When you hear “assisted braking device” in the climbing world, many people’s minds automatically wander to the GriGri. The GriGri, a mechanical assisted braking device, was a revolution in belay device technology and, alongside standard tube-style belay devices, it is arguably one of the most commonly used belay devices available on the market today. However, a new contender: tube style assisted (or geometric assisted) braking devices, has the potential to give the GriGri (and other mechanical assisted braking devices) a run for its money. Examples of this new(er) style of belay device include the Mammut Smart Alpine, the Edelrid Mega Jul, and the Black Diamond ATC Pilot. These devices have risen in popularity over the last decade for several reasons.
First is ease of use. Although GriGri’s are becoming more prevalent, many new climbers still learn to belay on standard tube style belay devices. Since these new assisted braking devices load and take in slack in the same way as a standard tube style, the initial transition is easier. Due to its tube style nature, these new assisted braking devices are also ambidextrous, allowing the belayer to confidently and competently use the left or right hand as a brake hand without having to learn an awkward and complicated method or switching to the non-dominant hand for the brake hand. Lowering requires manipulating the angle of the device using a thumb-catch and keeping both hands on the brake strand which gives the belayer greater control over the lowering process. Even paying out slack to a leader can be simplified with these devices while still having the comfort of an assisted braking device. To pay out rope on these devices, a belayer (while maintaining control of the brake strand) loops their thumb through the catch, manipulates the angle of the device to allow rope to feed through and pays out slack with the guide hand.
The second advantage of tube style assisted braking devices is the price. The initial cost of climbing gear can create a barrier of entry for new climbers. When buying equipment, most climbers want dependable gear that can be trusted. Due to the added safety associated with a mechanical braking device, many climbers are able to justify the cost. With tube style assisted braking devices minimalist design, prices tend to range between a third ($30 for the Mega Jul) to a half ($45 for ATC Pilot and $50 for Smart Alpine) of the GriGri while carrying a similar assisted braking safety feature. For the safety conscious climber on a budget, these devices offer peace of mind and leave a little something in the wallet!
Finally, these devices excel in versatility as well. I once had a mentor tell me that versatility in climbing gear is a necessity. As climbers we experience a multitude of scenarios in which we need our equipment to perform and protect. If a piece of gear only has one use, why get it? When we take our climbing outside and begin to expand our horizons, we may find that we need our belay devices to perform a myriad of tasks including, but not limited to, belaying from the ground, belaying a second, rappelling, belaying with twin ropes, etc. This is another area in which the tube style assisted braking devices excel. With many models having two tubes, belaying on twin ropes or rappelling becomes a possibility that is not achievable by the GriGri and other mechanical assisted braking devices. Although belaying a second is possible on the GriGri, many of the tube style assisted braking devices have a “guide’ mode, while allows the belayer at the top of a pitch to belay the second with an auto-blocking device.
Different styles of belay devices will find favor with different climbers for a variety of reasons. With the added versatility over mechanical assisted braking devices, lower price points, and easier transition while maintaining the comfort of an assisted braking devices, these new geometric assisted braking devices are sure to find favor across the climbing spectrum. Newer climbers will enjoy the ease of use with the comfort of assisted braking functions while more experienced climbers will appreciate the versatility and lower costs!
-- Hall Melbane (Front Desk Staff, Climbing Instructor)