The small island nation of Singapore, with its 5.6 million citizens, has two bouldering-only gyms and three full-service traditional climbing gyms packed into a busy urban core. The climbing scene is usually tight-knit, but a recent policy change regarding belay devices has created some unusual animosity between the gyms and their members.
The three Singapore rope gyms, Climb Central, Climb Asia and the largest, Onsight Climbing, came together to create a policy they thought would lead to a safer gym experience and reduction in ground falls. The new policy completely bans tubular (a.k.a tube-style or tuber) belay devices, such as the classic Black Diamond ATC, in favor of Assisted Braking Devices (ABD) such as the Petzl Grigri, Elrid Jul and Mammut Smart, among others. Not surprisingly the new policy is rubbing an outspoken group of members the wrong way.
The operators anticipated that a few climbers would be resistant to the change. But they were caught off guard by the number and passion of climbers behind the resistance. Looking back, they now know they could have handled the roll-out of the new policy in a better way.
It is almost inevitable that every climbing gym, sooner or later, will experience a ground fall from a sport climber. Sometimes the outcome is a bruised heel, but sometimes the accident ends tragically with a broken back and paraplegia. Like every responsible gym operator, Onsight Climbing’s General Manager, Ben Toh, is always looking for ways to mitigate the number of accidents at his facility. Onsight opened its doors in 2011, and since that time the gym has had four major incidents, all of which occurred while climbers were using tubular devices while belaying, according to Toh. “The cause is overwhelmingly due to belayers’ inability to hold on to the rope, for various reasons such as – inattentiveness, inability to react fast enough, insufficient strength to hold on to the rope because of high impact fall, or simply tardiness,” Toh told CBJ.
“Four may not seem like a big number,” Toh wrote on the company’s Facebook page. “But we feel it is unacceptable, especially when the technology to prevent [these accidents] has already existed for years, and has proven its efficacy.” Toh is aware that banning tubers does not equate to zero incidents, but, “We believe it will lead to less,” he wrote.
Tube-style belay devices like the Black Diamond ATC, Petzl Verso and Trango’s Pyramid have been a standard in climbing equipment since the late 1980’s when they surpassed the figure 8 to become the most popular belay device. Today’s tube-style models have added grooves and teeth to improve their performance, but they still function in the exact same way as the original devices.
In 1991 Petzl revolutionized the belay market with its Assisted Braking Device, the Grigri, which is now ubiquitous in gyms and sport crags around the world. The Grigri and others, like the Trango Vergo and the Edelrid Eddy, use a mechanized internal cam to “lock” the rope in place during a fall. Petzl is now releasing a third version of the Grigri which includes an anti-panic function where the device locks if the release handle is pulled too hard while lowering, which is by far the leading cause of ground falls when using an ABD like the Grigri.
A few years ago the assisted-braking market expanded to include belay devices that are shaped in a way that allows the device and the locking carabiner to slow down the rope in the event of a fall. These new devices use the geometry of the device, instead of a moving part (like a cam) to jam the rope and assist in stopping a climber’s fall. These “geometry-assisted” devices, such as the Mammut Smart, Edelrid Jul, and the upcoming Black Diamond Pilot, have no moving parts but are still considered in the same ABD family as the Grigri.
As stated above, Toh can point to his own gym’s incident statistics as proof of the “error rate” of traditional tubers. He can also point to a 2012 German research paper that came to the same conclusion. The German Alpine Club (DAV), conducted a comprehensive belay safety study amongst eleven German climbing gyms and reported their findings in the Journal of the German Alpine Club.
After observing more than 360 people climbing and belaying they counted all known safety and relevant climbing and belaying errors. The researchers concluded that “The semi-automatic belay devices showed an increased margin of safety in their application.” They went on to conclude, “It became clear that Tube users commit a serious error in every second belay action while such errors showed up only every seventh time with semi-automatics.”
(They also found the climbing partners don’t do safety checks and stand too far away from the wall when lead belaying.)
It’s interesting to note that long-time German climbing gear manufacturer, Edelrid, released a statement in 2015 saying, “In the new 2016 collection, we are removing all dynamic tubers from our range.” By ‘dynamic’ they mean traditional tube-style devices.
In the United States, the Climbing Wall Association, the trade group for climbing wall operators, does not endorse any particular type or brand of belay device. Though the CWA makes no mention of the new breed of geometry-assisted braking devices, in their Climbing Wall Instructor Program they do “recommend teaching belaying using a passive device first and then, once that type of device is mastered, to introduce the mechanical-assist device to the novice climber.”
The CWA policy goes on to state that, “Mechanical assist devices are more complex mechanisms, more complicated to use, are counter-intuitive in some respects (use of the cam lever to lower the climber) and require additional training to use properly, especially for lowering, descending or belaying a leader.”
It’s hard to argue with stats, but many of Onsight’s members are extremely upset with the new policy. They argue that tube devices are safe and point to their many accident-free years using them. They also point out that all the accidents that have happened in the gym have been caused by human error, not by a malfunction of the device.
One Facebook commenter wrote, “If the cause of accidents are due entirely … to human error and not equipment failure, as in the case of your gym’s statistics, does it not make better sense to seek to better educate errant users of the ATCs and possible[ly] seek to revoke their … certifications?” Toh doesn’t dispute this fact but believes that education is not enough. “Even with heightened education, incidents can still happen due to factors not within control of the belayer. That is when using an ABD will help,” he replied on the gym’s Facebook page.
Some members of the gyms with the new belay device policy have even gone so far as to create a Change.org petition to stop the ban on tube devices. At the time of this publishing the petition had 228 supporters.
For Toh, knowing that accidents are going to happen no matter which belay device climbers use leads to a simple evaluation of which device will result in fewer accidents in the event of user error. “It is impossible to have no incidents regardless of the device being used. But statistically, looking at the number of incidents using ABD’s vs non-ABD’s, there should be lower number of incidents with respect to failure to hold on to the breaking end of the rope,” he wrote on Facebook.
How to make a new policy
After the Singapore gyms rolled out the new policy, they saw hundreds of comments on their Facebook pages regarding the change, mostly from members that were either confused or angry. Because of the close and personal nature of climbers’ relationship with their home gym, it is not particularly uncommon for members to be very vocal about changes. For Toh, this vocal response was not all bad. “Hot passion, is better than cold indifference,” he said.
Toh and the other Singapore gyms expected some negative response from members, but not to the extent of what transpired. He understands now that the policy change is controversial but more importantly the way they enacted the change did not help.
“Our messaging was really bad,” Toh told CBJ. He said that they should have started introducing ABDs in the gym, educating climbers about proper and safe use of the devices, and highlighting their advantages. “This may have helped some of the climbers understand where we are coming from, and allowed them a first-hand experience with the devices,” he said.
“Our first notice that went out, on hindsight, was too casual.” The first notice was a simple blog and social media statement about certain dates to take note of regarding the policy change. “We should have indicated a) reasons for the ban, b) the interim measures, c) assurances that the transition will be minimally disruptive and d) a simple Q&A about the ABDs,” Toh said. One particular issue among his climbers after the notice went out, was that the cost of ABDs will be prohibitively expensive. “It is a simple issue that we could have addressed right from the start,” he said.
Climb Central originally put out a similar notice of dates and workshops. A day later a “Why the Change” update was published that stated in more detail the reasons why they were banning tubers.
Facing a firestorm of negativity and cancellation threats, Toh knew he would have to get out there and win the hearts and minds of his members. “Having screwed up so badly, the next best thing was to engage our climbers individually (on FB and at the gym),” he said. And that’s what he’s doing now. He now spends two to three hours every day responding to social media comments and talking face to face with members in the gym. “We actually appreciate the opportunity to interact with our climbers, and see it from their point of view,” he said.
The Singapore climbing community is small but robust, and for Toh, leaving them out of the conversation about belay devices was a huge mistake. They are passionate about climbing and about safety and he’s now glad that they are having a valuable conversation with the climbing community.
“Overall, the whole fiasco was a good wake-up call to the [local] gyms, that the local climbing community is a stakeholder in our business.”