The First Modern Climbing Harness

Posted on: June 1, 2008

[Photo] Butch Adams

Forty years ago, there were no climbing harnesses. Americans used a bowline-on-a-coil (three loops around the waist, finished with a bowline) to attach themselves to the end of the rope; Europeans tied in with a loop or two around the chest. The latest rage was the swami belt, seventeen feet of one-inch tubular webbing wrapped around the waist and finished with a ring-bend knot. With any of these systems, if you fell (especially on overhangs), the resulting impact and constriction could evolve from unpleasant to life-threatening rather quickly. It would take an English teacher with an inventive mind to dream up something that shifted the load from the waist to the legs—and create the modern harness.

When Bill Forrest started climbing in 1959, he was young and bold. Consequently he fell a lot. An Army buddy had taught him to tie in with a bowline-on-a-coil, and each time he took a leader fall, the impact around Forrest’s waist would knock the wind out of him. During those early years, he often went around with some rope-related bruise or scrape on his chest or waist. That pain was the only part of the pursuit he didn’t like.

Forrest wanted to make the first ascent of the east face of Arizona’s Baboquivari Peak—probably the most overhanging route in the country at the time. Between 1964 and 1966, he and Gary Garbert made four unsuccessful attempts. (On his first try, as Forrest aided up Pitch 1, all of his gear popped out. Fortunately, he landed with a bounce on a soft canopy of grapevines.) Each time they jumared back up for another go, they spun about like spiders, hanging from their waist swamis as they stepped up hand-tied stirrups in an exhausting and uncomfortable effort. It became clear to Forrest that a more comfortable method of supporting body weight was needed.

Forrest located an industrial safety company in Denver, assessed their harnesses and had them sew up a special “climbing harness” of his own design. This prototype, which he called the “Butt Bucket,” consisted of a three-inch-wide industrial webbing belt, closed in front with a metal buckle, with two-inch-wide webbing stitched around it and a rip-stop nylon belay seat sewn to the back. Forrest and Garbert used it on an ascent of the Diamond’s Black Dagger in 1967. But while easier to deploy than a conventional belayseat, the Butt Bucket couldn’t be used for leading; a fall would have destroyed the family jewels.

Forrest was then teaching English at Boulder, Colorado’s Huron Junior High, and he had evening access to the school shop. There, he began to make special metal clips for carrying pitons and nuts. In order to create the bandolier to carry them, he acquired a bar-tack sewing machine. When he found that this machine could stitch together nylon webbing, he used it to combine a swami with leg loops.

Field-testing the new harness was mandatory. In the spring of ’67, immediately after his last class let out, Forrest would jump into his VW Bug, race to the sandstone crags near Morrison and jumar up an overhang via a rope he’d fixed at the top. By transferring the load to the thighs, the two-piece harness made falling a lot less painful, and a lot safer too. It also substantially alleviated the discomfort of jumaring and hanging belays.

In the spring of 1968, Forrest and George Hurley put the new harness (along with the daisy chain, another Forrest invention) to good use when they completed the first ascent of Baboquivari’s east face. Its comfort convinced him that every climber in the country would want one.

Forrest quit his teaching job in 1968 to start a small manufacturing company called Forrest Mountain-eering. To help make ends meet, he rented out rooms to climbers, who became willing guinea pigs for his new gear. After much field-testing, in late spring of that same year, he walked into the Boulder’s Holubar store with a paper grocery bag full of twelve harnesses. The proprietor, Jim Kack, immediately bought them all.

Though the materials are more refined, modern climbing harnesses still employ the same basic principle: get the load off the waist and onto the thighs.

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