Ah, trad climbing. Before the 1980’s, there was no distinction: sport climbing was yet to be a discipline so all climbing was “trad” or traditional, involving placing pieces of protection as one ascends, removing it later. There’s a certain prestige in trad that is summed up in a joke:
Q: How do you spot a trad climber at a party?
A: Don’t worry, he’ll tell you.
This is the last installment in our three-part series on essential climbing gear. Maybe after I figure out how to aid (or save up enough for an aid rack) and ice climb I’ll write up on those disciplines. Gear, though, is a central part of trad climbing and choosing the right stuff is a decision that could save your life. The make-up of a standard rack can vary by locale, but I’ll describe a basic rack that will get you up most climbs at most destinations. It’s up to you to ensure you have adequate equipment and skill to get up a climb safely.
Personal gear remains the same from sport and bouldering: harness, shoes, belay device and locking carabiner. On trad climbs, though, it may be prudent to wear shoes that aren’t so killer for the toes. Something a little more roomy that you can wear all day is nice on long, multipitch routes. Personally, I always bring along a prussik or two in the event that I need to ascend a rope or to back up a rappel. A small loop of 6mm cord on a ‘biner can literally save your life on an epic. Do yourself a favor: learn how to use one and bring it along.
Even more essential than in sport climbing, a helmet is absolutely necessary especially on long routes. This is even more the case on certain walls like the north side of Tahquitz Rock, where rockfall is not uncommon. A few weeks ago I was summiting Suicide with a partner when we heard lots of crashing and shouts from across the valley. There was some rockfall on Tahquitz and thankfully, there were no sirens afterward.
In addition to a good rope, you’ll need a rack:
Another title for this article could have been “How to build your first rack”. Buying a rack will probably be the most expensive thing a climber can buy and many spend a while putting one together. Often times, one can combine racks with a partner to have a nice rack covering all sizes or have multiples of certain sizes. But enough of that. Let’s get to it.
Cams are the bread and butter of a modern rack. They place nicely (most of the time) and plugging them into a solid granite crack really inspires confidence. Cams are spring-loaded pieces of protection (SLCD – spring loaded camming device) that allow placement in a range of crack sizes and even in perfectly parallel places that are often found in areas like Indian Creek. They cover all sizes of cracks from tiny pin scars to wide, offwidth monsters. Cams can be roughly divided into three categories: micro cams, normal-sized cams, and large cams. They come in flexible single stems (most modern single stems are flexible), rigid single stems (older Wild Country Friends), and U-shape stems (Metolius Power Cams); the choice is personal preference and intended use (flexible single stems are better for aid than U-stems).
The most common brand seen at the crags are the double-axel Black Diamond C4 Camalots. The double axel gives them excellent range and the thumb loop at the bottom makes aiding on the single-stems natural. There are literally, though, a dozen brands on the market. I personally opted for the Metolius Ultralight Powercams, mostly because I like the fact that they’re made in the USA, super light, and I got a killer deal on my set (a recurring theme of extreme thriftiness is to be found among many a climber). The choice of brand is ultimately a matter of personal preference so it’s best to climb with partners and try out their gear.
For a standard rack, a single set covering 0.5 to 3.5 inches will get you up a lot of climbs. For reference, these are BD C4 sizes #0.4 to #3 or Metolius Powercams #2 to #8. Micro-cams covering smaller sizes and large cams for offwidths are not always necessary at first, depending on the area you plan to climb in. Get a feel for your area and decide how much you need them though in all likelihood, you’ll want to grab a set of small cams and at least one big cam eventually. Doubling up on common sizes is a good idea as you continue to build out your rack.
Nuts, or stoppers, are a vital part of any rack. They’ll wedge in places that a cam has trouble going in and when placed correctly will hold a falling truck (not really, but you get the idea). Again, there are a dozen brands that make nuts so find a full set on sale and call it a day. I have the full set of Black Diamond Stoppers racked on a wire gate oval carabiner.
Hexcentrics, or hexes, are often mocked and called “gumby bells” since they’re so cheap and beginners often have them clanking around on their rack. But before the advent of the cam in the late 1970’s, hexes were all one had on larger cracks. Learning to place hexes will teach a climber about good placements instead of just relying on the easy use of cams. Hexes still have their place in many circumstances, from lightweight alpine climbing, anchors building to save cams for the crux, or the serpentine cracks on the South Ridge of Ingalls Peak in the Enchantments. They’re cheap enough that it’s worth your while to grab a set.
Tri-cams are fairly common in areas where horizontal cracks are prevalent, though this specialized piece of equipment can wait if you’re just starting out with your rack. They take practice to place but can protect rock that is otherwise unprotectable.
Along the way, you’ll almost certainly discover holes in your rack and probably at a time when you’re 20 feet above your last marginal piece. But that’s all part of the fun of trad climbing.
You’ll want a carabiner (preferably color-matched) attached to each of your cams so you can rack them nicely on your harness. Spares and lockers are always in order.
For trad, a long sling (240cm) or a cordalette is necessary in addition to your normal lockers. Building three-piece anchors or tying off a tree is part of the game and a short sling won’t cut it. I prefer a 7mm cordalette since it’s cheaper than a 240cm Dyneema sling (there’s that frugality again…) and I don’t feel so bad if I have to cut it or leave it when bailing. The tradeoff is that it tends to be more bulky when on your harness and is usually a little heaver.
Quickdraws are not only useful in sport climbing: they have their place in trad, as well. The main difference, though, is that you’ll want a number of your quickdraws to be “extendable”. This makes life a lot easier when you’re tracing a zig-zagging route where rope drag could become an issue and will help keep finicky nuts in place. Extendable draws are created by taking two carabiners and clipping them into a single length (60cm) nylon or Dyneema sling. A total combination of 12 of sport and extendable draws is a good place to start.
Nut tool. Useful for cleaning out dirty cracks and removing stuck nuts. On U-stem cams, they can even be helpful remove a cam that has walked deep into a crack.
Gear sling. A gear sling is useful if only for organizing the rack and for transportation. Most climbers I know don’t take one on climbs but use it to sort gear.
Your head. Trad climbing often involves life-or-death decision making on the fly, unlike sport which emphasizes pure movement on rock in a safe setting. Practice on mild routes, get familiar with your gear, and keep your head about you. Risk management is part of the game here and using your head will help you avoid epics.
Your balls; ladies included. Sometimes you’ll be running low on gear or there’s nothing you have left that will fit and you just need to commit to the moves and go.
Of course, one could go out and purchase $1000+ of brand new gear right away and have a solid rack. Most of us can’t afford to drop that kind of cash in one go and instead build it up piece by piece. Another idea (and a forthcoming article) is buying gear used. Buying used gear can be very risky but if you know what to look for and trust your seller, you can catch some killer deals. In the end, do what you’re comfortable with and get out on the rock!
Disclaimer: Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. This guide is not meant to replace expert instruction, which comes highly recommended. You are ultimately responsible for your own safely. For a complete disclaimer, see here.