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Caught by the Machine: Lead Autobelays to Hit the Market

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Yep, you read the headline correctly. The long awaited lead climbing-compatible autobelay will hit the European market in 2022. The U.S. market to follow.

When used properly, autobelays allow you to project and train on your own, which is great when you’re short on time and/or partners. But, since they are traditionally anchored at the top of walls, climbers have always been limited to vertical or slab terrain, and top-roping only. Now, however, ProGrade has flipped it, anchoring the system at the bottom of the wall, allowing you to lead climb on steep terrain all on your own. 

ProGrade was born four years ago. “We regularly went to the UrbanWall climbing gym in Milan and we often were in [a group of] three with very long and often annoying waiting times,” said Filippo Bollini, one of ProGrade’s founders. That’s when the idea for a more versatile, lead-compatible autobelay struck. 

He said: “From there it all started, the market survey, [and then] the first prototype made with 3D-printed parts and components disassembled from household appliances.” The first model was promising, and it was followed by four years of research and development, testing, and four more prototypes. Six of the end results were installed in UrbanWall for public use this past September. 

“During the first two months we recorded 3,700 ascents,” said Bollini. “Many people have been fascinated by how ProGrade works, by the possibilities it offers… We have received numerous compliments and congratulations, which makes us very proud. Even the most skeptical, who initially did not want to try it, in the end were convinced and were satisfied with the experience.”

So how do they work? Sensors, software, and motors, which read rope movement and feed out/take up slack accordingly. The locking system is mechanical, similar to most assisted-braking belay devices, reliant on friction. You’ll be happy to know that ProGrade is CE certified (required for products sold in the E.U.) and, said Bollini, “tested according to the canonical regulations for climbing (UIAA) by a specialized certification body (dolomiticert).”

ProGrade is compatible with any type of lead wall and may be switched to top-roping mode on vertical terrain. Users simply tie in, press a button on a touch screen, and, importantly, make sure their knot is checked before beginning their ascent. 

The ProGrade team did not specify a timeline for US availability. “We are currently working on the creation of an international sales network with the help of partners and distributors,” said Bollini. “Given the great appreciation and response from the market, it is possible that this step will happen faster than expected.”