Effective placement of gear comes down three things, knowing your racking system, developing a good eye for placements as well as the appropriate size of relative protection, and using rests where possible to place gear whilst in balance.
The first two are down to hands on experience with your rack and gear placements. You might go through you racking system at home, trying to reach straight for the piece of gear you think of and take it off and replace it in the same position in time each time. Getting to know gear placements is down to time spent at the crag.
You can however practice the hands-off rests we cover in hands off rests section. By being in balance you avoid placing gear mid move in a strenuous position. You may often find that the instant you have placed your runner you find a better position to place it from. Try to be relaxed when placing gear and ask yourself whether if you make another half move you will be in a more balanced position?
When at a rest it is sometimes possible to see a gear placement above. You may be able to judge the size from the rest and select the correct wire and clip it to a quickdraw ready to place, saving time and energy. Some people climb up with the gear ready in their mouths. Be aware that it is quite easy to drop the gear, possibly meaning you don’t have anything to place. Besides, metal plays havoc with you tooth enamel!
Placing Gear Efficiently exercise
Rack up ready to climb and walk along the bottom of a cliff playing ‘guess the placement’. Find a crack and guess the best size of gear. Experiment with other sizes to see if you got the best fit. See section on various gear placements.
You may be able to judge the size of a camming device placement in finger widths; one finger = cam 1, two fingers = cam 2 and so on.Try it and see if it works for you.
Placing gear on lead exercise
When you are leading try to place gear only where you can stand in balance or from a hands-off rest. Place the gear from here and before you leave this position take time to look up and spot the next rest and gear placement. Take the time to look at how you might climb the next section.
This can be described as anticipating the next moves and gear. So ask yourself two questions where you can stand next and where you can place the next gear. Until you can answer these two questions don’t move.
WARNING — Lead climbing is dangerous. Before attempting this exercise it is worth practicing placing gear on your route whilst on top rope, trailing a rope to simulate lead climbing. Make sure that your belayer has the neccesary skill to stop you if you fall!
Hopefully by now you will have developed some energy saving habits, as well as a understanding of how to carry on learning. After all it will be your own discoveries at the crag that will carry you above and beyond. Even a single pitch might require all of the skills outlined so far. The trick is to identify the different styles you will need to use – you need to be able to ‘read’ the route. To be adept at reading a route the skills and movements of climbing will already be subconscious. Your body needs to have used the movements hundreds of times before it starts to lay down subconscious muscle memory.
There are a couple of ways you can help: Think about climbing whenever you can! By thinking of the movement you are excercising some of the same brain functions as when you are actually climbing. By climbing as quickly as possible, quicker than you can think through the moves, you can exercise your subconscious skills.
Developing subconscious route reading exercise
Find a pitch that you should find relatively easy to climb and climb it as quickly as possible, the guide for how quickly should be the point at which you feel that you are making moves before you have had the time to really think about what you are doing. Yummy be using bad technique, so climb the pitch again slowly. Did one feel efficient? Did you find any of your instant decisions helped? Repeat this exercise often on both route you know and don’t know.
The ability to read routes is pointless if you can’t find the crag. Guidebooks are another essential tool; some are pictorial, others are more descriptive, all should help you find the crag, the start of the route and the climbing line.
Read the route description and carefully examine the topos. Try and identify key features and landmarks described in the book, and try and visualise the line of the route on the crag. On multi-pitched route this becomes increasingly difficult as part of the crag may well be obscured from view. At times it may be necessary to check the guidebook on the approach to the cliff as you often get a better overview of the route.
When people first start using guidebooks they often misinterpret the information, a slight groove becomes a corner, a crack becomes a chimney, etc. The trick is to constantly learn from you mistakes, (typically this can be trying to make the description of your chosen route fit the section of cliff you are stood below!).
Before you head out spend some time in the comfort of your own home to do some armchair research. This will probably not only involved a guidebook nowadays but also google and youtube. As you’ll be surprised how many photos and videos there are out there of the really popular routes around the world. This will help you visualise the route, crag and line.
When approaching the crag have the guidebook to hand. If you get a good view of the crag you can identify possible approaches to the bottom of the crag and work out the rough line of one or more of the routes on the crag. Which will all help you to arrive at the bottom of the route that you wish to climb.
At the bottom of the route read the description again and look at the topo. Your route may not be shown, but the lines of the routes to either side might. Visualise the line of the climb. It can be helpful to ask other climbers around what routes they are climbing but they may be just as lost as you!
Find the right start of a route is a great start, as it means the rest should fall into place, sometimes it can seem rather ambiguous.
If you are setting up a top rope you need to identify features at the top of the crag that will help you find the top of the route. Or alternatively place some rucksacks or a climbing partner just out from the base as a reference point to locate the appropriate place to rig your ropes.
When climbing the route let the belayer have the guidebook and keep it open on the right page, and if you get confused get them to direct you, as they often have a better view of the bigger picture.
Once you have finished the route, try re-writing the description in your own words. Does the guidebook use different words to describe the features and different phrases to describe the climbing?
Talk to other climbers, they might be able to tell you where they found the going tough or where they found a crucial gear placement. They may also be able draw comparisons with other routes that you have climbed. Use the internet as someone may have written about there experiences, maybe they got lost and have key piece of information to share.
As you approach the route and can see the whole thing, identify any features or landmarks that may help you to navigate your way to the top. Look for any obvious rests or gear placements. Binoculars may be useful to examine the route from below, or you may get a better view by climbing an easier adjacent route. On a single pitch climb it may be possible to walk round to the top. The more angles you view the climb from the better the three dimensional image of the route you will have.
Identifying the type of terrain and how best to climb is at the heart of reading a route. It comes down to breaking a route down into sections, ideally in between obvious rests. Think about what skills you are likely to need and visualise yourself climbing particular moves. As you do this at the base of the route you are switching your brain to climbing mode.
You need to continue to read the route as you climb; not only to follow the line but also to react to the terrain and climb using appropriate technique.
Reading routes exercise
Look up at a route from the ground and try to identify the skills you may need, where the rests are, where the crux moves are, what kind of belay awaits at the top of the pitch and so on. Now climb the route and see if your expectations were right. Take a photocopy of the topo and mark down your thoughts or write them on a piece of notepaper before you climb, so you can review them afterwards. Were you drastically wrong anywhere? If so where? What made you wrong? How could you improve your eye for judging routes?
Try this on every route you climb, you don’t always have to take notes. The more your route reading develops the closer to the getting things 100% right you will become … although it is unlikely you will ever be totally right!
Reading routes tips
Visualisation is key; you might imagine seeing a line on the rock, hearing yourself talk through the route or recall a written set of instructions.
Your plan may be wrong, the skill of reading a route whilst climbing is just as important.
Use rests on the route to look at the next section, re-formulate your plan and identify the next rest
Real hands on experience of using guidebooks and looking at climbs is required to develop this skill. Learn from your mistakes!
Colour coding your route
How you colour in a route will be a personal thing, green climbing for most will be very easy, usually with a good spattering of ledges to rest on.
Yellow would be for the blanker sections where the holds are smaller, and the rests are further apart. Most of the moves will require a degree of thinking but the rests, climbing and angle of the route will mean that you shouldn’t feel like you are getting pumped.
Red is the steep and harder section, maybe just a single move, roof or bulge in the rock. It will be to hard to hang about on these sections and they will require a sense of urgency or power to overcome. Identify a place to rest and/or place gear after them, so that you have a point to aim for and no feeling of desperation through the moves.
Draw your route on paper using a colour scheme to to indicate different climbing styles; green circle = rest, green = easy, yellow = Requires a little thought but is not that pumpy, red = hard climbing requiring power, speed and technique (the hardest moves you are capable of and you will become pumped).
Try to visualise your colour coded route on the rock and use this plan to climb the route.
Were there any differences in between the plan and the execution? If so did you spot the problem before, during or after you had to climb that section of the route and could you have spotted the problem earlier?
Some people might nd this visualisation technique more useful than a written description.
Try and see your body making the moves. You mat see yourself from a third person viewpoint (like a movie) or through your own eyes from a rst person viewpoint (if this is the case try and feel the moves as well).
By thinking of the moves you are engaging your pre-motor cortex, and turning your mind on to climbing mode.
Using your rack efficiently is down to dexterity, remaining calm and staying organised. Know what you are carrying, where it is and make sure that when you take something from you rack you return it to the same place. The consequence of a messy rack is wasted time and energy spent looking for the small wires or large hex’s. Racking up well for trad climbing will safe you time and heart ache in the long run.
The first decision you have to make is gates in or gates out, either all the gates of the karabin- ers on your gear loops facing in to your body or away. There is no right or wrong way, just one way or the other, not both.
The next problem is what to rack where and, for that matter, what to take with you? Again there is no right answer, but there are a few wrong ones. Your personal preference will quickly fall into place but experimenting with new ideas is helpful, especially on those rainy days when you’re stuck at home itching to get out.
Racking up top tips
Wires (nuts or rocks)
Everybody has a different idea as to how many wires to take on a route. If you are climbing on a gritstone edge then the chances are you will be able to make a reasonable guess as to the sizes you’ll need and which it might be prudent to double up on. On longer and multi-pitch routes it is better to double up on all sizes of wires, and rack them accordingly, as you will not be able to see the whole route and may need a greater selection of gear.
How to rack even ten wires is a problem, as even this is too many for a single karabiner. To rack twenty, break them down into sets of small, medium and large with between 6 and 8 wires on each karabiner. It’s best to have a small overlap in the sets; so if you were going to have a doubled up rack of wires from 1 to 10, one way to break them down would be:
Small – size 1 x 2, size 2 x 2, size 3 x 2, size 4 x 1
Medium – size 4 x 1, size 5 x 2, size 6 x 2, size 7 x 1
Large – size 7 x 1, size 8 x 2, size 9 x 2, size 10 x 2
You could switch one of the size 10 wires for a size 11, giving you something slightly bigger. Wires now go all the way up to size 14, but you might have those sizes already covered by other large gear like hexes or cams
If you are going to have a double set of wires it is better to have one set of wires from one manufacturer and the other set of wires from another company. The sizes will be slightly different, giving you a wider range of placements.
How you rack these on your harness is up to you, but stay organised. Some people go for all the wires on one side or split small wires on one side, large on the other.
Sometimes the route might require microwires, or RP. These tiny nuts are the extreme end of protection with many only offering marginal protection due to there size. Often these are places in large numbers so that if some break one may well hold your weight!
There is also a more specialist nut, called a slider, these are often good in very small, almost parallel sided cracks. Seldom used, often on routes where it is known to be the only available runner, as such it is mentioned only for completeness.
The best way to buy hexes today is on spectra, it means that at a push you can clip the rope straight into the gear without a quickdraw. For this you will need one karabiner for each hex. If you double or triple up hexes on one karabiner, they are guaranteed to get in a tangled mess right when you need them.
Choose your smallest hex bigger than your largest wire and choose two more hexes up to around a size 9 (three is a good quantity). Some people will carry more, others may carry none, prefering cams. Some rock types take hexes better than cams (e.g. some cracks on the sea cliffs at Gogarth, Wales are very irregular and take large hexes in natural taperings).
Another type of semi-passive large crack protection is the Tri-cam, they are also one of the only reliable pieces of gear for quarried shot holes. They’re a more specialist type of gear, mentioned for completness as an alternative to hexs. A further alternative is the DMM torque nut.
The range of active camming devices seems unfathomable, but not as complicated as you might think. There are three different types of camming device; the original single solid stem, the single flexible stem and the double exible stem, all have pro’s and cons but they all do the same job.
DMM Dragon Cams and a few other manufacturers now have two or more axles on their cams, giving them a greater range between being fully open and full closed, one cam will fit a greater range of cracks but will weigh more. If you are only going to have a couple of cams on your rack, multi-axled models are a good idea.
Cams provide protection in places that would otherwise be protectionless and although they need to be placed with care, once mastered they can be placed very quickly. The invention of the ‘cam’ helped to push back the frontiers in traditional rock climbing. On long routes, alpine climbs or big walls you will see climbers carrying a very expensive skirt of such devices from the smallest to the very largest.
Manufacturers like DMM and Wild Country now make their range of cams in quarter sizes, meaning that you have the biggest selection of sizes. On long routes, where you may place a lot of gear, such as on mountain routes, sea cliffs or big walls, this option of hav- ing lots of gear can pay dividends. If you only took a few multi-axled cams because they have a greater size range you might end up with noth- ing left to place, whereas with a large number of quarter sized cams you may still have a reason- able range left to choose from. This and the doubled over extension sling means that at a push you don’t need to extend the cam.
Which sizes should you take with you up a route? Look out for any wide cracks, or a route description or route name which suggests one. If it is all wide cracks do you need to take small cams? Starting out a new rack you should perhaps own sizes 1, 2 and 3 in camming devices if going for the more common single-axled cam. As your climbing develops you will notice what size cams would be most useful for the routes your are climbing.
The most important thing to remember about cams is that they can walk out of the placement you put them in if the rope moves the stem. Modern twin-stemmed cams have a doubled over sling to extend them, but it is often prudent and sometimes essential to use a quickdraw as well to add another point of articulation and prevent this from happening.
Quickdraws and extenders
A deceptively simple piece of equipment, which is key to minimising rope drag. You’ll want to carry enough extenders of the right length up a route. This is often based on the length of route, how much it wanders about, are there any roof, grooves or corners that you pass.
Sports climbing quickdraws generally have very short slings for bolted routes where all the bolts are drilled in a straight line to the top. But when it comes to trad routes, nature has seldom aligned all the gear placements. We need to therefore take a good variety of longer length quickdraw with us.
You will need a set of at least eight quickdraws to begin with, for short routes. Of those you want some long (30cm), some medium (20cm) and a couple of short ones (15cm). It is also a good idea to have a 120cm sling and shortened as an extender like this below, often called an ‘alpine draw’.
Carry a variety of slings both 120cm and 240cm, so you can extend gear a very long way if needed or use them on spikes as you pass. Keep your 240cm slings over one shoulder and across your body, held in place with a screwgate (see below and your 120cm slings across the other shoulder to help prevent the slings tangling. Put your rucsack on before you shoulder your slings otherwise they will be stuck under the bag!
When it comes to racking your quickdraws adopt a system that works for you. Some people have gear on one side and quickdraws on the other. Many leading climbers (because of the amount of equipment they carry) spread them out over all the gear loops.
Something to hold the karabiner for clipping the rope in captive will help prevent it turning upside down (making it hard to clip). A bit of finger tape, an elastic band or castration ring can be used to captivate the karabiner. Some manufacturers quickdraws have a stiched through retainer to hold the karabiner at one end.
Warning – If you use a slings as a quickdraw with an elastic band or simliar to captivate one end, beware that if it gets tangled up in you bag and the sling clips itself through the karabiner (A), then there is a danger that when you untangle it the sling will look OK, from one side (B), but is actually only held on by an elastic band. Check each quickdraw as you rack up.
By having one karabiner clearly defined as for the rope means that if you were to go sports climbing and take a few falls the karabiner that has been attached to bolt may well suffer from dinks leaving potentially sharp edges. If you were to clip this damaged karabiner to the rope and fall you will probably damage your rope.
A tweak you may find useful where to make a move up to reach a bolt is too tenuous is to make a ‘gripper clipper’. With some tape and your hold cleaning toothbrush you can create one mini clip-stick to add to your rack. An improvised mini clip stick – the gripper clipper, if you need to stretch to clip in situ gear, one of these can be a god-send. Some people now carry a longer (up to 6m) clip-stick around with them; for clipping the bolts on a sports route, placing a rst wire or brushing holds which are out of reach.
There are several correct ways to clip a karabiner as a running belay and many more incorrect ways. You may be surprised how many people get it wrong or fumble every time they go to clip a rope into what can only be described as the most common piece of climbing equipment. Clipping quickdraws then is a fundamental skill for the lead climber.
Whilst I have describe a few of the more common ways to go about clipping quickdraws but there are other ways that work perfectly well. The trick is to find a method that works for both left and right handed and forehand and backhand.
WARNING don’t back clip
Back clipping is potentially very dangerous, as the rope can unclip during a fall. Always remem- ber to rst arrange the quickdraw so there are no twists, then have the rope going into the karabiner from behind and out through the front towards you. If the route traverse, consider hav- ing the rope running out across the back bar of the karabiner, so the gate is facing the opposite way to the direction of travel, this helps to en- sure that in the event of a fall the rope won’t potentially unclip as it is pulled across the gate.
The rope can also fall across the gate of the karabiner during a fall on traverses if the karabiner is round the wrong way. The general rule is to have the spine of the karabiner point in the direction you are expecting the route to take to the next runner or spine in line for short. This way the rope will not run across the gate.
Spine in line of the direction of travel when on a traversing route.
If it is an essential runner consider having two quickdraws in opposition or using a screwgate on the rope instead. This is only really necessary on very run-out routes so that there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that the runner cannot become unclipped from the rope.
Clipping quickdraws exercise
Whilst stood on the ground and tied into a rope try clipping a quickdraw within easy reach with your left or right hand, with the gate facing left or right. Then try clipping across your body. Be careful not to ‘back clip’.
Turn the karabiner upside down and try again. Which is easier? Hopefully, you will realise that the upside down karabiner is much harder to clip and in future will take the time to ensure the karabiner is the right way up.
Turn your quickdraw the right way up with the gate facing toward the hand you are going to clip with. Use your index nger to hook the bottom of the karabiner and your thumb to push the rope in. Practice with both hands.
Next try clipping the quickdraw with the gate facing away from the hand you are about to clip with. This time place your thumb on the back bar of the karabiner and use your index nger to push the rope into the karabiner. Practice with both hands.
Try the same two methods (index nger or thumb stabilising the karabiner) but this time clip across your body.
Repeat practicing clipping your quickdraws until you are awless, remember to add some random variety to your practice.
Try the same clipping exercises stood just off the ground on a slab from a position of balance. The exercise will feel harder because you are concen- trating on staying in balance.
Try clipping a quickdraw as high above your head as you can reach, by your head, by your shoulders, by your waist, below your waist and by your feet. Which positions feel easier and harder?
Then try you clipping excercises on a vertical wall and then an overhanging wall. How much harder is it? Did you use you teeth to help get enough rope in your hand?
Warning using your mouth to help gather the rope up has lead to some nasty injuries, from losing teeth to breaking the lower and in the worst case breaking the upper jaw. Climbers do this all the time, just be aware of the consequences if you fall at that moment.
Clipping traverse race
With a short section of rope set up a few quickdraws on a low level traverse, and have a race. Is it easier to clip when the runners are in front or behind you on the traverse, and does this change depending on what direction you traverse in? Try this over a number of weeks, does your time improve? This traversing exercise is good practice for belaying a lead climber too.
Placing good runners and anchors is the foundation of the safe ropework. Poor placements will make your other efforts futile if the anchors are all going to fail. A placement will only be as good as the rock it’s in, loose rock and super cial akes will be poor placements. Follow the three S’s when placing gear:
Solid – is the rock integral to the placement solid? Shape – is the shape of the placement suitable for the gear choice? Size – is the gear the right size for the placement?
As a general rule of thumb as well there is a hierarchy of gear placements. Although this is often over-ruled by what you can place and how good it is, but if there is a choice.
Spikes, Threads and Trees
Nuts and Hexes
Gear placement exercise
After reading the skills for placing all different types of gear walk round the bottom of a crag, practicing gear placements, and discuss with friends how you rate them using the following system 1 to 6 numerical system.
You would hang your worse enemy’s jacket on it
You would hang your jacket on it
You would hang your enemy on it
You would hang off it
You would hang your enemy’s car off it
You would hang your car off it
Advanced Gear Placement Exercise
To practice gear placements for trad lead climbing, stand back from the cliff and choose three places where you think you can place gear. Walk to the first and try to anticipate what gear will fit before you get there. You are going to try and make the first placement fit. This first placement fitting will safe you so much energy on lead rather than hanging around attempt to get half you rack to fit before you find the right sized piece.
Judge yourself on the time and how few goes it took to place each runner. Under three minutes with first time placements is a good point to aim for in the long run.
Camming Devices are the most complicated piece of gear to place well, if mastered they can offer solid protection in places that otherwise would be impossible to use. The reason being that cams can be used in parallel sided cracks.
One of the most important consideration in placing cams is that when loaded the device will produce a large force (about 3 to 4 times the load placed on them) that will try and force the placement apart, as such they may well lever off a superficial flake, so the intergrity of the rock is even more paramount then with any other piece of climbing equipment.
There are other important considerations when placing cams. Firstly how they are placed in the rock, the direction of pull should be along the shaft of the camming device. All the cams should also be in contact with the rock, and the cams should be somewhere between 25% and 75% between the maximum and minimum width the camming device can achieve.
Trees like spikes, are great placements but not many climbers are experienced tree surgeons so it is difficult to be sure of them. First look up, the tree should look alive, with either leaves or in the mist of winter some fresh buds or healthy looking branches. Then look down to see if the roots look healthy and strong. As a rule of thumb the thinnest diameter of trunk that is suitable for using as a anchor is roughly the thickness of you thigh, If it as thick as your waist then it could be used as a single point anchor. Just like metal spikes tying around a tree low down will reduce the leverage on it.
Back up in situ metal protection like spikes, pegs and bolts where possible with other protection. Metal spikes and pegs will be most corroded below the surface and whilst you can test to see if it’s wobbly there is little more you can do to check how sound it may be. Rust may appear superficial but hidden below it may have taken hold. Tying off the spike or peg as low as possible will minimise the leverage on it.
Bolts are a little different as there may be notes on their history in a guidebook. Knowing when the bolt was placed and what type it is will help your judgement. Stainless Steel is less likely to corrode than plain steel. Resin bolts have a longer lifespan than simple expansion bolts. Some of the bolts on crags are little more than 8mm thick and 30mm long and may have been in place for over thirty years. If the bolts are subject to the salty conditions of a maritime environment, treat them with further caution.
Using different metals for the bolt, nut and hanger can cause an electrolytic reaction which will rapidly corrode one part or other. If the bolt has signs of rust and the hanger doesn’t its an indication of mixed metals reacting with each other. Some aluminium hangers react with the bolt, resulting in oxidisation.
One way to lookout all fixed metal equipment in a cliff is that is is essentially abandon equipment with a dubious history of use and abuse. Whilst in many sports climbing areas there are voluntary groups that check the bolts and re-equip the routes from time to time. This is not always the case.
Even if some bolts are not that old, there are other issues, some bolts have failed as they have been overused and in soft rock. This has lead to bolts pulling out almost by hand after only 5 years of heavy use.
So look at bolts carefully, do they look OK? Do they feel OK? Do they move?
When using rock spikes and threads as forms of protection you need to consider the 3 S’s.
Solid – is the rock solid? If it is a thread are both parts solid?
Shape – is the shape of the rock suitable for the direction of pull?
Size – If it is a stand alone block is it big enough to not move?
As a general rule of thumb a free standing boulder needs to be at least twice the size of an adult curled up in a ball, as well as in a position where it can’t be pulled over the edge. For the scientist 1 metre cubed of rock is about 2 tonnes.
The shape of the spike needs to be angled back away from the direction of force so that the sling or rope that is a round the spike doesn’t ride up over the top and off the spike. To check this make a sawing motion with sling or rope in the direction of the likely load. If it rides up the placement will be comprimised.
Like any placement, a spike will only be any good if it is solid. To check for this at rst try rocking the boulder, but be aware that if it on the edge of a cliff, it might topple off onto people! If it doesn’t move, try giving it a kick with your foot and feel for vibrations in your hand.
In the case of spikes that are part of the mountain, the size of the ake is often unimportant. It will just be the shape and solidity that are vital.
The judgement we need to select a placements for Hexes and Tri cams is very similar to selecting a nut placement. First off is the rock secure than then you need to look at how well the device sits in the shape of crack.
How they are placed is slightly different, as both Hexes and Tri-cams can be placed as passive nuts, however they are designed to cam into placement and become more secure the greater the load placed on them. It is also important to seat them in the placement by applying a shock load by jerking down on the tape.