Climbing’s biggest debates: Belaying with a Gri Gri vs. ATC

This debate is a LONG time coming. It first started for me many moons ago. Friends and I were sitting around a campfire at Miguel’s Pizza in the Red River Gorge and we got into this heated debate with some fellow climbers who we had never met before (and decided after this passionate discussion that we would never climb with). It kinda blew my mind the amount of irrational arguments that were being thrown around.

Let’s lay down some ground rules:

  1. Gri Gri is an assisted breaking belay device made by Petzl. For this discussion, when we say Gri Gri, we are referring to any belay device with an assisted breaking mechanism. Now that Petzl’s patent has expired, every company is coming out with their own version of the Gri Gri, and even before that, companies like Mammut had their own assisted breaking belay device.
  2. An ATC is tube-style belay/rappel device by Black Diamond. There are many different belay/rappel devices made by many different companies. When we use the word ATC, we’re referring to any tube style belay/rappel device that does not have an assisted breaking mechanism.
  3. We are tackling the debate of whether it is better to BELAY with an ATC or with a Gri Gri

I’ll just come right out and say it – I strongly believe that belaying with a Gri Gri is in most cases better and safer. There are certain specific situations where this is not the case, but by in large, a gri gri is the more responsible way to go.

As a belayer, it is your responsibility to make sure that your climber is safe. If something happens to you while belaying, like a rock falls down and hits you in the head, rendering you unconscious, then at least your climber doesn’t fall to their death when your hand loses grip on the rope (as it unquestionably would if you go unconscious).

I have had people on the ATC side of the fence try to argue that they are so skilled at belaying that even if they got hit in the head, and even if they were knocked unconscious, they would still hold on to the brake strand. Yes, I have actually heard that argument being made by seasoned climbers.

Some of the other reasons I’ve heard in favour of the ATC is:

  1. Price. To which I reply, common. Yours and your climber’s life are worth $100 (and I don’t even know you).
  2. Weight. It sure is lighter, but if you’re that concerned about grams, you should really be belaying off a munter hitch, or better yet, just use a good ol’ fashioned hip belay. Those ATCs weigh a tonne in comparison.
  3. Giving softer catches. All things being equal, you will certainly give a softer catch using an ATC. I have personally given over 1000 catches at this point in time in my climbing career. I have caught people heavier and lighter. It’s true that with lighter climbers, I don’t always give a perfectly soft catch, but I often give a soft catch. It’s a matter of training and practice.
  4. Softer catches while in a hanging belay. Alright, this is the one case where it may be safer to use an ATC. When you’re tethered into the rock, you don’t have much room to jump up and absorb their fall. Here, the natural tendency for the ATC to let some rope slip while you catch allows you to provide a softer and safer catch for your climber than you would with a gri gri.

Those are kind of the big arguments I hear time and time again. Did I miss any big ones? Overall, an ATC is an indispensable tool and should live on your harness anytime you’re climbing outdoors. That said, if you’re belaying me, I’m likely going to want you to be using a gri gri.