(Photo Source : https://www.mountainproject.com/v/109808653 )
So over the long wkend, i received a note that one of the climbing gyms has decided to move ahead to introduce non-mechanical assisted braking devices eg. Mammut SMART belay, Climbing Technology Click Up, Edelrid Mega Jul, in their Level 1 courses at the gym. I had a chat with the gym owner once and he did share with me the rationale why the gym is pushing for it. We had a good discussion over their pros and cons (ok mostly pros) and why it will be good to introduce them not just in the courses but to see them being used more often in the gyms. I was really glad to hear about such innovations because such devices can really up the safety factor in belaying. Say what we want, but there is always the potential for human error to creep in no matter how experienced we are. These devices help to keep the risk to a bare minimum. My opinion was that there was no harm introducing them to new climbers at an early stage so that they get familiar with them and build up good habits using them. I am more than happy to include them in my courses especially with the gym’s support not just to supply us with the gear but to help us get familiar with it. If you are not familiar with non-mechanical assisted belay devices, here’s a good simple article that i found : http://www.climbing.com/gear/catch-this-a-close-look-at-assisted-braking-belay-devices/ They cover both mechanical and non-mechanical devices.
As we spoke i also began to voice my concerns over whether will climbers eventually start to see these assisted belay devices as a norm in the gym. My greatest worry was that there will come a day when i will be belaying in the gym with my good old ATC and some young punk will come up to me and call me out for doing something unsafe. All because he has never seen an ATC before. I can just imagine the conversation (in the future),
Young Punk (YP) : “Hey Uncle, do you know that that device that you are using is not safe?”
Me : *resisting all my natural instincts to stab him in his jugular vein for calling me Uncle* “Why is it not safe?”
YP : “Because it does not have any braking assistance. What if you let go of your brake hand accidentally?”
Me: “Well in my time (yes i know this is not helping to bring my age down…), we were all trained to use this ATC and the belayer simply had to learn NEVER to let go of the brake hand no matter what happens. It’s a sacred trust between the climber and the belayer and no matter what happens, my brake hand will always remain on the brake line. So as much as i appreciate your concern, this device is safe to use in the gym with a trained belayer thank you.”
YP : “Yes, you are trained but what if the unexpected happens? You lose concentration for a moment and the climber falls. The climber dislodges a tile that hits you on your brake hand. So many things can go wrong. Why not just use an assisted belay device so that you will be 100% safe? I disagree that we should leave it to “trust”, as if “trust” will take care of us all. Gravity will still happen with or without trust. So i think it is still best to belay using an assisted belay device. Here, you can use mine.”
Me, “Really dude, i’m good with my ATC. I’m more familiar with it anyway. And besides, no device is 100% safe. Btw you really shouldn’t talk to a belayer when he is belaying…”
I can just imagine how the conversation will continue when we go into ethics, moral dilemma, rules & regulations, star wars vs star trek, pikachu vs ratata…. I guess that’s what makes this conversation important. On one hand i am happy to see a step taken in the right direction to reduce the risk in climbing, but the traditional aspects in me still wants to keep the old skool, romantic notions of climbing. Where to rope up with your buddy was way more than just a 5 min climb. Where by belaying, you promise to always hang on to that line even if he fell a thousand times and not leave it to a mere device to catch him. Will we even need a belayer in future? (Check out this blog : http://www.climbingpsych.com/2011/02/belayer-relationship.html )These thoughts swivelled through my mind as i talked with BT that evening. Until he said something that made some sense to my undecided mind,
“Do you remember in the old days we made use of stitch plates and Fig. 8’s to belay? Why did we stop? Because a whole new generation of devices came along – the tubular devices like your ATC’s. Are we now seeing another new generation of devices being introduced? Maybe this will be the new norm?”
So this is progress. The price of progress. I was swayed a little but the conundrum still existed in my mind. As a climber, i was all in for the safety. But as an instructor, i still felt that it was my duty to teach. Perhaps until the day that BT described really arrives where the tubular becomes obsolete then perhaps i will feel more comfortable to leave out the good ole non-assisted belay devices. Till the day comes where the market is flooded with these devices, i hope we can all have the good sense not to make so drastic a distinction between safe and dangerous. Let’s not forget that these assisted braking devices are safe, but you can never remove the human capacity for stupidity. You solve the belaying problem but all it takes is for the same idiot to rig up the device wrongly or attach his carabiner wrongly or the knot is tied wrongly or harness never double and that’s it. At the end of the day, perhaps it is the belayer’s mentality, the approach to belaying, the regard for the importance of belaying that we should be concerned about? Always check regardless of what expensive device you have there. We are humans…and that makes us vulnerable.
These are the conversations that we should be having as a climbing instructor community. Thank you for engaging the community to move a step forward in the face of inactivity.