Posted on November 12 2013
Belay devices are the bread and butter of a climbers arsenal. It tends to be one of the first things we buy when we are starting out. As a result, it is probably one of the least informed choices we make because we don’t know what we want yet. It is true that a basic belay device will suit most beginner climbers and will be safe enough for everyone who knows how to use it properly. However, the extra features along with the research and development that has gone into a select few can make our lives so much easier and keep us safer too. This review will just go over a few of those features.
Belay devices vary depending on your use; and what is right for an indoor climber won’t work for those doing long multi-pitch routes. For indoor climbing it is simple. Ropes (that are not your own) tend to be heavy and thick built for heavy use by novice users. A lot of belay devices will struggle with these giving too much friction or by being too tight a fit. This is not a significant issue for top roping because it has the advantage of not slipping through quickly when the climber takes a sudden fall. The downside is that it may require extra strength to pull the thick rope through.The real problem lies with lead climbing as it is harder and consequently takes a little longer to pull the rope through the belay device when they need to clip in quickly. When the lead climber is hanging on for dear life and finds it hard to clip in because of a delay in the belaying it could often lead to an angry/frustrated climbing partner. Apart from that you need no extra features and can get by with even a single rope belay device (twin ropes are rare indoors). If you test any belay device out with some 11mm ropes and it pulls though smoothly you have a suitable device.
Gri Gri 2
However, if you want to spend a bit more, the perfect belay device is the gri gri (2). It takes a single rope. It self locks making climbing with inexperienced belayers much safer. It also comes with a lever for lowering meaning no more juddering descents. If someone is taking their time, it holds the rope for you saving your arms for when you have to climb. However, the gri gri can’t take two ropes and leads to poor technique when a traditional belay device is used. The people using them are rarely concentrating because it feels so safe to use.
The gri gri is limited with where you use it. If the rope is thin (ropes are getting thinner and thinner) the grip is compromised and it is much heavier than all the other devices we have tested. This is not a problem on 90% of climbs but if you have a long trek to get to the base of the climb or are doing an expedition of any sort having one is just a waste of precious weight. This is most apparent when hanging of your harness on a multi pitch route. It is a sport climbing device really, a bit heavy to carry on your rack and made to be used at the base of the cliff on bolted routes.
Overall the gri gri is fantastic. When used right it takes away a lot of stress from belaying. The features do improve with each model but do keep an eye on the product recalls.However, we cannot stress the importance of the belayer still concentrating and being alert even when using the gri gri. While we would recommend this device it should not be your sole belay tool. If you can afford to have the choice it is nice to have around and takes the danger away a little bit.
The next one we are looking at is the Metolius BRD. This is quite a simple one but performs admirably. It takes 2 ropes and gives a suitable amount of friction considering the lack of friction grooves. Realistically, only if your partner is much heavier or under wet or icy conditions do the grooves help. The other advantage of friction grooves is that if the belayer is not concentrating and the rope is slipping through the grooves will help slow it. This however should never happen. It really struggles on thick ropes but the only time you have this problem is indoors and even there the ropes are becoming a more reasonable width. If your rope is too thick for this it might be worth upgrading you rope because chances are your rope is very old.
The Metolius BRD has machined grooves to help dissipate heat. This isn’t for climbing but rappelling. The rope moving though can make a belay very hot to touch. Unfortunately when using this it still got very warm but it probably does help a little. It is easily the smoothest device for lowering off or abseiling that isn’t completely built for that purpose (you can’t beat a figure of 8). It has a lever ‘nodule’ to lower down and control the rate of descent. You can just glide down at a really controlled pace. If you find the device locks up this nodule is really good again to relieve the pressure and get the rope moving again.
Black Diamond ATC Guide
The Black Diamond ATC Guide is the pinnacle of belay devices and is often used by instructors taking up groups due to it’s almost unique ability to lock off while taking up two climbers at the same time. Admittedly, this is a belay device to grow into. You won’t be able to use all the features straight away and it will feel like a complete overkill but italmost performs the simple tasks as well as any other device. The reason I say 'almost’ is that this device gives an unbelievable amount of friction. It is perfect on the skinny ropes and twin ropes as you feel safe but otherwise it is a bit off-putting. There is a simple fix for this - just use it without the friction groves (i.e. the other way around).
It has other excellent features like the ability to attach directly to an anchor. When it locks of it is really locked and can be very hard to release so they have included a hole to put a carabiner/prussick to pull on to release. The only problem is that this bit is a little too small to put any carabiner through and is even a bit fiddly with a prussic when your fingers are cold. This can be really annoying if your climbing and all you can hear is 'wait…..it’s stuck!’ Once you get used to it though this one is all you will really ever need.
The negative side is that the ATC guide can be hard to get used to using and difficult to feed the rope through, when not used properly.
Wild Country VC Pro 2
The Wild Country VC Pro 2 is a great first time buy. It is cheap and does anything you need it too. It can take two ropes, it has friction groves. Ropes do move through extremely smoothly so to lock it of in a fall you really do have to use the grooves but they are effective enough. It also is really light so feels nice on the rack. It didn’t impress us as much as the other devices but it’s price did.
Overall though, if you want an all rounder go for the ATC guide (it does everything), if you just want a belay device get the VC pro 2. If you want to spend a bit more and add great rappelling get the BRD (our best buy for most people). Because the BRD comes with a locking carabiner it makes it great value.
If you want to have an easier time belaying get the gri-gri. It really is fantastic. However, use it away from a sport climbing wall or an indoor wall and you will need something else to partner it.