You are hereHardware for the Beginning Rock Climber

Hardware for the Beginning Rock Climber


By Rick and Dee Booth December, 2001 

First, rock climbing is dangerous.  You can die climbing.  The choice of
gear you use is entirely up to you.  Selecting, placing and using this
gear is your responsibility.  If you are not happy learning on your own
how to use rock climbing gear or any gear discussed in this article then
get instruction.  Got it?  Ok.

There are many levels at which an individual may participate in rock
climbing.  Most people who develop more than just a casual interest
purchase a harness, shoes, and a chalk bag so that they can climb either
indoors in a climbing gym or join their friends outdoors.  It is possible
to stay at this level and have a good deal of fun, however, if the desire
to "strike out on your own" hits, then you will need to consider buying
your own gear.  The new leader will need to purchase a rope, a selection
of passive protection such as stoppers, a selection of active protection
such as cams of some sort, slings, carabiners, a rack or sling device to
carry all the gear, a belay device, and a cleaning tool for prying out
stuck stoppers or cams.  These days this is an expensive proposition so it
has become problematic for the beginner to make a reasonable choice.  The
choice of gear is complicated by the type of climbing to be encountered
but the following discussion is for general climbing on rock in an area
that has both face climbing and crack climbing.  There are certain
climbing areas that don't fit the typical pattern, such as Indian Creek,
where the requirement is for about fifteen cams of every size.  There are
only about two easy routes at Indian Creek and they are 5.9 so this is not
considered to be a beginners area.  This discussion is aimed at the
beginning leader who can follow 5.8 to 5.9 and is willing to start leading
at the 5.5 to 5.6 level.

The gear required is a rope which comes in a variety of lengths and
diameters, passive protections such as stoppers and hexes, active
protection such as camming devices such as Camalots, Friends, or Aliens, a
selection of slings of different types, carabiners, some sort of belay
device such as a sticht plate, a cleaning tool, and a rack or sling to
hang the gear.  There are a lot of variations in all these requirements
and that is what makes the choices hard but in general you can't go wrong. 
Just about everything available these days is of high quality and works
pretty well.

First, lets start with ropes.  A rope will be required under any
circumstances since it will be needed even if the only interest is top
roping.  Ropes are used in three types of systems, the single rope system,
the double rope system, and the twin rope systems.  In the US the two
popular systems are the single rope system and the double rope system.  In
the single rope system a single 10.2 mm to 11 mm rope is used for the
leader.  The rope length can vary from 45 meters to 60 meters as standard
lengths and some ropes may be available that are even longer.  The double
rope systems are the same length and are made from two 8 mm to 9 mm ropes. 
The twin rope system is similar to the double rope system but the
application is different.  In the twin rope system both ropes are treated
like a single rope, that is, they are both clipped through the same
carabiner.  This is not necessary with the double rope system.  The issues
here are related to the application.  The single rope system is the
easiest to use.  It is lighter so the leader is dragging less rope up the
cliff, it is easier to clip it into the protection, and it is easier for
the belayer to work with.  All of these are important in an environment
where time is critical such as a back country alpine route.  The single
rope system is about perfect except for three things.  The first is
rappelling off a route in a storm is a lot faster and easier with two
ropes and in fact some routes cannot be rappelled with only one rope at
all.  The second is the force applied to a piece of protection is higher
with the larger single ropes than one rope from the double rope system. 
The third problem is certain weird routes that wander are a lot easier to
protect with less rope drag with a double rope system than a single rope
system.  In any case, most crag climbing and a lot of alpine routes may be
climbed with a single rope.  The double rope system will be more difficult
for the belayer to feed out and harder to stack the ropes so they don't
get knotted together.  The double rope system is heavier than the single
rope system and is somewhat harder to lead with, however, this system is
valuable on alpine climbs when the possibility of retreat is likely.  This
system is preferred for ice climbing since it loads ice screws the least
in the event of a fall.

In all cases the de facto length of rope systems these days is 60 meters. 
The diameter is a matter of choice.  With ropes getting longer
manufacturers have gone to skinnier ropes in an effort to reduce the
weight.  The down side is the smaller diameter ropes will handle fewer
extreme falls and will cut more easily on edges.  The last choice here is
whether the rope should be "dry", that is, waterproof, or not.  The dry
ropes are nicer to work with in the rain but most waterproofing does not
seem to last long.  A waterproof rope is worth the extra cost if it can be
maintained.  A waterlogged non-dry rope is something to behold.  A final
comment on the twin rope system.  It does not seem to be popular in the US
and I know of no one who uses it.

For the individual just beginning in rock climbing the single 60 meter
rope is the one to choose for getting started.  Depending on the interest
other ropes and rope systems can be added later.  There are many rope
manufacturers.  These include Blue Water, Maxim, Sterling, PMI, Edelrid,
Rivory Joanny, Beal, Mammut, and Eidelweiss.  Black Diamond ropes seem to
be supplied by other rope manufacturers.  A survey of the ropes used by
the subscribers to gear@climber.org was conducted in mid 2000.  These
results were compiled and may be found at
http://lomaprieta.sierraclub.org/pcs/articles/ropes.asp.

The next types of gear that needs to be considered are slings.  Slings are
more complicated than one might suspect.  Slings include the standard
loops of webbing but also include "quick draws" and cordalettes.  First,
slings are used to extend the connection between the piece of protection
and the rope.  There are two reasons for doing this.  If the rope starts
to make sharp bends as it follows the leader up the cliff the rope drag
tends to increase dramatically.  This can be managed by extending the
connection between the protection and the rope in an effort to make the
rope run in a more straight line.  This lesson will have a profound effect
on the new leader when it is encountered the first time.  Second, even if
the rope is running straight it is important to have enough spacing
between the protection and the rope so that the protection does not pull
out or change position as the leader climbs past it.  It is quite
disconcerting to see a stopper pop out and slide down the rope when the
leader climbs past it.

In general, about half a dozen short slings are handy and about three or
four long slings are handy.  The short length should be about 2 to 3 feet
and the long ones about twice as long.  The length of the short ones
depends on how you want to carry them.  Many people carry the free slings
around the neck and over one shoulder so the sling should comfortably fit
so that it is easy to remove.  This can be adjusted incrementally with
hand tied slings but be sure to try on commercial sewn slings before
buying them.  The longer slings should be about twice for the double
length slings and about three times as long for a triple.  It is handy to
have at least one triple length sling even though this length may be
obtained by using a few shorter ones.  The other carrying option is to
carry them on your harness or a separate rack from the gear.  In this case
they are carried with two carabiners and racked so they are doubled over
several times depending on the length.  There are several tricks for doing
this and an experienced friend can show you how this works.

The second piece of gear in the sling family is the "quick draw".  These
used to be just very short slings ranging from 4 inches to about a foot
but are now usually sewn flat and configured so that the lower carabiner
is held tightly so it won't flip upside down.  "Quick draws" are used to
clip bolts which are permanent anchors in the rock and are usually
encountered on face climbs.  Most "clip and go" routes (face climbs with
just bolts for pro) are about half a rope length so about six quick draws
are handy.  For routes with more bolts use the slings and rack them so
they are folded over.  In total, you should have about a dozen combined
"quick draws" and slings equipped with two carabiners.  The choice of
sling manufacturer is up to you.  The sewn slings are very strong and some
of them have a Kevlar weave.  I usually have a bunch of hand tied slings
made from the narrow but thick tubular sling material.  This is so I can
untie them and use them for rappelling.  Be careful buying this material. 
It sometimes is called "super tape" and it gets confused with the narrow
but thin stuff and most store clerks don't know the difference and
sometimes load up the wrong thickness.  The material to choose is about
1/2 to 9/16 inches wide and has a breaking strength that is very close to
1 inch tubular sling material.  If it doesn't feel fat or thick it is the
wrong stuff.  If in doubt, stick with the sewn commercial slings.

The last sling item of use is something called a cordalette.  This is used
to quickly set up a belay anchor and consists of about 17 feet of 6 or 7
mm perlon tied in a huge loop.  Each climber should carry one so only one
is necessary for each individual to own one.  Finally, if you decide to
make your own slings using tubular webbing then they will have to be tied
with a knot.  The standard knot is the water knot but if you allow for
extra material the slings can be tied with a double fisherman's knot.  The
double fisherman's knot tends to stay tied and not work loose like a water
knot.  If you choose the water knot be sure to check your slings each time
out!

To go with the slings, stoppers, and cams, you will need a selection of
carabiners.  These days the quick draws seem to be sold with the
carabiners but you will need at least one and usually two for each
additional sling.  The two will be need if you decide to use the slings in
a "quick draw" application.  In addition, all the stoppers and cams won't
come with carabiners so you will need a selection to rack your gear.  If
you look at the carabiners sold with a quick draw they look different. 
One usually has a bent gate.  This is the one the rope gets clipped to and
is designed that way because it is easier to drop the rope into the
carabiner when desperately hanging on.  The other carabiner has a straight
gate.  In general, you can equip the remaining slings with carabiners of
this style but the bent gate carabiner won't be quite as useful in this
environment.  That is because the slings are usually longer than a quick
draw and are usually used to extend a piece of protection out to a
"substantial" distance.  The straight gate carabiners are more useful. 
That is because there is more area inside the carabiner for all the
"stuff" that somehow ends up in there.  With this in mind it is handy to
have a few of the older style carabiners that are larger.  The "D" style
is stronger but even the standard ovals are very handy.

One comment about the design of carabiners.  Petzl, a French company,
makes a line of carabiners without the notch in the main body of the
carabiner that the pin in the gate sits in.  They have a knob on the main
part of the carabiner and this fits into a cut out on the gate. 
Expensive, but worth it.  The reason is the notch on a standard carabiner
design catches on anything it can and it makes for slower operation and
slower use of the carabiner.  Lastly you will need at least two bomber
locking carabiners.  One is for the belay or rappel device and the other
is to clip into the belay anchor.  After you get used to it you will end
up with more than just two.  In the case of locking carabiners, bigger is
better.  Usually a bunch of ropes, slings, harness and what have you gets
put in there simultaneously and it is whole lot easier to work with a big
locker.

Next up is passive protection.  This consists of stoppers and hexes,
although there are other options that are used in certain rare
applications.  The nice thing about stoppers and hexes is a well set piece
is very, very, strong.  I once watched a friend of mine pitch off of
"Outer Limits" in Yosemite Valley and he pulled out every piece except a
giant stopper stuck behind a flake.  Scary.  In general you will need two
complete sets that get as big as about .5 to .6 inches.  The biggest
stopper size should just overlap the smallest cam size you choose to start
with.  Fortunately, stoppers are fairly inexpensive and a complete set
will run about $45 to $80 depending on which manufacturer you choose. 
Stoppers come in straight tapered and curved variations.  The curved
versions tend to be much more solid in most applications.  This means they
will lock in small tapered sections of a crack more solidly.  It is
difficult to find straight tapered stoppers in spite of the fact this was
the original design.  The curved stoppers tend to be harder to remove
since they lock in more efficiently, however, don't let the difficulty of
removal be a consideration.  It is important that a stopper be set well in
order for it to stay stuck in the crack and they are the cheapest piece on
your rack so if it is necessary to abandon one it is not too painful.  If
you choose to get a complete set you will end up with some big ones and
they will be useful in alpine applications or in rappelling in an
emergency so they are not wasted.  There are also tapered stoppers that
are asymmetric.  These have application in a lot of granite cracks,
especially in piton scars, and there are those who swear by them.  Some of
the manufacturers are DMM, which makes Wallnuts and Peenuts, Black
Diamond, Wild Country, HB, and ABC.  There are others.  The Peenuts have a
peculiar taper on the bottom and are useful in piton scars and HB makes
the asymmetric stoppers that work well in a wide range of granite cracks. 
Most people will run into Hexes somewhere along the line.  Prior to
camming devices these filled the wide end of the protection spectrum. 
They are fairly hard to work with and are not recommended for the
beginner.

The last big item of protection and easily the most expensive are the
camming devices.  These have become the de facto standard for most
climbing and there is always some manufacturer trying to make a very
narrow camming device in order to move further down the crack sizes into
the area usually protected with stoppers.  These devices are expensive and
will run about $35 to over $100 for some truly huge stuff.  The average is
about $50.  These prices are per device!  Since the camming pro will be
the most expensive item on the rack and the choice of manufactures is
large most people agonize over the choices.  The most important criteria
for choosing cams is how easy they are for you to place them.  The
emphasis is on "you".

The first part of the problem is to choose the correct piece to fit the
crack.  This takes experience and surprisingly this ability to eyeball the
crack and get the correct piece on the first shot is hard to do and is
lost quickly without regular leading.  There are certain keys to finding
the right piece.  It is very handy to have things color coded.  Next, it
must fit your hand conveniently and it must be easy to "pull the trigger"
and contract the cams.  This is a function of your hand size and strength. 
Next, it must have the widest range of use in terms of crack size and
depth.  This means the camming device must have decent range and it must
be long enough to place into cracks that are flaring on the outside and
the device needs to be placed deeper in the crack.  How do you choose the
right devices?  If you can, lead an easy route with a friends rack and try
out his or her choices.  Go to the local climbing store and try all the
devices and pull the trigger on them.  Remember, these devices must be
easy to locate and place.  The breaking strength?  All of them are strong
and the breaking strengths are about the same.  The price?  The price will
vary depending on how astute a buyer you are but the prices are about the
same also.  With all this said most climbers seem to use Aliens for the
smaller sizes and Camalots for the larger sizes.  The best sizes to have
of the Aliens are the Green, Yellow, and Red.  This will overlap somewhat
with the .5to .6 inch size stoppers but the overlap is worth it.  It is
very often a lot easier to slam an Alien than it is to wiggle a stopper
into some weirdo crack.  The two sizes smaller are handy also.  These are
the Blue and Black.  My personal choice is to use duplicates of the Green,
Yellow and Red and one of the Blue.  I then switch to the .5 Camalot and
go larger.  The .5 Camalot and the Red Alien overlap somewhat.  I have
duplicates of the Camalots up to #3 and one of the #4.  You can do a
decent amount of climbing without the duplication but in the long run it
is convenient to double up on everything.  It is a matter of how far you
want to "run it out" and beginners aren't too keen on this.  When it comes
to how to double the cams, I usually go with a cam that covers about the
same size but is made by a different manufacturer.  This leads to a
hodge-podge type rack but the slight variation in manufacturers designs
mean the range of cracks covered is a little wider.  I duplicate the
Aliens, though.  It turns out they have about the longest stem and are the
easiest to place in the back of flaring cracks.  They also fit my hand
well since I have small hands.  Stay away form the older Camalot Juniors. 
The sling is sewn flat making it very difficult to add a sling without
clipping into the carabiner, which is a weaker connection.  These older
Camalots have two parallel wires.  The newer small size Camalots are
single stemmed and work a lot better.  There are other manufactures of
camming deices.  These include Wild Country (friends), HB, DMM, and
Metolius.  The Camalots tend to be heavier than the other styles.

The new climber will need a gear sling to hang all this shiny new stuff
on, a belay device, and a cleaning tool.  There are several choices for
gear slings and Metolius makes a version with multiple little loops on it,
which is supposed to help organize the pile of gear.  I am not sure how
successful this is.  The belay devices are either the endless variations
on the sticht plate or the figure eight.  The sticht plate variations are
the two hole devices and the popular one is Black Diamond's ATC (for air
traffic controller).  I don't particularly like these things but HB makes
a good one with an aluminum keeper wire, solid aluminum rod in this case,
that does not get stuck in the ropes when rappelling.  This is about the
only one of this type I would consider.  There are the old sticht plates
themselves around.  The one with the spring should be thrown as far away
from you as you can.  The figure eight is an interesting device and was
designed to be "fool proof".  I don't know if this is true but the figure
eights tend to turn your ropes into telephone cords and I have avoided
them once this became clear.

Lastly, there are the GriGri's and other esoteric belay devices.  These
are great for belaying your buddies while they are floundering on the 5.13
top rope problems but are slow to operate and heavy and are not
recommended for general application.  To round out your rack you will need
a cleaning tool.  This is a short piece of steel used to pry the reluctant
stopper or nut from the crack it was wedged into.  There are a lot of
choices here and some even come with an end that allows pulling the
trigger on a Friend if it has walked into the crack out of reach.  I have
no preference and have used a Leeper thing for years.  People tend to drop
these things and you can sometimes score a tool at the bottom of popular
crack climbs.

Finally, here are a few notes on maintenance of all this expensive
equipment.  Be sure to watch your rope.  Minor abrasion of the sheath is
ok since that is what the sheath is for.  If it separates or the core can
be seen through the sheath then the rope has had it.  The number of
serious falls on the rope should be known.  If the rope loads up with fine
dirt and starts to turn your hands black when using it then wash it.  I
don't use any detergent.  The rope can be dried outdoors in the sun. 
Watch the knots on all hand tied slings.  Watch the wear and tear on
slings in general and replace them if they look dinged or it has been a
few years.  It is cheap insurance.  Watch the wires on stoppers.  Severely
bent ones should be examined carefully for breaks in the wire strands. 
Monitor the action of the cams.  They should be easy to operate and will
start to get sluggish when loaded up with grime.  Cams can be cleaned out
with a water based cleaner and then lubricated.  I use something called
"Rusty Duck" which is used by gun owners for lubricating guns.  Maybe
"politically incorrect" but I have yet to find anything that works as
well.  Stay away from oils.  They spread thin and then attract dirt and
grime.  Be very, very, careful lubricating cams.  It is important to keep
the various chemicals away from the slings attached to the cams.

So you have decided to buy a bunch of gear.  Where do you buy this stuff
and is there a way to get a discount?  Well, there seem to be some options
here for those with access to the intrernet.  Try the following:

www.rei-outlet.com

www.sierratradingpost.com.  Everything is discounted.  If you need it this
is a great company.  Outstanding returns policy.  I have bought several
ropes from this place.

www.mgear.com.  Mostly retail but outstanding specials and sales. 
Spokane, Washington based, no CA sales tax.  www.northernmountain.com
Mostly retail but amazing discounts on certain massively expensive items
like tents, sleeeping bags, etc.  CA based and somewhat clunky returns
policy.

The following two overseas websites have mountaineering and climbing gear
at very good prices.  Dee has bought a rope and other friends have used
the barrabes site without any problems.

http://www.telemark-pyrenees.com/

http://www.barrabes.es/barrabes/default.asp

The best place I have found for cams is in Moab, Utah.  Try Pagan
Mountaineering, 88 E.  Center Street, Moab, Utah, 84532.  Call
435-259-1117 and ask for Larry Harpe or Brian Jonas.  This is a climbing
store built by climbers and you should get a good price and no California
sales tax.

Caveat emptor.

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