Brilliant guard against accidents in indoor rock climbing

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.

guardAbove: The guard in place, clipped to the wall and ready to go. Notice how it blocks the footholds of the climbs.

photo 2Above: Nikki shows how to unclip the guard before attaching to her harness.


photo 4Above: Clipped in and safely ready to go. Guard is on the ground and out of the way (it is ok to step on it!)

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.


5 thoughts on “Brilliant guard against accidents in indoor rock climbing”

  1. I’m glad TRC is taking steps to prevent those kinds of injuries. It is definitely a weird situation when you’re trying to promote safety in a situation that is run by that “automatic” part of your brain.

    This makes me think of two stories about “automatic” actions like that. The first was when I was about to do a test run on a route I set. I tied the first figure eight, put the rope through my harness, put it through the knot just that first time, and then sat down to lace up my shoes. When I stood back up, I forgot to finish the double figure eight. Luckily, I climbed up the route and was lowered back down without accident, but it shows that if you want something to be completed “automatically”, never interrupt that action. It works best from start to finish–starting in the middle requires you to turn on the non-automatic part of the brain, which might not happen.

    The other isn’t climbing related, but it’s even weirder. For years, I was so used to using my debit card to pump gas. You go up to the touch screen, swype the card, enter your PIN, and you’re off. If you asked me what my PIN was, I probably couldn’t even tell you unless I could mock “punch it in” to a keyboard. This one time, I went to a different gas station that didn’t have a touch screen–it had keys almost like an old house phone that were 3D that you had to actually push. Just that simple act of putting me in a different situation made me forget my PIN. Forever. I never remembered it, had to get a new card. Weirdest thing ever. That subconscious part of my brain that held that action/muscle memory/number was erased. This seems to tie in to the big “warning” signs at TRC–it shocks you out of that automatic action and makes you use your non-automatic brain, which is exactly what they’re looking for.

    Didn’t mean for this to turn into a novel, but it did! Anyways, it’s an interesting subject. Cheers!

  2. I like this tool. It has several things going for it – It’s simple, cheap, and even if you don’t realize what it is designed to do it still does the job, no training required. In that sense, your “automatic brain” doesn’t even have to turn off/be overridden, just: “I want to climb this – Oh, I have to move this thing to climb, and to move it I have to clip in”. Given what a fan I am of things that reduce my need to think and remember things: bank autodrafts, calendar reminders, even our microwave “done” beep that doesn’t stop until you actually open the door to get the food out – in contrast to our toaster oven which dings once but can stay on afterwards resulting in me burning an absurd amount of food) this is probably a good thing for me. One other thing that comes to mind is that it also shows whether someone is up on the wall using the autobelay. Normally this isn’t too hard to see but when the gym is very crowded and neighboring routes are in close proximity it can be a little hard to tell. When the climber comes down (assuming the start lines up reasonably well with the top) it highlights the landing zone to hopefully prevent someone standing underneath – or at least prompting them to look up before standing on or near the pad. Not bad for a bit of fabric.

    1. We tried this at our gyms. We used 4ft triangles with a stop sign symbol in the middle, very similar to the design you pictured. Sadly people still climbed around the sign, to the top, without being clipped in. Then fell. Nothing we tried prevented these accidents, from orientations to the barriers. We removed them from the gyms. Remember that it is not just the climber that is hurt by these mistakes. Imagine if they hit someone… and at the very least imagine the emotional impact that these injuries have on others in the facility. As you stated, most of these accidents happen to experienced climbers. It defies logic, but keeps happening.

      1. Thanks for the great comment, Chris. That is sad to hear – perhaps I’m being too optimistic about the barriers. Do you have a sense if the accident rate went down, even if there were still accidents? I just found out about one at my home gym, from before the barriers went in, that occurred with no injury. It really can and does happen everywhere.

  3. In the interest of transparency, I am the CEO of Head Rush Technologies, manufacturer of the TRUBLUE Auto Belay and Belay Gate. Regarding your question, Anne, I would like to share our experience.

    Based on feedback from climbing gym operators, climbing gyms that have implemented an auto belay gate/barrier have reported that they have not had any further incidents after implementation. We have also heard from a leading insurer of climbing gyms that climbing gyms with belay gates/barriers have had zero claims for auto belay-related incidents.

    That said, it is up to the individual climbing gym to determine whether auto belays are right for their facility.

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