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Vegastradguy Meets the ATC-Guide

Submitted by j_ung on 2006-01-24

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Full Disclosure: The company that manufactured this equipment provided it free of charge to and then provided it as compensation to the reviewer for his or her review. This company does not currently advertise on -- 1/24/06.

When I heard from Jay that I was getting a chance to review this little trinket, I have to say I was a little more than excited about getting to use a new belay device first hand – especially one that, from initial rumors, would potentially replace the Petzl Reverso as the guides’ choice of belay device.

Although not a professional guide, I often find myself taking newer climbers out, and the autoblock feature is a nice option to have in that scenario. Of course, other devices also have the autoblock – Trango’s B-52 and the Mammut Matrix, for example. However, all of them have a less than easy release mechanism that can be a hassle to deal with. Black Diamond has addressed that with this device.

The other problem with the Reverso is the dreaded ‘sharpening’ effect that the device suffers from – even more so than any other belay device out there. Of course Black Diamond dealt with this problem by starting from the mold of the ATC-XP, the beefiest tube device out there. Sharpening of this device is a low concern. In fact, in the 6 weeks I’ve been using the device (in far more abusive ways than I generally do), there are hardly any signs of wear on it.

Now, all of that said, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of the unit and then talk about how it performs in the real world.

The Black Diamond ATC Guide is hot forged 7075 aluminum and weighs 102 grams (3.5oz). It is rated for ropes from 7.7mm to 10.5mm and, similar to the Reverso, has a clip-in point to allow for autoblock belaying. It also has a unique autoblock release tab on the opposite side of the device, which I’ll discuss in more detail later.

Being the diligent Booty Crew member that I am, I went to all of those folks who would dare climb with me and used all of their ropes (and mine) to give you a comprehensive idea of what this device can and cannot do. Every time we went out, I tried to fully test the device on each rope used. The ropes used ranged from 7.6mm twin lines all the way up to semi-old 10.2mm single lines, and everything in between.

Of course, when going out to the crag, I could not well keep the device all to myself – my partners had to be allowed to at least use it now and then, lest I suffer drool-covered arms as I tried in vain to keep them at bay. So, the device ran through the gauntlet of partners as well. Weight ranges of the users ran from a scant 110lbs. to a respectable 190lbs., and a few weights in between. This usually meant that I was taking lots of falls while all of my ‘friends’ belayed me on different lines. However, I did manage to keep a hold of the device long enough to test out all of its functions thoroughly as well…

Lead/top rope belaying: Overall, this device performs like most tube devices. It has a smooth feed on just about any diameter of rope you stuff in it, and although 10.5s can be a little troublesome loading, once clipped in, feeding is never an issue. The really neat thing about it is that it locks off like a dream, even on skinny 7.6mm twins. The first time Larry fell on these (incidentally it was the first time I was using the device); I hardly noticed that he had weighted the line.

Autoblock Belaying: Once again, the device performs about as you would expect any tube style device that is capable of it. It does, however, perform better than its competition with the twins and doubles, allowing less of the spooky looking drift of the rope that you can get with the Petzl Reverso. Interestingly, the device’s design stems largely from the need for it to accomplish this function; the traditional XP grooves provided too much friction for this method to work. So, Black Diamond went to work with 10 different prototypes to find the ideal sized groove that would both allow the autoblock to function and provide a comfortable amount of friction during belaying and rappelling.

Notice the girth-hitched Mammut sling through the release point.

Autoblock Release: Now here is where the device gets sort of interesting. After chatting with the folks with Black Diamond, reading the PDF instructions online, and testing this in the gym, I’ve come back with mixed feelings about the release tab. The idea behind it is brilliant – anyone who has had to release the autoblock on the Reverso will attest to what a pain it is. The tab also does indeed work as noted; the leverage you get from it is significant enough that you can release the autoblock much easier than the Reverso. The theory behind the tab is such that you are meant to control the release with both your body and your brake hand in such a way as to lower the climber in a controlled descent. However, I discovered in my experiments that, unless the belay setup is such that you can be on your feet and in control of your weight, you risk losing control of the release tab and forcing the device into a wide-open position, making the rope all but impossible to hold onto.

The device during release -- this is approximately the orientation the device needs to be in to begin releasing the autolock function. Though BD's online instructions don't mention it, redirect the brake (not pictured) from a point up high to better control the rope during release.

The device at full release -- this is where the device ends up if all of the belayers weight comes onto it. Friction at this point is minimal, especially on skinny lines. In this orientation, having the brake redirected (as mentioned in the above photo caption) may be crucial.

A long shot of the release system -- also notice also how many runners it requires. In this case, three plus a quickdraw were needed to engage the system. The overall length of your anchor will affect this directly.

So, the verdict? It’s a good idea in principle, but I suspect its real-world applications will be limited to belay stances on good ledges where the power point is slightly above waist level.

Rappelling (two strands): Probably my biggest source of concern with this device was the rappelling on it. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the ATC-XP, saying that if you’re a lightweight and rappelling on anything thicker than 9.7, you’ll have significant difficulties. This device, however, has been retooled for the autoblock function and thus has a third less friction than the regular XP. It makes rappelling a dream for just about any weight class on any line that the device is tested for, even our resident 110lb lightweight.

Rappelling in high-friction mode: None of the testing crew ever found it necessary to use the low-friction mode, even on 10.5mm ropes and lightweight climbers.

Rappelling (single strand): For those of you who enjoy simul-rappelling on single strands, but find the friction a bit low, this device again exceeds expectations. Rapping on a single 8.6mm line for 200’ presented no problems at all. However, I did notice that if I were going to do this on a 7.6mm line, I may want a backup or a second locker on the device, as the friction wasn’t as much as I had expected. Rapping a single 9.6, though, is no problem.

Verdict: Functionally, the device does the job and does it well. I noticed no feeding issues for fast clips, no friction issues on rappel, etc. It handles better than any other tube device I have laid my hands on in my scant years of climbing. I would never consider going back to the Reverso after using this it. It’s a solid device, and nothing less than we would expect from Black Diamond.

Of course, no piece of gear is perfect, and this one is no exception. BD makes a valiant effort to make releasing an autoblocking device under load easy. And while it is easier than other similar devices, it still isn't easy. While in theory and in some situations, BD's tab approach will work wonderfully, in some others it will not. I consider this a ‘use with care’ option – experts only! Also, although I would hesitate to call it a true issue for anyone but those really concerned about weight, the device is heavy for a tube. In fact it is the heaviest on the market by quite a bit. Weighing in at a full 21g heavier than the Reverso and 42g heavier than the B-52, it’s a clunker. That said, I never noticed the weight once I had it clipped to me, and it still weighs less than half a Gri-Gri.


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