Dirtbaggery, Vol. 2: Saving Time, Wasting Time and Explaining Climbing on the Internet

Posted on: November 1, 2012


This article was written with the author's tongue placed firmly in his cheek. It is not meant as a "How To" for beginning climbers, and it assumes a certain level of pre-existing technical knowledge. —Ed.

As a beginning climber, I would read Internet forums and climbing blogs for hours. I justified these pupil-glazing sessions as "research" into a world I knew nothing about. As a more experienced climber, I still read Internet forums and climbing blogs for hours. I just no longer attempt to justify this patently unproductive behavior. And rather than continuing to learn about climbing, I sometimes wonder if my caffeine-powered screen time is having the opposite effect. Will these multi-page discussions of the same five subjects eventually make me afraid of micro-fractured carabiners and unwilling to climb without double-secret backup belay loops? In the interest of helping others avoid such hours fraught with peril, I'm going to attempt to answer nearly every Internet climbing conundrum in the span of a single Q&A session. This is the literary equivalent of a 5.8 in the Gunks. Everywhere else, it's 5.10. I just hope you can make it through before your eyes glaze over.

Q: Is climbing safe?

A: No. But you can make it safer by worrying about the things that actually cause the most accidents, such as falling while unroped on exposed, "easy" terrain, rappel-rigging mistakes and communication errors.

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Q: Is rappelling safe?

A: No, but it's safer if you weight your rappel rope before unclipping from the anchor, knot the ends of your rope and make sure your rope is centered in the anchor.

Q: How do I connect myself to rappel stations?

A: Temporarily repurpose a sling or two, and keep them weighted/taut even if there's a nice ledge at your anchor. This way you can't prematurely unclip yourself or anyone else.

Q: Do I need to shell out the big bucks on one of those dry-treated, bi-pattern ropes?

A: No. Get the one that's 70m long and costs the least. Skinnier ropes wear out faster, but a 9.2mm 70m weighs about .8kG (1.7lbs) less than a 10.2mm 70m. Learn how many of your arm-lengths will pull in half the rope. After you take it out of the package, mark the middle with a Sharpie.

Q: Won't that weaken the rope?

A: No, evidence shows that ropes break when stretched across sharp edges. People die by rappelling off their ropes. Nobody has died because of Sharpies, but every year people rappel off the end of a non-centered rope. And if you're like 95% of rope buyers contemplating spending more for a dry-treated rope, think about how often you'll be climbing in the rain.

Q: Do I need to learn about half ropes?

A: This depends. Is Earl Grey a drink, or a person?

Earl Grey is a person.

A: Half ropes don't apply to you.

Q: Well, what about double ropes?

A: Don't humour me.

Q: What about twin ropes?

A: These are pairs of skinnier ropes that you use together and treat as a single cord. You clip them both to every piece and belay them at the same time. They make the most sense when surrounding yourself with sharp implements in the winter, or expecting long rappels to get down.

Q: I was visiting your home climbing area and that 5.10b/c would definitely have just been 5.10b at my home climbing area. Are you guys a bunch of softies or what?

A: This is why man invented mountainproject.com.

Q: What's the longest distance you've ever fallen?

A: Actual Distance x (1 + # of decades since fall/10)

Q: Is this foreign brand of gear safe?

A: If it says UIAA on it, probably. Climbers all over the world design and produce great products. They also tend to warm up on our projects, and eat tastier food in the process. Though we generally surpass them at owning lots of stuff, inventing products we don't need and arguing on the Internet.

Q: Is this type of gear any good?

A: Everything today is better than anything 20 years ago. The best gear generally becomes the most popular for good reason.

Q: How do I avoid some belaying errors?

A: Stand directly beneath the first piece of protection while belaying a leader. Hang your guide-style device off the anchor to belay up your follower.

Q: Isn't belaying directly off the anchor dangerous because the belayer might pay less attention?

A: No. Distracted climbers will neither suspend nor circumvent simple physics.

Q: Do I need a second belay loop on my harness?

A: No. Belay loops have broken one time. This was from being repeatedly sawed-through by a thinner sling fixed in one spot. Whenever you are on your way up a multipitch climb, you've already got a second belay loop, where you tied into the rope. Use this if you need a second option.

Q: I climbed a route the other day and it was easy for me. Doesn't this route have too many bolts on it?

A: Only if someone other than the first climber placed them, or if they are next to protectable cracks.

Q: Doesn't this other route need a few more bolts?

A: It sounds like you did not send.

Q: Well how am I supposed to get better so I can justify my complaints about over-bolting?

A: Hangboard, gym climb, boulder, go cragging. In that order. Getting older and thinking more about how good you used to be has been shown to work, as well.

Q: What's a cragging pack?

A: It's a marketing gimmick. If you're only going cragging, you don't need to buy a fancy pack. You do, however, need to bring tasty food.

Q: Why should I worry about food?

A: Because when you move beyond cragging, you'll have to eat chalky bars and dehydrated pouches of food-like substances. Yet somehow you'll still always want more of it.

Q: So should I bring more food into the mountains?

A: Yes. Always.

Q: What else will I need when I move beyond cragging?

A: More lightweight clothes, less heavy hardware. Bring a fancy windshirt and leave behind your cordelettes, heavy lockers, radios and rap rings.

Q: Without a piece of long cord, how will I build anchors?

A: Place solid gear in solid ice/rock/snow, everything else is situational. Sometimes a cordelette makes sense. However you build an anchor, clove hitch yourself into it with the rope; it's the strongest and stretchiest thing you have and you are already connected to it. You can adjust the length of your connection without disconnecting from the anchor.

Q: Can I just clove hitch a few solid pieces together for my anchor?

A: Yes.

Q: Didn't I read that my anchor should be static, redundant, equalized and have no extension?

A: Probably so. You were also taught to floss daily, always sport clean underwear and never reuse your camp dishes for three days without a thorough washing. Some things make sense on paper but prove naively optimistic in the mountains.

Q: What if a piece rips out, won't it shock-load the others?

A: The term "shock-loading" is a scary-sounding, meaningless, yet bafflingly persistent phenomenon, promulgated endlessly on the Internet. It's like a Justin Bieber video.

Q: Doesn't it mean weighting a piece all-of-a-sudden?

A: "All-of-a-sudden?" Without getting too technical here, Mr. wizard, this mysterious shock-loading sounds like falling. And falling directly on an anchor, even if one or more of your pieces pull, will not magically multiply the kiloNewtons exerted on your system. In fact, the failed pieces will often absorb part of the load.

Q: But will I eventually have to retire my rope because of falls?

A: Use it until it's soft, fuzzy or white bits from the inside have found their way to the outside.

[Disclaimer: Manufacturers generally give ropes a shelf life of 10 years (unused), 5 years of use and a varying number of falls before retiring, even without visible wear.]

Q: When my rope gets dirty, should I wash it?

A: Won't hurt, might help, but it's not very important overall. As desert canyoneers will attest, dirt and grit makes your rope more likely to groove your hardware and stain your hands. If you've got a filthy cord, just use Woolite or warm water and a gentle washing machine cycle or bathtub. Although grit within the fabric of a dirty rope can cut the inner fibers, even a dirty rope will still be strong enough to handle the stresses of climbing. But while your wet rope is flaked out and drying, you can practice your knots. Just not too many.

Q: Which knots do I need to know?

A: Clove hitch, overhand, figure eight, clove hitch some more, one-handed clove hitch for style points.

Q: But don't I need to learn the...

A: Nope.

Q: What about tying webbing together?

A: Overhand.

Q: Tying ropes together for rappels?

A: Overhand.

Q: Tying into the middle of a rope on a glacier?

A: Overhand.

Q: But I learned about the alpine butterfly...

A: I learned about a lot of things I didn't need. It's called wasting time on the Internet.

Q: I want to do more climbing, but I live in some corn-intensive state where mayonnaise is a food group.

A: Browse through different guidebooks and read about nearby states. Take a road trip. Introduce yourself to someone from a state with climbing, such as Colorado.

Q: How can I tell that someone is from Colorado?

A: Just give them five minutes. They'll tell you.

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