Unassisted Braking Devices vs. Assisted Braking Devices
There are two primary categories that belay devices fall under. Non-Assisted Belay Devices, and Assisted Braking Devices. This article covers some of today’s the most common styles of belay devices on the market.
What is a Non-Assisted Braking Device?
These belay devices require the belayer to keep their hand on the brake end of the rope and will only catch the climber if their hand remains below the braking plane of the belay device. If the belayers hand remains above the braking plane and the climber falls the rope will wiz right through the climber's hand. This can cause serious rope burns to the belayers hand and of course this may result in more serious consequences for the climber. With proper safety training and attentiveness non-assisted braking devices can provide a very smooth belayer experience. The non-assisted devices we discuss in this article are the Tubular and Placette Device.
What is an Assisted Braking Device?
ABD's assists a belayer while catching a falling climber who is attached to the climbing rope. When activated, ABD’s produce a locking action that pinches the climbing rope, providing a catch assist to the belayer. In order to increase the chances of the locking assist, the belayer should keep their hand on the locking end of the rope at all times and below the brake plane. These devices are produced in various shapes, with each style offering benefits in different belay scenarios, such as top rope belay, lead belay, multi-pitch belay, and in some cases hauling, and ascending. Although older styles of devices are still commonly in use today, there are many ABD's out there that are challenging the status quo of what modern belay safety should look like.
Tubular and Plaquette belay devices:
In the mid to late 1980's tubular and plaquette style belay devices hit the market. With the advent of belay plates a new belay technique was developed most popularly referred to as "Pull Brake Under Slide" (PBUS) which remains the standard belay technique for most modern belay devices. The plaquette device has one additional benefit over a tube device, by clipping a plaquette in its extra carabiner loop the belayer can engage guide mode. This allows the multi-pitch leader to belay their followers up while connecting the device directly to the anchor, achieving better leverage for the belayer and autoblock mode.
Assisted Breaking Device (ABD's):
In the early 1990's Petzl introduced a new concept of belay safety. The Grigri was designed to improve the safety standards over earlier styles belay devices. Fast forward 30 years, Many more assisted braking devices have been introduced to the market, some are designed simply for top rope, and single pitch lead belay, while others can also be used for multi-pitch and even rappel.
All belay plates, tubular devices, placettes, and ABD's require that you to keep your hand below the braking plane in order to stop a falling climber from hitting the ground. So why should you choose an ABD over an older style of belay device in that case? ABD's are more likely to catch a climber if a belayers hand some how ends up off of the break end of the rope. This does not mean a climber should pay less attention to the break end of the rope. As a belayer, its our responsibility to our climbing partner to reduce the margin of user error on the belayers end. With that in consideration, There are many factors that are out of our control, a couple being, an unexpected climber fall, or loose/falling rock. Falling rock poses the risk of rendering a belayer unconscious if hit on the head, thus causing them to let go of the locking end of the rope. In this case, without an ABD the belayer is likely to drop the climber. ABD's provide redundancy in the likelihood you let go of the break end of the rope in the worst case scenario. On a side note the use of helmets is strongly recommended as a preventative measure.
Two Categories of ABD's
Since ABD's take on many different shapes it is important to understand how to identify an Assisted breaking device. First we will divide ABD's into two separate categories: Passive ABD's and Active ABD's.
These ABD's Operate with a notch in the belay plate which engages a locking action between the carabiner, and the rope. There are many passive ABD models out there. Some bare a striking resemblance to tubular and plaquette styles of belay devices like Edelrids Mega Jul and Giga Jul devices. So what makes these lock differently than a standard tubular or plaquette style of belay device? Its all about a deep cleft that is carved out in the tube of the belay device. Once the climbers end of the rope produces a high level of tension on the device the carabiner and the rope are sent into the cleft of the belay device which achieves a mechanical locking advantage. These are the kind of ABD we recommend to someone who favors the tubular and plaquette syle of belay devices.
A few examples of Passive ABD's
These styles of ABD's achieve a locking action between the rope and the device. Once enough tension is delivered to the device from the climbers end, the moving components of the device pinch the rope resulting in a locking action on the rope. Belayers enjoy using this style of ABD because they provide an exceptionally smooth belayer experience. There is typically a longer learning curve with these styles of devices, but once the belayer develops a solid belay technique with them, its hard to want to switch back. Some Active ABD's are also a favorite in the guiding world because of their versatility and smoothness in many different rope management scenarios.
A few examples of active ABD's
Are ABD's considered auto locking devices?
ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! It's common to hear people refer to ABD's as auto locking devices. This is a myth. Though ABD's can help reduce the margin of belayer error, it is not a full proof system if the belayer is not using the device how the manufacturer intended it to be used. ABD's are designed to ASSIST an attentive belayer and provide additional safety in the case of a climber fall. It’s always a good practice to read the manufactures instruction manual over whichever belay device you choose. This will help you understand your devices intended use and limitations.
Send hard and be safe out there!
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This article is intended for supplemental education purposes only and not a substitute for professional instruction.