Auto Belays: Why They’re Simultaneously Great, Okay, and Terrible

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By 2023 most gyms will likely have Siri-like auto belays for partnerless toprope fanatics. Climbers will simply press a fingertip to a small screen and don their wireless earbuds to have a soothing female voice ask them, by name, if they’re ready to climb.

You’ll be able to tell Siri if you prefer a loose belay or to be kept tight. Say “take,” and she’ll pull up the slack and let you hang when you get tired or are stuck on a sequence. Don’t want to be lowered to the ground when you fall? No problem; tell Siri you’d like to work out the moves, and she’ll keep you right there. She’ll even give you beta if you ask. Better yet, sync her with your Fitbit7, and she’ll keep track of how many calories you burn each time you climb a route, as well as your fastest send time, total time climbing, number of routes sent, number of hangs, total moves made, and how many crimps/jugs/slopers/pinches you’ve gripped. She can even coach you for workouts, telling you how long to rest between climbs and giving encouragement on the way up. Want to hear your favorite pump up song to get you through the top moves? Siri can do that too.

Unfortunately, for now auto belays aren’t quite that sophisticated.  They gently tug you up the route, can’t “take” when you get tired or confused, and lower you to the ground whether you’re falling halfway up or letting go at the top. When used properly, they’re safe, but not perfect for everyone.

HERE IS WHAT THEY DO WELL, NOT AS WELL, AND NOT WELL AT ALL:

What They’re Terrible For:

  1. Projecting routes. Every time you fall, unless you’re lucky enough to catch yourself on a jug during the descent, you’re lowered to the ground. This can be quite frustrating, as you have to climb up to your trouble sequence each time you want to try it, which can lead to exhaustion and stress about not making the move (and being lowered to the ground again if/when you’re unsuccessful) each time you decide to give the route a go.
  2. Allowing you to climb without assistance. Auto belays are constantly pulling in slack until they feel your weight against the rope, thus giving one the feeling of being gently pulled up the route. This also means that the device “helps” you climb by taking a small amount of your weight off—basically it’s the opposite of wearing a weighted vest for training.

What They’re Okay For:

  1. Warming up before your partner arrives. Need to run a few easy laps while you’re waiting for a friend? The auto belay is a great way to warm up alone when the bouldering cave is crowded (or if you don’t like bouldering).
  2. Burning out at the end of a gym session. Feel bad about making your partner belay you five times up the same route so you can work on endurance at the end of your workout? You shouldn’t, especially if you offer to do the same for them, but, in case you do, the auto belay is a great solution. It’s also good for burning yourself out when your partner has to leave early.

What They’re Great For:

  1. Finding partners. Couldn’t convince anyone to join you for a rope session? Are all your friends boulderers? Simply hang around the auto belay and wait for someone to hop on. Once they’ve finished their climb, ask them if they’d “like a real catch”—or some variation thereof—and 67 percent of the time you’ll have a new partner. Just make sure they know how to belay another human before you start climbing.

Originally published February 15, 2016, on coffeetapeibuprofenclimb.blogspot.com.

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