Thinking about Auto-Belay.

auto belay, woodrow, climbing, blog

May 13, 2019

While at the gym I have noticed a good amount of solo climbers using the auto belay (AB) devices provided. Clipping in and connecting from device to device making it seem that they have complete trust in the equipment, which is what is needed of any climber in order to succeed, I get it. But. An enclosed case of 'whatever is going on inside that cannot be seen' that ensures my safety makes me a little frightened to be honest. Therefore, the use of auto-belay caused me to question its use and reliability. 

It led me down quite the rabbit hole....

1. Has any body ever died using Auto-Belay?

It seems that the answer to this question is....NO.

This is due to the fact that those accidents involving the AB device were caused by user error and not entirely a function, or lack thereof, of the device suggesting that they weren't physically 'using' the device. Tragic accidents have still occurred. Most of them happening because of climbers not clipping in properly or at all. Such as the case with a lady in Grapevine, Texas in 2013 and an experienced gentleman in Colorado in 2014.  (We are assuming here that that was indeed what happened to Matt. Feel free to do your research and come to your own conclusions).

In Quebec, Canada, the cable on an AB device broke causing about a 15m fall in March of 2018. That's just under 50ft. The article is in French. Not sure why the cable broke.

Please pay attention, always, and be sure to CLIP IN.

2. What goes on inside the Auto Belay device anyway?

It was hoped that by learning about the mystery of what actually slows the climber down on descent, the fear of using the AB on a regular basis might be stymied. That led to a lot of questions and study. Turns out it's an Eddy Current Magnetic Braking System. I'm not going to bore you with this nerd stuff but let's just say it's super interesting. It's frictionless. It's universal. It's amazing. (Feel free to send a note if you think there would be enough interest to have the science explained in another blog post).

3. What other inventions use Eddy Current Magnetics?

Power tools, trains, roller coasters and many more....

4. How often do people die using those inventions?

You see where I am going with this? I want to use the AB at the gym. I need to justify it.

There were 8 total deaths regarding trains in 2018 in the US. (and not specifically brake related)

There were 16 roller coaster deaths from 1987-2000 according to and once again not brake related specifically.

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of people that ride trains and rollercoasters per year in the US it seems that it is a very small percentage of failure in these braking systems.

5. And what about this technology with regard to Belaying specifically?

While the technology surrounding magnetic braking has been around for some time it still has yet to be fully proven in the climbing world and the AB devices used. Here is a brief history.

Friction based AB devices really kicked off this method of climbing in the 90's. They were bulky, expensive, needed constant maintenance and simply wore out quickly and unexpectedly. After some malfunction and two accidents the company, MSA, that produced them, called for a 'STOP USE' immediately.

Then came the hydraulic method. They were fail safe. Due to the non-modular design and sheer size of the machines it became increasingly difficult to include them in daily climbing gym culture across the board.

TruBlue Auto Belay devices are commonly seen in climbing gyms today and they utilize the Eddy Current Magnetic Braking. They're affordable. Lightweight. Reliable. They started as a company in New Zealand but are now being engineered and manufactured by Head Rush Technologies out of Boulder, Colorado. 

While I'm not new to climbing, I'm new to Auto Belay. I'm going to use it for the time this week. I'll keep you posted.

Further reading.

Auto-Belay. A short history.

A good reddit thread on the topic

....and on mountain project.