Auto Belay Device
Auto Belay anti climb mat

My first encounter with an auto belay was at Number 1 Parachute Training School, Brize Norton as I exited a mock up of a Hercules. It was terrifying! There was a brief stomach churning moment of freefall before the device took action and I still remember it to this day.

Auto belays are pretty common in climbing walls and also frequently seen on mobile climbing towers. This isn’t a technical article but aimed at those who have children or peers who want to use autobelays, or indeed find themselves in a position to instruct their use as part of their work.

The first port of call for the use of the devices is the reception desk at the climbing wall you are visiting which will direct you to the rules/procedures they have for the use of autobelays. Many walls have notices and colour coded areas to help in the use of the auto belays as well as a test fall line. This line is probably one of the best things there is for new users to gain confidence before committing to the full length of a route and having to ‘just let go’. Autobelays also have a minimum and maximum user weight so seek advice at your wall as to what this is.

So ground up, what’s the score? Firstly, helmet or no helmet? In simple terms - generally no helmet, the reason for this is that the auto belay relies on it being weighted for it to operate, should someone descending the wall snag their helmet on a hold then the autobelay will be unweighted and the climbers weight taken by the helmet and, more importantly, the helmet strap which could cause panic and a strangulation hazard. This said, some walls insist on helmets but route set to avoid the snag hazard. Whilst we’re on snag hazards, let’s talk other dangly things; tuck hoods away, remove jewelry, tuck long laces away, clean your harness so there's nothing hanging off it and generally ensure their isn’t anything else that could snag during the climbers descent.

Site Specific Auto Belay Harness
Clipping to site specific Auto Belay
The other issue is being clipped in - a large number of near misses are due to folk just climbing without clipping in. Luckily this has been reduced by systems such as a large piece of tarpaulin or similar material covering the wall with the auto belay clipped into it which you have to then unclip, lower the mat (or similar) and then clip into before climbing.

Next stage is clipping in which is normally done straight into the belay loop (or as per harness manufacturer instructions) with a screwgate crab or more commonly an autolocking crab. Some systems require a separate harness and clipping in system (see picture) to be worn when using autobelays. Once this is done you’re good to go but there is still the nagging doubt of gravity acting on you and the trust in this lump of metal the tape you’re attached to is disappearing into. This is where two key concepts come into play:

1. The test fall, as mentioned above, climbing up a short way (say 2 or 3 m) then weighting the auto belay to feel its effects is confidence building, ask my daughter!

2. For the speed ascensionist, avoid climbing faster than the tape is being taken in by the auto belay or you may share the same experience I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Obviously, the lower down you are the less likely you are to suffer this freefall. In simple terms climb smoothly and the autobelay will have time to keep up with you. To be fair, it’s pretty difficult to go faster than the tape of a true blue auto belay, my daughter and I tried several times to do this to no avail, so if you can do this there is probably a fault which should be reported to the wall staff.

Now that you’re climbing and allowing the autobelay to keep up, make sure that you follow the line of the tape. Deviating your route to the sides could (just like top roping) end up in a pendulum, but without any braking, so as you pendulum you also start descending. So lets just not do that.

So you’ve clipped in, you’ve done your testfall, you’ve climbed straight up and now, after reaching the top, it’s time to come down.

Step 1 - check your landing zone - because there is no belayer there may be people standing at the bottom of your route, a lot of walls have different coloured matting to stop this for both auto belays and overhanging lead wall landing zones, but check anyway! Auto Belay anti climb mat once clipped Step 2 - the choice is yours, you can either simply let go and let gravity do its thing (although not too much if the autobelay is doing its job). Or let yourself go back on straight arms, spread your feet and then let go. Either way you will get a touch of freefall which my daughter reliably tells me puts her heart in her throat everytime.

Finally, it is really important you make sure you keep hold of the crab after you unclip and clip it back into the required point when not in use, be this a Mat or a specified bolt hanger. A sure way to get noticed is to let go of the crab and then watch it fly upwards rapidly; the next move if this happens is a slow look towards the reception desk where it is pretty guaranteed you’ll be being stared at, along with everyone else in the wall as the tape noisily rattles to a stop in the autobelay. If no one notices, then it is important you let the wall staff know straight away, the most common accident or near miss is from people simply neglecting to clip in.

About the Author Alistair Othen:

Alistair is a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors and a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and Winter Mountain Leader as well as a paddlesports coach. He lives in Oswesry on the Welsh Borders and has just become a full time freelance instructor after 22 years of teaching, running outdoor pursuits and leading a Combined Cadet Force. His work takes him across the country as well as abroad on, mainly, military or cadet expeditions such as canoeing in Canada, ice climbing and sea kayaking in Norway (although at different times of the year!) and also climbing in Yosemite. Currently working for other organisations from schools to companies to the armed forces he intends to eventually offer some of his own adventures/courses - watch this space for Alistair Othen Mountaineering and Paddlesport.

Acknowledgements – Thanks must go to the following for their technical suggestions, advice and feedback – Joby Maw Davies, Jim Walton, Alistair's daughter Lucy. Special thanks to Climb the Walls in Shrewsbury for use of their facility in the making at this article.
Auto-Belays: How not to muck it up

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