It is not necessary to possess a vast array of climbing gear and gadgets in order to enjoy climbing. However, when you think of all the wonderful experiences made possible by using equipment, it becomes clear why most climbers choose to use at least some form of gear.
To beginners, experienced climbers may seem to move swiftly and effortlessly across or up a rock face, making it seem so easy! Once they themselves are on the rock, though, it suddenly seems slippery and the grips are minute. How did the other climbers do it? Not only are they well practised, but they are probably using tight-fitting, high-friction climbing shoes and special powder to dry their finger tips and increase grip.
Table of Contents
- 1 Climbing Shoes
- 2 Chalk And Chalk Bags
- 3 The Harness
- 4 Carabiners (’biners or crabs)
- 5 The Rope
- 6 Helmets
- 7 General Care Of Equipment
The correct rock shoe or boot will greatly enhance your climbing ability. The better the shoe, its fit, and the more suited to your type of climbing, the greater the improvement will be.
The Right All-Purpose Shoe
- Fits snugly and tightly. Most shoes stretch after a while, so enduring a bit of pain at first is perhaps unavoidable. Climbers often choose shoes at least one or two sizes smaller than their normal shoes. It is usual not to wear socks, or only to wear thin ankle socks. Thick socks reduce sensitivity, and allow the shoe to move on your foot which is no good if you’re trying to balance on a tiny edge of protruding rock.
- Has a semi-rigid sole which gives firm support to your feet and prevents them from being crushed in cracks. Check the support of the shoe yourself by flexing it across the sole it should have as much give as an average good running shoe. Squeeze the toe if it flops around, it will not help you during the learning phase of climbing.
- Has a fairly large rubber ‘rand’ or strip of edging right around the sole about 2-3cm (1in) is ideal. This is a great help when feet are jammed into cracks and when an edging technique is used, and it helps protect the shoe or boot. Remember that as a beginner, you will wear out shoes or boots faster than experienced climbers, who have learned to place their feet precisely.
- Could offer a bit of ankle support the sides extending up to protect the ankle. (This is not as important as the other criteria mentioned above, however, and high-top climbing shoes are not common. lf the climbing shoes you find have all the necessary qualities, but lack ankle support then take them.)
The areas in which you choose to climb (or are able to climb) may mean that you encounter mostly one particular type of rock or terrain. You may therefore, either initially, or at a later stage, prefer to buy a specialized climbing shoe. Some highly sophisticated footwear is available including some amazing banana-shaped shoes that are surprisingly comfortable, and ergonomically designed to force your foot into a position where it gives maximum toe strength for use in pockets and on small edges. These shoes are not recommended for beginners, however, as they demand a good deal of strength from the toes and the soles of the feet strength provided by small muscle groups that are only developed with much practice.
Extremely tight-fitting boots are not a good idea for use during long climbs (consisting of either multiple pitches or lasting for several days). On short, hard, technical routes, the advantage of increased performance can compensate for the pain and discomfort, and you can take the shoes off from time to time!
The sole should be kept as clean as possible, and should be cleaned after each outing – dishwashing liquid, water and a scrubbing brush are adequate. Despite regular cleaning, however, soles do tend to lose ‘grip’ with time as the tiny pores fill up with dust and grit. To preserve your shoes for as long as possible, the best practice is to keep the soles clean by not standing on dirt, and to wipe them with a brush or soft cloth before climbing a serious pitch. Many climbers take a small cloth or towel to stand on at the base of climbs, especially when bouldering. Empty rope bags are also useful for standing on in order to keep soles clean.
Chalk And Chalk Bags
Types Of Chalk
In the world of climbing, the term ‘chalk’ usually refers to light magnesium carbonate (MgCo3.5H20) with additives such. as silica to provide extra grip.
And no chalk is not there as a route marker, or for ‘dot-to-dot’ climbing, but to dry those sweaty palms and fingertips. Climbers’ chalk is available in blocks (which you have to break up into pieces or into a powder), in powder form, or as chalk balls (where the powder is encased in a porous sheath of stocking-like nylon or fine muslin). Chalk balls are becoming increasingly popular in indoor climbing gyms, where too much chalk dust can create a minor health hazard. Try out different types of chalk until you find what works best, and is most suitable, for you.
Types Of Chalk Bags
Chalk bags come in a variety of designs a large bag is useful for bouldering, whereas a small, compact one is handy for hard sport climbs where the less weight you carry, the better.
A Good Chalk Bag
- Is large enough to take your hand easily when you dip it in.
- Has a tight drawstring closure to avoid chalk spills.
- Is fairly robust.
- Has a stiffened rim to prevent it from closing when in use.
- Has a fibre-pile or similar lining to ease the application of chalk to the fingers.
A Cautionary Word
Use chalk with discretion – many climbers overdo it, and use it as a psychological aid, not only for its intended purpose of drying the hands.
It can become unsightly on rock faces, and is banned in some areas of the world (like the sandstone of Saxony, and at Fontainebleau in France).
Respect these bans – often access to an area depends on climbers being aware of and following regulations, even if they seem silly or irksome. In both Saxony and at Fontainebleu there are valid, practical reasons for not using chalk – the porous sandstone easily becomes slippery when clogged with chalk, to the detriment of the climber.
The next vital piece of equipment is the climbing harness and, once again, there are several options. Generally, the sit-harness with a waist belt, leg loops, and some sort of front attachment system is preferred to the full-body harness.
It is worthwhile spending a bit of money on getting a comfortable, well-fitting harness. Don’t compromise after all, you may end up ‘hanging around’ in it for a while! If you are still growing physically, or if you intend climbing in varying weather conditions, necessitating different kinds of clothing (for instance, shorts in summer and warm leggings in winter), then choose a harness with adjustable leg loops, as fixed-size harnesses are not adjustable.
If the harness you use has adjustable leg loops as well as a waist loop, first fasten the waistbelt tightly above the hips before tightening the leg loops – otherwise the result with be a dangerous, low-slung gunfighter-type fit. Avoid this at all costs.
Spend time finding a good harness. Ensure that the harness you choose can tighten firmly but comfortably above your hips and on your waist, so that you cannot slip out even if you turn upside down. Insist on trying out several different harnesses in the store and hang for a minute or two, to see how each harness feels. The job of the harness is to hold you firmly and securely, and to distribute any forces resulting from falls, rappels or lower-offs, to as large an area of your body as possible, and to the right places.
The Best Harnesses
- Have a well-padded waist belt and leg loops, to increase comfort and to hold you securely.
- Have leg loops that are independent of the main harness, but which pass through a belay loop on the front of the harness.
- Have solid buckles, to securely accommodate the waistbelt when it is doubled back.
- Have an adjustable system at the rear to lift or support the leg loops.
- Have a good arrangement of fairly strong gear loops from which to suspend various items of hardware.
A number of first-class, experienced climbers – as well as many beginners – have come to grief as a result of not doubling back the waistbelt of the harness through the buckle. Often this happens when the climber becomes distracted half-way through the process. Make sure you complete the full double-back process every time you fit your harness.
UIAA and CE Stamps
Virtually all climbing gear harnesses, carabiners, ropes, slings, belay and rappel devices, helmets and other protection devices should carry UIAA or CE approval, or both. Look for these markings!
The UIAA (International Union of Alpine Associations) sets standards for climbing equipment that guarantee a minimum degree of safety. A UIAA stamp is a sign that the piece of equipment has been tested not only in a laboratory, but also in a real climbing situation.
CE is a European safety standard used for safety gear or Personal Protective Equipment under which most climbing equipment is classified. The CE ISO 9002 stamp is a laboratory standard, albeit a very rigid one. An item with UIAA and CE markings has passed rigorous testing. All CE-rated pieces of equipment are supplied with comprehensive instructions and warnings about how they should (and should not) be used. Don’t simply ignore these – a lot of useful information is supplied on those product instruction leaflets.
Carabiners (’biners or crabs)
Also called snaplinks, these are used to attach climbers to ropes, belay devices, slings and protection placed in the rock. There are many variations, but essentially two main types: screwgate (locking) carabiners, and clipgate (snapgate) carabiners.
To attach a rope to your harness, or for use anywhere where a single carabiner is used and should stay clipped, use a screwgate, or locking, carabiner. Some carabiners need to be screwed into position manually, whereas others are auto-locking.
Auto-locking carabiners (or self-locking carabiners) are useful, as you cannot forget to lock the gate. Always keep the mechanism clean, however, otherwise it may not be able to auto-lock properly.
Clipgate (snapgate) Carabiners
Clipgates are used to clip the rope into slings or pieces of protection. They are not as secure as locking gates, but easier to use if you have only one hand free.
Carabiners are rated in kN (kiloNewton a unit of force), the range usually being from 10kN to 40kN. One
newton (N) is equivalent to about 1/10 kg of force (kgf), thus carabiners can effectively hold between 1000kgf to 4000kgf. This occurs along their major axis – if they are loaded sideways, with the gate open, then their strength is much less, it can be as low as 1000N (100kgf) to 7000N (700kgf).
Care of Carabiners
To make them as light as possible, carabiners are made of alloys of aluminium. Unfortunately, this material is prone to chipping, cracking (if a carabiner is dropped) and damage by salt water.
Carabiners can be washed in soapy water, and then rinsed well. Drying with compressed air or even a hair-dryer works well. A bit of silicon spray on the gate will keep the action smooth. (Never use oil, which can damage ropes, harnesses and nylon webbing.)
Any carabiner or other piece of metal or plastic climbing gear which has been dropped from a height onto a hard surface must be treated as suspect, and preferably discarded. Invisible cracks and fractures can occur, which may cause collapse of the metal or plastic.
Once you get into real climbing, the rope is the most important piece of gear, and the common element in most types of climbing, bar the free solo forms. The rope is your safety line in case of a fall, your support when you are struggling with a difficult move, your way of getting back to the ground in many cases, and of getting up in others. Some climbers rope up for years without ever putting weight onto their ropes but when they do need the rope, they need it big!
Climbing ropes are high-tech pieces of gear which should be chosen carefully and looked after lovingly. There is a lot of information here but not too much! The article on Knowing the Ropes will make you a much safer climber, so give it a good read.
Ropes come in two basic forms: static and dynamic, but both are of kernmantel construction.
Static Versus Dynamic Ropes
Static ropes are ropes with little stretch, a tough outer sheath, and a rigid weave. They are usually used for caving (where ascenders are used), rappelling, as safety ropes on big peaks, or as haul ropes on big walls. Most static ropes are white, with coloured identification strips, although some are made in black or green mostly for military purposes.
As their name suggests, dynamic ropes are ‘movement’ ropes. They have high energy absorption, as a result of their stretching capabilities of up to 30% that is, a 50m (150ft) rope could let you fall an extra 15m (50ft) at full stretch! As ropes get older, their elasticity diminishes, and thus also their ability to hold falls.
Kernmantel Rope Construction
Kernmantel ropes have a braided core of fibres, surrounded by a woven sheath made of a slightly different material. Each minute fibre is continuous for the entire length of the rope. Ropes can be produced in different diameters, from a few millimetres to 20mm or more, and are available in any length, from metres to kilometres!
The nature of the material, the diameter of the rope and the pattern of the weave create ropes with different handling properties, and differing degrees of strength, stretch and ruggedness. Most ropes are made of nylon, perlon, or some similar polyamide fibre.
The core (kern) is generally white (undyed) as dyeing can, albeit minutely, alter the strength of the filaments. The core accounts for up to 90% of the rope’s strength. The outer sheath (mantle) is made in a wide variety of colours, both for rope identification, and to absorb damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. The contrast of the sheath colour against the white inner core also helps to show up abrasions or cuts in the rope.
The most vital function of the rope is to absorb energy resulting from a fall, or whilst rappelling. Ropes do this by stretching or twisting, right down to the molecular level. Kernmantel ropes can take great loads, from 10kN (1000kgf) in 8.5mm to 30kN (3000kgf) in 11mm. These are static loads, that is, the rope is gradually loaded until it breaks. In dynamic situations, when you are climbing, for instance, ropes experience shock-loading and whiplash, they pass over sharp edges and vibrate elastically whilst absorbing shock. This wear and tear reduces their actual breaking strength, sometimes drastically.
It is probably comforting to know, however, that very seldom do ropes break under normal use. After small falls, if you leave your rope unstressed for about half an hour, the rope slowly recovers and reverts to almost its original length and weave, although some of the tiny fibres may have broken. Allowing your rope to recover fully between falls will prolong its life span.
Static ropes do not have high energy absortion, and are not safe for taking falls, such as you might take when leading, or even when longish falls (over 0.5m/1.5ft) are expected during top-roping. The ropes transmit forces of unacceptably high values to the protection pieces and the climber. Never use static ropes for leading – a fall on one could snap your neck!
Buying A Rope
Ropes are available in different diameters the most usual being 9mm, 10.5mm or 11mm.
9mm ropes are classified (in terms of UIAA standards) as half ropes that is, they are only considered safe if two ropes are used together. The ‘1/2’ marking will appear on the rope end ferrules.
Double-rope climbing allows the leader to place protection away from the main line of the climb without causing undue friction, as he or she can clip one rope on one side, one more on the other. Two ropes also allow for longer rappels if used tied together.
10.5mm and 11mm ropes are classed as full ropes and marked ‘1’ on the end ferrules. These are popular with sport climbers, or on climbs which do not vary much from a straight line.
Choose A Rope
- That suits your main type of climbing – two half ropes if you do mostly traditional climbing, or a full rope if you do mostly sport climbing.
- That is a good length – 50m (165ft) is the most common, although 60m (200ft) ropes are also popular.
- That has handling properties you like – a balance has to be struck between suppleness, knotability and ease of coiling given by a looser sheath, and resistance to abrasion provided by a tight sheath.
- That is water-resistant – especially if you do a lot of climbing in the wet or on snow or ice. Everdry-type ropes are coated with Teflon or silicone, which prevents water entering the weave and making the rope too heavy when it is wet.
Care Of Your Rope
Your rope is your lifeline – so treat it well. Avoid using it over sharp edges, as ropes cut disturbingly easily, especially when under load. Avoid long-term exposure to ultraviolet light (sunlight has plenty of this!) and don’t leave it out in sunlight, or in the back window of your car. Chemicals are bad news, particularly strong acids (such as battery acid) or alkalis (such as from leaking torch batteries.) Sand and grit in the rope slowly cut the tiny fibres, so don’t stand on it (or let your partner stand on it!). Ropes can and should be regularly washed in lukewarm water, with a mild soap. They can also be washed in a washing machine. Dry them in a cool place, or, if you’re desperate, use the lowest heat setting in a tumble dryer. A valuable purchase might be a rope bag; this useful piece of gear protects the rope from ultraviolet rays, sand, chemicals and abrasion.
A Good Rope Bag
- Opens out fully to provide easy access to the rope
- Has solid fastening straps, and even some shoulder straps so that you can carry your rope easily
- Has small tapes that you can tie your rope end to, to avoid tangles
- Has an extra pouch for carrying boots, a chalk bag, quickdraws and other small odds and ends
- Has a large groundsheet built into it, so that you can spread your rope out on it before climbing
Many climbers sadly think that helmets are not ‘cool’, despite their obvious safety advantages. if you are sport climbing, this is fine, providing the rock is solid and your belayer is awake! In the case of trad climbing, however, wearing a helmet is a very good idea indeed, because falls are often longer and more serious than in sport climbing. The belayer can also be exposed to bits of loose rock and pieces of gear dropped from above.
A Good Climbing Helmet
- Has a comfortable, well-fitting, adjustable headband, which holds it solidly in place
- Has a chin strap which buckles firmly, preventing the helmet from moving as your head moves
- Has only a small front rim, to allow you to look up
- Is light, without sacrificing strength
- Is able to absorb some of the shock if you bang your head from the side
- Has some form of ventilation
General Care Of Equipment
Damage to soft gear is usually quite easy to spot. All ropes, harnesses, slings, tapes and webbing (usually made of nylon or polyamide) become damaged over time. Friction damage is usually clear, as items become visibly frayed, cut or melted. Soft gear which is badly discoloured (a sign of ultraviolet or chemical damage) or far more rigid or more supple than it originally was, should be retired Soft gear must be retired after a major fall.
Metal equipment also degrades over time – and not only as a consequence of being nicked, chipped and dropped. Most modern hard gear is made of aluminium, which can alter its molecular structure with time and become brittle. This means that damage to hard gear is not always visible so be careful. All metal gear can be washed in cold or lukewarm, soapy water, and dried manually or left to dry in a cool, well-ventilated spot. Moving parts should be cleaned and lubricated with a silicone-based lubricant. Never use oil-based lubricants, as these can damage nylon or polyester materials such as harnesses, ropes, tapes and slings that come into contact with the metal.
When to retire your gear Soft gear is usually given a life span of five years from the date of its first use, provided that it has never been subjected to ‘poor conditions’ during use or storage. Hard gear is given 10 years under ideal conditions. But this can all be academic one really bad fall, or fuel from your benzine stove leaking out in your car boot, and the whole lot should be discarded. The golden rule is: Know Thy Gear. Keep track of the falls you take, and of how equipment has been treated. Bear in mind use during lending or borrowing.
With the high cost of new climbing equipment, you may be tempted to buy equipment second hand. Before buying any used climbing gear, make sure that you know its full history, and that you can trust the seller. Given the risks involved with buying “used” equipment it might be prudent to put off the next climb until you can properly fund the purchase of some brand new kit. Patience however is a virtue and it’s not unheard of for the more enthusiastic climber to beg and borrow (even to extremes like a no credit check loan) to replace their damaged gear rather than postpone a climb!
Find out how and where the equipment was stored, why the owner wants to sell it, and how old it is. Your life and someone else’s may depend on it!
Marking Of Gear
Most manufacturers recommend that no markings of any sort should be made on their items. What do you do, however, to prevent your gear becoming mixed up with that of other climbers, or being lost or stolen? Usually it becomes necessary to use some identifying mark.
- Avoid permanent marker pens or paints, as they contain solvents, which can damage soft gear, and their markings soon rub off hard gear.
- Metal gear can be marked with paint, marker pens, or wrapped with coloured insulation tape or some similar material. Taped markings do not last all that long under the rigours of normal climbing use, but if the tape is regularly replaced, this is a good way of marking your hard gear in a highly visible way.
- Although no manufacturer would dare to officially sanction this, careful light engraving of carabiners, descendeurs and other metal gear is tacitly accepted as non-damaging. Stamping of marks, or hard engraving on metal parts can damage their structure. Take care not to make marks on sections of metal over which the rope or other soft gear travels, as minute burrs in the metal can damage soft fibres.
- Soft gear is best carefully marked using a highly visible marker pen on non-vital parts, not on load-bearing parts. Mark only the tips of ropes, the ends of harness straps, and use the manufacturers’ marking tabs on slings, quickdraws and helmets.