It’s a Monday morning in October, and my partner is fighting out the last moves of his lead. He is far above a nest of small gear on the Eldorado Canyon route Scary Canary (5.12b/c R). A moment later he’s airborne. Then–pop, pop, like the sound of a BB gun firing off in rapid succession. His body continues flying halfway down the wall, while the blown placements, an RP and a Ball Nut, spin around his rope. Finally, he lightly impacts the sandstone wall with his feet and hands as he comes to a stop.
During the fall I had time to brace for impact, and I kept a firm hand on the brake-end side of the rope. But because the assisted-braking belay device I was using–the Black Diamond ATC Pilot–engaged as it was designed to, I barely had to grip the rope to catch the fall.
Though shook-up, my partner was OK, and I was OK. He righted himself and finished the pitch.
Pitch 2, the crux, came next–though this time he was far out of sight while doing the hardest moves. Again he whipped, and again he blew out his pro. This time a microcam sheared before the next piece caught. I arrested the fall on the Pilot. Wild times.
Those experiences on that cool autumn day in Eldo sold me on the Black Diamond ATC-Pilot (for ropes 8.7mm to 10.5mm; 85 grams) and it became my go-to device for general cragging, whether scary trad, dry-tooling or sport. I liked how smooth the device was to operate, both in regards to paying out and taking rope in, and how quickly it locked off when my partner fell or needed me to take weight.
Operating the Pilot felt familiar to using the Black Diamond ATC I’d carried since I first roped up in the early ’90s, but now the Pilot has an added brake-assist feature that makes it even more secure to operate.
I also liked how the Pilot allowed me to lower the climber without the device jerking or inadvertently locking up the way that some other devices can. I found the Pilot helped me to reel in and pay out slack more smoothly than the Edelrid Mega Jul did. I also found that if I accidently let go of the Pilot while lowering a partner I would not lose control of the rope. That’s huge, as over the years, inattentive partners have dropped me with both a Grigri and an ATC.
The Mega Jul (for ropes 7.8-11mm) is the closest in shape to the Pilot. However, the Pilot also resembles a mini version of Mammut Smart Alpine (for ropes 8.9mm to 10.5mm).
The Pilot design looks like the handle of a hard-plastic pistol. At first it’s an uncomfortable sound when the plastic rattles against the aluminum belay carabiner, but since the plastic shell isn’t load bearing, the use of this material doesn’t compromise the safety and the integrity of the design. The grip is shaped to fit comfortably in the hand, and the steel scoop on the top of the device helps the rope feed.
I’ve worn out about a dozen ATCs over the years: the rope sliding through the aluminum eventually files down the edges to the point that they become razor-thin, a potential hazard, and the clip-in cable is susceptible to damage as well. This new design extends the life of the device by switching the cable with a plastic channel.
The Pilot device isn’t designed for rappelling–and I never used it for that purpose–but I did, on several occasions, lower myself back to the ground after catching big falls where my partner ripped me off the ground. And since it’s a single tube-style belay device, meaning it doesn’t work with two ropes, I most often left it in my pack at the base of the climb when venturing high off the ground.
A few weeks after Scary Canary, this time during a freezing cold and gusty day in Eldo, I helped a friend on a new route between the Naked Edge and the Diving Board. For the first pitch, T2, I used the Pilot, but we both carried Mega Juls for the higher pitches. At the crux, a 5.13c pitch protected with a mix of bolts and removable gear, I caught a gear-ripping fall when an RP failed. The Mega Jul caught just as securely as the Pilot did. But on the rappel down, the clip-in cable on my partner’s Mega Jul broke. Since this part of the device is non-load bearing, there was no risk of injury, though he did retire the device on the spot. Another wild day in Eldo.
Over the four months of testing, from visiting Indian Creek to long trad routes in Boulder Canyon, drytooling in Vail, and new-routing at various spots, I only got one complaint from a partner. As he was finagling his way up a 12+ sport route in order to bolt a nearby 13c, he complained that I wasn’t locking him off fast enough. He was used to the seatbelt-like security of a Grigri. From then on I obeyed his wishes and kept the Pilot in my pack when we climbed together.
Though the Pilot is a one-trick pony–if you’re looking for a device that can belay in guide’s mode and work with two ropes, you need to look elsewhere–it’s a solid cragging and gym-use tool. Though I’ll leave it at home when belaying some climbers on the steeps (since that’s their preference), I’ll continue using it for the applications it’s designed for: one-pitch routes.
Chris Van Leuven is the former digital editor for Alpinist and has been climbing for 25 years. He’s currently working on his first narrative nonfiction book.
Smooth to pay out and feed in slack
Has a built-in brake-assist
Only works for one application: belaying.