Catch This: A Close Look at Assisted-Braking Belay Devices
Since the Grigri was introduced in 1992, new assisted-braking devices have been developed over the years, evolving in many directions. These devices range in cost from $29.95 to $114.95, and their best uses range from gyms to extreme alpine adventures. Two new devices hit the market this year—the Grigri 2 and the Smart Alpine—and a variety of other worthy tools are available. To help you make the best choice, we field-tested six belay devices, each of which we can recommend for different reasons. We looked at everything from weight and price to how well the device feeds slack and how “automatic” it is on a scale of 1 to 10—meaning how much of an assist testers felt the device provided to the belay, with 10 being the most.
Whichever device you buy, it’s critically important to learn the proper techniques for each device—they vary widely. If you don’t get these right, you not only won’t be able to feed slack quickly to a desperate leader, you also may endanger your partner. [See sidebar on next page.] Because of this learning curve, we recommend you choose one assisted-braking device and stick with it. And, of course, no device is completely foolproof— the most important aspect of belaying with any device is paying close attention to your partner.
Petzl Grigri 2
How do you improve a product that has been a powerhouse in the climbing industry for almost two decades? Petzl went back to basics by making the original Grigri lighter and smaller, replacing it with the Grigri 2 (petzl.com). Used for everything from extended sport belays to jumar back-ups, the Grigri is now 2 ounces lighter and only about 75 percent of the original’s size. It also handles smaller-diameter ropes (down to 8.9mm) than the original, so skinny-rope redpointers and fat-cord topropers alike will be satisfied. From sport climbing in Colorado to a fourpitch sandstone tower in Utah, the Grigri 2 had all our testers singing its praises. Users found that feeding slack and lowering were smoother than with the original, and they ranked it as one of the most “automatic” belay devices—averaging a 9 out of 10 for braking power. We tested everything from 9.2mm to 10.5mm ropes, with the best results coming in the 9.4mm to 9.8mm range. Ropes in the 10.5mm range proved a bit balkier, but were still relatively smooth, and all rope sizes had “minimum unwanted locking.” Because the Grigri 2 is smaller than the old device, it’s also easier for those of us with childishly small hands to use the correct belay technique. One tester claimed the worst feature of the Grigri 2 was “sending it back.”
The Edelrid Eddy (edelridna.com) is the heaviest, priciest device in this review. But where it misses in these categories, it’s a hit with durability, simplicity, and suitability for less experienced climbers. The gym is the Eddy’s native habitat. Belaying with the Eddy uses a natural-feeling hand position, very similar to using a tube-style device, and it feeds and takes in rope easily for toproping and leading, even with crusty gym ropes. For lowering, the Eddy uses a lever much like the Grigri, but includes a built-in “panic brake” that engages the braking mechanism if a belayer tries to lower too quickly; the belayer must return the lowering lever to the braking position to “reload” the device before he or she continues lowering. This feature and the somewhat fi nicky push-button opening for loading the rope into the Eddy might annoy a climber familiar with other devices. But the panic brake could be a comfort for anyone climbing with a beginning belayer. Most of the device is constructed of steel (except the aluminum brake lever), which accounts for the Eddy’s heft, but also makes it likely to last much longer under heavy use than other devices.
Climbing Technology ClickUp
Coming from the Italian company Climbing Technology, the ClickUp (climbingtechnology.it) has a minimal following in the U.S. climbing community, but it proved successful in our field tests. In many ways, it behaves like a tube-style device: You load the rope in a similar way, and you lock off with your brake hand just as you would with an ATC. However, in a fall, your belay biner “clicks up” inside the device to apply more braking force, so you can hold a falling or hanging climber with minimal effort. When it’s time to lower, you press out on the device’s body and pay out slack with your brake hand.
We found the ClickUp locks quickest when you’re belaying a heavier climber or a leader fall; it sometimes didn’t lock right away with a toproping “take,” a lightweight climber, or lots of rope drag. But as long as you brake as you would with a tube-style device, it manages falls just fine—even if you mistakenly load the rope backwards in the device, as one of our editors did. (Doh!) Our testers gave the ClickUp a 6 on the “automatic” scale, a relatively dynamic belay that could be helpful if a climber prefers softer catches and the belayer prefers more control. We also found the ClickUp works best at the lower end of the device’s 9mm to 10.5mm range; with thicker ropes, some testers found it tough to pull slack fast enough. At just 4.3 oz., this is one of the lightest assisted-braking devices, and it comes at reasonable price.
The Cinch (trango.com) has been available for years and has scads of loyal fans, who see it as a cheaper, lighter, and more compact tool than the Grigri. Though the Grigri 2 has stolen some of that luster by getting smaller and lighter, the Cinch is still a solid performer, and it handles really well—once you get the knack of it. One of the tricks to the Cinch is the non-intuitive lowering technique that Trango recommends, but once this is figured out and mastered, it is smooth sailing. For belaying, you essentially hold the device open so it feeds easily. It then locks up under load almost instantly—it scored 9.8 out of 10 among our testers for “automatic” braking. Since the right techniques are essential, we highly recommend watching Trango’s how-to videos. One tester called the device “smoother than the Grigri—smoother than an ATC! But you have to do it just right.”
Mammut Smart Alpine
Two sizes: 7.5mm–9.5mm; 8.9mm–10.5mm
4.4 oz., 4.8 oz.
Most of the devices reviewed here are well-suited for single-pitch rock routes or gym climbing, but offer much less to multi-pitch or alpine climbers. Enter the Mammut Smart Alpine (mammut.ch), which brings unprecedented versatility to an assisted-braking device. New for 2011, the Smart Alpine is a two-slot version of Mammut’s Smart device ($29.95). Two slots allow you to belay with double or twin ropes, and to accommodate such skinny ropes, the new Alpine version comes in two sizes. Two channels also means it can be used for double-rope rappels (or a doubled single rope), unlike any other device in this review. Mammut stresses you shouldn’t count on the assisted-braking effect as a rappel back-up, but in our limited tests, it did stop a climber who let go of the rope. The Smart Alpine also can be rigged in autoblock mode to belay one or two seconds directly off an anchor. Mammut suggests the Smart provides a more dynamic belay than other assisted-braking devices, which would be beneficial for trad and ice climbs, but the difference seemed marginal—the device locked up quickly and tight. While belaying leaders and seconds, we found the Smart feeds and takes in slack smoothly; it was slightly less smooth than other devices for rappels or lowering. But as one of the lightest devices in this review, at a modest price, and with all its benefits, this is an amazing tool.
Wild Country SRC
$54.90 with belay biner
One of the oldest assisted-braking devices on the market, this one still holds its own in certain situations amid a field of younger competitors. The SRC (aka Single Rope Controller, wildcountry.co.uk) is the lightest of the bunch at 3.8 oz., and it’s simple to load, which led one tester to suggest it might be best suited for projecting multi-pitch routes, where falls are common but every gram counts. The SRC also allows a bit of rope to slip dynamically in leader falls, potentially reducing the impact force on trad gear. It’s a little trickier to pay out slack to the leader with this device than with other assisted-braking models. When using stiff, kinky gym ropes, the device tended to lock up unless you followed exactly the recommended method, which is easy to do but a little counter-intuitive. The SRC is intended for use with an HMS (pear-shaped) biner, and you can only buy it with DMM’s anti-cross-loading Belay Master locking biner—a package deal that’s quite reasonably priced.