Making Do

December 4, 2008

Reading Time: 14 minutes.

Every climber at one time or other will find themselves in a situation where they just don’t have the gear to protect themselves, and it’s at these times that being able to improvise comes in very, very handy.

The art of improvised gear

When you’re faced with this kind of situations it pays to be able to ‘think out of the box’, and take solace in the fact that no matter how hopeless things seem – there is always away. What is required is to make a check of all the climbing gear you have, and all the other gear that could be used as emergency pro. In these situations don’t expect the set bomber gear, in fact often the gear you’ll place will be decidedly dodgy.

Below I’ve set out in some kind of order of strength (from maybe OK to very dodgy) some ideas on makeshift gear.


These can be tied to form ‘soft nuts’ with the size of the nut depending on the size of the tape or cord. Any knot will suffice but it’s important to make sure you leave plenty of tail, as the knot itself will slip under load. The nut size can vary from about Rock 4 up to rock 10 depending on how you tie it, but if you know how to tie a Monkey’s fist –and have the time - you could make knots up to the size of your head! For belays you can also use you climbing rope, again forming up some considerably large pieces of protection. When placing the rope or tape nut it’s often necessary to use your nut key to seat it properly, stabbing or pocking it in order for it to grip in place, and make sure that any soft nut is considerably larger then the construction it’s held within, as it will distort. For shallow placements tight the nut so it has a single strand extending from it.

The big question is how strong are these kinds of nuts? Well in some rock types like Sandstone they may actually be stronger than hard nuts, as they spread their load more evenly in the crack, conforming the rock itself. In some areas of Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic, climbers only use knotted rope, and can vouch for its high strength. As with all weird techniques it’s advisable next time you have a few free moments at the crag to play around with this concept – you’ll probably be surprised just how solid they can be.


In a bind a karabiner, or group of karabiners, can be used as makeshift nuts. Due to their shape you can place karabiners in a wide range of positions, tying them off both at their spine or nose. Karabiners can also be used cammed in tight horizontal cracks. Strength wise it depends on the angle of pull, but in many situations a well placed karabiner should be pretty strong. In fact anything metal on your harness can be used as makeshift protection, from your belay plate, to your ropemen – just make sure you apply a little thought about the stresses that will be applied to the piece.


If you’re out of slings then having a full strength chalk bag belt may well come in handy. This can be a length of 5.5mm Dyneem, 7mm cord or a length of tape – but as long as it’s full strength it can be of use. If on the other hand you clip your chalk bag in with a krab, then again make sure it’s full strength – because you never know when you might need it!


The most famous example of a nut key being used as protection is on Comes the Dervish in Vivian Quarry, N. wales, but due to their slim profile nuts keys can sometimes be called on as the last resort. The strength of your nut key depends on the way it’s loaded and its quality and construction, with some being very weak while others are indestructible – especially those made out of steel (Metolius, Leeper). When placing a nut tool just keep in mind the laws of mechanics and don’t expect it to hold very much – if anything!


Your chalk bag, if rolled up tight, can be used as a large chock stone, and this can go as far as items of clothing, or even your boots! Of course the quality of protection in all these cases will probably be only psychological, but may be worth it just for the stories!


Apart from what you carry with you, there are also a great deal of natural runners littering most crags in the forms of stones, flakes and boulders. At one time every climber knew how to protect themselves with a few well placed nuggets of rock, and in some situations it can be a skill worth relearning. A good example of this is the old favourite – the chock stone, a great trick when faced with a lack of wide gear at a belay ledge. Just find a rock that fits, jam it in, and thread it! Flakes are also very handy, allowing you to stack them with wider gear when nothing else will fit. The strength of such anchors varies of course, but a well placed pebble or stacked flake will hold a bus, plus it will give you no end of satisfaction when you see your partner jump with surprise when they see it!