Feature Article - April 2004
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Hitting the Wall

How to boost climbing wall attendance

By Kyle Ryan

Auto-Belay Systems:
Friend or Foe?

Auto-belay systems have made climbing dramatically easier to learn. Beginning climbers can get on the wall faster and need less help doing it. You can take a portable wall anywhere and have someone climbing on it with minimal supervision.

That happened last July in Columbia, Mo., with tragic results. Christine Ewing, 22, fell 25 feet to her death while climbing a portable wall using an auto-belay system. Investigators later revealed that the cable holding Ewing broke, and the wall itself lacked the proper license.

Those last two things, to Nate Postma, show it wasn't the auto-belay system's fault. He uses many auto-belay devices in his three climbing gyms.

"Auto-belays are very good devices when maintained properly," he says. "And unfortunately, when we looked at the incidents that have occurred that have resulted in injuries, almost all of them are avoidable."

Manufacturers recommend all cables be checked periodically and replaced.

"You can't drive on bald tires forever," Postma says, adding he has climbers in his gyms who will only climb with auto-belay systems for safety reasons.

Shane Riffle of the Countryside YMCA isn't buying it.

"I trust people more—rather than relying on something that can malfunction," he says.

Auto-belayers aren't used at Fitplex in Chicago, either, where wall manager Tom Petraitis says his staffers "teach people really how to climb." That's mostly because they hinder bouldering; the ropes must be clipped in at the bottom of the wall, which is where people boulder.

Accidents with auto-belay systems will probably increase as their use becomes more widespread, but proper maintenance will dramatically reduce the odds of an accident occurring.