New to climbing? Sort your cams from your hexes before you venture outside ...
Gear-wise, the indoor wall’s a straightforward place to be. You turn up with your rope, your harness and your rock shoes and Bob’s your uncle. But outdoors, it’s a whole new ball game…
Types of gear
||Quickdraws – These form the link between your rope and your gear. The main choices you have to make are between wiregates or solid gates – more on that later – and length. It’s useful to have a selection of quickdraws with a long-ish tape for routes that twist and turn more often than the fortunes of a football team. That way, your rope can travel up the route as directly as possible, instead of meandering around, and you minimise the rope drag as a result.
||Nuts – These are good for placing in vertical cracks, particularly ones that are kind enough to taper towards the bottom. The larger the number, the larger the nut, and the bigger the fall it will hold, although the real trick lies in the placement.
||Hexes – These do a similar job although they’re a different shape to nuts, so they fit in different nooks and crannies. You’re likely to carry a few larger sizes which can be reassuring - if a good number nine hex placement doesn’t make you feel secure, we’re afraid to say that there’s really no hope for you;-)
||Cams – Don’t you pity Don Whillans for not having access to cams? They work in vertical cracks and, perhaps more importantly, in horizontal cracks where nuts sometimes fear to tread. They’ve made a big difference to climbing in the last few decades; the only trouble is, your wallet and your cams aren’t likely to get along too well, unless you’ve recently bagged a bank director’s pension. Ah well, the re-decorating will just have to wait …
||Slings – Wrap these around any protruding rocks in your path – or even tree stumps – and you’re likely to be as secure as the boulder itself. They come in different lengths – 60cm, 120cm and 240cm are the main ones – although there’s nothing quite like a good old 4m affair for slinging that tempting-looking boulder at the top of the route when you’re setting up the belay.
Gear for seconding
If you fancy climbing trad routes outside, you’re going to be seconding a more experienced climber to begin with, while you get to know all about a nut’s truly fastidious taste in cracks, and why over-camming is a bad thing.
The lead climber should have a complete rack of their own, but a few extra items never go amiss …
If you don’t have a nut key, you’ll wish you did within the first ten minutes. It may cost you a tenner but it will save you far more than that in new gear to replace what you left behind in the cliff.
It’s also helpful to bring a sling or two and a few screwgate karabiners along. That way, you can generally make yourself safe when you need to, and you can clip into the belay without having to borrow any gear.
Gear for sport climbing
If you climb sport routes, even as a leader, then you don’t need a big rack of gear. Bolts are already in place in the cliff at helpful – and sometimes not so helpful – intervals.
If this is your next step on the outdoor climbing ladder then your next purchase will be a set of quickdraws, which you can clip in to the bolts at one end, and thread the rope through at the other. A set of twelve or so should do the job nicely, unless you have a truly mammoth route in mind.
Sport climbing is more popular on the continent than in the UK, although it’s common on the south coast as well, where climbers can gaze longingly across at the bolts – and wine – on the far side of the channel. But if you’re based further north then you may well skip this stage …
Leading trad routes
You still need your quick draws but there’s a whole jingly, jangly, wage-sucking, pocket-emptying, clitter-clattering mass of metalwork hanging on the harnesses of trad climbers that you’ll need as well. The good news is that you can build it up over time. First time trad climbers don’t generally have a size six cam or a set of micro-nuts on their belt (think seagull-killing equipment and a nail-size piece of gear, respectively. And no, we don't really mean it about the seagulls ...) Still, there are quite a few bits and bobs you really will need.
Three or four slings, size one to ten nuts, a few hexes, and - if you can stretch to it - a cam or three, will all come in handy. In fact, you may find that fourth and fifth cam tempting as well, even if your bank account doesn’t.
The trouble is, each of these pieces of gear exists in numerous incarnations, so which factors should you bear in mind when you choose which one to buy?
Climbing gear, like most outdoor gear, has got lighter and lighter in recent years, but as you add metalwork to your rack, the grams still quickly add up – and that’s before you’ve had your fried breakfast.
One ‘recent’ innovation is the wire gate quickdraw, which looks less sturdy than its more solid cousin, but it can also save about 20 or 30 grams per quickdraw. Over a rack of 12, that’s a lot of extra Mars Bars you could carry:-)
There’s sometimes a play-off between weight and safety, for example, wire gate quickdraws can generally take less force on the gate than the traditional version as the flip side of weighing you down less. It’s up to you how you get the balance right.
Holding a fall
Each item of climbing gear will be labelled with its strength in kN (kilonewtons). You can turn mathematical at this point if you like, and do all the calculations, but all you really need to know is that the higher the number, the heavier the fall you can take on your gear without it pulling the plug on you. And when we talk about a ‘heavy’ fall, that doesn’t just depend on the combined weight of yourself and your gear; it also depends how high above the gear you are when you fall – how dynamic the fall is.
In general, your slings and larger pieces of metalwork will hold more kN of force than smaller pieces of gear, but there are differences between models, so it’s always worth checking. Again, there may be a pay-off between strength and weight to take into account as well.
Whatever you buy though, rest assured that it will have been rigorously tested and reached standards set by the UIAA, so long as you’re buying your gear new, and from a recognised retailer.
Ebay may be an attractive place to buy yourself a second hand tent or ‘barely used’ stove, but that’s only because you aren’t going to hang all your weight off the stove, with a vertical drop below you.
The only purpose of a rack is to keep you safe, so make sure it does just that. The last thing you want is to reach the crux of the climb and start worrying whether the last sling you used was in good enough shape to hold your weight.
Established climbing shops have a ‘no returns’ policy on climbing gear, to make sure no one ends up buying a ‘new’ set of cams that have actually had a high impact fall taken on them. Equally, if you’re buying gear from any other source, make sure you know where it’s come from and how much use it’s had.
Sea cliff climbing can rot gear because of the salt water, and even UV eventually makes the likes of slings feel old and frail, so borrowing granddad’s rack isn’t a good idea, nor is holding onto your own if you’ve started looking at the next generation of climbers and thinking ‘it wasn’t like that in my young days’.
If in doubt, don’t buy it!
Take your time
You won’t be replacing your rack as often as you might replace a pair of socks or a jacket, so take your time and take advice from other climbers. Enjoy.