It was recently announced that all locations of The Front Climbing Club in Utah would be enacting a new belay policy. “Starting on December 1, 2019, The Front will require all belayers to use assisted braking devices [ABDs],” a public post on the company’s website noted.
In lead-up to that December date, The Front gyms have started giving top-rope and belay tests with strictly ABD devices, and selling ABDs at a discount in their pro shops.
The Front website explained that the ability of assisted braking devices—“when properly used”—to aid in securely catching a climber makes them “the only choice for use” in the various gyms. However, The Front also cautioned that ABDs are not foolproof and user error can still occur.
“The Front is focused on being forward thinking and employing modern approaches to all parts of our business, including our rules and belay policies,” George Poulton, the VP and General Counsel of The Front, said to CBJ. “In this spirit, and as climbing gear has made huge leaps in design and functionality, we’re excited to transition to an all-ABD policy in our gyms. We believe this is another step in improving the overall experience for our members and guests.”
At approximately the same time that The Front’s new policy was made public, Ascent Studio in Fort Collins, Colorado, released a similarly-worded announcement—also with a December 1st effective date. However, the new ABD requirement at Ascent Studio only extends to lead belaying, not top-roping.
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“We recognize that tube-style belay devices still have a place in climbing, and this is not an attempt to ‘water down climbing,’ a notice about the policy change read on Ascent Studio’s website. “This change is simply an effort to reduce risk in our facility, not to tell you what device you should use in all cases.”
Ascent Studio indicated that ABDs approved for use within its facility included versions of the Petzl GriGri, versions of Edelrid’s MegaJul and other similar devices, Black Diamond’s ATC Pilot, Mad Rock’s Lifeguard, Trango’s Vergo and Cinch, versions of Climb Tech’s ClickUps and AlpineUp, versions of Mammut’s Smart, the C.A.M.P. Matik, Wild Country’s Revo, and Beal’s Birdie. (Other ABDs not listed would be allowed only at staff discretion). The gym also linked to several articles about other facilities worldwide adopting mandatory ABD policies—including this recent report about gyms in Singapore.
When reached for comment, Jon Lachelt, owner of Ascent Studio, told CBJ that his gym has always been strict about its belay standards—requiring all belayers to use the PBUS (Pull, Break, Under, Slide) method. Yet, in the past, the gym still had three ground falls from height due to belayer error during lead climbing, all of which would have likely been avoided with the use of an ABD. [Editor’s Note: none of those incidents resulted in injury, which Lachelt attributes to Ascent Studio’s inSpire system flooring].
“As our gym gets busier every year the more distractions there are facing a belayer; plus, the more likely that a dropped climber might fall on someone who happened to be walking under the lead prow at a critical moment,” Lachelt told CBJ. “In light of those things we feel like we have a duty to take such a simple and reasonable measure to reduce the risk for our customers. Given the ample evidence that the use of ABDs can reduce risk we didn’t see any reason to keep putting off this switch. We also noticed that at the Front Range crags and even in our gym the majority of lead belayers are already using an ABD, so there won’t really be many people impacted by the switch.”
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John Burgman has been writing about climbing for nearly a decade. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient, a former magazine editor at Outdoor Life, and the author of two books. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team.