There’s a lot of talk out there about the safety and usefulness of belay devices without assisted braking (e.g., ATCs). I will not pretend like I can give you an expert’s opinion…but I do believe it is a nuanced matter without a clear right or wrong. Here, I present a comparison review of Black Diamond’s ATC Belay/Rappel Device (ATC) and ATC-Guide/Rappel Device (Guide)—I believe that ATCs still have an important place in rock climbing.
The ATC is virtually the most basic belay device you can find these days, if not the cheapest as well. It is a tube style belay device without any special teeth for functionality to assist in braking. It’s very light, and it can be used for rappelling as well. Even more, it’s exceptionally straightforward…it’s really hard to set it up wrong, and while belaying it does exactly what you ask it to without snagging, extra levers, etc. Perhaps because I learned to belay on this device, I think it can be a good device to learn belaying with because of how basic it is—no detail is obscured, forcing you to see and learn the fundamental principles of belaying.
You can consider the Guide to be two steps above the ATC in terms of upgrades, which would be:
- Grooves/teeth for the brake rope
- Extra hole for applications such as multi-pitch
Since ATCs are not assisted braking devices, it can be a challenge to control lowering or rappelling speeds with certain climber weights or rope types. Indeed, this is a major reason why many gyms require that their patrons belay exclusively with assisted braking devices in the gym; many argue that climbers are dropped more often with devices like ATCs because there is extra expertise and focus required to lower properly with them. Consequently, however, it follows that belayers who are conversant with devices like ATCs can be more skilled/focussed belayers because of the extra care needed to use these devices, and for some a better belayer is more important than a better device.
The grooves on the Guide provide extra friction so as to aid belayers in lowering their climbers (note this does not make the Guide an assisted braking device). Similarly, rappelling can be more comfortable with these ridges as it generally feels a bit smoother.
Both devices are basic, tube style, friction belay devices that are not assisted braking devices but can teach belayers valuable skills. They can be used for belaying and rappelling, with a wide range of rope diameters, and are relatively light compared to most assisted braking devices. The Guide is a bit heavier than the base ATC, but it has ridges that add friction to the system, and you can use it for multi-pitch climbing. The base ATC is the most straightforward (you can’t load it backwards like the Guide since there are no ridges for the brake side), and it is cheaper than the Guide, though both are on the cheaper end for belay devices. In choosing between these devices, consider how much weight/price budgets and your intended use for the device. Overall, ATCs are a staple for belaying and rappelling, but there is just less room for error with these devices than assisted braking devices.
Recommendation: All belayers with available instruction
Specs: 60 g (ATC); 80 g (Guide); ATC compatible with 7.7 to 11 mm ropes
MSRP: $17.95 (ATC); $29.95 (Guide)