Though she works at The Spot, a mostly rope-free climbing gym that caters to boulderers, Alex Steiger has spent a lot of time using auto-belay descenders for climbing at other gyms.
“They were my main source for doing laps,” she said Wednesday afternoon while waiting for her climbing partner to arrive at Movement Climbing and Fitness.
But Steiger and other climbers who count on these devices for partnerless climbing workouts will have to buddy up for a while.
MSA, the manufacturer, issued a stop-use notice to climbing gyms on Oct. 14 after officials “very recently became aware of two incidents where climbers using Redpoint Descenders experienced rapid rates of descent resulting in injuries,” according to the notice.
Auto-belay descenders are designed to let climbers who fall or reach the top of an indoor climb descend back to the ground in a slow, controlled manner. The notice asks climbing gyms that have the descenders not to use them until the company can investigate the cause of the accidents. MSA did not return phone messages Wednesday.
The stop-use notice has resulted in auto-belay descenders being either removed or disabled at gyms around the region — the Boulder Rock Club, Movement, The Spot, and Erie and Broomfield’s recreation centers have all made the devices unavailable to climbers.
Chris Wall, training and coaching director for the Boulder Rock Club, says the gym’s auto belays see thousands of uses a week.
“Those things receive millions of rides a year nationwide,” Wall said. “If someone gets dropped on one of those things, it seems like the odds are about the same as getting struck by lightning.”
Bill Zimmermann, executive director of the Boulder-based Climbing Wall Association, said auto belayers are used in gyms around the world.
“They’re highly reliable, and these things are everywhere.”
MSA issued a similar stop-use notice in 2005 after another pair of accidents, said Zimmermann.
One of those earlier accidents happened at the Boulder Rock Club, Wall said.
“Same thing happened — the device just didn’t work,” he said.
In other words, the device didn’t slow the climber’s descent, resulting in a fall to the floor.
Kevin Bains, operations manager for the BRC, said the rock club’s heavily padded floors significantly reduced the severity of that injury, but didn’t disclose more.
“The person that was injured was able to walk out of the hospital that day,” he said.
Jill Wait, Erie’s director of parks and recreation, said the rec center has increased the number of employees on the climbing wall to accommodate climbers who usually use the auto belays. Wall said the BRC is trying to accommodate auto-belay users in every way they can.
“In general, people are being pretty understanding,” he said. “When we tell them, at first they’re disappointed, but we’re sending out staff to offer belays to people on occasion, when available.”