For those who don’t follow news of climbing accidents as closely as I do, there has been a spate of accidents associated with the automatic belay devices (autobelays) installed at climbing gyms.
These devices are handy to have around as they negate the need for a climbing partner, allowing one to exercise and train alone. The climber clips his or her harness into the device at the bottom of the wall, and it automatically retracts (like a seat belt) when you climb upward. At the top, you let go of the wall and the device lowers you slowly back to the ground. You are probably imagining that the accidents had to do with failures of the equipment – while that is not unheard of, the most recent issues have all been with climbers forgetting to clip into the system at all.
The most recent tragedy occurred this past September, where an experienced climber died after a fall in a Texas gym, and it’s been listed as so common it happens at “every gym,” though not always resulting in a fall. Here is the facebook page with members of another gym discussing a similar accident.
If you talk with climbers or read accident forums you will invariably be faced with a large contingent bent on blaming the victim. I’ll grant that it is hard to imagine forgetting to clip into a safety device and climb 30 feet up a wall, but that’s because I hardly ever do it. One characteristics these accidents share is that the victims were experienced and used the auto-belays frequently.
When a procedure becomes automatic, it becomes more accurate and less effortful, but it also becomes less accessible to the conscious mind. When a step is skipped, but all other steps are unaffected, it’s especially hard to notice the skipped step in an automatic process. If caring more or working harder or “being more careful” could actually prevent this type of problem, we wouldn’t have any toddlers left in hot cars, perfectly good airplanes flown into the ground, or climbers falling because they didn’t clip into the autobelay.
That brings me to the device I saw installed at a climbing gym last night.
Let me tell you why I think this is brilliant.
- It’s highly visible.
- It functions as a guard. This adheres to the hierarchy of safety: First, try to design out the hazard. Second, guard against the hazard. Last, warn. These are in order of effectiveness. Prior to this device, I had only seen signs on the wall saying “Clip in!” (And a year ago, even those didn’t exist.) This device physically blocks the start of the climbing routes, demanding interaction before one starts climbing.
- Using it properly does not add any additional time or mess to climbing a route. If it weren’t there, the climber would still have to unclip the autobelay from an anchor close to the ground, etc. With it there, the climber does the same thing and once done, the guard becomes a flat mat that doesn’t get in anyone’s way.
Is it perfect? No. You can also climb with a belayer on the same or nearby routes, and then it’s also blocking your way at the start of the climb. Some adaptation should be made by the route-setters at the gyms to minimize this. But overall, what a great and simple solution.