is an auto belay?
- How does auto belay work?
- TruBlue Auto Belay
- The Perfect Descent
- Are they safe? User error?
- Why are they so expensive? What about those cheaper options?
- Auto belay for rock climbing?
- Tips for utilizing solo climbing time
Let’s dive in!
Intro to the auto belay device
When I hear the term “auto belay” I think about my first ever gym climbing experience and learning about the auto belay option for when you don’t have a belay partner. It is a great option for solo climbers in the gym, especially when you haven’t found a solid belay buddy yet. You can’t always trust a belay partner, but you can always trust an auto belay, right?
You basically can clip in, and as you climb, the belt or more commonly known as the lanyard (instead of a rope) gets sucked up into the feature at the top of the wall. But if you fall mid-climb it keeps a certain tension so you don’t go plummeting to the ground. So once the climb is done (or you fall), you are slowly lowered to the ground. It is quite handy for solo climbers, who don’t want to have to stick to bouldering all day long.
However! And let me say again… HOWEVER. It doesn’t keep the tension super tight while climbing, so that you aren’t carried up the wall (this is great). So there is a tiny bit of slack that gives you the space to climb as if you were actually on belay with a real rope.There is a brief moment when you fall that there is a tiny bit of slack in the lanyard (not so great), where the device has to catch you. And in that moment, you feel like you are going to fall to your death (you won’t – I promise haha). I have such a fear of the auto belay devices at the gym for this reason only. I know, I know, I’m embarrassed I feel this way too.
Don’t get me wrong — they work great, and do exactly what they need to do. But for that quick millisecond, I do have a fear that I will fall to the ground. So instead of using it like normal climbers, I down climb, and get in some more cardio (we’ll talk about that later).
How does an auto belay work?
The highest notarized auto belay system is the TruBlue Auto Belay. This device was specifically designed for the climbing industry. TruBlue claims to use the best technology compared to other auto belay devices, which seems to be true. With a notable cost of $2500 (plus S&H), it better have some of the best technology.
So let’s break this down in terms of what exactly is going on inside our auto belay device. In general there is some kind of casing that will hang from the ceiling or a mount at the top of the climb. On the inside of this casing, we will have a spooled lanyard (this replaced the rope). The lanyard is spring loaded and wrapped tightly around the center spool. There is actually a retraction spring that essentially winds the lanyard tighter, as you climb the wall. Super simple, and pretty straight forward.
The descent (my favorite part – not!) can vary depending on the model. There are two kinds – magnetic and centrifugal force. TruBlue uses the magnetic braking system which is called the eddy current braking system. Eddy current braking is when non-magnetic metals move through magnetic fields and then a magnetic force is created by electromagnetic induction. So basically when you fall, the lanyard pulls through the casing, which extends aluminum rotor arms within a magnetic field. This movement creates opposing forces, which creates a drag, which then creates the resistance for braking. This took me a minute to wrap my brain around, but it makes so much sense! Magnets are rad!
The second type of descent is done by centrifugal force. The Perfect Descent breaking system has a round casing system around the lanyard and uses that centrifugal force to create an outward push when objects spin in a circular motion. This is also known as inertia. Imagine you’re a passenger in a car, going fast around a sharp corner. That feeling of being pulled outward, is the same thing! So when you are falling down from a climb, your weight helps create centrifugal force. Basically the center of the spinning wheel is engaged in the opposite direction, and it pushes the internal brake pads.
Are they safe? User error?
For the most part, you better believe these (expensive) bad boys are tested over and over again before they are actually sold in the market. Any sort of technology like this, I generally feel like I can trust, because they actually are holding our lives in their hands when claiming we can trust their device. Research has actually shown that the biggest and most common situation for accidents using an auto belay is through user error. It is as simple as not clipping in properly, or forgetting to clip in altogether. You don’t have that buddy there to remind you, “belay on?” So, it is definitely recommended to pay special attention when preparing to climb on auto-belay, because it is a much higher chance you will be the reason you experience any sort of accident while using the device.
Why are they so expensive? What about the cheaper options?
This is reiterated from the above topic about safety. Anything holding your life is going to cost some money. Hence, why climbing rope is expensive as well. You need to trust it. And I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy the cheapest rope I can find. I won’t do it. Not with something serious like this.
I have seen some other options online that are more so in the $130-$300 range, and to me it raised red flags. These are not to be confused with climbing auto belays. These are called self retracting lifelines. Sure enough there is always a person on these product reviews, asking if they can be used for rock climbing. The answer is absolutely not. It is a shame these types of products even come up when you search for auto belay, because they don’t actually function like an auto belay. They are fall protection devices for workers and laborers. NOT for solo climbers.
Can you use an auto belay device for rock climbing?
I’ve seen this question posted on many platforms before, “Is there any way to auto belay outdoors?” And frankly the answer to that, is no. Sorry to be a negative nelly right now, but it has to be said. There is no safe way to auto belay outdoors. Auto belay devices are primarily used for gyms only. There are tools like assisted belay devices, like a gri gri for example. This sort of device has an assisted braking system built in. These are used primarily with newer climbers/belayers, so there is pretty much zero risk in dropping a climb mid way through a route. But again, this is just a precautionary feature built into the standard belaying device, to assist in not dropping your climber.
Tips for utilizing solo climbing time
Yes, I have described my experience of using an auto belay to be a bit on the scary side. But there really are some major benefits to having that solo time, while not needing a climbing partner.
Like I said before, I love to use this time to practice down climbing. I do this for multiple benefits. One of those benefits is to get some actual cardio going. Climbing notoriously is good for strength training, but I am always looking for a way to keep my heart rate up and get a cardio workout in. So instead of letting the auto belay lower me down, I double my climb, by practicing technique in a down climb. It truly increases the overall workout benefits. Bonus cardio if you jump back on the wall and do the climb over and over until you can’t hang on any longer!
I’ve also seen people use auto belays in the gym as a way to train for lead climbing. Lead climbing can be scary for anyone! So this safety net sort of gives you that courage to maybe try to lead something a little harder than you maybe would if you didn’t have an auto belay. It’s actually a great training tool for this purpose!
I also like to take the alone time to get my zen on. Yep, these are those days in the gym where you know you want to climb, but you don’t want to interact with anyone else. It happens. We all have those days. So I put in my headphones, and zone out. It is quite the therapeutic exercise, and I highly recommend it when you need to have some alone time.
So there you have it! All things auto belay! Another aspect to one of our favorite hobbies! Share with us your auto belay experiences – we love to hear from you!
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