lead auto-belay prograde
The ProGrade lead auto-belay; (photo/ProGrade)

Arrested by Machines: Europe’s Lead Climbing Auto-Belay Targets US Gyms

It was only a matter of time. For years, our machine overlords caught our gym climbing falls from above. Now, auto-belays can catch climbers on lead.

A company in Italy may be permanently changing the lead belay as we know it. ProGrade, a somewhat unknown entity, recently introduced an auto-belay format capable of paying out slack and catching a climber on lead.

Of course, anyone who’s rope-soloed knows that a lead belay does not necessarily need to be performed by a person. In fact, ProGrade’s system is not the first to apply auto-belay technology to lead climbing. It is, however, the first of its kind to target commercial indoor climbing.

In 2016, a German company named Auroco publicized a “portable lead climbing auto-belay” device. At the time, Climbing called it a “game-changer.” But it never really dug in — you can’t buy one today.

ProGrade, on the other hand, has big plans. It’s just now getting off the ground, but according to some within the company, it will hit American markets soon.

“We are currently working on the creation of an international sales network with the help of partners and distributors,” ProGrade engineers Alessandro Maneo told Climbing Business Journal. “Given our very recent market launch, we are not yet ready to sell it in the US — but given the great appreciation and response from the market, it is possible that this step will happen faster than expected.”

The launch took place at a Milan, Italy, gym called UrbanWall on September 15. Over the course of 2 months, ProGrade collected numerous comments and feedback from climbers who used the systems around 3,700 times.

According to the company, results were resoundingly positive. In the end, Maneo said, the experience “convinced and satisfied” even climbers who approached it with strong skepticism.

How Does Lead Auto-Belay Work?

Skeptics, perform your finger warmup, navigate to whichever snide Reddit climbing forum you frequent, and get ready to type. The ProGrade’s ability to belay a lead climber depends entirely on software.

The guts of the machine revolve around a sensor, which “reads” the rope’s movement as it feeds out. The sensor feeds the information it collects to internal software, which the company designed to “recognize in real-time the actions of the climber.” The software controls internal motors that unwind and rewind the rope accordingly.

Take note, though, that climbers (who also happened to be engineers) developed the unit. Thus, they appear to have taken care to design it with a climber’s priorities in mind.

While you do have to trust a computer to give you the right amount of slack, you don’t have to trust it to catch you. The mechanism that locks the rope to catch falls is wholly mechanical. It uses a rope-triggered friction method, similar to many popular auto-belay setups.

And the sensor doesn’t just measure what the climber’s doing on the sharp end — it also keeps track of where they’re at on the wall. Working in conjunction with the rest of the system, it measures how far off the ground the climber is. The intention is to both prevent groundfalls and maintain the right amount of slack to keep the climber comfortable while moving and clipping.

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The unit bolts right to the base of a climbing wall, apparently with conventional bolts and T-nuts. According to the company, most gyms wouldn’t have to change their layout to implement it. And it comes with safety certifications through CE (the European Union’s industrial safety standard) and the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA).

‘Clipping’ Test Video Analysis

Is it just us, or does the test video make it look like it shortropes the leader every time? Maybe they’re just a slow clipper. And, to be fair, the pulse-pounding soundtrack makes it impossible to hear whether the climber is yelling at the machine for “SLACK!”

lead auto-belay
Bulging forearm while pulling slack?

Still, the ProGrade catches the leader with a nice, soft touch — even from a fair bit above the last bolt. Then again, it had better give a good catch if it’s going to shortrope you every time.

Jokes aside, the ProGrade looks like a go. Core climber-built and carefully engineered over a multiyear process, there’s no reason to believe it will be less effective than its top-down counterparts. In fact, it can also be installed at the top of any wall and used as a traditional auto-belay.

There is no timetable for the machine’s arrival in the United States. Proceed to Reddit for snarky banter.

Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.