Whether you’re new to rock climbing and need to get a belay device to help belay your fellow climbers, or help them belay you, there is plenty to learn about these two belay devices, their benefits and drawbacks, and which will work best for you.
Grigri vs. ATC: Which is better for you?
Choosing between the Grigri auto blocking belay device and the classic ATC belay device will depend largely on your preference and your experience. The Grigri has assisted braking technology, and as such will be helpful if you’re not very confident in your belaying technique or find yourself distracted while belaying a climber. The ATC on the other hand is more analogue, meaning that vigilance is key when using it.
So how can you know which one will be best for you?
Let’s explore these two devices in greater depth. We’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of each one of them and hopefully by the end of this article have a better understanding of them, so that we can make a more educated choice.
ATC Belay Device
ATC, stands for Air Traffic Controller, the original name of the original ATC device.
Introduced in the early 1990s it became a household name in the arena of belay devices and the design has been copied and emulated many times since, each adopting the ATC name.
This means that any given ATC device may look wildly different, but the general principle will be mostly the same, and if you know how to use one ATC belay device, you’ll know how to use them all.
Typically an ATC belay device has two holes and a safety wire where you clip your carabiner.
The climbing ropes you’re using while climbing or rappelling are wedged through these holes and your carabiner clips through the rope holding everything in place.
With the carabiner securely attached to your harness, this is all the mechanism there is to setting up your belay device.
When weight is applied to the line, in the even of a climber’s fall for instance, tension is put on this system. When the tension is put on the line it tries to pull the carabiner through the belay device.
This of course can never happen and creates a friction lock. This friction lock can be easily held by a light grip on the other side of the system.
By holding the end of the rope that is not attached to the climber with a light grip at the proper angle can support both of your weights easily.
Some ATC belay devices come with channels for the braking rope to be fed through. These channels have teeth so that you can more easily stop the rope from slipping.
When belaying with an ATC belay device, technique is vitally important. You absolutely have to keep your hands on the ropes at all times.
If the climber falls and your hands are anywhere else, there will be nothing to stop their fall and the ropes will slip right through the belay device.
Typically belay technique is taught with your right hand on the braking end of the rope, that is the end of the rope that goes down to a pile of rope on the ground; but these instructions can be mirrored if need be.
Top Rope Belaying With ATC
You’re connected to the climber via an anchor up at the top of the climbing wall or crag.
As the climber ascends, your job is to take away rope so that they don’t have a bunch of tangled rope to reckon with as they climb, and also so that if they fall, they won’t be falling while the slack in the rope is used up.
When you pull the rope through the belay device, you want to make sure that if at any point during your maneuver the climber falls, you’ll be able to catch them.
This means keeping your hand on the brake line at all times, and readjusting your grip there quickly with the assist of your other hand.
- Begin with your right hand on the brake line, no less than six inches away from the belay device. Your left hand should hold onto the climber’s end of the rope getting ready to assist in feeding slack through the system.
- When you’re ready to take away from the climber, bring your right hand up dragging a couple feet of slack through the system and you lift your hand up above your head. (This is the most dangerous part of the maneuver, if the climber falls, the friction lock is undone, so you need to move quickly to the next step.)
- Quickly move your hand back down in front of your and in between your legs.
- In this position, use your left hand to grab hold of the brake end of the rope, below your right hand.
- Slide your right hand back up the brake end to the starting position, again not getting too close to the belay device.
- Return your left hand to the climber’s end of the rope.
When belaying a lead climber the technique is slightly different in that you’re giving rope to the climber rather than taking it away.
This means that instead of using mostly your right hand and your left being a backup to your right hand, you’ll use both hands equally.
Using your left to pull rope through the system, while your right hand maneuvers the rope into and out of the unlocked and locked positions .
Grigri Belay Device
Now that we’ve explored thoroughly the ATC belay device, we can now try to get a good understanding of the Grigri belay device to see how the two of them compare and contrast in form and function.
The biggest difference between these two types of belay devices is that the Grigri has an assisted braking mechanism inside it.
Essentially when the climbing rope is moved quickly through the system, for instance during a climber’s fall, a small clutch is put to use to pinch the rope, stopping it from slipping through.
This is NOT an automatic belay device, you still need to be attentive to your climber and keep your hands on the ropes at all times.
The benefit to this device is added safety so that if for some reason your hand is knocked off the brake rope, like if a bit of rockfall came down and broke your hand, you have the Grigri device as a back up.
This type of belay device came onto the market around the same time that the ATC device was invented, and a similar thing happened with the naming process too.
Other belay devices that used some sort of assisted braking system were inadvertently called Grigris and the name just stuck.
Loading The Grigri
The Grigri device, when not clipped into your carabiner, pivots in half to reveal the mechanism inside.
On the inside you’ll find a diagram etched into the metal telling you exactly which way is up and which direction the rope should travel through the device, showing you that the climber is on one end, and the brake end is on the other.
When the rope is fed through the system in the right direction, you can slide the device closed and lock it with your locking carabiner.
It’s important to note that unlike ATC belay devices, the Grigri devices are not ambidextrous. Meaning that they can only be used with your right hand on the brake end of the rope.
Top Rope Belaying With Grigri
Belaying technique is almost the exact same with the Grigri as it is with an ATC belay device.
The principal difference being that you can only use your right hand on the brake end of the rope, and you don’t need to be as careful as you would with the ATC because you have this mechanical safety net.
- When feeding rope through the system, your right hand will be on the brake end of the rope.
- Gently pull the rope down through the Grigri with your right hand, being aware that pulling the rope too fast in either direction will cause the system to lock up.
- When your right hand has reached the bottom of its range, relax your grip and slide it back up close to the Grigri.
Lead climbing is a little different and perhaps more difficult on the Grigri than it is on the ATC.
There are times when lead climbing that you have to pull out a lot of rope to give the climber plenty of slack to clip into the next bolt.
As we mentioned earlier the Grigri locks when the rope is pulled through the system too quickly. The method of giving slack to a climber with a Grigri belay device is pretty simple though.
- On the right side of the belay device will be a bent edge, just large enough for your to hold with your finger.
- Use your index finger to lift the Grigri from this bent edge and place your right thumb over the back side of the body of the Grigri.
- Loosen your grip on the brake end of the rope.
- In this position, with the Grigri held in place, you are free to pull out much larger lengths of rope for you climber to use.
Which one is better for beginners?
You might think that I would suggest that a beginner purchase and use the Grigri device, it being the one with most safety features.
However, while the Grigri does have safety on its side, you should begin with the ATC, as it will help you build good habits.
If you have no other option but to keep your hands on the ropes at all times, and to keep a good eye on your climber; or else they could get seriously injured or even killed.
This means that you’re going to practice the belaying technique until you can do it in your sleep.
Once you’ve practiced the belaying technique to the point that you cannot do it wrong, then purchasing a Grigri belay device will be an added safety feature.
The last thing you want starting out in the world of climbing is to skip the basic skills that are going to keep you and your fellow climbers safe.
And knowing proper belay technique like the back of your hand will do you and your fellow climbers well.
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