I’ve been fascinated with climbing for a long time. In college, I took a rock climbing class with my best friend. We were too broke to buy gear, so we ended up sitting in the cafeteria and dreaming big.
Fast-forward to having just turned 40. My body has been converting itself into fat. I wasn’t overweight, but I no longer felt fit. My lifelong passion, skiing and snowboarding, didn’t keep me physically active year-round, and in Maryland the season was short. My then-wife and I talked about rebalancing our lives, like we rebalanced our spending every year. We decided to put more time into taking care of ourselves and less time into working overtime. (Hopefully nobody from my workplace will read this).
I took the kids to the local rock climbing gym, Earth Treks in Rockville, Maryland. The kids were instantly hooked and so was I. A few weeks later I convinced my wife to try it, and although she resisted at first, she became hooked. It’s been five years, and we’ve never looked back. In fact, this kind of investment into my physical well-being was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Soon, we started buying our own gear. I scoured product reviews on Amazon, REI, Backcountry, Moosejaw, evo, and OutdoorGearLab. I made some buying choices that turned out to be good, and others that turned out to be a waste of money.
I’ve explained here what worked and what didn’t. This is based on my experience and what I learned from climbing friends and the community. I didn’t do a systematic analysis like OutdoorGearLab. I don’t have the hundreds of reviews that Amazon has. But I can tell you what this gear is like for me in real life.
1. Climbing Harness
Harnesses cost about $50. If you are set on saving $50, I actually know people who know how to tie harnesses using nothing but tubular webbing. But that’s time consuming, those harnesses are really uncomfortable and it’s impossible to go to the bathroom without untying the whole thing, and then retying it. Let’s not go there.
Since I wrote this original blog, harnesses have evolved to the point where they are basically all the same. I started out with an entry-level all-purpose harness, and when that got old, I bought a high end harness, and barely noticed any difference between the new harness and my old one.
Buy any padded, all-purpose harness that you like, and don’t sweat your decision. If you care, check OutdoorGearLab.
No matter what, you will need to replace your harness every 4-5 years, since the nylon eventually breaks down. Nylon breaks down faster if you let it get dirty, or if you leave it outside in the sun. And, don’t store your harness or your other rock gear near gasoline or paint thinner since the vapors will dissolve nylon.
2. Locking Carabiner
You’ll need a pear-shaped locking carabiner for belaying. Biners last forever, so don’t be cheap.
I learned not to bother comparing strength measurements, because all carabiners and most other gear for rock climbing are designed to withstand at least 3,000 pounds of force or 15,000 newtons. At this amount of force the human body breaks into pieces. There’s no point to making gear stronger than what the body can tolerate.
I’ve owned a few different locking biners. By far, my favorite is the Black Diamond Magnetron VaporLock because it’s super easy to use, and super light. It automatically locks when the gate closes. And now it comes in cool black.
3. ATC Belay Device
For an indoor gym with burly gym ropes, I really like the original, old-fashioned Black Diamond ATC. The other variants of the ATC, like the ATC-XP and ATC-Guide, are narrower and for me it has gotten tiring pulling a burly gym rope through them.
Common sense says that a Petzl GriGri 2 should be a safer belay device than an ATC because it auto-cams. This is helpful if you don’t trust your belayer, or if you take huge leader falls, or if your friend hangdogs for hours on end. I own one, but again, with a burly gym rope, the GriGri is so tight that I can’t even lower my kids down from the top of the climbing wall. These days, I only use my GriGri for trad climbing.
4. Climbing Shoes
For climbing shoes, I really recommend going for comfort – meaning an unlined leather “trad” shoe with a flat sole. I’ve messed around with shoes, and the pain really isn’t worth it. You don’t want to start climbing with aggressive shoes. They can hurt so much that they turn people off from the sport. I’ve watched my ex-wife and daughter complain that their feet hurt. Every complaint caused me to experience pangs of sympathetic pain. You won’t need aggressive shoes.. until you start entering bouldering competitions. I used to think that shoes were very important, but my son is sending 5.12 in comfortable Mythos, and enjoying every moment of it.
La Sportiva Mythos are pretty standard, or FiveTen Moccasyns. Because these are unlined leather, they stretch to fit your feet like gloves.
A bit of an overview: shoes come in three materials: old-fashioned unlined leather, synthetic, and lined leather. Old-fashioned unlined leather shoes are the most comfortable, break in well, and breathe well. But, they stretch terribly, so they are difficult to size correctly at the store. Synthetic shoes don’t stretch at all so they are easy to fit at the store, but quickly develop an ungodly stench. Lined leather shoes stretch just enough to offer a customized fit and are a bit easier to size.
Shoes also come in two shapes, called ‘trad’ and ‘aggressive’. Trad shoes, named for trad climbing, are flat-footed and more comfortable. Outdoor climbers need to keep their shoes on for long periods of time. Aggressive shoes have a pointy toe, downturned sole and narrow fit. They are usually uncomfortable if not painful, and are used for competitive climbing or bouldering.
The hardest thing about Mythos is sizing them. They will eventually stretch up to a full size. They also come in European sizes, and the conversion between European sizes and US sizes is inexact.
First, find your size on the ruler below from La Sportiva, which is more exact than using a table. Are you tight or loose in your typical US size? I am a little tight in a US size 10, and a little loose in a US size 10.5. Using this ruler I can see that my exact European size is close to 43.5.
Second, subtract half of one European size from this size.
One last word on the topic of shoe stink. Even with leather shoes, you will have some stink. You could wear thin socks, which would help. We wear our shoes barefoot, like most climbers. We spray our shoes after every climbing with the enzyme-based McNett Mirazyme Odor Eliminator and that works well. We pour this into a cheap spray bottle that we bought from Amazon. I think that any enzyme-based pet store odor eliminator would probably also work, although the McNett products are geared toward exercise equipment and maybe they contain specific enzymes.
I hope this helps someone. Climb on!