Today I was down at the North West Face climbing wall in Warrington, testing out a variety of belay devices. Belay devices last a long time if used correctly, so when buying one you should decide what you want out of the belay devices. Here are the criteria that I decided were important for me, in order of priority:
Friction: A belay device works using friction. Therefore I want a belay device that has enough friction so that I am not fighting to stop a heavier climber from slipping as I hold them at rest, but not so much friction that I struggle to lower a lighter climber.
Smoothness:When belaying and feeding the rope out, I want this to be a smooth action. The climber whom I am belaying will obviously want a smooth descent too.
Weight: For most belay devices, the weights are similar, but I still don’t want to carry unnecessary weight.
Price: At 15-25 pounds for most belay devices, there is not a lot of money in it, so it is low down on my list of considerations.
Compatibility with rope: This is important, but depends on what you are aiming to climb with.
The above list does not really factor in locking devices, such as the Gri Gri, that does not work using friction but by camming and locking instead. These devices tend to be heavier, more expensive and lack the simplicity of a basic belay device.
For a more technical assessment, read the BMC’s guide at:
My shortlist at the wall today including a DMM Bug Belay, Black Diamond ATC XP and a WIld Country Variable Controller. The DMM bug is a non-directional belay device, meaning that it provides the same level of friction whichever way you use it. I’ve been using one of these for years and it is effective and in my biased opinion, a good all-rounder basic belay device.
The Wild Country Variable Controller, by contrast, is very grippy, which is great when the climber is resting, but when lowering the lightweight leader off the wall, this resulted in a very jerky descent as it provided too much friction, despite marketing’s claims of a “snatch free payout”.
The Black Diamond ATC XP is a sweet piece of kit, and my favourite of the day. This features two modes of operation. When dealing with a heavier leader, one side has channelled grooves that add friction, but without unnecessarily catching the rope as you pay out. Descent is smooth. Flip it around and you have a lower friction belay device which is still slick to operate. Whichever way you use it, the 10mm ropes I was using still resting in the appropriate grooves and belaying was a joy. Personally I can see myself using this in future at indoor walls as it makes belaying much easier, giving me a a chance to properly rest my forearms before my next climb!
This article is not meant to be a detailed discussion about belay devices, nor is it meant to drill down into any particular one in too much details. I guess what I learnt today is that when you are in the search of a good belay device, you can do much worse than heading to a reputable wall and trying several out till you find one that works best for you!