Created | Updated Sep 10, 2009
WARNING: Climbing is obviously quite a dangerous activity. This Entry is intended to be a description of the various pieces of equipment used in climbing, and does not intend to describe a foolproof way of doing so safely. Contact the United Kingdom National Mountain Centre for details of courses that will teach you to use this equipment in an appropriate way.
Ever seen a climber out on a crag, with rope tailing between his legs, and wondered 'What happens if he falls?' Or have you ever been taken climbing by an instructor and thought about just how safe you might be? Exactly what is all that jangly stuff hanging from the climber's belt as he disturbs your picnic while wandering around the Tor? This Entry will help you understand. It is primarily aimed at climbers who are 'passive', in that their climbs are always set up for them, and want to be more actively involved or even progress to leading climbs.
Types of Climbing
Essentially, there are two types of climbing: 'top-roping' and 'free' climbing.
The majority of people who have climbed casually1 will have climbed on a top (or bottom) rope. The distinction between top and bottom roping is irrelevant here; quite simply, a rope connects you to anchor points at the top and a belayer ensures that if you do fall, it won't be for more than a foot or two.
Free climbing is more technical. There is true 'free' climbing, where the climber uses no rope and is in serious trouble if they fall; 'lead' climbing, where the climber secures the rope on equipment2 they have placed themselves; and 'sport' climbing, where the equipment is already placed and the climber simply clips the rope into it via a 'runner'. There is also a type of free climbing called 'bouldering', where climbers attempt short, difficult routes without a rope. Beyond a safety mat (to position under the climber to break his/her fall), climbing shoes and chalk bag, there is no equipment required for this.
Regardless of weather, ensure you have waterproofs, spare warm clothing, carbohydrate-based or sugary food3 for instant energy and make sure at least one of you has a first aid kit, however basic – and knows how to use it. Depending on where you are, a mobile phone may help in case of an accident, but also make sure you know where the nearest payphone is and that someone at home knows exactly where you are climbing. The more remote you are, the more important this is. In emergencies in remote areas, call 9994 and ask for the police, as often mountain rescue teams are not allowed to respond unless requested to by the police. Have any information to hand: OS grid references for climbing venues are often given in climbing guidebooks.
There is a certain amount of basic equipment that all climbers should have, regardless of discipline5. If you borrow a harness from a friend, can you be sure how many times it has had to take a fall or been left out in the rain? Some pieces of equipment are too important, and you should try to buy your own gear wherever possible. Buying used gear is a no-no.
The harness is the awkward, uncomfortable and occasionally sweaty thing you wear around your waist and legs. Not only does it hold your falls and give you a nice belay loop to keep your friends safe, it has loops around the sides. These are called 'gear loops'. If buying a harness, you can sometimes have a swing on a rope set up in the shop. Try simulating a fall, however ridiculous you may feel, and try to gauge how comfortable it will be. You may be wearing your harness for several hours at a stretch, so don’t buy it if you feel uncomfortable after a few minutes' wear.
If you are planning to lead climb, the gear loops will become very important to you. How you arrange your gear will make placements a breeze or give you recurring nightmares. This will be covered in more detail later.
However you climb, you fall just as hard. Regardless of what you see on the crag, a helmet is essential. If buying gear, don't think you can scrimp on a helmet; climbing without puts you and your partner in serious risk of injury. Ensure it has the kitemark for safety, and never buy second-hand, as you do not know the history of what you're getting (see below).
A bag of chalk clips nicely onto the back of your harness, and comes in many funky and fashionable colours. A dip of your hand into the bag not only dries your fingers and improves friction, but also helps you focus and concentrate at crucial or stressful moments. However, chalk often leaves unsightly marks on the rock and is therefore not recommended unless absolutely necessary6.
Most new climbers attempt their first routes in trainers. At some point, a friendly climber with the same size feet will lend the novice a pair of climbing shoes to enable the attempt of a more difficult climb, and it is guaranteed that the novice will be the first person into the climbing shop the next day.
When buying your first pair of climbing shoes, don't worry about whether they are 'edging' or 'smearing' shoes. This choice is something you learn as your technique develops, and in any case there is little to differentiate at the lower levels of the price range. Similarly, many will tell you to buy shoes a size smaller than usual to cramp your toes, but for novices this just makes climbing a painful, unpleasant experience. At lower grades, it is better to be comfortable and just buy your usual size.
Essentially, anything cheap will do the job, at least until you get really serious. Get shoes that feel comfortable both with and without socks, and don't feel tempted to spend too much money – when your climbing improves, you will find you want a pair to suit your technique anyway.
Two types of rope are commonly used: static and dynamic. You will undoubtedly actually climb on a dynamic rope as it is slightly elastic; this means that if you fall you will put less stress on the system7. However, static ropes are also used to set up belays and top-rope climbs, as they are inflexible and therefore give a better sensation of security.
There will probably be a bewildering array of climbing guidebooks for your chosen area, ranging from basic, photographed guides to the comprehensive yet frankly unusual (quoting from the 'South Devon and Dartmoor Guide' of 1995, by Nick White, 'The Hallsands Hotel [is] a pan-galactic gargle-blasting venue, the indigenous population being mostly harmless'.) Due to the sport being a minority interest, guidebooks go out of date years before they are re-researched, and many coastal routes have simply fallen away since the last guidebook was written. Most climbers agree this simply adds to the fun.
The Internet is a growing source of information about climbs, particularly for boulderers. Up-to-date information regarding access (for example at the British Mountaineering Council website) and the quality of climbs is rapidly becoming available, and this source is not to be discredited.
Protection is equipment you wedge into the rock or around the rock or against the rock to stop you from falling. Lead climbers will carry a selection of all of these, and climbers setting up top ropes will have a good array too. Sport climbers may use gear as described to 'back up' placements in situ8 that appear insecure, and true free climbers follow whatever mad urge takes them at the time. Where there are two names in the header, they are both names for the same piece of gear unless described as otherwise in the following text; the most common term is used first and has prominence in the text.
The key to using protection is to see the placement, then find the piece of gear to fit it. To the non-climber, this sounds obvious, but it is worth remembering when you're 50 feet up a face, panicking. At first, this takes an incredibly long time, during which you will probably feel very insecure while you fiddle around trying to locate the right one. The only solution is the old favourite, 'don't panic': you may feel like giving up the whole idea at times unless you have nerves of steel. This is entirely normal, persevere.
The most basic safety device. Carabiners have a variety of uses, and basically consist of an oval shape with a spring loaded section (the 'gate') that closes the oval when not under pressure (eg, from a climber opening it). They are used whenever maximum security is needed and any time a link is needed between protection and the rope (wires extending from nuts are sharp and would cut rope in seconds; friction generated in a fall would melt a sling, etc). There are various designs for different purposes:
Snapgates: Of limited use unless lead climbing, when they are crucial to clip the rope to protection swiftly and easily. Unsafe for top-roping as they can be pressed open against a hard surface.
Screwgates: Used whenever a long-term placement of more than an hour is necessary, or for extra security. The gate can be screwed shut, often quadrupling breaking strain9. They are used in all climbing situations.
HMS/Pear-shaped: Always screwgates, these carabiners have a wide curve on one side to facilitate easy belaying, particularly for lead climbers who may need to tie more than one rope on.
A belay device is that piece of gear that the rope goes through to secure the climber. If they fall, the belay device is designed to help you hold them. They are broadly categorised as 'slick' and 'grabbing', and the distinction is important. Slick devices (like 'Bugs' and 'ATCs10') look good and have sexy names, but they require good technique and are not suitable for novice belayers or for holding heavy climbers11. Grabbing devices (such as a 'Sticht Plate') are better for initial use. A grabbing device, quite simply, makes up for inexperience and is recommended for use in the early stages. When you get to know your partner's habits, have established a good communication system and trust each other fully, move on to a slicker device.
Avoid anything vaguely technical like a 'GriGri', as mistakes could be fatal. Having said this, many sports climbers prefer to use auto-locking devices like this as it is easier to hold repeated falls. Whatever device you use is key to your survival, and your partner's. Ensure you know how to use it and how to hold a fall, and practice on flat ground if unsure. This cannot be stressed enough.
Rocks and Nuts
Nuts were invented, according to legend, by climbing pioneer Joe Brown, who carried hollowed-out wheel nuts from lorries to wedge into cracks. This provoked a revolution in climbing gear in the 1950s, and suddenly made very hard climbs accessible. They are now designed in a kind of wavy V-shape to fit into tapering cracks, and go in size from tiny, 1.5mm12 wide 'micronuts' through to 2.5cm+13 whoppers. They are the most widely used of all gear.
Similar to rocks, hexes are larger, hollow pieces of gear in a hexagonal shape. They are designed to fit into large cracks, and are made as irregular hexagons to fit into an odd variety of gaps. They are lightweight for their size, and should be used with care simply because their size suggests more security than a smaller nut would invite. Hexes have a habit of getting stuck where you don't want them to be, and inspiring massive panic while you try to get them out. Don't ever be tempted to say to yourself 'oh, it's solid enough' and move on. Hexes can be awkward, but if you take the time to get them where you want them, they are capable of holding severe falls.
Cams and Friends
Cams are incredible, spring-loaded, complicated contraptions that feel far less secure than they are. You feel you can trust a big, solid number 11 hex, but a bendy, plastic cam? Rest assured, they are incredibly strong if placed correctly, but can 'walk' out of cracks so get someone who knows better to teach you how to place them. Cams can fit into any crack of any shape or design, and are lifesavers (literally) if there is nowhere to place a rock or hex, or if the situation is too fraught to think about an alternative. They are unsuitable for top-roping, however, as over time they can become insecure.
Apart from being a term used by tourists to refer to climbers, a nutter is simply an oddly-shaped piece of gear that is used to remove other pieces of gear from the rock. It is normally made of thin, lightweight metal with a hook in the end so that, in theory, protection can be retrieved easily. Theories are rarely tested by people who are 50 feet14 up the rock face with sweaty palms and shaky legs, but then, no one's forcing you to climb.
Slings are very strong lengths of synthetic material made in an O-shape. They can be used for security by being wrapped around objects or as 'threads', for example around a chockstone that is wedged into a crack. Their positioning is key, as they can easily be lifted off a spike of rock by a poor belayer.
Try to buy slings in multiples of four feet, or 120cm. Slings are available in six- or 18-feet lengths, which are fine for setting up top-ropes but completely impractical to carry if lead climbing (they just don't fit around your body). Any salesman who tries to sell you a six-foot sling should really be abused physically and mentally, but asking how they recommend you carry it if you lead a climb will result in a far more satisfying loss of words.
Slings can also be used to extend runners, particularly on lower-grade leads. Carry a selection of four-foot and eight-foot slings, and a sixteen-footer just in case.
Lead and sports climbers use runners to connect the rope to the protection. A wire from a rock would cut the rope instantly, and a sling would melt through friction if connected to the rope directly in the event of a fall. A runner consists of two snapgate carabiners connected by a short sling, one of which connects to the protection and one to the rope. They come in various lengths, to reduce rope drag caused by a climber zigzagging up a climb, and can easily be extended by removing one carabiner and clipping a longer sling between the two.
Racking is, simply, how you carry your gear. Using snapgate carabiners, your gear will usually be attached to your harness's gear loops in the following way15:
Rocks attached to the front right gear loop, for easy access.
Lesser-used gear like hexes and micronuts on the front left side — this side is more likely to be pressed against the rock while you fiddle around with your stronger hand.
Belay device and HMS carabiners, used for setting up at the top, on the second belay loop on the right.
Runners clipped and ready to go on the second gear loop on the left.
- Slings folded to four-foot lengths and placed on the right shoulder, running under the left arm, held in place by a screwgate carabiner. Thus they are easily accessed and as ready to go as possible.
Cams/friends on the third gear loop, either side depending on what feels most natural.
Chalk bag and nutter on the gear loop nearest the spine, for easy access with both hands.
It's good practice to carry gear around the crag exactly as you would if you were climbing, as you begin to learn where it is when you need it. Your rocks being on the right will soon become habit, and you will be grateful you know where to find them at stressful times. Learn how to make a mountaineer’s coil from your rope as well, to tie to your back, as this will ensure your hands are always free during set-ups.
Occasionally, you may find used or second-hand gear being offered by other climbers. Often there is little risk: for example, climbing shoes or a chalk bag will carry little danger. However, it is worth checking out more technical gear. Never buy a rope unless you can be sure of its history; dynamic ropes in particular lose elasticity after a few heavy falls and can have invisible weaknesses. Reputable sellers will be able to provide a kind of 'service history' of usage. Rocks, slings, belay devices and hexes are often safe, but always consider why the seller is parting with the gear. Over-use is a weakness. Carabiners, runners and cams especially should be bought new and looked after well. Helmets should be disposed of after one impact, so unless you see every climb it is used on, don't buy it.
Do not compromise your own safety and your partner's by buying second-hand gear. It is there to protect you, and you should, if possible, have been present every time it has needed to take an impact so you are aware of any possible defects.
Find out more about rock climbing at Rock Climbing.
If you don't like the idea of putting gear in the rock but want more of a challenge than top-roping, why not try Sport Climbing?
Get to know the difference between an overlap and an overhang at Climbing Terminology.