Category Archives: Mountaineering

Consolidated Climbing Gear List

Indoors, at the gym

  1. Harness: Any new, all-purpose climbing harness. I think they are all mostly the same.
  2. Locking carabiner: I like Black Diamond Magnetron VaporLocks because they are super easy to clip, lock automatically, and light. Now they come in cool black.
  3. Belay device: I use the original Black Diamond ATC for gym climbing because it operates smoothly with burly gym ropes.
  4. Shoes: I use La Sportiva Mythos, a popular, unlined, flat-soled leather shoe, for comfort. Most performance climbing shoes hurt, a lot. Because they are unlined leather and will stretch, buy a half size too small.

Outdoors, Top-Roping at Carderock or Great Falls

  1. Harness: Any new, all-purpose climbing harness. I think they are all mostly the same.
  2. At least three locking carabiners: I like Black Diamond Magnetron VaporLocks because they are super easy to clip, lock automatically, and light. Now they come in cool black. You need one for belaying and two to set up your top-rope anchor.
  3. Belay device: I use a Black Diamond ATC-Guide. For outdoor climbing, your rope won’t be as burly as a gym rope, so you might want something with more bite than the classic ATC.
  4. Shoes: I use La Sportiva Mythos, a popular, unlined, flat-soled leather shoe, for comfort. Most performance climbing shoes hurt, a lot. Because they are unlined leather and will stretch, buy a half size too small.
  5. 40 meter climbing rope: Regular dynamic climbing ropes work, but they stretch a lot when weighted and that can make them frustrating in top-rope situations. If you’re willing to buy a rope reserved for just top-roping, get a semi-static rope. I like the new Sterling ReVo because it’s only slightly stretchy. It’s marketed to the indoor gym market so it is burly and will withstand heavy use and abrasion. Do not ever lead climb on a semi-static rope because it does not stretch enough to absorb a leader fall.
  6. 30-40 meters (100 feet) of burly (10+ mm) static rope for tying anchors. REI sells static line by the foot. Sterling sells odds and ends for even cheaper. Earth Treks sells static line as part of a kit.
  7. Climbing helmet. People don’t wear helmets at Carderock and Great Falls because after 100 years, all the loose rock has been kicked off the top. But climbers wear helmets most other places. I don’t think which helmet matters. The more expensive helmets have better ventilation.
  8. Rope tarp. I have a rope tarp, but my rope stubbornly crawls itself off the tarp. I think you can live without this.
  9. Large mountaineering backpack (30-45 liters) to store all this stuff, plus your lunch. Mountaineering backpacks have helpful a clip on top for carrying rope and they are easier to climb in than camping backpacks.
  10. Water bottle.

Outdoors, Seconding/Following on Trad

  1. Harness: Any new, all-purpose climbing harness. I think they are all almost the same.
  2. Climbing helmet. This protects against loose rock, and the occasional dropped gear – like that time I dropped my ATC from the top of Seneca Rocks. Check out these reviews for men and women.
  3. Climbing shoes: bring your comfortable, flat-footed (“trad”) climbing shoes like the La Sportiva Mythos. See above about why I recommend comfortable shoes like the Mythos for everything. Don’t try to climb all day in uncomfortable shoes or you will be the most unpleasant follower ever.
  4. Two ATC belay devices: The Black Diamond ATC Guide is good for trad because it can be used in guide mode. Clip one ATC onto your harness. Leave your backup ATC in your pack. People drop ATCs all the time up high. (I’ve dropped mine). If you drop your ATC and don’t have a backup, it becomes a chore to rappel down using a Munter hitch. And that rappelling was supposed to be fun!
  5. Optional Petzl GriGri: these are safer than ATCs for lead belaying. But, you still typically want an ATC to rappel down.
  6. Optional approach shoes: these are hiking shoes/boots lined with sticky climbing rubber for scrambling up the approach and occasional class five climbing. Regular hiking boots slip more on scree. Check out these reviews for men and women. I use FiveTen Camp Four GTX because although they aren’t the absolute best approach shoes for climbing class five terrain in, they are waterproof and great for hiking.
  7. Headlamp. Keep this in your backpack in case you end up stuck after dark. One time at Seneca Rocks in late November my rope got stuck up high after our final rappel.  By the time we dislodged it, which took two hours, it was pitch black. A friend had thankfully lent me her headlamp before heading down. I don’t know how I would have safely scrambled down the 550 vertical foot approach otherwise. Check out these reviews on headlamps.
  8. Three or more locking carabiners. I like Black Diamond Magnetron VaporLocks because they are super easy to clip, lock automatically, and light. Now they come in cool black. You need one carabiner for belaying, and two more for rappelling: one to clip in your autoblock, and one for your harness extension.
  9. One 60 cm nylon runner. Black Diamond 18mm nylon runner in 60 cm length (this will be yellow).  You will want this runner to build an autoblock for rappelling. Pre-sewn runners brake better than cordelettes. Do not get a Dyneema runner. Dyneema is theoretically strong, but in actual use it has weaknesses.
  10. One 120 cm nylon runner. Black Diamond 18mm nylon runner in 120 cm length (this will be blue).  You will use this runner to build a harness extension for rappelling. Do not get a Dyneema runner. Dyneema is theoretically strong, but in actual use it has weaknesses.
  11. Small (16-18 liter) climbing backpack. These ‘follower’s packs’ are designed for ease of movement and have a useful clip on top for carrying a rope. (Leaders often don’t use backpacks, or if they do, they use an even smaller pack). Check out these reviews on climbing backpacks.
  12. 2-3 liter hydration bladder. You need a lot of water for all-day climbing. I used to climb with a big jug of water in my climbing pack, but I rarely had the opportunity to actually pull it out and drink, so I ended up dehydrated. Also, that big jug bounced around in my pack and awkwardly shifted my weight around. Check out these reviews on hydration bladders. Personally, I use an inexpensive Platypus.

I hope this helps someone. Climb on!


Startup Gear for Outdoor Rock Climbing at Carderock and Great Falls

When I started climbing outdoors, I’d just finished Earth Treks’ Top Rope Systems I course. I was excited and wanted to start climbing outdoors right away. I didn’t know what to buy, so I just put together what I thought made sense.

Now I know. This is stuff I wish I’d known when I started out.

I climb top-rope mostly at Carderock, MD and Great Falls, VA, where top-rope anchors are set using burly static line wrapped around trees and large boulders.

1. Rope

There are a few kinds of climbing ropes. REI has a nice article about ropes.

I started with an all-around single climbing rope. These are dynamic ropes that are 9.5-10 mm in diameter and usually 60 or 70 meters in length. They stretch 30-40% when someone falls, and 10% when someone even just sits on the rope. But this got annoying quickly because if I fell from five feet up, I’d hit the deck from rope stretch alone. If I was halfway up, I’d lose at least 5 feet and have to re-climb that.

I really like the new semi-static ropes for top-roping. They stretch just enough to soften a top-rope fall, which is usually less than 1 foot, depending on slack.  These falls also don’t shock-load the trees or boulders.

If I wanted one rope that does everything, I’d get an all-around climbing rope like my Mammut Infinity in 70 meters. But I top-rope often enough that it made sense to get a burly, semi-static rope. I have the Sterling ReVo in 40 meters, which is all the length I need for Carderock and Great Falls.

2. A Static Rope for Tying Anchors

Any burly (10+ mm) static rope will do.  I use 100 feet of static rope for Carderock/Great Falls.

REI sells static rope by the foot. Brian tells me that Sterling sells odd ends cheaper than REI. Earth Treks also sells pre-cut static rope as part of a top roping kit.

Don’t buy rope at the hardware store! It is not designed for mountaineering and is much weaker than UIAA-rated static rope.

3. Two to Four More Locking Carabiners

I need 2 carabiners for my climbing rope to slide through my top-rope anchor.

I realized that biners last almost forever, so it didn’t make sense to be cheap. I own and love Black Diamond Magnetron Vaporlocks. They are light and automatically lock, making them idiot-proof. And now they come in cool black.

4. An Autoblock Cord

Falling from the top while setting up anchors is a common cause of death. This issue is personal for me. A friend of mine died looking over the lip before an ice climb. While finishing up your top-rope anchor, make sure you’re tied into the anchor with an autoblock cord.

Any 6-7 mm cordelette tied into a loop with a triple fisherman’s knot will work, but Brian and I both really love the pre-sewn Sterling hollow block loops in 19 in. They’re cheap, light, and do a better job of gripping the rope than cordelette.

If you buy two autoblock cords, then you’re all set for rappelling. The first cord will be your safety anchor. The second cord will be your autoblock in case you let go of your ATC during a rappel.

5. A Belay Device with Bite

It’s a little harder to stop falls outdoors than it is in the gym. You’ll be using a skinnier and probably a dry-coated rope that will want to slide through your ATC. Also, at Earth Treks, the rope wraps around the pulley at the top anchor twice, creating a hitch whenever the rope is loaded. You won’t have that extra help outdoors.

So, you will want a belay device with teeth. I think the ATC-Guide is a great choice. It’s versatile because it can also be used in guide mode for multi-pitch routes.

Another popular belay device is the Petzl GriGri 2, which automatically locks when the climber falls. My family owns one, but we never use it. It’s pretty heavy and it can’t be used in most rappelling situations. I would probably only use it if I was climbing with a friend that likes to hangdog for hours on end.

6. A Big Enough Backpack To Carry Everything

You will be carrying all of this, plus your shoes, your harness, at least a liter of water, and your lunch. Most people prefer to carry ropes inside of their bag rather than on top of it, if they can (but if their bag gets full, they secure the rope on top). This is a lot of gear, and a 15 or 20 liter backpack is not going to cut it. You will want a 30-40 liter crag pack.

A crag pack, which is usually the same thing as a summit pack, is different from a regular hiking backpack in that it is designed to be worn while climbing. Most crags involve some scrambling to access them. Crag packs are narrower than hiking backpacks and usually open only at the top.

I own the Petzl Bug, which is nice but at 18 L, it’s just too small to carry all my gear, so I don’t recommend it. (It might work if I divided the gear with a friend, though). Brian owns the Patagonia Cragsmith and says he is very happy with it. Black Diamond also carries crag packs and summit packs in different sizes.

7. Other things

I assume that you already own shoes, a harness, and a carabiner for belaying. See my post on gear for climbing indoors.

You probably want a helmet. People don’t use helmets at Great Falls and Carderock because there’s not much loose rock that could fall on climbers below, but if you move out to other crags, a helmet is a must.

I think you’d really like approach shoes, if you are willing to spend the money. These are sneakers or hiking boots with rock climbing rubber soles, so they make it easy to scramble around the crag without worrying so much about slipping. People say you can climb 5.9 in them. I’m not that awesome but I’ve climbed 5.6 outdoors in mine. La Sportiva and FiveTen are the major manufacturers of approach shoes. I have FiveTen Camp Fours and am happy with them.

You might want a rope tarp to keep your rope a little cleaner. I think these are much more useful than rope bags, because tarps are both cheaper and pack down smaller. I bought a rope bag that was well-reviewed, but I wish I hadn’t.

It’s nice to have a water bottle with a loop on it to clip into your harness.

8. What Not to Buy

Slings, runners, and tubular webbing can come in handy, but you don’t need them at this point. Tubular webbing is not as strong or abrasion-resistant as static rope.

Trad protection devices like nuts/chocks and cams/friends are often used for building anchors at other crags, but they are not a good idea at Carderock and Great Falls because the schist rock lining the Potomac is both friable and slippery. Protection either breaks out of the rock or slips out. We stick to using trees and boulders for anchors.

You don’t really need a rope bag, as I mentioned above. A tarp is both cheaper and packs down smaller.


Startup Gear for Indoor Rock Climbing

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.


The kids getting their first harnesses. Making them smile like this is priceless. 10/6/12

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!

Our Carderock guidebook on rakkup!

Brian Florence and I recently did a first edition Carderock guidebook on rakkup as a labor of love. The rakkup app works on iPhones and Android. The app is free on the Google and Apple stores. Our guidebook is an add-on purchase for $5.99.

Check it out!

This winter, when the leaves are gone from the trees, we will be busy taking new photographs for the second edition. After that, we are debating whether we should also publish a print version.

I think rakkup has the right idea for the future. Nobody wants to throw a heavy guidebook into their crag pack, which is already full of important things. But, everyone keeps their cell phones on their body, no matter what.

And, because the rakkup app uses the phone’s GPS, it navigates to crags in a way that a print guidebook can’t.

Climb on!