Are wire gates as good as they're cracked up to be?
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).
Seeing as it’s a new century let me kick it off by trying to trying to blow away some of those old ideas, and help speed up a mini revolution. The wire gate carabiner. If your not convinced by the end of this article then maybe you climbings answer to Buck Rogers!
COLA TRADE SHOW 1995
At first I thought it was a joke. A paper clip gated carabiner? Surely someone was pulling my leg, but no, there it was, pinned to onto a board on the Black Diamond stand. The Hotwire. Dick Turnbul turned it over in his fingers, telling me how Mark Vallance at Wild Country had had made one identical ten years previously, but binned the idea as he just couldn’t imagine climbers getting there heads around the idea. I had a quick play with it. No wonder he bined it, how was this going to be better then a conventional carabiner? It was light, granted, but who would dare use such a strange contraption?
I put it back on the board and made a mental note to buy one anyway and give it a try.
WHY ARE WIRE GATES CARABINERS SO STRONG?
Wire gates are stronger because their stainless steel sprung-steel gate significantly exceeds the strength of a aluminium gate, the weak point in any carabiner. The stainless steel wire is actually the strongest part of the carabiner body - with the aluminium body failing before the gate breaks, closed, open or miner axis, and in every test the wire gives a higher test result then a conventional gated crab. A lot of the carabiners that are old school solid models that have been modified to wire gates (Wild Country Wild Wire, BD Quickwire) are stronger then their solid traditional gated cousins, although have the same rated strengths because it’s too expensive to change the body’s of the crabs. The key strength difference in Wire gates is in there ability to reduce the ‘whiplash’ affect on the gate in a fall. Any modern carabiner with it’s gate closed is virtually unbreakable unless it is loaded over and edge or is damaged in some way. Generally the only reason carabiners break is a combination of a high impact force while the gate is open. All new carabiners must have a gate open strength in excess of 7KN, which in most circumstances is strong enough to hold a fall, especially when climbing a low impact half ropes and a good distance from the belay. But they still do break. This is caused by the spine of the carabiner striking the rock in a fall, causing the gate to open, the higher the mass the longer it stays open. The low mass of the wire gate makes it much less susceptible to this phenomena.
FRENDO SPUR, JANUARY 1996
God it was cold on that route. Contact lens freezing, enamel cracking, bone aching cold. I’d never lost so much gear on a route in my life. On average we must have dropped one piece for ever hundred feet gained. The Frendo is 3300 feet high! The problem wasn’t our incompetence but the cold. The carabiners just stopped working. You’d place a wire, then stick the crab back onto your harness, only to watch it fall of seconds latter as the gate, frozen open, rattled of your gear loop. In the end the only crabs that kept on working were the half a dozen Hotwires I’d brought along in the spur of the moment. They proved themselves to be far superior to my Macros, Tru-clips and Hi-Lights, slowly working themselves from the back of the rack to the front, which was actually not a great distance as most of the rack went from the top of the route to the bottom!
REAL OR IMAGINED DRAWBACKS?
Many climbers are often concerned that if the carabiner was loaded on its miner axis the rope would be cut by the wire. On tests carried out on 10-mm rope it was found that because the wire is smooth and continuos, no damage occurred until loads over 11.5 kN, and after this test results were the same as solid gated carabiners. Any cross loading of gates is very dangerous, and all modern carabiners are design to limit this fluke phenomena. In my experience rope damage occurs MORE with conventional carabiners, especially those with un-shrouded gates. Another drawback with conventional crabs is the common problem of the spring popping out and stripping the sheath of the rope. All in all I think people should think more about the safety of the crabs they’re currently using! The wire gate takes a little getting used to, but once mastered offers a far bigger gate open then a bent gate, plus less worry about the rope coming unclipped! Because the wiregate replaces both the rope and gear end of the quickdraw its a good idea to mark them up to stop you using a carbiner that his nicks or burs on it to clip the rope. Wild Country’s Wild Wires get over this by having red for rope and blue for bolts.
LEFT UNCONQUERABLE, STANAGE 1997
Maybe it was because the holds were wet from the brief shower that heralded us to the crag or maybe I was just tired from a day at work, but whatever the reason I shouldn’t have fallen of that evening. Up the intro. crack I went, talking as I climbed into the layback flake, feet on smears. Instead of placing a cam half way I stuffed in a Hex, clipped it and climbed up to the crux. Below I placed a cam, clipping it’s bent gate as I looked up at the awkward move above. Then just before I was about to begin the sequence I stopped and maybe out of respect for the route, placed another cam and clipped it’s wire gate.
Left foot out, reach up, poor holds but getting better. The holds a little damp, a little pumpy, just keep going, keep going, keep grahaaah!!
I found myself looking at my belayer eye to eye, both of us dangling five feet of the ground. The Hex slid down the rope and clanged onto the belay plate as we both looked up at the two pieces of gear. The two cams were still in place, totally bomber, the only problem being the bent gate carabiner was no longer attached to the rope.
Before I got the fear I climbed back up, replaced the bent gate with a wire gate, reclipped it and started up again, only this time with less bravado.
LIGHT IS RIGHT
The wire gates most obvious strength lies in it’s light weight (ranging between 36 to 49 grams). This is a potential saving of 10 to 20 grams per carabiner. In a modern rack wire gates, plus Rockcentrics, dyneema slings and mini screwgates, you could be saving over a Kilo! On some dedicated models like the BD Hotwire, this weight saving is plouwed back into the carabiners body, making high load areas like the nose thicker and stronger.
MOUSE TRAP, GOGARTH 1998
My growing distrust of bent gates, coupled with a total lack of co-ordination while handling carabiners near big drops, had slowly led to my rack of conventional crabs being slowly replaced with wire ones. I felt a bit embarrassed at this as we geared up in the zawn. We both knew Mousetrap was the sort of route were you may as well not take a rack at all, and therefore it was the type of route you took the lot. After transferring this monster rack over to Arlie, she led off, and being a traditionalist, a little apprehensive about the wire gates. She soon got used to them, complaining that the few solid gated biners she had were gunked up with two much sea cliff climbing and two not enough TLC.
At the top of the route, taking of my harness, so I could scramble back down the lighthouse steps for our shoes, I noticed something strange. My harness had the entire rack on it, yet it felt far lighter then it usefully did. For a second I thought maybe I’d dropped some big cams, but then it dawned on me. With thirty wire gate crabs instead of thirty solid gated crabs I had saved over half a kilo in weight! Arlie looked bored as I tried to impress on her what a difference this could make. “£150 quid’s worth of biners to save half a kilo - wouldn’t It be cheaper to just go on a diet?”
The wire gate design is impressive in it fulfils the best design ethic in that it takes things away instead of adds more. The wire gate carabiner only has two components, the body and the gate. This simplicity is a bonus in harsh climbing environments in that the gate is more resistant to dirt, ice and salt contamination. The gate still needs to be washed and oiled after hard use, but will carry on working much longer before seizing up. Some climbers worry that the simple sprung steel gate will stop working after long-term use. This maybe the case with some poorly made models, but with the established designs the opposite seams to be the case. Black Diamond test their gates for more then 300’000 cycles without effecting gate-spring action, whereas conventional aluminium carabiners gates usually stop functioning well before 300’000 cycles due to body damage by the spring. Wire gates are still just bits of metal at the end of the day and they can get trashed in the hustle and bustle of modern climbing. When your buying, check the gates aren’t too stiff, and retire any that get bent or unusable.
There is a growing selection of wire gates out their, big and small, cheap and expensive. Look at the quality of both the body and the gate. Some are excellent and some are absolute crap. Don’t just stick to one brand, buy a few and try them out.
AURORA, EL CAP, 1999
The pitches were long, but that didn’t matter. From owning just one wure gate five years ago here I was weighed down by over a hundred! Each piece on the pitch was body weight only, but on A5 miracles do happen so the last thing you want is your carabiner to break when that 0 head defies logic and holds. I’d given up on trad carabiners long ago. To heavy, to susceptible to unclipping and big wall wear and tear. Every piece has to be as strong as it can. A climber and his rack can weigh over 18 stone, add to this he could be falling up to 200 feet on a very solid 11 mm rope and you need these little pieces of the jigsaw just to make you carry on. I’d seen carabiners break before, and even if this theory about wire gates not suffering from whiplash was just techno bullshit, if it gave me the confidence now and again to move up on some horror placement, then that was fine by me. Death Exspando, stacked RURPS and slopping hook placements, there was enough to keep me awake as it was
I look down at the long line of wire gates below me, the thin steel wire invisible. God I hate it went that happens! The belay is ten feet away. I’ll be there in less the an hour. Maybe?