Tool Users: Crack Climbing Gloves

Posted on: July 14, 2020


[This Tool Users story originally appeared in Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

A climber displays their worn tape gloves. [Photo] Andrew BurrA climber displays their worn tape gloves. [Photo] Andrew Burr

Suicide Rock, April 1973: John Long stood below the sharply curved granite spur of Paisano Overhang's twenty-foot roof. As Long studied the downward arch of the four- to six-inch wide crack, he knew: "This is really going to rip my hands up if I want to try this thing for real."

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A few weeks later, Long returned with a construction worker's abandoned gloves; he cut the fingers off and wrapped electrical tape around his wrists to keep them from sliding off. Clad in this rudimentary hand protection, he completed the first free ascent of Paisano Overhang. But rumors soon spread, claiming that Long had purposefully padded his hands to make them fit in the wide crack. Some years later, he went back and reclimbed Paisano Overhang with no hand protection at all, suffering "a bunch of bad gobies" on his repeat.

Climbing brings joy and misery in equal measure. Word of mouth contends that climbers have long appropriated the tools at hand to make heinous jams, if not comfortable, at least possible. Climbers from the 1970s recall cutting up car tire inner tubes for sticky elbow and kneepads or wearing full-body neoprene wetsuits for offwidths. These interventions quite literally didn't catch on, but the desire to mitigate some of climbing's endemic discomfort remains.

The kind of athletic tape climbers utilize to protect their hands today was initially developed for medical purposes. People have used cloth adhered directly to skin to treat open wounds for thousands of years. In 1893 Dr. Virgil Gibney took the idea to orthopedics to wrap sprained ankles. Three years later, the first iteration of nonelastic, cloth-based athletic tape appeared. By the 1920s it was standard for boxers and footballers to use it to prevent sports injuries. But when does a technology tip from the assistive to the augmentative?

John Long recalls first seeing a climber use athletic tape on their hands in 1971, when Jim Bridwell wrapped tape around his hands as though he were bandaging a wound. A few years later, Long saw Tony Yaniro devise the tape gloves we know today. Reusing tape gloves wasn't ideal, however. The adhesion quickly failed, and the gloves slid around ineffectually. In the late 1980s, climbing gear developer Charles Cole experimented with prototypes for more durable crack climbing gloves, using shoe rubber to protect hands from the vicissitudes of jamming. The first reusable crack gloves appeared on the market around the same time. They featured fingerless leather gloves with an open palm and a thick rubber backing.

Newer versions of crack climbing gloves aim to strike a balance between adequate protection and sensitivity. They are easy to put on and take off during routes with both face and crack climbing. The backing has gotten thinner and the leather more supple. Their reusability makes them a more ecological option: after each climbing trip, numerous tape gloves wind up in landfills (or are left behind at the base of climbs).

Yet climber enthusiasm for these broad improvements was tempered by concerns about "cheating." The gloves' effectiveness potentially disqualified one's efforts. One might be forgiven for thinking that climbing does not allow for vanity, until they ask a climber about their calluses. Climber vanity is one of labor, and proponents of reusable gloves argue that they are legitimate tools of the trade—not gimmicks that take the skill (or suffering) out of climbing. In a 1990 Rock and Ice review of Spider Mitts, George Bracksieck wrote, "While some purists may complain that Spider Mitts make jamming easier, using Mitts is not cheating—any more than is climbing with tape, sticky-soled shoes, or chalk." Three decades later, professional climber Ethan Pringle echoes Bracksieck's comment: "I think if you're a good enough crack climber you don't need [gloves]. But I want them."

Still, across online forums over the last two decades, climbers have derided reusable crack climbing gloves. In 2009 a Mountain Project thread asking "Are hand jammies lame?" received numerous affirmative responses that yes, they are. Perhaps in response to reusable gloves' perceived lameness, climbing gear manufacturers have tried to develop versions more palatable to climber culture. One recent model attempts to mimic the tape glove aesthetic while retaining reusable glove functionality; they are also white, making them much harder to discern from the more generally accepted disposables.

"As a novice I sported crack rash as a sign of machismo, but soon learned that scar tissue doesn't grip rock as well as original skin," Bracksieck wrote. Outside his pragmatism, he perhaps also hit upon a reason tape gloves maintain a degree of acceptability that reusable gloves have yet to attain: tape gloves, like callused hands, exhibit signs of use and wear—and work. For producing nothing "real," climbers exert a lot of effort. The only things to show for it are the stories and the scars. Like laborer's hands, the traces left by the route attest to the physical endeavor, the hours put in. Perhaps it is because some climbers work so hard for so little that vanity demands their torn tape gloves, if not their own skin, put their efforts on display.

[This Tool Users story originally appeared in Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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