Home Tips and FAQ How to Rappel With an ATC Belay Device

How to Rappel With an ATC Belay Device

How to rappel with an ATC belay device

There are so many belay devices out there that make my head spin. Seriously, the first time I tried to put together a complete set of rappelling gear, I felt incredibly overwhelmed and worried. What if I got something wrong? What if the gloves weren’t good enough for what I needed, and what if the rappel device I chose would prove too complex or too unreliable?

In truth, I had to ask the help of a more experienced climber, and he guided me along as I put together my rappelling and climbing gear set. Fortunately, you can get most of this information from blogs such as these. Today I’m going to focus a bit on what is probably the most popular and reliable belay device out there – the ATC (or Air Traffic Controller) by Black Diamond.

How to rappel with an ATC?

This is a question that pops up frequently both online and in the real world, as people widely acknowledge the reliability of the ATC, but they simply don’t know how to rappel with one. I’ll cut right to the chase and tell you exactly how to rappel using an ATC, so you can find the answer you seek quickly. Afterward, I’ll talk a bit about this impressive device, its history, what makes it so special, and what are its main rivals. Deal?

In order to rappel with an ATC, follow these straightforward steps:

  • Make sure that your harness and anchors are set up properly and securely.
  • Step over the rope once and let it run by your right side if you are right-handed (or by your left side if you are left-handed.)
  • The downhill part of the ATC should face to the right, so make sure that it does.
  • Now the tricky part: pinch the rope and feed it through one of the ATC’s slots until it aligns with the wire keeper loop. If you plan on rappelling using both strands of rope, feed them both through the slot.
  • Attach a locking carabiner through the rope and wire keeper loop. Do this while keeping the downhill part of the rope on the right side. Again, I’m assuming that you are right-handed.
  • Now take the carabiner and clip it onto your harness’ belay loop. Double-check it to make sure that it is locked properly.
  • Have another close look at the carabiner in order to make sure that it goes through both the rope and the wire keeper loop. If you see any twists, just unclip it and repeat the entire process. Follow the rope and check if it comes from the anchor on the top left side, going through the ATC slot, and following the wire keeper loop around the carabiner. Finally, the rope should come out from the other side of the ATC slot, going downhill.
  • In order to move down, just lean back into the rope and slide it slowly through your hands. In order to stop, pull your brake hand behind your back. If you want to move faster, minimize friction by swinging your brake hand away from your body.

The original ATC belay device.

The Black Diamond ATC is a highly popular belaying and rappelling device, and there’s a very good reason behind its popularity. When it comes to performing such dangerous activities, it’s important for the climber to trust his equipment, and after decades of fine-tuning and perfecting the ATC’s design, Black Diamond has earned a high level of trust in the climbing community. That trust is what makes the ATC the most popular belaying device on the market right now – this is no small feat.

The ATC was developed back in the 90s, between 1990 and 1991, to be precise. There are two distinct versions available, namely the original device and the ATC-XP. The original one works very well with rock climbing rocks measuring 10mm or more in diameter, while the XP variant is better suited for canyoneering or ice climbing. It’s important to pick the right one depending on the kind of activity you’re about to perform.

How was the ATC belay device designed?

One of the earliest belay devices, the Sticht Plate, was rather rudimentary in design, but it worked well. It could use some improvement, however, and that’s how the Chouinard Micro-Belay Plates came to be. Still, Black Diamond thought it could improve even on this refined design, and so the ATC came into play. What was the main issue concerning Sticht Plate devices? Apparently, the plate could move down and lock against the carabiner when the climber pulled hard on the rope. Consequently, the rope would become trapped, which was bad news for any climber no matter his or her experience level.

The solution came in the form of a slight design adjustment: the slots would be placed a half-inch above the biner, which allowed the rope to be fed under tension without the risk of a lockdown. Furthermore, the designers of the ATC modified the edge that the rope passed over by making it a bit sharper. This way, the edge would offer more friction and ensure more control.


It wasn’t until 10 years later that the ATC-XP would come into play thanks to Jonny Woodward. The original ATC belay device worked just fine, but it didn’t provide enough friction when used with thin ropes, such as the 8mm ones that people use for ice climbing. The ATC-XP comes with an asymmetric design, as one of its sides generates considerably more friction than the other. More friction meant more wear, which is why the XP comes with extra material for a longer lifespan.

Rappelling with the ATC-XP is not particularly difficult, but there are some things you need to know. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  • Choose the mode that you would like to rappel with. I’m talking about the two asymmetric sides of the ATC-XP.
  • Make sure the rope is on your right side as you face the anchor by stepping over it. Again, I am assuming that you are right-handed.
  • Remove the ATC from your rappel carabiner, and push the rope through one of the slots on the top by pinching it. This step might be challenging, so don’t be afraid to pinch hard on the rope or even use your teeth to get the job done.
  • Now you have to orient the ATC accordingly. Make sure the rope runs from the anchor left to right or from top to bottom.
  • Pay attention to the rappel carabiner: clip the carabiner through both the loop of rope and the keeper loop on the ATC. Double-check the rope and make sure that it goes through the carabiner – your life could depend on it.

Should you use the ATC-XP for canyoneering?

atc canyoneering

I’d be more than happy to give you a straightforward answer to this question, but I’m afraid things are a bit more complicated when it comes to canyoneering. Surely I don’t need to tell you about the different types of Canyon Ratings and how that might affect your decision-making when it comes to choosing equipment. In the specific case of the ATC-XP, you can definitely use it on dry canyons, as well as on wet canyons that don’t include flowing water. Therefore, you should be good to go on Class A and Class B canyons but not on Class C ones.


The ATC belay device by Black Diamond is a highly reliable and proven rappelling gear piece. It can be used safely for rappelling and canyoneering, as long as you are mindful of humidity levels and canyon type. I’ve been using the classic ATC for recreational rappelling for quite a few years now, and I am happy to report that I have not experienced any issues. The design is solid, and it won’t let you down as long as you use the device properly and set up your rappel carefully. If you would like to know more about belay devices in general, how they are made, and why some of them have two holes, make sure to check out my detailed guide on the subject.

Until then, as always, if you have anything that you would like to add, any suggestions or personal experiences that you would like to share, feel free to get in touch.