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When Homemade Gear Works, Sorta

When you don't have climbing gear, you can make your own, and suffer the consequences.

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If you were one of the nearly 50,000 climbers who watched a particular Weekend Whipper from years back,  “Homemade Gear Gone Wrong,” a video [no longer available—sorry!] of a climber attempting to lead a concrete expansion crack, you probably felt superior. What kind of idiot would, after all, use blocks of wood wrapped in tape for pro in a parallel-sided crack?

This kind of idiot: me.

When I started climbing in 1974, climbing gear wasn’t hard to find, it was impossible to find. So my partner Donnie Hunt and I made our own.

A stick of channel iron, sawed into random lengths, drilled out and slung with bootlace became large chocks. A couple of screwgate Rapid links were our carabiners. Donnie found 50 feet of nylon rope wound around a pier out at Crowder Lake near our hometown of Weatherford, Oklahoma, and we were ready to climb.

On the first ascent of a multi-pitch route in The Narrows of the Wichita Mountains, early 1980s. Real ropes and harnesses had by then replaced homemade gear.

We didn’t know about belay devices, or even belaying at all—the nearest real climber was Harvey T. Carter 600 miles away in Colorado—and wound the rope around our hands or nearby trees to catch falls.

Fortunately, our shoes held us back. In the early 1970s the choice of climbing footwear was limited to E.B.s or P.A.s and either cost around $50, or about $1,000 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation and relative teenage poverty. When you’re 14 and your job is throwing papers for the Weatherford Daily News, pricey shoes are out of reach, which was OK by us since we didn’t know that purpose-built climbing shoes even existed.

Limited by our street shoes and 50 feet of rope, and 10 feet of that was eaten up by our elaborate “tie-in” consisting of wrapping an end around a waist and finishing it with a knot we made up differently every time, Donnie and I could only scrap up short bluffs along a tributary of the Washita River, 5.7 at the hardest. The compacted clay didn’t have any cracks, but we carried our rack anyway, jangling from our belt loops like Chinese chimes.

We searched the plains of western Oklahoma, a land so barren it could sustain only spiders and even they had to stay in root cellars, but found nothing measurable to climb except for that one river bank. This became our version of a Rockreation. Donnie and I worked our two routes there, climbing up and down, inventing hold eliminates, and piecing together a crumbly traverse that we could exercise on and not wear out our precious rope.

A Christmas Eve outing on our bikes got us 25 miles to Red Rock Canyon, a state park with real sandstone cliffs. To our consternation, the walls there were too smooth for us, and there weren’t any cracks, either. We pedaled home that evening in a sleet and hailstorm, still having never used our chocks.

Donnie’s father was a meat distributor, and his work took him down to the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma about once a week.

The Wichitas, a string of granite mounds that run east-west for about 30 miles, promised actual climbing. Unknown to us at the time, Royal Robbins and Layton Kor had put up a few routes there, and there were other climbers, too, although it would be years before we would ever actually see one.

Bouldering with Donnie Hunt, on the Steak Dinner Boulder, Wichita Mountains, sometime in the late 1970s. This was an early outing for our newly purchased E.B.s.

Donnie’s father dropped us off Saturday morning. “See you sometime Sunday,” he said, as he roared off in his Impala.

To two kids from Grapes of Wrath country, the Wichitas were Eden. Clear water tumbled along rocky creek bottoms. There were buffalo, elk, deer. Even birds. The place was magical, too. Geronimo had escaped the cavalry by leaping off Medicine Bluff and turning into an eagle, and one of the last Comanche chiefs, Quanah Parker, built his Star House near there. The James gang had hid among the boulders. The natural mineral springs of Medicine Park were said to have cured consumption. Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde and Will Rogers visited.

Donnie and I didn’t know about any of that, but we felt it as we rambled along the hills seeking climbs. By sheer luck, we stumbled upon The Narrows, a 500-foot-deep gorge with cliffs that to us were as imposing and as impossible as the North America Wall. We climbed along the base. Donnie or I would lead up and anchor to bushes or little trees at 30 feet, then bring up the other. Our chocks still didn’t work, though. The few times we tried to set them they just rattled out, slid down the rope and rapped the belayer on the knuckles.

The sport of climbing as we knew it was invented entirely by us. Rules were as foreign as technique. For all we knew, we were the only climbers on Earth. If you had told us then that someday that there would be over a million climbers—girls even—and that people would practice inside, we would have turned you in for being crazy.

Donnie’s dad dropped us off at the Wichitas for several years until we learned to drive ourselves. Then, doors opened, especially up in Colorado where one winter we pulled into Rocky Mountain National Park bent on doing a new route on a North Face somewhere. Equipped with claw hammers we had filed into ice tools, and with that coil of rope and our chocks, we postholed toward the first big mountain we saw. After two days of hacking up ice slopes, a close call with an avalanche and the coldest bivy I’ve ever experienced, we got a stomp down much harsher and unforgiving than the piddling fall you saw on from the Whipper.

So what kind of fool charges up a concrete expansion crack protected with wood blocks wrapped with tape?

This kind.

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