Getting the right rock rack
08 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
When I first started climbing I must admit that I found the whole issue of what to take with me, rack wise, very confusing. In the early days, I never seemed to have enough - which was probably due to the fact that my rack was barer than Jordan on a night out in Soho. It comprised of one set of wires, five 15cm extenders, three Hexs and half a dozen slings. In those days a rack could be sparse yet still be heavy, as all my karabiners were clunky 12mm Clog snap gates, extended via chunky Troll 25mm Supertape, a combo strong enough to belay the Titanic, while my Hexs were slung on 11mm rope - and slung long enough to be used to hang oneself if need be. Luckily for me, I began buying gear - or should I say I began to have money to spent on climbing gear - around the time when companies like DMM and Wild Country really started improving the lot of the climber. Very soon my rack began to increase in size, adding my first cam (a size 2 rigid), more extenders and karabiners, only this time super lightweight 10mm jobs that only weighed 60g each, which were still almost double what we have today.
The problem was that as my rack grew so did the conundrum of what to take and - more importantly - what to leave behind. It seemed that one minute I had a rack that only took up one gear loop and the next all four loops were crammed tighter than a Ryanair flight to Barcelona. As the rack grew I began to find that climbing had lost something special, that feeling of moving fluidly across the rock, unencumbered by anything apart from the joy of climbing… and the fear of falling off. Now climbing felt like going to the gym, with my biceps growing at the same rate as my rack. It was only when I took off my harness with the rack still attached that I realized just how heavy the whole lot was.
Overnight I began de-tuning my rack, questioning what I really needed, replacing old gear with the lightest gear I could buy, dumping the seven 12mm screw gates I carried and replacing them with just two HMS krabs, paring down my Hexs from seven to three and replacing their yards of heavy-duty rope with Spectra. I also sorted out my wires finding that, for instance, I was carrying over 30 wires - somewhat overkill for your average route on Stanage, or El Cap for that matter. I put more thought into what wires I needed, learnt a few tricks on how to get by with less and reduced their numbers by 40%. Soon my rack had halved in weight and yet again I felt that familiar feeling of freedom beginning to return. Unfortunately, thus far, my climbing had primarily been on grit and North Wales classics.
When I first started climbing on limestone both myself and my rack were in for a bit of a shock. Firstly, I found that by about halfway up most pitches I was out of extenders and wires, leaving me with just a rack of Friends and Hexs which I soon realized were of little use on the climbs I was doing, forcing me to either lower back down in order to retrieve some gear from below, or just jibber on, using my Hexs as extenders, clipping the odd shoelace, rusty Coke can ring-pull, or mummified snail shells, or any other fixed gear I could find along the way. This taught me a very valuable lesson, if you’re to avoid carrying the kitchen sink, you must always try and adapt your rack to the rock, both the protection possibilities it offers and its length.
Since then there has been a huge leap in climbing hardware, offering the modern climber the chance of a rack that is stronger, safer, more flexible and, most importantly, with a weight so low it borders on cheating. For those who want to avoid some of the mistakes I made here are some lessons I learnt.
This is an important skill to learn, especially if you’re going to go on to climb longer routes, especially those of an Alpine nature. This means learning how to be flexible with the use of each part of your rack, so as reduce the necessity to double or triple up on gear and allowing you the ability to improvise when the gear you need is somewhere further down the pitch.
Try and become familiar with the wires you carry, perhaps by keeping their number small at first. Practise placing them both normally and sideways and work out for instance which small wire can be used sideways in order to match a larger wire placed normally. I’d advise any new climbers to serve an apprenticeship on just wires, as this forces you to think more about how to make the most of your nuts, something that will come in handy one day when all your cams have been plugged in and all you have are your wires.
Wires are also more reliable than cams meaning they can be placed with less fear of them walking or rotating out, meaning they should always be the tools of choice for main runners and belays. Good nutting skills also allow you to put nuts where an easy cam would go thereby saving that cam for higher up, a crucial skill on very long pitches.
When buying your nuts check out the weights, especially on the big sizes, as there can be a significant difference between solid wires and those that have cutaway sections.
The first question you need to ask is how many you can get away with? This is because cams are heavy, relative that is to nuts, and although they allow a broader size range of crack to be filled, you may well find that having three of four extra nuts may well prove a better use of the weight. On some rock types like grit, granite or sandstone, a cam more than pays for itself weight-wise, because you will often find protection opportunities that only a cam can exploit, such as parallel cracks. If you’re climbing on a metamorphic rock you may find them less useful, in which case it may be better to halve the number of cams and replace them with nuts.
The second thing is to understand your cam size ranges and how they fit together. This is crucial when it comes to paring down your cam rack, with the classic sizes 20-30mm, 30-45mm, 45-70mm (around a Wild Country/DMM 1, 2 and 3 or Camalot .5, 1, 2) being the prime cams on your rack on most routes but again this depends on the rock type. On limestone, you would be better say to ditch your Camalot 2 (184g), for size 0.5 (85g) and 0 (79g) Technical Friend, which will come in more handy in narrow slots and pockets, with the big cam being replaced by perhaps a size 6 Rockcentric (81g) instead.
When it comes to larger cams you need to weigh up their necessity, as they are not only bigger, bulkier and heavier, but they also tend to be the least used. The question is can you get away with one. You can take big nut alternatives, such as a size 11 hex, but more often than not the weight saving isn’t worth it, as a large cam such as a Friend 4 has a much wider range. When buying big cams look at the weights as well their usability. Last year on the Lesueur Route we took along a Wild Country size 5 cam, swapping it for my usual Camalot 4 as it was slightly larger yet lighter. This turned out to be a mistake as the small trigger was virtually impossible to use with our gloves on, something that wouldn’t matter 95% of the time, but up there it made those few grams saved pointless.
When it comes to buying your normal cams don’t just go for a full range of the same brand. Look at the weights and size ranges of differing sizes, for example, I’d avoid anything smaller than a size 1 in a Friend or .5 in a Camalot, going instead for something more flexible like an Alien or Zero being both lighter and more usable in tiny cracks. On the other end of the scale, I’d probably go for rigid Friends in size 3 and above, both because they are cheaper, lighter and stronger, but also because leverage isn’t a problem in these sizes. If you are about to buy some new cams I’d hang fire a while, because it looks like we’re about to have a weight battle between the big cam companies, with most cams dropping up to a third of their weight, which can only be a good thing.
As I mentioned in the cam piece above, nuts like Rockcentrics, Camp and BD Hexs offer you big protection at a fraction of the weight and cost of cams and in many situations they can even be stronger and more dependable. The beauty of passive protection is that it cannot be broken, is not affected by mud, salt or sub-zero temperatures and can be hammered, stamped on and kicked without having any effect. They also give you the ability to double up on bigger sized pieces - something often overlooked - complementing your cams and allowing you the opportunity to save cams for placements where only they will work. These nuts can also be used in several different ways, allowing them to go where a cam wouldn’t and it would be a mistake for any climber to write these nuts off as being just for the bumbly
Extender slings are relatively cheap and increasingly lighter and lighter, so it is only the karabiners that need to concern you when trying to maximize what you have. The most important thing to remember is that if you’re going to carry 100g of tape and metal then it must do its job, which is to extend runners so as to reduce drag and leverage over the gear. If your extender is shorter than Stevie Haston’s temper then you’re just wasting it. I’d recommend anyone who climbs anything other than sport routes to go for 20cm extenders, as these don’t hang to so low down as to interfere with your legs, yet are long enough to give your gear and rope a chance. Added to this should be a couple of folded 30cm extenders, giving you either a 15cm or 30cm quickdraw.
Having enough quickdraws can often prove difficult, especially on long pitches where many wires need to be placed. One thing you can do is use your slings, either full length or doubled or tripled up. If placing two wires close to each other, perhaps below a crux, then consider using a long sling to equalize the pieces, thereby saving a karabiner (one karabiner on each piece equalized to a single karabiner). If you totally run out of draws or don’t want to carry the number you know you’ll need, then use other pieces of gear as extenders, including wires (first push the nut down the wire), nuts on rope (like Rockcentrics), or even the tapes on cams, which often works well with big cams as the weight of the cam helps hold easily dislodged gear in place.
Don’t go over the top when it comes to slings unless you know the climb meanders around a great deal and so requires lots of slings. You often see climbers on 30ft outcrops carrying four 60cm and two 120cm slings - all with chunky screwgates attached. The best way to avoid having to carry loads of slings for belays is to learn how to use your rope to its best abilities. The best way to do this is just to stop yourself from ever using a sling to belay (unless you’re climbing in blocks, but even then you can just swap ends). As for screwgates on slings, I don’t get it? Sure if you’re a guide or instructor who has to construct isolated anchors (meaning no one can check them), then it makes sense. But in the real world there is nothing wrong with constructing a three-point anchor using snap gates as long as they all meet at a screwgate and if you only have one stonking anchor then just use two plain gate karabiners back to back which is actually safer. As for the argument that you need screwgates on slings so as to stop the rope from coming unclipped - well there is more chance of this on a more restricted short extender, but we don’t put screwgates on them do we (although I bet there are people who do).
The bottom line is to keep your sling choices simple, keep them all different colours to make it easier to remove them and most of all get a good system that avoids tangles.
Make sure as many of your karabiners are as light as possible - meaning preferably wiregates. A typical rack will contain over 40 snap gate karabiners, meaning two kilos of traditional 50g krabs or one and a half kilos (or lighter) if they are wiregates, and believe me in these days where a gram here or there is a big thing, half a kilo is something that will make a significant difference to your rack. All rope bearing krabs should be as good as possible, meaning older weaker karabiners should be used for racking, or clipped to gear that is less well-used. When using wiregates it’s best to designate rope clipping karabiners and gear clipping karabiners, so as to reduce the likelihood of the rope getting damaged by a burred rope groove.
Again you need to understand how a karabiner works if you’re going to make the most use out of it. Avoid any accessory karabiners, because although they are light and cheap they aren’t full strength, meaning when you run dry near the top of a pitch you won’t be able to hold your nut tool between your teeth while you steal its krab. Always clip a few spare karabiners to your harness for use with slung nuts and slings.
Screwgates are heavy, almost twice as much as a lightweight snap gate, but necessary, both as your connection to the belay and as your connection to your belay device. The most important thing about the screwgate in this role is its rope holding capacity, as a small karabiner will not hold more than a couple of knots until it jams up - a real headache when you’re in a hurry. The only way to go is with big chunky HMS karabiners, which have both a large gate opening, important when clipping into big knots and multiple slings and doesn’t cram the knots once clipped inside. If weight is crucial then a single HMS can be used both to belay and attach yourself to the belay, but most often two karabiners are easier to work with. If you require more security and don’t want to use back to back snap gates, then there are a number of really good little screwgates on the market these days, many of which are only slightly heavier than a trad snap gate karabiner.
Your belay device should be correct for the rope diameters being used and match the correct screwgate karabiner generally meaning not a D-shaped screwgate but an HMS. Like all the gear on your harness, it’s worth getting the most out of your belay device, meaning it should either be as light as possible, like the DMM Bugette (26g), or areas functional as possible like the Petzl Reverso (81g) which although more than three times the weight of the Bugette, allows the belayer far more options and can also be used for ascending the rope.
Don’t leave the ground without one, whether you’re leading or seconding. Use the smallest full strength karabiner you can find.
Although on many one-pitch climbs prusiks aren’t needed, it’s worth just getting into the habit of always carrying them. Most climbers will carry two loops clipped to a karabiner, either two 1.5m lengths of 5mm cord, or one 1.5m and one 2.5m lengths.
If you’re heading on to bigger rock routes it may be worth taking one or two mini ascenders along, as they can be used both for ascending the rope - crucial in self-rescue - and as a makeshift pulley and for assisting in pulling ropes while descending.
Intended for very short climbs (not a full rope length usually) on varying rock types and at a moderate grade.
OUTCROP: Difficult to Extreme
Although short you’re not sure what you’ll find, so you need to increase the rack to cover all eventualities.
MULTI PITCH/LONG PITCHES: Moderate
This rack will see you safely up most classics.
MULTI PITCH/LONG PITCHES: Hard to Extreme
This type of rack is suitable for long pitches where you aren’t sure what you’ll encounter.
Are you the type of climber who is always forgetting to take along your prusik loop, meaning on abseils that you trust your life to only the flesh and bones of your hand? And what happens when you lob off Caveman and end up hanging in space? Well, there is a good way to make sure you always have at least one prusik on you at all times. Simply take your prusik loop (1.5m of 5mm cord) and lark’s foot it to the clip-in hole on your nut tool, then after clipping in the other end to the tool racking karabiner, tie a knot in the loop to shorten it. Now you will always have a prusik loop or length of abseil tat on your harness, which is used with either a shoelace or, better still, a belay device like the Reverso, Reversino or Mammut Matrix, will allow you to get back up that rope and back to the rock that spat you off.
Having spare karabiners clipped to your harness is vital when clipping slings to the rope, equalizing gear or clipping off the belay pieces without using up your draws. Many climbers clip their spare karabiners to their 60cm slings, which although effective can cause them to get in the way, especially on slabby sections. A better option is to rack all your spare karabiners in one spot on your rack, so you know both where they are and how many are left, plus you have somewhere to put karabiners when they become free, such as when you extend a cam by clipping it into its sling, thereby making the cam’s own krab redundant. The best way to do this is to clip all your spares together in twos, with each set being clipped into the one above.