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Gear: So You Want to be an Intermediate?

Submitted by camhead on 2014-10-20

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by Paul Nelson

Okay, so you’ve been climbing for about a year. You know that you love the sport and are ready to be a "lifer." You’ve got the gym membership, you’re getting solid on that rad white tape 5.9, and maybe you’re even getting all your local toprope routes wired. But, I hate to break it to you, a lot of the time “first wave” gear that brand-new climbers get set up with by that salesperson at REI is simply not good or specific enough for your long-term rock climbing goals, whether they are sport, trad, bouldering, or beyond.

This brief article should give you, the seasoned beginner, some ideas of gear to invest in as you become more skilled and well-rounded. I’m not really going to go into the specifics of various brands (we’ll be doing that in the future with specific gear reviews), or into details of this cam versus that cam. Rather, just treat these pointers as directions for you as you strive to make your climbing more frequent, more specific, and better.

Finally, all these ideas about gear really come down to opinion; if I leave out your favorite piece of gear, make fun of it, or if you think some of the gear below is just a cheesy gimmick, feel free to roast me in the comments!


You may have bought a rack of quickdraws already, but chances are that you did not know about the various options that you had when you got them. And if you’ve just been toproping or gym climbing up until this point, here’s what to look for in a brand new rack’o’draws.

First off, for single-pitch sport climbing, you will probably never really be that concerned about the weight of your gear; if you’re on a climb that is so hard that the weight of your draws is a factor, you’ll probably be leaving them pre-hung for that redpoint burn. So, those ultra-light biners connected by a strip of webbing that is barely a third of an inch thick? Not really necessary. Furthermore, if you are going to be performing the fabled “draw-grab” as part of your sport projecting, you’ll want a dogbone (the webbing between biners) that is big and beefy enough to hold onto! As for the biners, keylocks (which lack the notch on the nose of the biner where it meets the gate), are much smoother for clipping and unclipping from the rope or a bolt hanger.

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Smooth nose, good. Skinny dogbone, meh

If you are looking to get into trad climbing, it is a good idea to us extendable shoulder-length slings, rather than sport quickdraws to clip to your stoppers or cams– the stiffness of a sport quickdraw’s dogbone is actually enough to push tenuous gear placements out of their original spot. If you do this, try to stay away from clipping your trad draws to bolts on sport climbs, since sometimes the metal of a bolt can carve small gouges into a biner. These gouges are not a huge deal in compromising the strength of a biner, but they CAN wind up cutting the nylon of a cam sling or a rope later on. Bottom line, if you are getting into both sport and trad, try to keep your draws separate.

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Extendable draw for trad climbing


Especially because I learned to climb in the arid West, I used to think that those toothbrushes that boulderers and sport climbers carry around were ridiculous. Were climbers really so nitpicky that they needed to brush holds? The answer is yes, and on heavily chalked routes, or in high humidity areas, it is common courtesy to brush holds, leaving them more grippy for the next climber.

Any toothbrush can work, of course, but many climbers swear by boar’s hair brushes, not only for their coarseness but for how gentle they are on softer rocks such as sandstone. Try not to use plastic-bristled brushes, and NEVER use wire brushes, which will really damage the rock.

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Evolv's Boar's Hair Brush, less than $5


Up until just a few years ago, the consensus was that obsessive, sport-specific training was just for advanced climbers. However, in the case of finger strength, it is never too early to start building your tendons, especially since they can take years to strengthen. And no climber has ever existed who said, “You know what? I think my fingers don’t need to be any stronger!”

There are dozens of hangboards to choose from out there, including several for less than $100. Look for one that has tiered rows of holds, with each row being slightly farther out than the one below it (in other words, not just a flat face). A good variety of pockets and edges are essential; big slopers and pinches less so.

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The Metolius Simulator Hangboard

Most important, get a book like The Rock Climber’s Training Manual. Hangboarding is an exercise that is incredibly safe and controlled, but only if you know what you are doing. Otherwise, you may injure a tendon and revert to beginner status!


The topic of “what shoes should I buy” is enough to fill dozens of articles, but here are a few pointers. Chances are, the first pair of shoes that you bought as a climber were clunky, heavy, stiff . There is nothing wrong with that. As a beginner, your feet are not too strong and need lots of support in order to “learn” how to stand on edges, and your footwork was probably so sloppy that you would not want to scrape up a new pair of $160 shoes.

But now you’re a technician with laser-precise footwork! What to buy? The most important thing to consider is the type of rock and climbing you want to do, and be aware that eventually you will probably have at least two or three pairs specific to a certain style.

Blank slabs that require smearing the entire ball of your foot onto the rock? You’ll want something like the Five Ten Moccasym or La Sportiva Mythos. Precise edging on vertical terrain? Consider something that is stiffer with a more defined toe, like the Five Ten Anasazi Velcro or Sportiva Katana. Overhung rock with tiny pockets or subtle heelhooks? Check out something with more of a hooked, downturned toe, like the Five Ten Blackwing or Sportiva Solution. Crack climbing? You may want a slipper, or a really stiff lace-up, depending on your pain tolerance.


I’ve broken the “no specific brands” guideline here, since by this point the Petzl Gri Gri is a venerable institution (you can only buy the Gri Gri 2 these days, the original is now discontinued). Many new climbers might already be familiar with a locking-assisted device such as the Gri Gri from their gym, but probably just stuck with a tube-style belay/rappel device when they bought their new climbing gear. However, especially given the increasing skinniness of ropes, some sort of locking-assisted device is not a luxury, but mandatory for safety.

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Gri Gris are not just for single pitch sport climbing– they are nice for trad climbing, vital for catching factor-two falls on multi-pitches, and are indispensable on big walls, not just as a belay device, but for hauling gear as well. I’ve even used my Gri Gri to unflip rafts on river trips. Sometimes, locking-assisted devices can lock up too abruptly, swinging a falling climber violently into the wall or shock-loading gear, but practice with the art of the “soft catch” alleviates this issue.

Just one bit of opinion here: there are many other locking-assisted devices out there. One type, which rhymes with “Grinch” has been involved in a disproportionate number of accidents, including at least one fatality. This is not because the device is inherently dangerous, but rather because the Gri Gri has become such a universal tool that belayers assume that all other devices behave like it. Whatever type of locking-assisted belay device you use, practice a LOT with it in a controlled environment before catching those 60 foot whippers.


What costs less than $20 to make yourself, can save you from broken ankles, and even get you up routes after you’ve gotten in over your head? The magic stickclip! Many climbers, particularly newer ones or some traddies, look down at stickclips as sissified tools for climbers who lack the cajones to face a groundfall (a few years ago, I was climbing next to two older, dyed-in-the-wool traddies who were taking repeated groundfalls on a sport line, trying to get to the first bolt. When I offered them a stickclip, they proudly declared that they were trad climbers, and did not need those weakling stickclips. I did not think they were bold, I thought they were ridiculous).

At any rate, sport climbing is supposed to be safe, and many sport routes are actually bolted with the assumption that they will be stickclipped, with high first bolts and hard moves right off the ground. Beyond that, the higher a first bolt is, the less likely you are to hit the ground should you fall while making that second or third clip.

To make a stickclip is as simple as a trip to the hardware store– just attach a clamp to a painter’s pole with a hose clamp. If you want to get really fancy, Trango and other climbing brands make some other attachments such as the Squid for your pole.


Yeah, yeah, most climbers do not wear helmets, and every time there is a climbing accident, some condescending safety-patrol type always asks “was the victim wearing a helmet?” Although I probably do not wear a helmet as much as I should, they should be considered essential gear, and you should definitely invest in one if you have not already.

Many beginners buy the least-expensive climbing helmets, some of which are intended only to protect your head from rockfall, and not from, say, an upside-down fall that smacks you sideways into the rock. Check your helmet’s specs to see what it is intended for, and consider investing in a new-school, padded softie helmet that can protect your head from rockfall, whippers, and side impacts.


There are many more gadgets and essentials you may want to get as your addiction to climbing increases. Belay gloves, belay glasses, fifi hooks, not to mention the dozens of options for trad gear. However, there are a few pieces of gear that I personally think are just gimmicks, and probably not essential despite their selling points, including but not limited to anything marketed as “ultra-light” if you are not an Alpinist, Daisy Chains if you are not an aid climber, and hand-jammies if you are not a hemophiliac.


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It's worth noting that the Squid is the most baller stick clip ever due to how easily you can remove draws above you.

Wanna try a route that is too hard for you and everyone in your group? Go for it anyways, you can just lower off and grab the draws with the Squid.
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I'll just add that while Magnus is right about how easy it is to retrieve draws with the squid, it is only slightly more difficult to do so with the home made painters pole/clamp which will cost you much less than just the squid attachment that you would buy from Trango (then you still have to buy the painters pole).

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