Belay Plate Beta

I don’t know about you but I’ve always been impressed by simple, functional designs that really work.  Things like ring pulls, wine bottle corks, post-it notes and every piece of shaker furniture I’ve ever seen – which isn’t many!  I think there is something special about designs where everything is stripped back to basics but they do their jobs astoundingly well.In terms of recent outdoor gear developments there has been a pleasing trend towards simplifying equipment to save weight (after a period in the 90’s of mega over engineering).  

But one simple bit of kit has (mostly) transcended the bells and whistles design approach and for that reason it’s one of my favourites.  The humble belay plate.  Come on. You know it’s true!  What other bit of gear does so much but is essentially just a shaped metal tube?

The technical bit

Before we start looking at specific types, here’s a bit of technical info.  Interestingly, there is no current standard for belay and abseil devices for climbing and mountaineering although the UIAA Safety Commission is working to produce one.  Also, unlike other pieces of climbing equipment they have not been classified as ‘personal protective equipment’ (P.P.E) and so don’t carry the CE marking.  The closest European standard is EN341, which is for descenders, and defines these items as ‘rescue devices’.  A few manufacturers have chosen to have their belay devices tested to this standard so you may or may not see this marking on new belay devices.  Having said that don’t be put off a device just because it has no EN marking.  Your best guide to ensuring your plate is safe is to choose one from a reliable manufacturer with good in house testing and a solid reputation.

The history bit

In reality your modern ‘tubular’ plate is just a variation of the original Sticht plate designed by Franz Sticht which revolutionised belaying in the 70’s.  The first Sticht plates were just a simple metal plate but this was very prone to jamming and a strong spring was added to help overcome this.  Sticht style plates are still produced by various companies and are quite a good option because they are cheap and indestructible.  They need a rope’ keeper cord to stop them sliding down the rope (and to help prevent you dropping it) and I have always got this tangled around my rope – but maybe that’s just me!

Tube plates arrived in 1983 with the introduction of the Latok ‘Tuber’.  This was a tapering circular tube that you used in exactly the same way as modern tubular designs.  It was quite a progressive step forward at the time as it’s tapering design allowed you to vary the friction just by turning it over.

The choices bit

But that was then and this is now.  We are now spoilt for choice and have dozens of options.  To complicate things we also have a massive range of ropes that we expect them to work with.  So the question (if not the solution) is simple.  Which one do you choose?

To simplify things I have excluded self-locking plates like the Black Diamond ATC Guide and auto lockers like the Petzl Gri-Gri from this article.  These are excellent devices but require a thorough understanding of the operating principles to use them safely and that article is for another time!  So lets just look at your everyday tubular plate that is likely to be most climbers first plate anyway.  These are a great choice because they are quite simple to use, light in weight, last for years, works with single or double ropes, perform both belaying and abseiling duties really well and don’t cost too much.

Luckily (given the wide range available), tubular plates can be conveniently split into 3 broad types.

Firstly, there is the ‘slick’ belay plate group typified by the Black Diamond ATC (Air Traffic Controller).  Since it burst on to the market this has been a great standard plate.  It does everything well and the main issue new climbers need to be careful of is that thin ropes can run through it very fast.  This could occur when a lighter climber is belaying a heavier climber or a weaker climber may struggle to grip the rope and keep it under control.  Potentially, this can cause quite a hazard because the heat built up as it slides quickly through your hand will soon start to burn and then your first instinct may be to let go of the rope!  This can be an issue both for belaying leaders and when abseiling.  Even if you do keep hold of the rope quite a lot may have run through before you get it under control.  That’s something a falling leader really won’t thank you for! 

Obviously as ropes get thinner they also slide through quicker too.  For example, I’ve been using the 8.9mm Mammut Serenity rope which, as well as being a super thin single rope, also has a very smooth sheath.  As long as you are aware of this and adjust your belaying to suit then you shouldn’t have any problems and I’ve used an ATC with a Serenity with no problem (although it wouldn’t be my first choice for this rope).  It’s when you don’t have the experience to make those judgements that problems can occur.  Having said that, the BMC Technical Committee have observed that several recent belaying mishaps have occurred with experienced climbers!  Another slick(ish!) plate is DMM’s ‘Bug’ but they get around the issue of thin rope diameters by also producing a smaller version called the ‘Bugette’.  Of course, this means you then need a second plate.

So, next we have a good compromise category.  One we will call the semi-slick belay plate group.  One of the first plates I remember seeing on the market that fits this category (and one that is still going strong) is the Wild Country ‘Variable Rope Controller’.

This is more of a plate than a tube but the handy bit is that the metal at either side of the plate is different thicknesses making a wedge shape.  This means there are differing amounts of friction depending which way round you have it.  A very clever design.  Some people find this quite a ‘grabby’ device but I’ve not had any problems.  There are other variations on this theme or plates which incorporate some other method to increase friction such as the Metolius BRD (Bird).  This plate channels the belay carabiner into ‘scientifically designed rope slots’ when loaded and creates a lot of friction by squeezing the rope between the plate and crab.  Sounds interesting but I’ve not tried it out. 

Finally, there’s a group we can call ‘grabbing’ with a perfect example being the Black Diamond ATC-XP.  This adaptation of the ATC has a deep groove on one side of the plate, which can create a lot more friction when required.

Cleverly, it can also be switched around and it then operates as a normal ATC.  Now which genius thought of that?!  This is a great type of plate but the very high friction option (which Black Diamond says increases the friction by 3 times over a standard ATC) can catch the unwary such as when abseiling with a prussic back up.  In this situation the steep angle of the rope over the plate can mean light climbers struggle to move downwards at all.  Also, in some lead fall situations a bit of rope running through the plate helps absorbs some of the energy of the fall (useful when the protection is marginal) and this type of grabbing plate can cause a very sudden stop.  More and more devices that fit this category are on the market now and examples would include DMM’s new stainless steel plate, the V-Twin, and the Wild Country ‘Variable Controller Pro’.

The summary bit

So, three types of plate and all have advantages and disadvantages.  In reality you won’t go far wrong with any of the plates from the semi-slick or grabbing category, and as these do everything the slick devices do plus more, why choose the slick plate?  In the last few years I have used the ATC-XP a great deal and found it to be an excellent plate but I can’t wait to try out the DMM V-Twin.  As always, go and speak to shop staff in reputable shops who will give you solid advice and probably let you try a few devices out.  Also look at manufacturers websites and carefully consider the recommended rope diameters quoted for each device.  The reality is that once you have been climbing a while you will probably end up with a box full of different plates for different occasions - and conveniently they are usually perfected priced for birthday presents!