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How to Choose Climbing Equipment


Climbing is a purist's pursuit. Just you and the rock. Mostly. To help us get up the rock we do allow ourselves shoes and chalk, and to protect ourselves from an unforgiving impact, we employ ropes, protection, carabiners, harnesses, belay devices and a litany of gizmos. As free climbers, this help is indirect. We don't (or try not to) hang on the gear, rather we progress by pulling on the natural holds. Even so, the gear is there, we use it, and we would perish without it. Yet cramming a pack with the latest gadgets does not make you an expert or a safe climber. In fact, relying wholeheartedly on gear instead of experience or common sense will make you a dangerous climber. Only careful study and practice can make you proficient.


Climbing Shoes

Velcro "sport" shoe. Without specialized rock shoes it's tough to leave the ground. Make them your first purchase. Though there are over 125 shoe designs from 16 brands, every pair is designed to hug your feet like ballet slippers and has smooth, sticky-rubber soles that enable you to stand on bumps so tiny you may have difficulty even seeing them. Shoe selection is critical because climbing shoes are the only item of gear that will actually help you climb.

What to get depends on the type of climbing you are apt to try. Crack climbs go best with one sort of shoe. Face climbs with another. Sport and gym climbing and bouldering with another still.

Shoes broadly fall into two categories: sport shoes and all-purpose shoes. Sport shoes are flexible with a low-volume fit and arched soles. These highly-sensitive designs squeeze your feet, enabling you to power edge off the toe. Sport shoes are ideal for short, steep bursts of climbing such as bouldering, and sport and gym climbing. They aren't suitable for longer routes, as the shoe's snug fit can become unbearable after a few hours. If you don't intend to tackle longer climbs and instead prefer short gymnastic routes, purchase a sport shoe.

Lace-up "all-purpose" shoe.

What about slippers? Essentially leather socks with climbing rubber glued to them, slippers are just too flexible for starter shoes. They don't edge, require great foot strength and don't hold up well to poor technique. Save the slippers for later, when your strength and new-found grace will enable you to take advantage of them.

Since you are just getting started, you may want to sample a bit of everything, including longer routes where you'll wear your rock shoes most, if not all, of the day. In this case, a solid all-purpose shoe is your best bet. A stiffer shoe like this will support a rookie's weak feet, is comfortable, and will help protect your feet from being crushed in cracks or bruised when you fall off a high boulder problem.

Regardless of the shoe design, getting a proper fit is imperative. You want a snug fit, but not overly so. A good-fitting shoe won't have any extra room, but it will be comfortable enough to wear for hours. The stiffer the shoe, the more comfortably you can size it. Usually, flat-lasted, medium-flex, all-purpose shoes are designed to let your toes lay flat, while soft, curved sport shoes and slippers are meant to bunch up your toes. When sizing shoes, keep in mind that if your shoes hurt your feet, you'll be less likely to weight them, decreasing, not increasing, performance.

Slipper shoe.You can adjust a shoe's width by tightening or loosening the laces or Velcro straps, but you can't adjust the heel -- if the heel is loose it will be loose forever. With that in mind, pay close attention to the heel fit. Try on shoes until you land a pair that gives you the up-front fit you want and is snug around your heel. With so many shoes to choose from, there are bound to be several pairs that fit you perfectly in all areas.

All rock shoes will stretch some over time, with the amount of stretch determined by shoe design. Lined shoes, for example, won't stretch as much as unlined ones. Real leather will stretch a bit more than synthetic leather. Stiff shoes (those with midsoles) won't stretch as much as soft shoes or slippers. Shoes with slingshot rands will stretch, but will also rebound back when they sit in your closet.



Wear a helmet.Consider a helmet as necessary as a rope. Although helmets aren't fashionable (they are beginning to catch on), they make climbing safer, just like a seatbelt makes riding in a car safer. Every year climbers suffer serious head injuries, either by hitting their heads on the rock during a fall, or being hit in the head with a falling rock. Any helmet CE certified for climbing will suffice, but don't wear a bike or kayak helmet. Some helmets have adjustable suspensions that let you loosen the fit when you're wearing a cap, or tighten it down after your buzz cut.



Chalk and Chalk Bag
Grip tight with chalk.

We don't think of ourselves as sweat hogs, but we are. Our porous skin can leak as much as two quarts of water an hour, and when we are climbing, the majority of it seems to gush out of our hands. Sweaty hands are slippery hands, so we dip them in chalk, or magnesium carbonate, to keep them dry.

You can get chalk in block or powdered form. Both are inexpensive, and which to use is personal preference. Experiment. If one type feels slick or doesn't stick to your hands, try the other.

Carry chalk in a chalk bag. Any one of the dozens of designs will do and purchasing one is simply a matter of taste. On popular boulder problems and routes, chalk cakes up on the holds, becoming unsightly and making the rock more slippery than ever. Scrub it off with a toothbrush carried in a small sleeve sewn to the chalk bag for that very purpose.


Climbing rope

Climbing ropes are not the ones you see spelunkers using to zip down into those dark holes they so love. Nor are they the cords Boy Scouts rig to zip across canyons and streams. Climbing ropes, though they look much like the average nylon rope, have crucial distinctions.

Climbing ropes have a kernmantle construction consisting of a braided core, which supplies most of the rope's strength. The core is covered by a woven sheath. Kernmantle ropes are durable and easy to knot. More importantly, they are dynamic. They stretch. When you fall, say 50 feet, the rope will stretch five to seven feet to gradually absorb the impact. By applying the brakes this way, a climbing rope catches you gently, lessening the forces on you and your gear. Static ropes used for caving and sport rappelling hardly stretch at all. Fall on one of these and the jolt it delivers could break your gear or even you.

The UIAA (Union Internationale des Association d'Alpinisme) in concert with the CE sets climbing-rope standards and oversees testing. Any rope bearing a UIAA or CE certification tag is fine for climbing. Despite the hundreds of thousands of falls climbers suffer every year, there isn't a single recorded instance of a climbing rope breaking in a fall. Not one. Climbing ropes, however, do cut frightfully easily when they are weighted. Keep them away from sharp rock edges and old, worn carabiners.

Examine the tag on the rope for Rope Designation, Diameter and Length. The numbers listed for Falls Held and Maximum Impact Force are good marketing, but all certified ropes have passed the same series of rigorous fall and impact-force tests, and will serve you well.

Ropes come with either a designation for Single or Double use. A single rope is the most common and is intended to be used by itself, as a single strand. This is the rope you want. Single ropes range in thickness from roughly 9mm to 11mm. Smaller ropes are lighter, but wear out faster. Leave the thin ropes for later and get one close to 10mm.

Double ropes are thinner ropes, usually 9mm and under, and are intended to be used as a pair. These ropes offer a greater margin of security against cutting, since odds are both ropes won't cut, but complicate belaying and leading. Double ropes are usually reserved for ice and mixed climbing, where you need two ropes to rappel.

Ropes come in various lengths, but 50- and 60-meter cords are the standards. If you intend to climb at crags that have fixed belay and lowering anchors, which can be up to 30 meters off the ground, get a 60-meter rope. For general cragging, where you'll set your own belay anchors, a 50-meter rope should suffice. Even so, 60-meter ropes are becoming the norm.

The final consideration is whether the rope has a dry treatment. This water-repellent coating helps keep the rope from getting waterlogged in a downpour. The primary advantage of such a coating, however, is that it makes the rope softer and easier to handle than a stiff, non-treated rope. For that reason alone, most climbers choose treated ropes.

New ropes are always kinky and difficult to manage. Running the length of the rope through your hands a few times will straighten it, as will a few free-hanging rappels. If you are climbing at a dusty crag, keep the rope clean by uncoiling or flaking it onto a rope tarp -- dirt accelerates rope wear.

You found the perfect rope, and after three seasons it is as fuzzy as a squirrel's tail and has flat and mushy spots. Is it time to retire it? Yes. Flat and soft spots in a rope indicate internal damage. Ropes that are merely frayed are more difficult to judge. Slight fuzzing is no big deal, and can happen in just a couple of weekends of use. Severe fuzzing may or may not make a rope unsafe. As a rule, if you can see a rope's inner core, the sheath is worn too thin. Let common sense guide you, and when you feel uneasy, retire the rope.


You have a good rope, but how do you fasten it to yourself? That leather belt is out. So is wrapping the line around your waist, like you see in movies. You need a climbing harness.

Some harnesses are fully adjustable. These are fine for schools, where a harness gets passed back and forth between different sized students, but since you are the only person to wear your harness, there's no need to mess with all those buckles. Get a padded harness that fits you snugly, but still lets your legs move freely. Select a harness with at least four gear loops, and always remember to double-back the waist buckle -- climbers have died when they neglected to properly buckle their harnesses. Some harnesses have single-pull buckles that you keep permanently threaded -- never fully unbuckle them!


There are two types of slings: runners and quickdraws. You'll need both.

Sewn runners
Sewn runners

Runners are open-loop slings, usually made of 9/16-inch webbing, though the width seems to get smaller every year as manufacturers strive to make lighter, thinner webbing. Runners are used mostly as extensions clipped to the wired nuts and cams, helping to prevent them from being jostled out of place by the tugging action of the rope. Runners come in many lengths. Over-the-shoulder runners are the most useful; if you need shorter ones, simply double over the longer ones. The number of runners you need depends on the climb. Six may suffice for short routes or ones with few protection points, while you can need a dozen on a well-protected, full-ropelength pitch.

Sewn runners are less bulky and stronger than knotted ones, though it's unlikely any runner would ever break. Knotted runners are advantageous because you can untie them and thread them through bolt hangers, pitons or holes in the rock, or tie several together to make a super long runner. Carry a mix of mostly sewn and a couple of tied runners and you will be prepared for any situation.

Quickdraws, or draws, are short -- four- to six-inch-long -- runners stitched into a solid bar, with an open loop on either end, through which you clip a carabiner. Quickdraws are used to clip bolts on sport routes, but you can also use them as mini-runners on cams and nuts when a long runner isn't needed. In areas where the cracks run vertically, such as Indian Creek, Utah, quickdraws are more useful and easier to use than runners.

Typicall , you'll put a straight-gate carabiner on the top end of a quickdraw and a bent-gate (often wire; see the next section) on the bottom, rope clipping end. Do not use bent-gates to clip gear -- the bend can cause the gate to accidentally open itself when it torques against the protection. Ten to 20 quickdraws are about all you'll ever need.


From top left, (clockwise), the straight gate modified D, bent-gate modified D, wire-gate, screw-gate locker and auto-locker.
These are the snap links that attach the rope to protection, anchor you to belays, rack gear, and do dozens of other tasks. Carabiner, or biner designs are as limitless as the stars, but the main ones are the oval, the modified-D and locking.

Ovals are the weakest and heaviest, but they hold the ost gear for rack ng and are the most versatile for aid climbing, something you'll probably not get into for some time. Ovals are so specialized that many shops don't even carry them.

Modified-D carabiners are the backbone of your rack. Lightweight and strong, the design, of which there are an infinite number of variations, is just about perfect. You'll need 20 to 40 of these. If you intend to climb mostly sport routes, get half of these carabiners with bent gates -- the crook in the gate makes it easier to clip the rope. The typical sport-climbing rack consists almost entirely of short quickdraws with modified-Ds on the top, protection-clip end, and bent-gates on the bottom, rope-clip end.

You'll notice that carabiner gates also come in solid-bar and wire designs. Wire gates are inherently easier to clip, open wider, and weigh less than bar gates. On the safety side, a wire-gate doesn't give up any strength, and, since the wire has less mass than a bar, it is less likely to whiplash open, a phenomenon that can occur when a carabiner vibrates or smacks against the rock in a fall. In short, wire-gates are better mousetraps -- not perfect, but better. The virtue that makes wire-gates easier to clip, also makes them easier to unclip. Wire-gates aren't as ideal for carabiner-brake rappelling, either, where the cross-load torque can tweak the wires. Most climbers use a mix of bar- and wire-gate carabiners.


In situations where a carabiner absolutely must stay clipped, such as connecting a belay/rappel device to your harness and the power-point to an anchor, always use a locking carabiner. There are two types: auto-lock and screw-gate. Auto-lock carabiners have a spring-activated gate that locks itself whenever the gate snaps closed, a handy feature for the absent-minded among us. Self-locking carabiners, while convenient, can jam up with grit and fail to lock. Keep them clean. Screw-gate carabiners require that you manually screw a locking collar over the gate to lock it. The main advantage of this carabiner is that once you screw down the gate, you know for certain it is locked. The disadvantage is you can forget to lock it, or it can lock up so tightly you can't get it undone.  


Belay and Rappel Devices

Just a sample of the myriad of belay/rappel devices. The Grigri, perhaps the most popular for sport climbing, two variations on the "tube," and a Belay Slave.

Climb with a rope and you must have a belay/rappel device, a metal clamp that bites down on the rope, allowing you to easily hold a fellow climber who has fallen, or descend a rope by rappelling. Rappel/belay devices are as plentiful in shape and design as fishing lures. On the whole, though, there are two basic designs, the tube and auto. The tube is the most economical (generally $20 or less) and versatile, letting you belay and rappel on single and double ropes, an advantage for multi-pitch routes with rappel descents.

Auto, or self-locking devices, such as the Petzl Grigri, let you hold a fallen climber without straining your hands, a point that makes them popular among sport climbers, who might belay dozens of falls for hours at a time on a single route. Its weight, expense (over $50), bulk, and the fact that it doesn't work with double rappel ropes are its drawbacks.

Regardless of the design you prefer, make sure your belay/rappel device is built to work with the diameter of your rope. Not all devices work with all rope diameters.


You anchor the rope to the cliff by clipping it to protection, or pro. When you sport climb, you'll exclusively clip bolts that have been fixed in holes drilled into the rock. Properly installed, a bolt can hold two to five tons. Most sport-climbing bolts are set close together -- five to eight feet apart is typical -- minimizing the distance you can fall. You'll also find some bolts on traditional routes, protecting blank sections where cams and nuts are impossible to place. As a new climber, you needn't bother with the mechanics of how to place a bolt, a chore best left to experienced leaders.

Expanded range cam, four-cam unit, nuts, micro cam and TCU.

Nuts and Cams

The hex, bolt and piton.

On sport climbs you may exclusively clip bolts for protection, but on traditional climbs at cliffs where bolts aren't used, or are used infrequently, you'll need a rack of protection -- nuts and cams -- to fix in the cracks, protecting yourself as you climb.

Nuts are wedge-shaped bits of metal that you jam in constrictions in a crack. You'll find nuts in two basic shapes: the wedge, generically referred to as Stoppers, and the hex. Wedges are the most common, and can be straight-sided or curved, but the curved ones are the most stable and are recommended. Exceptions are the micro wedges, sometimes made of brass or bronze, which only come with straight sides. A well-rounded rack will have two full sets (usually 10 or so to a set) of curved wedges, and one set of micros.

Hexes are the odd-looking six-sided nuts. These work two ways. You can jam them in a constriction, the same as a wedge, or cam them into nearly parallel-sided cracks. Sounds great, but, because wedges and cams do about everything a hex can, and usually better, hexes have fallen from favor. Not that they are complete antiques -- the larger hexes fit into cracks that are too big for nuts, and they slot into holes too oddly shaped to fit a cam. Plus, you can buy five hexes for the price of one cam.

Large nuts, such as the hexes, are usually easy enough to remove, but the smaller ones can stick fast, especially after they've held a fall. To free these stubborn nuts, jab them loose with a nut tool. (There are a dozen or so different tools available, and they're all about the same.)

Cams have spring-loaded lobes that expand and press against the sides of the crack, locking them in place. The more weight you put on a cam, the more it resists pulling out. To remove a cam, you simply pull a trigger. Because cams are so easy to place, secure in parallel cracks where wedges and hexes aren't, and are easy to remove, they are the nucleus of the rack.

The popularity and big-money sales of cams has bred a host of designs, nearly all of them good. Look on any shop wall and you'll find units with four cams, three cams, one axle, two axles, rigid stems and flexible stems, and in sizes from just smaller than your pinky finger to as large as your head.

What to get? Units that fit cracks 1 to 3 inches wide are generally the most useful, though if the crag you frequent has a surplus of finger or fist cracks, you may need smaller or larger units. Check with a local climber or shop to see what is appropriate protection for your area.

Ergonomics are another consideration. Beefy fingers may have trouble with certain trigger configurations. Handle the gear before you buy. Does it fit your hand and operate smoothly? You'll be laying out a good chunk of cash for a rack of cams. Don't buy the budget cams just to save bucks. Get the brand that suits you.

Once you pick a brand, stay with it, at least for now. If you mix up the brands, the different color codings and range of sizes will be confusing -- hardly desirable when you're slipping from a hand jam and need to know at a glance which unit will fit that two-inch placement.

Rigid-stem cams are more durable than cable stems, but cable stems sneak into spots too tiny for the thicker rigid stems. Most climbers prefer cable stems for this very reason.

The four-cam configuration is usually the strongest and most useful; get these to start your rack. Three-cam units (TCUs) however, slot into cracks too shallow for four cams, and come in a couple of sizes smaller than four-cam units. Fortunately, such shallow and thin cracks are rare on free climbs, especially at the level you'll be starting on.

Last, a new generation of expanded-range cams has hit the shelves. These units, through the magic of engineering, can cover the range of several regular cams. The increased range minimizes the number of cam sizes and provides other benefits: You are less likely to grab the wrong-size cam and less likely to run out of one particular size. At this writing, expanded-range cams are only available in a few sizes, but you can expect to see more in the future.


Crash Pad

The high-ball crashpad.

Bouldering is climbing's most unencumbered discipline -- all that's required are shoes, a daub of chalk and a brush for sweeping grime and chalk off the grips. You would also think that yanking around on boulders that rarely reach higher than 15 feet would be a much safer activity than roped climbing, where cliffs can soar a half-mile high. Think again. In bouldering, every fall is a ground fall. If the ground is uneven or hard packed or tangled with tree roots, it's easy to twist or break an ankle or wrist or worse. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most climbers, if they are going to be injured, are injured bouldering. Even when the landing is good and flat, the accumulative effects of repeatedly pounding the ground can tweak you from your neck to your toes.

To soften bouldering's harsh and even not-so-harsh landings, a crash pad, essentially a foam-pad covered with a tough nylon shell, is a necessity.

There are dozens of crash pads that vary in size and thickness. A larger pad covers more real estate, making it an easier target to hit; a thicker pad offers greater cushioning. Yet, the biggest pads -- often called highball pads -- can take up an entire car trunk and are difficult to weave through dense trees and talus. They also cost more. For these reasons, most boulderers own a medium-size pad, usually around three by four feet, and three-inches thick. A pad of this sort generally costs under $150, and, like all pads, folds in half and has a compliment of shoulder straps for toting the pad to and fro. The better pads also have a secure closure system of buckles and flaps that snug up the folded pad into a pack of sorts that lets you pack shoes, a chalkbag, brushes, food and other sundries. Other features to consider include an absorbent top surface for scuffing dirty shoes on, and metal buckles or Velcro, which won't break like plastic buckles.

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