The popularity of indoor climbing in particular has skyrocketed in recent years, driving huge demand for climbing wall access across a variety of facilities and, in some cases, kickstarting entirely new industries. For many climbers, the tendency is to think of this growth in terms of building new climbing gyms, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Many different types of facilities offering many different styles of climbing are all contributing to the overall growth of the sport.
Whether at a conventional climbing gym, family entertainment center (FEC), camp, rec center, fun climb, school, or adventure park, people from all walks of life are climbing like never before. Unfortunately, in many cases, there is not enough supply to meet the rising demand. That is one of the areas where auto belays can really shine.
However, as with anything that people rely on to keep them safe, it is important to understand how auto belays work, how the technology varies between different brands, and what risks and safety considerations you should be aware of before purchasing, installing, or using an auto belay.
What are auto belays? Why do climbing facilities use them?
An auto belay device provides climbers with a safe, simple, and accessible option for climbing routes that would usually require a rope, without the need for a belay partner. Benefits of this type of climbing are that individuals can climb more frequently, more independently, and for longer periods of time. Auto belays also provide beginners with an easy way to try climbing out for themselves, with fewer barriers to entry than other, more technical climbing disciplines.
From an operator’s standpoint, auto belays are valuable tools for increasing climber throughput during peak hours of operation. Higher throughput means that facilities can meet the needs of more customers without having to expand their physical footprint or overall wall space. In some facilities where staffing is difficult to come by, auto belays can also simplify the employee training requirements, while still giving users a safe and protected climbing experience.
Higher throughput also allows climbers to attempt more routes in a shorter period of time, without having to wait as long in between climbs. For experienced climbers looking to build strength and endurance, this is an obvious advantage, but it is also beneficial to beginners who need plenty of trial and error to begin figuring out the basic techniques, who may not have a network of experienced belay partners, and who feel uncomfortable interrupting other climbers to ask them for a belay.
Regardless of skill level, auto belays provide climbers with the freedom to play and experiment with the full range of movements that make climbing such a unique and exhilarating pursuit.
How does auto belay use differ between facilities?
Climbing gyms are not the only facilities pushing climbing popularity to new heights. As climbing continues to transition from a niche adventure sport into mainstream popularity, other facilities such as such as FECs, fun climbs, and rec centers are increasingly becoming the initial touchpoint for many climbers’ entry into the sport. For many of these facilities, climbing wall access is often entirely dependent on the use of auto belays.
That's not to say that auto belaying is absent from the more traditional climbing facilities. Even in gyms or camps, where other climbing methods such as top roping or lead climbing are available, many climbers still choose to climb on auto belay for a variety of reasons, including ease of use, the ability to learn new skills and practice technique, and the higher level of efficiency when running laps and building endurance.
Auto belays also play an essential role in the rapidly growing sport of Speed Climbing, where athletes race each other up a set climbing route. To maintain optimal safety, special speed auto belays are specifically designed to take in slack faster than standard auto belays, staying ahead of even the fastest climbers in the world.
How do auto belays fit into the climbing community?
Although it shares many similarities with other types of climbing, auto belaying is best thought of as a standalone discipline, with its own set of advantages and obstacles, fans and detractors. Several factors differentiate auto belaying from other forms of climbing. Some of these factors include the rhythm and pacing of the movements, which must be adapted to withstand the full height of the wall, while also eliminating the ability of the climber to call "Take!" and rest midway through the climb. In order to overcome these physical challenges, the mindset that a climber brings to the auto belay area can also vary drastically from the mindset required for approaching a lead climb or bouldering problem.
While auto belays are commonly used as an alternative to ropes for protecting climbers at height, in many ways auto belaying shares more in common with bouldering than either top roping or lead climbing. The most obvious reason for this is that climbing on auto belay does not require a partner; however, the similarities don’t end there. Much like you will find around the perimeter of a bouldering area, auto belays serve as a gathering point for an entire community of climbers. Some of these climbers may be attracted to auto belays for a sense of seclusion and independence, but many auto belay users are just as happy to trade climbs with other like-minded climbers, work the same routes together, and spend their resting time discussing beta for overcoming the most challenging sections. The choice of whether or not to engage is up to each individual climber, which can be very empowering, especially for people with certain personality types.
As climber and adventurer, Sara Aranda, wrote in her article The Role of Auto Belays in Self Care:
Gyms are inherently intimidating places for people like me: crowds, forced integration, potential judgments. Being able to enter a space and find avenues to nurture a personal need is an important foundation for community building. Auto belays can and have played a major role in that by occupying a niche in climbing autonomy.
What to look for when choosing an auto belay
Regardless of the manufacturer, all auto belays perform two essential functions: retraction and braking. In short, retraction occurs as the climber goes up and braking is what brings that climber back down again. In TRUBLUE Auto Belays, these two functions occur independent from one another, meaning that, if retraction should fail, the braking system will continue working.
For the purpose of this article, let's limit this discussion to the more popular modular auto belay systems, which can be easily transported and installed across a variety of facilities. This does remove the older hydraulic system, commonly seen at street fairs and carnivals from the discussion, but you can read more about that option in the link below if you are interested.
How Auto Belays Remove Slack
In modular auto belay systems, a specially designed retraction spring is responsible for removing the slack from the system. These retraction springs are engineered for heavy usage and carefully calibrated to remove any slack from the webbing line, while also not pulling lighter climbers up the wall. Unassisted ascent is essential for providing users with an authentic climbing experience. This was one of the foundational insights when we first created the TRUBLUE Auto.
How Auto Belays Lower Climbers Back to the Ground
While each auto belay manufacturer adjusts the tension of their retraction springs to slightly (though noticeable) different specifications, the major differentiator is found in the auto belay braking system. There are two major braking technologies found in the vast majority of modern auto belays:
- Friction braking
- Magnetic braking
Friction braking relies on brake pads in order to slow down a climber's descent. This methodology was used in the original modular auto belay devices and continues to be used by the majority of auto belay manufacturers today. The advantages to brake pads are that they are lightweight and easily understood.
The alternative to friction braking is magnetic braking, which employs a contactless system known as eddy current braking to provide a consistent rate of descent, regardless of the size or weight of the user. How does it work? In short, as a climber descends, the force of the eddy current opposes the magnetic force inside of the device, which creates a dampening effect, as demonstrated in the video below.
Other commercial applications of eddy current braking include high speed trains, roller coaster, and elevators. In the auto belay industry, TRUBLUE is the only auto belay to utilize eddy current braking. Our patented system works independently of the retraction system, providing users with an added layer of protection.
How safe are auto belays?
Auto belays fall under the category of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and are therefore required to meet extensive safety regulations, which are established and assessed by third-party regulatory bodies such as TÜV SÜD. To maintain such strict standards, all auto belays are also required to go through annual maintenance conducted by manufacturer-approved service centers. Furthermore, auto belay operators are also required to conduct daily, weekly, and bi-annual inspections of each device, as laid out in the operator manual.
Understanding the risks involved with auto belaying
All climbing involves an inherent amount of risk. Whether you climb outside or in the gym, managing risk is an essential component of any climbing endeavor. Learning and following the proper safety protocols is paramount, regardless of the climbing discipline. You wouldn't start top roping with a partner who does not know how to use their brake hand or jump on a lead route without first learning not to backclip. The same logic holds true for auto belaying.
Since individual users often do not use the partner-check system while climbing on an auto belay device, it is critical that they are alert and aware of the potential risks of climbing on auto belay. First and foremost, always remember to clip in. This may seem obvious, but the majority of auto belay incidents are due to climbers forgetting to clip in before starting up the wall.
Clipping in should be the foremost safety concern for every auto belay user, regardless of previous climbing experience. Always, always, always remember to clip in
Unlike other climbing disciplines, where technical ability (such as a knowledge of safety knots or the proper use of a belay device like an ATC or GriGri) is required, failing to clip into an auto belay is usually not caused by a lack of technical expertise. In fact, experienced climbers are more likely to forget to clip in than beginners due to their higher levels of confidence and comfort in the familiar environment. This confidence can create a sense of complacency and cause even the most advanced climbers to make mistakes.
Auto belays are simple devices to use, but like every climbing activity, there are inherent risks involved, and users must always remain aware of their surroundings.
According to the research
According to a joint research effort between the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) and Jon Heshka, a professor in the Adventure Studies Department and Law School at Thompson Rivers University, there is a serious disconnect between the safety precautions that indoor climbers (even experienced indoor climbers) think that they are taking and the safety precautions that they are observed to be taking.
"While the root cause of incidents is the initial error, climbers and their partners double-checking clip-ins, tie-ins, and belay devices would prevent a large majority of rope climbing incidents in the first place." -- Climbing Wall Association
Complacency was cited as the primary reason for the disconnect between assumed safety protocols and actual safety observations. This held true for the lack of communication observed between belay partners, the lower-than-expected rates of double-checking safety knots while climbing with a partner, and climbers on auto belay failing to double-check their connection to the carabiner. In the survey, 82.9% of climbers completely agreed that they double-check that they are properly clipped in and locked into the auto belay connector before climbing. However, in practice, only 10% of climbers actually double-checked their connection.
The CWA article offers several suggestions to gym operators for reducing climber complacency and increasing safety. A few of the major takeaways are to provide education through things like orientations and signage, to reduce distractions (see article for full details), and to install belay gates as a physical barrier that impedes climbing without first clipping in. With a mind towards increasing auto belay safety specifically, let's take a more in-depth look at strategies for disrupting climber complacency.
Strategies to reenforce auto belay safety practices
There are several actions that facilities can take to remind their climbers to clip in. Each of these strategies relates back to a central theme: disrupting that sense of complacency.
- Educate Users
The most basic strategy is to require all users undergo a mandatory auto belay orientation before using the devices. Not only does an orientation ensure that climbers know how to properly use an auto belay, it also serves to alert them to the potential risks, so that they can be more aware and proactive about avoiding those risks during their practice.
- Post Signage
Signage posted at the base of all auto belay routes can also help to provide a secondary point of contact for climbers. The messaging on these signs does not have to be complicated. In fact, the simpler and more direct, the better.
- Install Belay Gates
One of the most effective methods for reminding climbers to clip in is to install belay gates at the bottom of the climbing wall. A belay gate is a physical barrier, designed to prevent people from accessing the start of a route without first removing the carabiner from the belay gate. Belay gates should also include relevant messaging, once again reenforcing the importance of clipping in before climbing.
Our belay gates are designed to be double-sided. When the auto belay is not in use, the outward-facing message instructs approaching climbers to "Clip In". Once the climber has started up the wall, the belay gate will lie flat on the ground, serving as a landing area for the climber. The message “Climber Above” is then displayed, warning other climbers not to stand beneath the active climber.
Additional connector options
While carabiners are the most common webbing connectors for most auto belays, there are other options that may be preferred depending on the type of facility, the style of climbing, and the experience level of the climbers. A self-belay device, for example, could be a good option if your user-base consists primarily of young and inexperienced climbers, such as at an FEC or Fun Climb.
Additional expert Information regarding Auto Belay technology and advantages
Interested to read more about the Auto Belay technology and expert opinions?
- Why More FECs Trust TRUBLUE Auto Belays
- TRUBLUE iQ+ World's first catch-and-hold auto belay
- Climbing Walls at FECs: ROI Considerations
- Improve the Accessibility and Inclusivity of Your Climbing Gym
- Catch-and-Hold: What is it and how does it work?
- What is No Delay Belay?
- 7 Ways Magnetic Braking Is Better Than Friction
- A Kid’s Guide to Gym Climbing
- 5 Ways TRUBLUE Can Help a Climbing Gym
- Auto-Belay and hands-free climbing challenges
- Auto Belay for Speed Climbing
- Speed climbing is becoming more popular then ever
- 5 unique ways to use an auto belay
- Auto belay retraction systems white paper