Outside magazine, March 1995
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.
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
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.
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.