Beginning Climbing Equipment

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Beginning Climbing Equipment
By Greg Child

Like many proud mothers, mine saved the mementos of her son's teenage years. She kept my report cards, my class photos, even my first collection of climbing gear. Vintage 1970, it's a primitive rack of junk that today I wouldn't trust for an emergency rappel.

For example, there is my swami belt, the state-of-the-art harness of that era. It's a ten-foot strip of automobile seat-belt webbing that was wrapped a couple of times around the waist and secured with a "tape knot." It lacked leg loops, so taking a fall threatened to cut you in half. It still seemed preferable to hitting the deck.

Such gear made climbing a sport for the hardy. But when climbing started to go mainstream in the mideighties, gear manufacturers began redesigning their products to be more user-friendly. The result, refined over a decade, is a plethora of equipment that's strong, light, ergonomic, and virtually foolproof. Great news, but when there are 20 different harnesses, 40 different rock shoes, and ten of each size of those gadgets that climbers stuff into cracks, how does a novice decide what to buy? Here's a primer, designed to help an aspirant wade through today's jungle of gear and emerge with the bare essentials for a day of learning or practicing on the crag, for a price between $375 and $500. That excludes the hundreds it costs for all those jangly things -- cams, Stoppers, carabiners, and quickdraws. If you adopt the sport, you'll become a gear freak soon enough. Till then, spend your money on lessons with a reputable teacher -- and know that while a class in a rock gym can teach you the flow of vertical movement, there are nuances to "real" rock climbing that you can learn only outside. Gravity is unforgiving, and there's a lot to know before you can safely lead a pitch or rig a top-rope system. Climbing isn't rocket science, but it does require practice.

Your harness is the link between your body and your rope, so don't skimp. An unpadded harness may seem like a bargain at $30, but it will feel as torturous as my old swami belt when you fall and hang on the rope like a sack of potatoes -- as you inevitably will. So treat yourself right and buy a harness with a padded waist belt, fitted or adjustable leg loops, and gear loops for stowing hardware. Black Diamond's Bod ($50) has all those features at a nice price, though its padding is a minimalist fleece. For another step up in comfort, look for a waist belt made from tubular webbing stuffed with foam. Harnesses in this league include Arc'Teryx's Skaha ($60) and Petzl's Mercury ($68). If you're on the beefy side and want a harness to match, the Metolius Big Rig ($79) has a wide, thick waist belt that offers more support than Burt Reynolds's girdle. Women who can't find a good fit in any of these models should consider Black Diamond's Siren ($63), which is new this spring, and Arc'Teryx's Diva ($60); both are specifically designed to address the female form. And if you're the sort who goes all-out from the start, fork over a C-note for the Arc'Teryx Vapor ($100). This high-tech rig uses thermo-compression technology to mold EVA foam and nylon webbing into a form that mimics the contours of the body even when you're not wearing it. The result allows unparalleled freedom of movement when climbing and unparalleled comfort when hanging.

Rock Shoes
The rock shoes that went with my swami belt had the frictional properties of lead, but ever since two Spaniards cracked the formula for sticky rubber in the eighties, shoe soles are as tacky as bubble gum on a summer sidewalk. This is good news for the novice whose footwork is shaky; with grippy rubber like Boreal Fusion, Stealth C4, or Vibram XSV, anyone can find footing.

If you climb in a rock gym, you'll probably wear slippers, but in the great outdoors those soft-soled ballet shoes won't give enough support on a long pitch. Choose edging shoes, which have stiffer midsoles for standing on dime-width flakes, chiseled toes for poking into cracks, and sticky soles for smearing on slabs. And despite everything you've heard about pros who wedge their feet into shoes two sizes too small, aim for a relaxed fit, loose enough that your toes aren't cramped but snug enough that you can crank the laces and take up the slack.

You'll pay $99 - $110 for a basic outdoor rock shoe like Five-Ten's Summit, La Sportiva's Enduro, or Boreal's Totem, all of which will see you through beginnerhood. If you plan to do anything more than dabble in climbing, however, consider splurging on a pair of high-performance rock shoes: They'll help you push the grades faster. In the climb-any-terrain shoe category, my favorite is La Sportiva's Kaukulator ($149), a high-top designed with the help of American rock-climbing legend Ron Kauk. A lower-cut offspring of the Kaukulator, the Syncro ($146), offers even greater precision on small holds. I favor these models because they fit my medium-wide, narrow-heeled feet. Feet of a different shape might prefer Boreal's Ace ($148), Scarpa's Edge ($132), or Five-Ten's Hueco ($130). All are sturdy enough to survive a couple of resolings (about $30), making them bargains in the long run.

Ropes and Hardware
On ropes, the advice is simple: Buy American and save. That hasn't always been true. American-made climbing rope once had a bad rap for durability, but ever since manufacturers such as Blue Water, New England, and PMI imported European machinery and began making high-quality rope at Wal-Mart prices, there seems to be little reason to spend more for imported perlon. Beginners should consider ropes no thinner than 10.5 or 11 millimeters -- they're incredibly strong and durable -- and should take suppleness into account: Softer ropes hold knots well, a good safety feature. The going price for a 50-meter, 10.5-millimeter rope is $120 - $130. A "dry" rope, waterproofed with Teflon or silicone, will cost $150; the extra money is worth it if you anticipate climbing in snow.

Whether you climb indoors or on rock, a locking carabiner is a necessity for clipping belay and rappel devices to your harness and for securing you to anchors. Locking carabiners come in an array of shapes: ovals, D's, "big D's," pears, and more. I prefer "big D" or pear-shaped carabiners because they offer bonus room for whatever you may want to clip in. You have fewer choices when it comes to locking mechanisms, which are of two equally safe types: screw locks, which have a threaded sleeve that you manually twist over the gate, and autolocks, which have a spring-loaded sleeve that twists shut automatically. Consider DMM's HMS Kwiklok ($21), Hugh Banner's HMS Autolock ($19), and Black Diamond's Big Easy Bayonet ($15). If you're some kind of Luddite or just want to save a few bucks by forgoing the autolock, try the Hugh Banner HMS Screw Gate ($17) or the Petzl Attache ($14).

When it comes to belaying and rappelling, simplicity equals safety, and by that criterion Black Diamond's Air Traffic Control ($14) is a device that's hard to beat. Rope passes through it smoothly; it arrests falls dynamically, without a back-wrenching jolt; and it does not kink the rope. The Trango Pyramid ($17) does an equally fine job. Both work well for rappelling too, but the old-fashioned figure-eight device offers the most control. Black Diamond's Super 8 ($15) is one of the more compact and light versions; the standard-issue figure eights made by many gear purveyors retail for around $10 and are bulkier but otherwise hard to fault.

Although it is not regarded as chic to don a helmet on crags these days, a brain bucket is a smart investment for a beginner. Petzl's Ecrin ROC ($64) is low-profile enough to not make you look like a geek. Ratchet adjustments on the headband offer a precise fit, it doesn't wobble like helmets of yore, and it's so light (15.4 ounces) that you may forget you're wearing it, as did a friend of mine who unwittingly wore his Ecrin ROC to a bar after a climb, making him the brunt of many jokes. Other worthy helmets include the Climb High Face Nord ($69) and the Edelrid Ultralight ($69).

Chalk Bags
Your least expensive purchase as a budding climber will be a chalk bag, a small sack that holds gymnastic chalk used for drying sweaty fingers. Avoid those little gym-spawned finger-bags and get a fist-diameter bag with a rigid loop to hold it open while you dip. Verve and Metolius have extensive lines, in material from nylon to black leather and at prices anywhere from $15 to $25. Which reminds me of another climbing memento my mother saved, a chalk bag fashioned from a gutted toy koala bear. I bought it at a time when chalk bags, like loud ties, enjoyed a heyday as fetish objects. Such things are decidedly unfashionable now, but I miss them.

Greg Child has been a climber for 25 years. His story about climbing in Pakistan, "I Was a Trango Love-Slave," appeared in the April 1994 issue of Outside.

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