OK, this is creepy

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Went climbing last night at The Edge. Normally when you drop in at a place like this you can't find anyone to belay you, so you end up just bouldering. The Edge has an unusual feature: auto-belay devices. Basically, it's a web belt attached to what seems to be a spring-loaded device at the top of the wall. You attach it to your harness and as you climb it automatically takes up the slack. If you fall off, it pays out slowly, lowering you to the ground safely (at least theoretically).

The obvious advantage of a gizmo like this is that it lets you climb on your own without a belayer. Also, you can train continuously without having a belay slave. The major practical disadvantage is that it doesn't lock, so there's no way to hang and work out a move. If you fall, you have to start over again from the bottom, which means that it's a lot harder to work through difficult moves, since you're tired by the time you get there.

Psychologically, though, it's even weirder. When someone is belaying you and you fall, the rope stretches a bit (assuming it's a dynamic rope) but then you stop dead. With an auto-belay, you just fall slowly. If you're used to a regular belay, your first thought is "my belayer has screwed up and I'm about to fall to my death". That's not really an easy reaction to suppress, which makes it a lot harder to climb near your limit, as well as making letting go to descend at the top of the climb a real act of will.

4 Comments

Not an hour ago, I was at a mall, clipped into a similar auto-belay system on one of those mobile rock walls. (Why was I slumming like that, you ask? It was worth $50 if I could top out on the "hard" side of the wall inside 3 minutes. I could've done it with a chalk bag and proper shoes.) There was definitely some cognitive dissonance the first time I fell off of the crux -- "Why am I still falling?!" I figured out pretty fast that I could catch myself on the next set of holds down, and that the tension from the auto-belay made resting with three or four points on the wall a reasonably good idea. But yeah, it's a weird setup.

After you fall a few times, you will likely come to trust the auto-belay.

Do you feel that the (slight?) upward pull that the auto-belay provides changes what you can do, move-wise? My abilities are so minimal it barely matters, but I suspect you are in a better position to judge.

I'm bummed that drop-ins lose. Since I only climb (and, when I am doing it the term is used loosely) with my 65 lb daughter, it's pretty much auto-belay only for me. I was wondering about the drop-in probability mere hours ago, as a matter of fact, after climbing at the local Vertical Endeavors. Neat that I didn't have to wait for an answer. Crazy, these internets.

And you are totally right about how weird it feels just letting go at the top. Kinda cool, in a way.

Ah, but are you either a) unlearning a useful behavior or b) learning a harmful behavior?

Chris:

I thought that the lift from the auto-belay made the easy moves even easier, but didn't do much for me at the crux.

Also, your daughter should be able to belay you if she attaches herself to the floor first, assuming that your gym has some flavor of attachment point on or near the floor. Some gyms have actual floor rings with pre-attached daisy chains, but I've also used a (very) low bolt and a 3' sling.

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