CalARA: On Rope

Climbing Gear


The most basic gear is your climbing harness.  The basic trade off in harnesses for adventure racing is size/weight vs. comfort.     The downside of an ultralight harness?  OUCH!  This harness is going to cut into you so you don’t want to spend too much time in it.  However, it is perfect for short rappels.


Many races will allow you to use your bike helmet for climbing.  For those that require a climbing specific helmet, you may want to consider buying a hybrid helmet like the Kong Scarab. Most racers will permit the use of the Kong for climbing, horseback and whitewater.  It is important to note that although this helmet is “CE certified” for mountain bike riding, it is not certified by either Snell or ANSI as of the date of this note.  This means the helmet cannot be used for many adventure racing biking event, since more race directors will require a Snell or ANSI certified helmet.  (Short article on the CE standard for biking helmets)


We like to use oversized, self locking carabiners as the core connection devices in our system.  These are a little bigger, slightly more expensive and even a tad heavier than smaller locking ‘biners, but the added convenience and utility make this style ‘biner worth the tradeoff.  For safety backup, we may use smaller screwlock ‘biners.

Note, for applications where you don’t need a locking carabiner, consider an ultralight wire gate , which will be around half the weight of a locking device.

Rappelling devices

For most applications, any ATC style device will do the trick.

Runners, lanyard, daisy chains, etc.

As climbers, we have many many (many!) runners of various lengths and types.  We typically prefer using Spectra based runners in our systems, as they are light and don’t absorb water the way nylon does.  Spectra runners are sewn is specific lengths, as Spectra webbing is difficult to securely tie.

Race directors will often specify whether nylon is required or any type of runner can be used.  If no specification is given, you can use the type of runner you are most comfortable with.  A general note:  for racers who are new to climbing or don’t want to spend a lot of time understanding climbing safety issues, the best option is probably to buy some sewn runners, either all nylon or all Spectra.  Additional risk is involved when racers tie their own runners or mix nylon and Spectra in their climbing systems.

The Traverse

The most basic skill is the traverse.  In adventure racing, virtually every technical traverse will be a Tyrolean traverse, which involves a rope or wire being attached at each end to a fixed object, allowing a racer to pull themselves across the line to avoid an obstacle like a river or canyon.  Typically, a racer will be wearing a commercial climbing harness, and will affix themselves to the rope using a carabineer (or a pulley if permitted).  The racer then pulls themselves across the rope (typically with feet NOT touching the rope).  Bike gloves make the process more fun.  A good article on proper techniques is found here.

Note, that you may find yourself facing a traverse even if you haven’t been told you need any climbing skills and haven’t been provided any gear.  It is simple for a race director to have racers undertake a short, low level traverse using nothing more than a improvised harness and a carabiner.  Typically, racers would be shown how to tie an improvised harness using climbing webbing (such as a ranger-style harness).  After adequate inspection by a race staff member, the racer is on their way.

Ascending (Jummaring)

Ascending is less common than traverse or rappels and requires specialized and somewhat expensive equipment.  Like rappelling, if not done correctly, death or severe injury is a pretty good bet.  Unlike rappelling, where it’s pretty darn hard to get hurt during a race, ascending requires a bit more skill and practice, especially if rope changeovers are involved.  The good news is that many races will include a stand alone safety line – which is a totally independent line that you are tied into.  This means that if somehow your entire ascending system fails (which will only happen due to human error!), you still will be ok.

Note there are various techniques for ascending, and proper instruction here is a must.  A one day climbing class should be able to teach you the basics of rappelling and ascending, and is a great investment.  Practice, however, is also key for ascending, as you will need some technique to comfortably complete an ascent using mechanical ascenders.  Finding qualified climbers in your area will help you develop your ropes skills.

Rappelling (Abseiling) for Adventure Racers

The good news is that rappelling is pretty easy and effortless when done properly.  With a good race director, rappelling should also be very safe.

Climbers will tell you that rappelling can be the most dangerous part of a climb – and they are correct.  Improvised rappelling requires the choice of a good anchor and care must be taken not to rappel off then end of the rope!  Luckily with a properly set up and supervised rappel leg, that 100 foot descent may be the safest leg of your race..

The basic gear for a short rappel is a harness, a helmet, one locking carabineer, and a belay device.

Most races will require the harness to be commercially manufactured and helmets may be required to be climbing specific, or a bike helmet may be permitted.  The carabineer may be required to be auto locking (perhaps a wide HMS style ‘biner, which work well for rappels) and the racer’s choice of rappelling plates or devices.  The most common style rappelling device is an “ATC” style device. For races involving epic rappels (think 500 ft+), race directors may require a “figure eight” device, like the Black Diamond Super 8.  Figure 8’s are generally disliked with a passion in American climbing circles, as the device will twist the rope you are using and it is far easier to drop a figure 8 when preparing your gear than it is to drop an ATC.  However, figure 8’s can accommodate the very large diameter rope used for epic rappels and may be required for that reason.  (Note: a typical ATC style device will be rated to be used with up to an 11 mm rope.  However, if the rope is new and your hands are tired, good luck getting an 11 mm rope into your device!).

Here is a short article on how to rappel, but do yourself a favor and get someone to show you how to do it.  As noted above, during a race, rappels are pretty darn safe, thanks to the expert rope setting and mandatory safety checks involved in most races.  In contrast, doing your own rigging requires a knowledge of proper rope rigging technique and proper methods to tie in and perform safety checks – a simple mistake can kill you.

Basic Rock Climbing Gear

It is something that has been creeping into your thoughts, but then reality sets in as you wonder what it is going to take to get into rock climbing. Actually, not much!! As a new climber the investment is rather minimum compared to other sports. Yes, climbing can be VERY expensive, but you need to be an experience climber before the dollar signs start adding up.

If you are starting out, my suggestion is go hit a gym the first few times to see if this is something that you are going to enjoy. There are two types of people: yeah I tried it, and it was not for me or Man, how have I lived without it. This is so much fun! Warning, climbing is and can be addictive. (People are not climbing the walls for nothing)

If you fall into the second group and find yourself dreaming on being on the ropes and your office is covered with climbing pictures. It is time to invest in the basics: harness, shoes, and a chalk bag. (A belay device might be needed if your climbing gym does not supply one or you are climbing outdoors.)

The harness is your personal safety piece, which is made of nylon webbing. The great thing about harnesses is that a $40 harness is as safe as a $120 one. They will have a CEN (European Committee of Standardisation) or UIAA (International Federation of Mountaineering Associations) on them saying that they meet the safety and reliability standards set by these agencies. (You want to make sure that all your safety equipment has at least one of these labels.)  I would recommend staying with the well-known climbing brands (such as: Petzl, Black Diamond (BD), Misty Mountain, Mammut, and Singing Rock) and purchasing them at an established sporting good store or the local rock climbing gym.

Comfort is important. You will be hanging from your harness, which is not pleasant if you have the wrong harness for you. Try the harness on before you buy it and hang on it. Most sporting stores that sell climbing equipment have a rope that you can tie into to see how the harness feels when you are hanging. Make sure the harness has enough padding that it is not cutting into your back or your legs.

Ease of use is so important to make sure that when you put on your harness it is on properly. When you are trying it on, see how easy it is to put on. Do the leg loops twist around easy, do you find yourself putting it on upside-down, and do the leg straps come undone easily? My current harness I find that my leg loops get reversed, and I might need to put on the harness two to three times before I put it on correctly. This is a hassle.

Shoes ($70-$130): You can climb in your sneakers or bare feet, but you will not have the benefit of new technology of climbing rubber. The rubber that is used on the bottom is designed to conform and provide traction to rock surfaces. (i.e. help you climb better, especially on more technical or smaller features.) The shoes are supposed to be tight fitting to the point that they hurt to a certain degree.

If you are new to climbing and not use to wedging your feet into a shoe 2 sizes smaller than normal, I would recommend getting them one size smaller. You want the shoes to be snug to your feet, with your toes touching the tips. If they have a lot of room, you will not get the feel of the rock (or wall), which can hold you back on more technical climbs.

Try on all types of shoes. Make sure the place that you are trying them on has climbing wall to test the shoe. See how the different shoes perform on different features. When you step on a big hold, does the back of the shoe cut into your skin. As you balance on a tiny hold, does the shoe conform to the hold making it easy for your foot to stay in place? How does the shoe fit? Keep in mind that you may need to be in your shoe from 10 minutes on a climb to a few hours, if you are going to be climbing outdoors. How do you think your feet would like it?

Chalk Bag ($20-$30): The most important thing about a calk bag is making a statement. Chalk bags come in all kinds shape, sizes, and colors. I have seen them made out of Sesame Street characters (Grover), bright lime green fussy material (think 70’s shaggy rug), to plain color bags. These bags hold the chalk to dry your sweaty palms, so that you gripe the rock, preventing you from slipping off. Just find a bag that fits your style.

Belay device ($15-$90) and a locking carabiner ($10-$17): If your climbing gym does not provide a belay device or you will be climbing/rappelling outdoors, you will need to purchase a belay device, a friction device to control the rope, protecting the climber from falling to the ground. It is also the device that you can use to rappel on a rope.

To attach the belay device to your harness you also need to purchase a locking carabiner. Make sure that it a climbing grade, able to hold on the major axis (top to bottom) at least 20 kN of force while the carabiner is locked. This should be labeled on the spine of the carabiner.

It is highly recommended that you do not purchase any used climbing gear for safety reasons. The harness is made out of nylon, which if it is subjected to long exposure to sunlight or chemicals, compromises its safety integrity and puts you at risk. Also, most manufactures recommend replacing any nylon gear after 5 years, no matter what condition is in, due to the nylon strength naturally deteriorating over time. With metal pieces like the belay device and carabiner, it is recommended that they be replace after they has been dropped from high heights. An unseen stress fracture can cause the device to break while being used. Even if a piece of gear looks new, you do not know the history of the gear and how it was taken care of.  You do not want to know as you are falling that there was something wrong with your gear. It is cheap insurance to buy new and take care of your equipment properly.

All in all, be prepared to spend about $150-$170 dollars for new equipment. Think of it as an investment into new challenges and in having fun. Now you know the basics in climbing gear.