Published on: 12/22/2022
When climbers imagine belay devices, they are bound to think of the Petzl Grigri and Black Diamond ATC. It’s inevitable because the Grigri and ATC are tried and true powerhouses in every style of climbing, from sport climbing indoors to traditional multi-pitch rock climbing outside.
If you were to visit your local crag or gym right now to see which belay devices were most commonly hanging from the harnesses of local climbers, we guarantee you would see a selection of Grigris and ATCs.
Grigris and ATCs have become synonymous with climbing. That much is clear. However, which device is best for you is much less clear.
Keep reading to learn about the Grigri vs. ATC. If we do our job correctly, by the end of this article, you’ll know which belay device is best for you.
The Black Diamond ATC Belay Device
The Black Diamond Air Traffic Controller, or ATC for short, is Black Diamond’s flagship belay device. Not much has changed since its original design in the 1990s.
Let’s quickly look at the key specs, variations, and pros and cons of climbing’s most classic tube-style belay device.
Key Specs of the ATC
- Weighs 60 grams, or 2 ounces.
- Handles ropes from 7.7 to 11 millimeters, single or double ropes
- Suitable for belaying and rappelling
- No assisted braking function
Variations of the ATC
There are three variations of the classic ATC, each with improved features and unique applications.
- The ATC Guide: the ATC Guide is like the ATC’s big brother. It functions and is used the same way as the ATC, except it has an additional loop for belaying in guide mode.
For that reason, it is the preferred tool for multi-pitch climbing amongst all the ATC devices.
- The ATC XP: another belay device from Black Diamond inspired by the classic ATC. The main difference here is that the tubes have grooves to enhance friction. This makes the XP ideal for climbers who want more control while lowering, rappelling, or ice climbing.
- The ATC Alpine Guide: the ATC Alpine Guide is a miniature version of the original ATC Guide. Weighing in at only 73 grams, it’s explicitly designed for ascents in the mountains where weight matters and when ropes are skinnier.
Pros and Cons of the ATC
The Petzl GriGri Belay Device
The Petzl Grigri is a legendary belay device. It is designed for the gym or crag and is intended for all users. It is most well known for its assisted-braking cam feature that adds security when the climber falls.
Key Specs of the Grigri
- It weighs 6.2 oz (175 grams)
- Compatible with rope diameters from 8.5 to 11 millimeters
- Aluminum side plates, stainless steel friction plate, and cam with a reinforced nylon handle
- rope installation diagram engraved on the inside and outside of the device
Variations of the Grigri
- The Grigri 1: When introduced in 1991, the Petzl Grigri revolutionized the market of assisted-braking belay devices. This version of the Grigri is no longer produced by Petzl and is unavailable to buy from major retailers.
- The Grigri: the Grigri sets the standard for belaying devices. The cam-assisted-blocking technology has remained the same in theory since the original version. But this modern version is lighter and more compact.
- The Grigri+: the Grigri + contains all the standard version’s features with pretty much the same look as the original Grigri. One standout new feature is the anti-panic handle that locks the device if the belayer pulls too hard while lowering the climber.
Pros and Cons of the Grigri
Grigri vs. ATC: Which Device is Best for You?
Deciphering which device is best is based on personal preference. Many climbers may prefer the Petzl Grigri, while others prefer the Black Diamond ATC or similar devices like the Petzl Reverso.
Both devices have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s compare the two devices in different settings.
Top Rope Climbing and Belaying
The Grigri and ATC are perfectly adequate for top rope climbing outdoors or indoors.
Beginner climbers may prefer the new Grigri + because of its anti-panic handle. If the belayer pulls too hard on the handle while lowering their climber, the anti-panic function will trigger and stop the descent.
To continue lowering, the belayer has to release the handle completely, then resume lowering like normal.
On the other side of the spectrum, experienced climbers may find this feature unnecessary and not worth the extra cost.
Lead Climbing and Belaying
There are advantages and disadvantages to using the Grigri and ATC for lead climbing.
In lead climbing, providing a soft catch to your climber is paramount. When correctly used, both the Grigri and ATC can provide a soft catch.
Some climbers prefer the Grigri or similar assisted braking devices when it comes to projecting challenging routes outdoors or indoors.
The camming mechanism secures the rope more effectively than an ATC can, which is convenient when the climber hangs to rest or work out a sequence.
However, the Grigri has a steeper learning curve for lead belaying than the ATC and other belay devices like the ATC XP. Specifically, it can be harder to belay smoothly with a Grigri until you’ve mastered the technique.
For example, devices with an assisted brake like the Petzel Grigri can lock off the brake strand, creating unwanted tension on the rope if the belayer is not paying slack out appropriately.
Fixing the situation requires overriding the camming mechanism, and not all climbers are fluent in this technique, especially if it’s their first Grigri.
Multi-Pitch Climbing and Belaying
For multi-pitch climbing, many climbers prefer using the ATC.
For one, the ATC is lighter than the Grigri. Second, if the climb’s descent requires rappelling, the ATC is a more compatible device choice. It can be used for going up and down, whereas the Grigri is most commonly used for going up.
Lastly, the ATC or similar tube-style device is the only choice if the climb requires two ropes.
However, multi-pitch climbing is dangerous, and accidents can happen at the belays. For that reason alone, many climbers prefer using the Grigri to add a layer of safety to the system.
In addition, most climbers would agree that it’s easier to give slack or lower a climber while belaying from above with a Grigri than an ATC. All you have to do is redirect the brake strand and pull the lever.
The ATC or similar devices are the go-to tools for rappelling. The reason is that when someone rappels while climbing outdoors, they most often use a single rope.
The rope is threaded through the rappel anchor and positioned at the halfway point. In this configuration, the rope is effectively folded in half.
Therefore, the climber will rappel on two strands of rope. The two slots on the ATC can accommodate two strands, and the Grigri cannot.
The same is true for rappelling with double ropes. When two ropes are threaded through the anchor and tied together, you are left with two strands. The difference is now the climber can rappel the full length of the ropes instead of only half. Once again, the ATC is most often used in this context compared to the Grigri.
However, it is possible to rappel with a Grigri so long as you are rappelling on a single strand fixed at the top. There are a variety of situations when a climber might use a Grigri to rappel on a fixed single strand. We won’t go into details.
However, one advantage of rappelling with the Grigri, regardless of the system or reason why, is that the Grigri’s camming feature adds security.
To add security while rappelling with an ATC or other tube-style device, the climber must supplement the system with a locking carabiner and a friction hitch, also known as a “third hand.”
Beginner vs. Advanced Climbers
Beginners and veterans across the board use both the Grigri and the ATC. It just depends on who you talk to.
Beginners like the Grigri for its added safety features compared to other belaying devices. Advanced practitioners enjoy those same features.
However, some beginners dislike the Grigri because the learning curve to mastering the device is steeper. Therefore, they prefer a more straightforward device like the ATC.
Experienced climbers enjoy the ATC for the same reason. It’s a simple belay device that has served them perfectly well for hundreds, if not thousands of pitches.
Similarly, some veteran climbers enjoy keeping up with the advancements in technology. Others, the “crusty” types, are delighted to stick to their ways.
Gym vs. Outdoor Climbing
In the indoor context, more gyms are leaning towards mandating assisted braking devices like the Grigri. Some even go so far as to pre-rig the Grigri onto the belaying side of the rope.
The reason is you have a lot of beginners climbing indoors. They can become distracted and cause an accident. Experienced climbers can become distracted also, for that matter.
Therefore, many gyms have deemed the Grigri the safest option to control the risk of human error and sloppy belaying.
On the other hand, the belaying devices you see in the outdoor climbing context tend to be much more diverse. The Grigri and ATC are prominent in outdoor climbing, but other devices are also commonly used.
The big difference here is that when mistakes happen outside, the consequences are just as severe, but no gym or larger entity can be found responsible and litigated against.
As a result, there is no blanket policy for which device is best for outdoor use.
Ice and Mixed Climbing
Ice climbing is a unique context where you probably won’t see many Grigris. The reason is the mechanics of a Grigri can become unreliable due to the build-up of snow and ice on the ropes.
In addition, many climbers use two thinner ropes to climb big ice and mixed routes. Two ropes require a tube-style device like the ATC to give a belay. Plus, they are lighter than a single and can be tied together to facilitate quicker descents.
To enhance safety in the ice and mixed disciplines of climbing, and when using two ropes, many climbers prefer to use a device equipped with added friction, like the ATC XP.
With only one rope, added safety can be achieved by incorporating an assisted braking tube-style device, like the Black Diamond Pilot, without sacrificing a smooth belay.
You may never get a solid answer regarding Grigri vs. ATC and which is objectively better. It all boils down to the scenario and, ultimately, the climber’s preference.
To settle the argument, we recommend going with two devices. That way, you can bust out the Grigri to give soft catches as the belayer for an hour on your partner’s mega-project.
Or you can unpack the ATC Guide for the light and fast multi-pitch missions where you’ll need to rappel to get to the ground.
Climb safely out there – maintain your equipment, double-check, and have fun.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
You will get different answers to this question depending on who you talk to. For example, if someone thinks having assisted braking feature makes a belay device better, they will side with the Grigri. However, if someone prioritizes simplicity and versatility, they will think an ATC is better.
If a Grigri is correctly set up and adequately used according to the manufacturer’s assembly and usage guidelines and is being used by vigilant belayers, yes, a Grigri will catch a fall.
Yes, you can lead the climb with an ATC Guide. For example, many alpine climbers prefer this belaying device because of their lighter weight and versatility, which is better for multi-pitch climbing objectives. You can use the Guide as a lead belaying device and for belaying from the top. You can also use it for rappelling during the descent.
Yes, you can rappel with a Grigri, but only under certain circumstances. A Grigri can only be used to rappel on a single strand of rope. For example, if the rope is fixed at the top, a Grigri can rappel down and access the climbing.
The feature that has made the Grigri one of the most popular belay devices is the assisted braking camming mechanism. Many would argue that using a Grigri is to gain extra security from the assisted braking feature.