[Photo] Andrew Councell
These days, it feels like everyone is coming out with a “new” belay device that’s touted as somehow better than its predecessors. But, at least to me, it feels like many of the so-called improvements are superfluous and clumsy. I’ve sampled nearly all of the variations out there, but keep coming back to my trusty favorites for both recreational and guiding use.
This changed last summer when I sampled Edelrid’s Mega Jul while climbing in Clear Creek Canyon, above Golden, Colorado. After brief instruction, I was impressed with both its performance and potential. I was eager to get my own and put it through the rigors of daily guiding work.
At first the Mega Jul appears to be another plaquette-style belay device with two slots for double-rope rappels, an external “ear” for auto-block mode, an unlocking eye and a keeper cable. The keeper cable is aided by a thumb hook that juts out from the brake side of the device. Weighing only 65 grams, it’s lighter than Black Diamond’s 88-gram ATC Guide but slightly heavier than the 59-gram Petzl Reverso. The device is made with stainless steel rather than aluminum, and, according to Edelrid, will last ten years with occasional use and two years with extreme use with dirty ropes.
The differences between the Mega Jul and other belay devices are apparent with use. Its advantage, besides size and weight, is its ability to assist in braking a fall. A notch in the body of the device’s belly sucks up a locking carabiner when the device is loaded, giving brake assistance and locking the rope. While not a hands-free device, it still provides a large margin of safety. Since I am often belayed by clients, I find this a great selling point. This isn’t a fully hands-free device and the belayer should always maintain control of the brake strand.
The device feeds and locks rope like a regular tube device. However, releasing the locked rope after catching a fall requires more than simply relaxing your grip on the rope–this is when the “thumb hook” is used. By hooking your thumb on the keeper cable and levering up, you reduce the angle of the locked rope, which releases it and allows the climber to be lowered.
[Photo] Andrew Councell
In addition to the brake-assist (“thumb mode”) using the thumb hook, the Mega Jul can also be oriented in auto-block or “guide mode” for belaying climbers from above. Like other plaquette devices, this is done by clipping the ear to the anchor and loading the rope correctly. Unlike the Reverso or ATC Guide, the Mega Jul requires the belayer to send the ropes up from the keeper-cable side of the device rather than toward the keeper cable. This is confusing at first. Additionally, despite using it for months, it still takes effort to properly load ropes into “guide” mode when compared to other plaquette devices. Lastly, in auto-block or guide mode, the Mega Jul adds more friction to the pull than other plaquette devices, especially with fat ropes. Edelrid says you can use 8.9mm single ropes or 7.9mm double ropes. I find it works best with ropes that are between 8.9 to 10mm.
The Mega Jul offers three rappelling modes. You can turn the thumb hook toward your body (or pointing up) and rappel like any other device. I call that “free mode.” You can also rotate the thumb hook 180 degrees into “thumb mode” and lower yourself with a brake assist. Or you can attach a carabiner into the eye for “lever mode” to release the rope and lower, which is similar to rappelling with a Grigri. Using two single ropes, I found that “lever mode” doesn’t work smoothly. Rappelling in either of these latter modes is helpful for hanging quickdraws on rappel, or other situations where you may want to lock the device and go hands free.
Another one of the drawbacks with the Mega Jul is that the belayer needs to have a neatly stacked rope when lead belaying. Obviously, this is a good habit to establish, but trying to feed the rope quickly from a tangled or twisted stack can be tiresome: feed too quickly and the Mega Jul locks up, requiring you to release with the thumb hook. This isn’t a big deal, except that it means you have to pull slack through the device rather than feed rope into it with your brake hand. Likewise, lowering requires just the right amount of tension and angle to prevent jerkiness. Or worse, you could burn the skin between your thumb and index finger when belaying in “thumb mode” if you lower too fast. For both lead belaying and lowering, wearing gloves and/or having a neatly stacked rope is helpful for optimal Mega Jul functionality.
Edelrid recommends using a HMS Strike carabiner with the device, because other carabiners don’t provide enough surface area and friction for the device to lock down. Rather than lock, the rope continues to slowly feed out. I found the Mega Jul works smoothly with carabiners constructed with a rounded stock, like Black Diamond’s Mini Pearabiner or Petzl’s Attache.
Over the past few months, I’ve introduced the Mega Jul to climbing partners and guides to solicit their impressions. The results have been 50-50, with some preferring their ATC Guides or Grigris. Some found giving slack to a lead climber was tricky. Others found they had to find a sweet spot to lower without going too fast. Although I had also noted these issues, I found solutions with practice.
I did quite a bit more testing in both crevasse- and rock-rescue scenarios, orienting the Mega Jul in different modes to see how it would perform, from hauling to ascending. Having run the device through all of the tests I could think of, I’ve finally incorporated the Mega Jul into my work as my main guiding tool. That being said, I still keep an ATC Guide in my guide’s pack…just in case. In time perhaps I’ll fully embrace only the Mega Jul and come to eschew those old trusty favorites altogether.
PROS: A small, light, multi-functional belay device. Durable steel construction. One of the lightest brake-assisted devices available. Can be used in auto-block mode for belaying two ropes from above and has multiple orientations for rappelling.
CONS: More friction in auto-block mode than other plaquette devices, which adds to elbow fatigue. Takes more practice to get ropes quickly loaded into auto-block mode. Requires a neatly stacked rope for easy lead belaying. Needs a round-stock carabiner for the brake-assist mode to work properly–other constructions work, just not as well. The “lever mode” for lowering and rappelling is ineffective, at least with fat ropes; it’s best to use “thumb mode” for lowering and “free mode” for rappelling.