When I first became addicted to crack, I was anti-Gri to the core.
Part was due to my climbing mentors being crusty oldtimers who honestly believed that tape and chalk were aid. They instilled in me a tacit belief that technological advances like assisted braking devices would inevitably be taken for granted and result in slothful belaying. Another part was due to my inherently conservative bent. If sticht plates were good enough for Layton and Ed, they were good enough for me!
Somewhere along the journey, I started catching big whippers and belaying people hangdogging projects, and was converted to the Gri-Gri. Soon thereafter, I was bringing it on alpine routes and multipitches, despite the weight penalty compared to a guide device.
Recently, I found myself invited on short notice on a trip to the Red River Gorge, but all my gear was still in Durango.
Not wanting to borrow from strangers, I ponied up some retail coin and bought a harness, shoes and device, making sure to loudly proclaim to everyone in Backcountry North that I was not a n00b and owned all of this stuff already (did I mention Durango, where I can ride my bike to 400+ routes?).
I really didn’t want to end up owning two Gri’s, so I decided to give Black Diamond’s ATC Pilot a try.
The Pilot is an assisted-braking belay device that bridges the gap between the classic tube-style device and a full-on Gri-Gri or Revo. Like the latter, it gives the belayer a bit of a break (ha) with holding a hangdogger or catching a big whip. And like a tube, it’s light, bombproof and simple. Similar products out there are the Edelrid MegaJul and Mammut Smart.
Tipping the scales at 83 grams, the Pilot is one of the lightest assisted-braking device on the market at present. The MegaJul beats it by twenty grams, but also functionally requires a steel locker — the recommended HMS Bruce clocks in at 134g compared to a Metolius Element at 73g, which quickly negates the Mega’s weight savings.
The build quality of the Pilot is good. Instead of a steel retaining cable like most tube devices have, BD went with a plastic pistol-grip. It’s a bit unnerving until you realize that it’s not weight-bearing. The device fits in my #1-sized hands like a glove.
I was very impressed with the function of the Pilot. It locks quickly under load. Classic belay technique (pull-brake-grab-slide) works well for toprope belaying. Lowering is smooth and worry-free — no need for a panic mode as in the Gri+ or 2.
Feeding slack on lead was a bit more difficult to figure out. I ended up shortroping my partner a few times. BD recommends sliding your brake-hand thumb up to the catch, as described at 2:10 in their video below.
I demo’d the Pilot with the i-beam locker pictured above and friction was average. Switching to a rounded Metolius Element made a noticeable difference in smoothness while throwing rope to a leader.
When rapping singlestrand, the Pilot provides an acceptable experience. It’s nowhere near as fluid an experience as the Gri, and doesn’t offer any sort of built-in backup.
Unlike the Gri, however, the Pilot requires a small amount of finger tension to secure a resting climber, unless they’ve been caught in a fall. Regardless, you want to keep a hand on the brake.
The Pilot retails at half the price of a Gri-Gri, which is another big plus. The obvious drawbacks are that you need to carry a separate device to rap doublestrand and belay with an autoblock from the anchor. (I always carry a Camp Ovo belay plate in my oh-shit-kit, so that’s not a concern for me. ). Unlike a Gri or an autoblock, you can’t use it as an ascender.
Overall, I’m very impressed with the ATC Pilot. While it’s not a Gri-killer (nor was it meant to be), at half the weight and half the price, it’s a great piece of kit, one that even the crusty oldtimers might begrudgingly admire.