On the rack

Posted by Adrian Berry on 08/01/2008
Choose your gear carefully

Feeling weighed down? Put some thinking time in and lighten your load.

My first rack consisted of two Clog karabiners and a rock 7. I also had an HMS karabiner, a figure-of-eight descender, and a harness with three gear loops. This dearth of rock toys left me with only one decision - how to arrange them so as to make my rack look as impressive as possible, a climbing comb-over if you will.

As my early morning shelf-stacking at M&S was slowly converted into more shiny stuff, bursting with pride, I hammered nails into my bedroom wall so I could hang up each item for all to see. The glory days.

And so, I’m going to explore the art of racking. Racking is far more than attaching everything you own to your harness and setting off - unless of course your rack consists of two karabiners and a nut. The first part of racking involves deciding what you attach to your harness, and what to keep in your pack. One of the things that shows experience in a climber is the way they treat their gear as a series of tools, rather than a garment that is always worn in the same, set, manner. And after we’ve looked at that, we can look at how best to arrange the gear you do take.

What to take
The objective of tinkering with your rack each time you climb is simply to reduce the weight and bulk hanging from your waist. It should be obvious that reducing the weight you carry will both reduce your fatigue and increase the difficulty at which you can climb before you get pumped. Yet so many climbers baulk at the thought of leaving any item behind, and can frequently be seen sweating at the top of short routes with a rack still bursting full of gear.

Racking starts with reading the route - take time to have a good look at the route you’re going to be attempting. You may want to ask friends who’ve done the route before what protection they used. Although bear in mind that there’s a reasonable chance they might have missed something that you’ll find.

When you’ve had a good look at the route, you should have a reasonable idea of the quantity and size of protection to take. This is a skill that improves over time, but for starters, estimate the quantity by taking the length of the route (e.g. 30m), and the regularity you expect to be placing protection (e.g. every 2m). Now divide the first by the second (i.e. 15) to give you an estimate of how many runners you’re likely to place. Bear in mind that you won’t need a quickdraw for every one, some may be sling placements that are extended enough, others cam or hex placements that may not need extending.

It’s easier to judge the maximum size needed than it is to judge the minimum - simply because big cracks are easier to spot from the ground than thin ones. This isn’t such a bad thing, since taking a variety of small wires won’t weigh you down like a bunch of big cams. And it goes without saying that long crack pitches and the like will gobble protection of a similar size, so consider doubling up.

You should expect to change your rack quite radically between different venues. 50m routes in Pembroke may well require a triple set of wires, and a few cams to cover the size range (Black Diamond’s Camalots are a popular choice when you just want to carry a few to cover all the possibilities) whereas on a gritstone crack you’ll probably prefer a full set of cams and just a single set of wires.

A good gear tip for carrying ‘just in case’ nuts which don’t weight you down is to invest in a set of Wild Country Super Rocks - basically half-size rocks. Whilst not as strong as their full-sized brethren, they come into their own when you want to travel light.

I’ve never been a big fan of hexes, although this is probably due to the fact that my preferred routes don’t offer many hex placements, and I find it quicker to place a good cam. But regardless of what I think, just bear in mind that taking a full set of cams and a full set of hexes could get really heavy - ask yourself if you need it all.

After making your selection for the route it’s tempting to stuff the rest into the bottom of your sack, but for short pitches leave it accessible for your belayer instead. A well-aimed throw from the ground could help you out of a sticky situation higher up.

It will take a while before you’re confident about what take and what to leave behind. Speed up the learning process by taking stock of what gear you’ve got left at the top of each pitch, and consider leaving that behind next time - especially if it’s heavy.

Ropes
Whilst not traditionally considered a part of your rack, rope choice is an important tactical decision. On anything but the straightest, simplest routes, two ropes will always be better than one. Not only because of the reduction of drag and the wider field of gear that can be utilised, but because they’ll allow you to get down quicker and arranging belays will be easier. Personally I always go for 60m ropes - you can link pitches more easily and you have more rope to “belay well back” with. With a 60m half-rope, you can also just use one, doubled up, at short grit crags. On a trip away I like to take a skinny single rope (9.7mm) and a 9mm half rope – these work together really well on multi-pitches, and the single rope can be happily used on its own. But remember that skinny ropes need a belay device to match - a DMM Bugette, or Petzl Reversino for example.

Lightweight
Most of you will already have full racks of gear so I’m not suggesting that you immediately throw it all away and rush out to buy all-new super-light kit. But when you are in the market for some new gear then get the best and lightest you can afford - it’s better to have a good small rack that you can supplement with your climbing partner’s gear than a big, heavy one you’ll want to upgrade one day. The weight difference between a rack of ultra-light karabiners such as Wild Country Heliums and big old solid-gates is shockingly noticeable.
Being light isn’t just about krabs either. If you don’t extend your gear adequately, the rope drag you create will weigh you down far more than the heaviest gear imaginable, and all that cash you blew on Heliums will be wasted. Aim to keep your ropes perfectly straight, and consider taking a DMM Revolver (a karabiner with a built-in pulley) for the instances when you really can’t avoid a change in direction.

Minimalising gear
One of temptations with climbing gear is to modularise it. For example we now carry quickdraws where once we’d have just taken slings and karabiners. This approach can be very wasteful in terms of gear carried. Extending a cam, for example, will often involve placing the cam with karabiner attached, then adding a quickdraw to extend it, whereas threading a sling through the cam’s sling and clipping the ends with a single karabiner is just as effective and uses two less karabiners. Cams with integral double slings (like DMM’s 4CU and 3CU models) that can be extended without using extra gear are a great way of reducing the number of quickdraws you need to take.

Slingdraws are a great way to increase the functionality of your rack as they can be used as short quickdraws, long quickdraws, as well as slings for threading through holes and placing over spikes. In-situ threads on routes can often be clipped with simply a single karabiner, rather than a full quickdraw. Taking five or six solitary snaplink karabiners is also very useful for when you run out of quickdraws - simply place the spare krab into the tape of a cam that you’re confident you’re not going to be needing, and turn it into a quick-draw – the same trick works just as well for hexes and beefy wires.

Sometimes, lightweight gear proves to be false economy, for example, whilst it may look like a good idea to use a tiny super-light non-load-bearing karabiner to hold your nut-key, a full strength karabiner can be used to build a belay. If you’re carrying screw-gates just for the belay, why not put your nut-key on one of them? Another example of false economy is to use a lightweight belt to hold your chalkbag on – better to go for a length of full-strength cord that can also be used as a prusik loop, or abseiled from should you need to bail off. On the subject of prusiks, if you use a belay device with the autlo-bloc function (like a Petzl Reverso or BD ATC Guide) you can use this to ascend a rope or pair of ropes, allowing you to leave a dedicated ascender behind.

Finally, ask yourself whether you really need each item you are taking: screwgate karabiners are often taken in great numbers, whereas you can usually get away with two or three at the most. Very long slings are occasionally useful for building belays, but you can nearly always use your ropes to achieve the same results. If you like to use a cordelette, but struggle with carrying it, consider putting it in a clean second chalkbag. On single pitch routes – leave it behind and use your lead ropes to equalise your belay.

Arrangement
Once you’ve decided what to put on your harness, the second step is to arrange it in a helpful way. In addition to the weight-saving, taking less gear also makes it much easier to locate the stuff you need. Placing gear is often the most strenuous point on a route, and so the faster you can locate what you need and clip it in, the better. So long as you can get at the gear you need quickly and with either hand, whatever works is good. I personally like to keep things as simple as possible, I place wires on the front right, cams on front left, quick-draws on the rear left and right loops, and then items such as an abseil/belay device, nut key, prusiks and screw-gates at the very back. The logic behind this is to keep size critical items at the front where they can be easily selected, and less size critical quickdraws further back where you don’t need to see what you’re selecting.

I always rack wires by size over several oval karabiners (smalls, mediums, and larges), the oval karabiners seem better at avoiding ‘bunching’, and I avoid racking full sets independently as to do so requires you to remember which bunch is missing which sizes. Although some climbers like this because they can crag a wire from either side of their harness.

If you find yourself struggling to fit your optimised rack onto your harness, you should firstly consider changing your harness to one with more gear loops, many models of harness are not designed for trad climbing. Models designed in the UK are generally more focussed on carrying large trad racks than others. Often different sizes of harnesses have different quantities of gear loops, so if you’re between sizes, it may be better to opt for the bigger one. Harnesses with moulded gear loops offer far less racking ability than the ones with flexible plastic tubing because the latter can rack gear for their entire lengths.

Needless to say, avoid harnesses with three or less gear loops as you will simply run out of space (you may be able to add extra loops with some accessory cord and plastic tubing available from any big DIY store). If you are having to make the most of your harness, try Yosemite racking your matching quickdraws – that is, place your first quickdraws on your gear loop, then clip subsequent ones to the top karabiner of the first. As they are identical, you won’t need to get to the first one until the others are all used up.

Bandoliers (padded gear slings worn across your chest) are another way of boosting your rack ability, popular in North America, bandoliers are less common in the UK. Whilst they do offer ease of access to your gear, and are quick to transfer to your partner on the belay of a multi-pitch, they hang annoyingly in front of you when slab climbing, and tiringly behind you when on steep ground.

And finally
Going back through some old photos, I recently came across a series of shots of myself trying Strapadictomy at Froggatt. The photos showed various attempts years apart, and aside from radically different haircuts, the big difference was my rack. On the first attempt I was carrying it all: a full set of cams, a dozen quickdraws, two sets of nuts, and so on. It didn’t lead to success.The shots of my final, successful attempt had a severely reduced rack: two quickdraws and two large Rocks – which makes me wonder if all those mornings stacking shelves in M&S could have been better spent in bed…

Adrian Berry is one of the UK’s most experienced climbing coaches. He has produced two books, Sport Climbing + and Trad Climbing +. Adrian is also available for personal coaching - see www.positiveclimbing.com.



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