There’s more to climbing than just going up. When a climber leads a pitch from the ground up, they clip the rope either to pre-placed bolts drilled into the rock or to pieces they carry with them and place into the rock’s natural cracks and features. If the climber falls, the rope, the belayer, belay device and the pieces all work together to arrest or stop the fall.
The lead climber clips the bolts (sport climbing) or places the gear (trad climbing), then removes them on the way down or a second climber ascends and retrieves the gear while the lead climber belays from above.
Climbing can be a gear-intensive sport. Sport climbers carry quickdraws and trad climbers carry a rack of pro (short for protection) that includes camming devices, wedge shaped nuts, quickdraws and carabiners as well as webbing slings of different lengths. Both sport climbers and trad climbers use belay devices.
If you’re purchasing your first rack of gear, you’ll want to find out what type of protection is best for your local area. Stop by your closest MEC store or gear shop, or check out a local guidebook for advice.
Nuts, wedges and stoppers
Whatever you call them, they’re essentially the same design – a tapered wedge of aluminum or aluminum alloy that can be slotted into a crack or hole in the rock. Often, nuts are constructed with a transverse taper. If you look at them from the top, they narrow from face to face to offer different placement options. They range in size from just a few millimeters to a few centimetres across and are coloured so you can easily recognize what size they are.
Sort of hybrid piece, these are six-sided barrel shaped units with tapered edges. They work like nuts in cracks or bottlenecks, but they also cam into place in parallel-sided horizontal cracks, and they fit into some oddly shaped pods and fissures. They have great range, are light and hold well in icy cracks if you’re in the alpine. And if you have to retreat, they’re much cheaper to leave behind than a cam.
Passive camming chocks are a simple but effective design with no moving parts. They are particularly effective in horizontal cracks because the webbing will better withstand load over a horizontal edge. They can also be placed like a nut, particularly in pockets and holes, which adds placement options and versatility.
Nuts tools are long blade-shaped tools with a hooked end to help tap or pry out wedged nuts. The hooked end can also be beneficial for grabbing the trigger bar on hard-to-remove cams.
A standard piece on a trad climber’s rack, spring-loaded camming devices are designed to fit into cracks and adapt to their irregularities. They have three or four lobes of milled aluminum, a stiff wire cable and a flexible body. Each lobe is spring loaded and attached to a trigger that retracts them. When retracted, the cam can be placed in a rock feature; when released, the device expands. If a climber falls, load is applied to the stem and the lobes are forced outwards and jam themselves into the rock.
These expanding spring-loaded tubes fit in wide, offwidth cracks of about 10 to 30cm. The spring action allows them to expand to span the width of the crack, then the climber tightens a collar to lock them into place and clips a sling which runs through holes in the tube. They are something of specialized piece, but for wide cracks, tube chocks are a relatively light, compact option. To span an equivalent width, the lobes on a standard cam would have to be quite large and would be very awkward and heavy to carry.
Biners come in a range of shapes, sizes and types, and each is designed to work best for a particular use or style of climbing.
For sport climbing, most of your carabiners will be paired on a short piece of webbing to make something called a quickdraw. As the name suggests, you can remove a quickdraw your harness, clip the top biner to a bolt and run the rope through the bottom with a few practiced movements that take just seconds.
For trad and alpine climbing, most quickdraws are made with an extendable piece longer webbing. This webbing is flexible so a climber’s movements won’t cause gear to become stuck. You can also extend them to help minimize rope drag.
An asymmetric shape puts the rope close to the spine so the spine bears more stress than the weaker side of the biner (the side with the gate). The D-shape provides a bigger gate opening than other shapes. It’s fast and smooth to clip the rope or hardware to a D-shaped biner, which is why you’ll find this shape used on quickdraws.
These are usually quite large and almost always have a locking gate. Their big surface area makes them excellent for use with belay devices and for building anchors.
The original carabiner shape is now something of a specialty item. They’re heavier and not as strong as other shapes. But they do allow room to rack lots of items and their symmetry makes them useful for aid climbing, as they don’t shift when weighted.
The gate is the part of the carabiner that swings open and snaps shut. A straight gate is versatile and can be used anywhere unless you need a locking gate biner.
A bowed gate creates a wide opening when you press it. They are generally attached on the rope-end of a quickdraw because it’s quick and easy to clip the rope through them with one hand.
A stainless steel wire forms the gate on some biners. It can be either a straight or bent gate, and shaves a few grams off the total weight. They’re slightly stronger if inadvertently cross-loaded and less susceptible to gate flutter, a phenomenon that can cause a gate to open.
Locking biners (usually just called “lockers”) have a threaded, spring-loaded or a magnetic sleeve or mechanism on the gate. They’re always used for belaying and as parts of an anchor. Each type of locking gate has been tested to ensure it remains closed, so the type of locking mechanism you use is down to personal preference. If you plan to be ice climbing or winter climbing, try some biners when you’re wearing thick gloves to see if the action is still comfortable and feels smooth. Any biner shape can be a locker, but most are large pear-shaped styles.
Belay devices come in different designs and sizes, but they all have the same basic function: add friction to help the belayer hold the rope in the case the climber above falls. When you use a belay device, you don’t need to use a ton of physical strength to hold onto the rope, even for serious falls. Make sure you learn from an expert before you start belaying.
Tubular belay devices
Tubular belay devices are essentially an aluminum block with slots drilled through it. These are light, easy to operate and will not lock up unexpectedly. Different devices have different features, such as pronounced notches and grooves for greater friction or extra holes to set up a top belay when multi-pitch climbing. Most tubular devices can take two ropes for rappelling.
The best part of these simple belay devices is that, when you use them correctly, they’re easy to rig, won’t kink your rope and provide a silky smooth ride. Belay tubes are simple and are generally the most affordable belay devices.
Geometry assisted belay devices are designed to pinch the rope between the device and a carabiner when the rope is weighted, which provides assistance to the belayer. They offer more security than tubular belay devices, and are a good option when someone wants the added security of an “assisted” device, but without the weight or extra price tag that comes with mechanically assisted devices.
Some geometry assisted devices accommodate a single rope while others can take two ropes. The ones that can take two ropes are great for multi-pitch climbing when a double rope set-up is involved, or rappels where the climber wants the security of an assisted device.
Mechanically assisted belay devices have an internal cam or clutch system that helps stop the rope under sudden force. They have great holding power, so they’re often used when belaying a climber who’s working on a project (since they’ll be falling or hanging on the rope a lot). Due to their size, they’re often the heaviest option. These belay devices also only accommodate one rope, so you can’t use them for conventional rappelling.
The Petzl Grigri is probably the most well-known mechanically assisted belay device.
10% off climbing gear
Check out the MEC climbing gear package and offers for 10% off passive pro, quickdraws and Metolius® cams when you buy certain quantities. See the 10% off climbing gear section for all the details.