The auto belay, a game-changer in indoor rock climbing, caters to every individual, regardless of their experience level. Jeff Wilson, the mastermind behind the auto-belay, devised a solution to one of the most significant hurdles beginner climbers face. When you’re unable to find a partner or lack the necessary training to belay, the auto belay steps in as your reliable companion, empowering you to climb solo!

Initially designed for his mobile climbing walls and now over twenty years old, an auto belay can be found in almost every indoor rock climbing gym nationwide. But what exactly is an auto belay, how do they work, and are they safe?

What is an Auto Belay?

woman climber in a climbing gym

An auto belay is a mechanical device that allows climbers to clip into a machine without a partner. It is fixed to the top of a climbing wall and has a retractable sling that is extended and clipped near the ground.

As a climber ascends a wall, the sling is coiled into its machine at the top and takes the slack. When a climber falls or is ready to come down, the sling “catches” them and slowly lowers them back to the ground. This safety feature ensures that even if you slip or lose your grip, the auto belay will prevent a sudden fall. To avoid creating too much slack, the climber must not exceed the speed the auto belay takes in the sling. Auto belays designed for competition speed climbing are constructed with speed in mind and have a rapid take-in time.

Some auto belays, such as the TrueBlue iQ+ Auto Belay, have recently been designed with a secondary braking system. This “catch-and-hold” braking system allows climbers to project routes instead of being lowered to the ground after each fall.

How to Use an Auto Belay 

Most indoor rock climbing gyms with auto belays have a tarp or barrier indicating the start of the route. Typically, this tarp is clipped to the auto belay sling with a second carabiner and set on the ground after the climber is clipped in.

Follow these steps to use an auto belay:

  1. Pull down on the auto belay sling and clip the carabiner to your belay loop.
  2. Unclip the second carabiner, if there is one, from the tarp and lay it on the ground.
  3. Double-check that the carabiner attached to you is locked.
  4. Climb as far as you can!
  5. When ready to come down, lean back and push off the wall slightly. Walk or bounce your feet down the wall. (You can hold onto the sling if it makes you comfortable).
  6. Clip the tarp carabiner back to the auto belay.
  7. Unclip yourself from the auto belay.

If you accidentally let go of the auto belay and it retracts into its system, simply inform the gym staff, and they will retrieve it.

Are Auto Belays Safe?

Indoor rock climbing facilities are meticulously designed with safety as the top priority. However, safety is not just a feature, it’s a practice. While injuries and freak accidents can occur, specific regulations and safety measures are in place to minimize such incidents, ensuring your climbing experience is as secure as possible.

Most auto belay injuries occur when climbers forget to attach themselves to the sling because they are tired from repeating the same route. Always double-check that you are clipped into the system when climbing auto belays.

Other injuries have occurred when the auto belay no longer retracted because it jammed or the spring broke. When climbers keep climbing, they create a large amount of slack in the system and shock load it when they let go. Auto belays are not designed to absorb immense amounts of energy. Always ensure the sling is retracting as you climb on an auto belay. If you find yourself in this situation on the wall, inform anybody around so staff can rescue you.

Unfortunately, assembly mistakes during installation or after maintenance can also cause the system to fail. Specified gym staff are instructed to inspect auto belays and regularly send them in for general maintenance.

Should I Use an Auto Belay?

Using an auto belay can be a great way to endurance train, climb higher without a partner, or project routes on your own. While scary auto-belay stories do infrequently occur, they shouldn’t deter you from trying them out for yourself.

So long as you remember to clip in and ensure the sling retracts as you climb, you should enjoy climbing on an auto belay!