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Are assisted-braking belay devices safer?

The answer should be obvious, but this misconception about assisted-braking devices still persists. Time to clear things up once and for all

climber belaying with Grigri

30 years after the Grigri first hit the shelves, virtually every company that makes a belay device also makes an assisted-braking device. This type of belay is by far the most popular choice for serious sport climbers, and at many gyms it is now mandatory to use an assisted-braking device. It might come as a surprise then that there’s still some confusion around the benefits of ABDs and the correct way to use them. Some climbers even believe that assisted-braking devices are somehow less safe than regular tube style devices. In this article I aim to clear up the confusion by debunking the argument against assisted-braking devices and describing a few common bad belay habits (the real problem) that you should try to avoid when using an assisted-braking device.

The argument against assisted-braking devices

The most common criticism of ABD’s is that they enforce bad habits and can lull belayers into a false sense of security or complacency. This claim can be refuted on two grounds. The first is that a habit is a pattern of human behavior – and a bad habit is a human error. Any device can be used incorrectly, and a tube style device like the ATC is definitely not safer than an ABD when used improperly. Unlike ABD’s which have a failsafe mechanism to prevent the rapid release of rope in the event that the belayer accidently lets go of the brake strand, tubes and plates have no such function and do nothing to prevent a belayer from dropping their climber if they let go of the rope. Even if a belayer is usually diligent, he might be hit by a rock, trip and fall, or be stung by an insect. Bottom line: any failsafe is better than none.

The second problem is also human. ABD’s were developed to make climbing safer, not to reduce the level of vigilance required by the belayer. If a belayer is less attentive when using an ABD, that again is a user error and not a design flaw. If anything, ABD’s should actually encourage a more proactive style of belaying given that it can be difficult to get the assisted-braking mechanism (especially those on active ABDs) to release while the cam is being pulled forward. To avoid having the device lock up while you are trying to pay out rope, you have to belay more proactively – in a way that ensures that there is always enough rope in the system when the climber needs it. And it should go without saying that you should never let go of the brake strand when belaying even if the device does have an assisted-braking function.

Bad belay habits you should avoid

The two types of assisted-braking device (active and passive) work very differently, and even models within the same category can require different techniques. Given these differences, the incorrect way to belay (bad habits) also varies from device to device. That said, there are a few common mistakes that every belayer should avoid.

Belaying reactively

A belayer can be proactive or reactive in how they pay out and take in rope. A proactive belayer anticipates when the climber needs rope to make a reachy clip and delivers it just before the climber grabs the rope. A reactive belayer, on the other hand, waits until the climber is actually pulling up rope before putting out slack. Sometimes their rope delivery is delayed because their attention is elsewhere – until the climber’s desperate tugging brings them back to the task at hand – or it could be that they were never shown how to belay properly. Regardless of the reason, the result is that the climber usually gets short-roped and wastes precious energy pulling at a rope that should be freely available.

Some ABDs, like the Grigri, are very unforgiving of a reactive belay habit and will lock up when the rope is pulled out the device suddenly – as can happen if the belayer is caught napping. Some lazier belayers might try to avoid this by putting extra slack in the system, but this can be dangerous, especially if a climber is low down on a route. This type of belaying should be considered a complete no-no and a deal breaker for any belaytionship. If someone trusts you to belay them, you owe it to them to take the task seriously and give them your full attention. If you are relatively new to lead belaying or suspect that you’d benefit from a few pointers see my article on how to give a better belay.

Overriding the assisted-braking mechanism incorrectly

Even though you can pay out rope quickly by taking a step forward, there will be times when you have to override the assisted-braking function on your device to put out rope even faster. If you’re using a passive ABD, you won’t need to use a special technique to disengage the brake since these devices don’t require you to change the position of your hand, but with active ABDs there’s a correct and incorrect way of holding the cam open. The proper technique is slightly different for every device, and you will need to familiarize yourself with the recommended technique for yours.

To disengage the assisted-braking function on a Grigri, you put your brake-hand thumb on the back of the lever and curl your pointer finger under the curved lip on the right side of the device (the brake strand is still in the palm of your hand). With your hand in this position, you can pull rope out the device quickly, and if your belayer falls while you’re feeding out rope, it’s easy enough to remove your thumb from the lever and close your hand around the brake strand. Seems simple enough. The problem is that some belayers get into the habit of wrapping their fingers around the underside of the device. The danger in holding the device like this is that you might continue to hold the cam open if the climber falls and you panic. Bottom line: always make sure that your finger (you only need one) goes under the curved lip and not the underside of the device when you want to override the assisted-braking mechanism.

Common questions about ABDs

If you are almost convinced of the benefits of assisted-braking devices but still have a few more questions, the following answers will hopefully give you what you need to know.

Is it worth carrying an assisted-braking device on a multi-pitch climb?

Guide mode devices are generally more popular for trad and multi-pitch sport climbing  since they have two channels and are a better option if you have to rappel. Still, some climbers might opt to also carry an ABD (a team might have only one between the two of them) or use ABDs in place of guide mode devices if they don’t expect to have to rappel or belay with two ropes. The most obvious advantage of carrying an ABD is that it allows for a safer lead belay, but ABDs also offer advantages when used for belaying up a follower. It’s easier to lower a follower with an ABD than it is with a guide mode device, and an ABD also makes it easier to set up a 3:1 pulley system if you need to haul your partner.

What are the other advantages of an assisted-braking device?

In addition to offering an additional level of safety and making certain multi-pitch belay tasks easier, ABDs are also a boon for sport climbers whose partners spend a lot of time hang dogging. Besides helping to arrest falls, the assisted-braking mechanism on an ABD makes is easier to support a climber’s weight while they are hanging (the cam does much of the work that the brake hand would otherwise do) and can act like a rope capture pulley if the belayer wants to pull themselves up the rope – something they might do to assist their climber.

Are there special considerations for left-handed belayers?

Passive ABDs are symmetrical in design and work equally well for right and left-handed users, but active ABDs like the Grigri, Beal Birdie and Camp Matik are designed with the brake release lever on the right side of the device, which poses a challenge for left-handed users. The Grigri, in particular, is tricky for left-handed users as it’s designed to have the brake strand run over the curved right edge. The Beal Birdie and Camp Matik are slightly more lefty friendly in that the rope runs straight out of the front of the device, which means that the brake strand can be held with the left hand when paying out and taking in rope.

Last word

Understanding the benefits of assisted-braking devices, I always prefer a belayer to use an ABD when it’s practical, but then I also look at how they use it. An inattentive belayer, or one who has developed bad habits, can be a danger to their partner regardless of the device they use. Choose your climbing partners carefully and then do them a solid by striving to be the kind of belayer you’d want on the other end of the rope when it’s your turn to take up the sharp end.