How Climbing Gear Has Evolved Over the Past 50 Years

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Jim Erickson in Eldorado Canyon, CO, in 2020, demo’ing gear from 1970.

Jim Erickson in Eldorado Canyon, CO, in 2020, demo’ing gear from 1970.

A rock climber in 1970, attempting a free ascent of Yellow Spur or the Naked Edge in Eldorado Springs Canyon, Colorado, would get out of his car in a pair of Kletterschuhe wearing corduroy knickers, knicker socks, and a cotton T-shirt. He would tie a swami belt around his waist, put a gear sling over his shoulder, and rack up about 15 Chrome-Moly pitons and 15 to 20 aluminum carabiners, both oval and D. A hammer holster for his piton hammer was attached to his swami belt, and the hammer itself was already tied to a parachute cord looped over the other shoulder, so it could never be dropped more than about 24 inches. A couple of four-foot-long, flat nylon runners and three very short loops of flat 5/8 inch webbing completed the rack. A coiled 45 meter, 11mm twisted nylon leading rope was then thrown over the shoulder, and his partner had a duplicate rope (8mm or 9mm) for a haul and/or rap line. The climbers might carry a pint of water to the base (or up on the rock) and possibly a Snickers bar in the pocket. The large climbing pack was often left in the car or at camp. Off to the climb!

In the 50 years since, much has changed, and were you to gear up for either climb today, your kit would be much different—safer, lighter, and was more specialized and streamlined. Here are the big evolutions I’ve seen in gear during my 58 years in the sport, going back to my first climbing excursions at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, in 1962, on up through the present where you’ll often find me pulling plastic in the rock gym.

Ropes

In 1970, all climbers were leading on nylon ropes. Nylon climbing ropes had been used in the 1950s and ‘60s, making leader falls significantly safer than on traditional, relatively static, Manila hemp ropes. By 1970, more American climbers were able to afford kernmantel nylon ropes, 11mm in diameter and 40 meters in length, imported from Europe and costing twice the price, rather than the twisted ropes (Goldline and Columbian nylon) made in the USA. Over the last 50 years, as the forces of leader falls have been better analyzed, climbing ropes have improved. Today, a climber can buy a 70-meter 8.6mm rope that handles better, has less rope drag, and is lighter, stronger, and safer than the 1970 ropes; you can also buy ropes that have been dry treated, to make them less permeable to moisture.

Erickson was instrumental in the clean climbing revolution, selling his pitons in 1971 in favor of nuts and then refusing to climb with partners who did not follow the same ethic.

Erickson was instrumental in the clean climbing revolution, selling his pitons in 1971 in favor of nuts and then refusing to climb with partners who did not follow the same ethic.

Webbing 

Flat nylon webbing had also been used for some time. Usually 1” wide, it was used for gear slings over the shoulder, as a protection runner with a carabiner (a running belay point) around chockstones and flakes, and to fashion a rudimentary “swami belt” harness by going four or five times around the waist and securing the webbing with a ring bend/water knot, a practice that started in California. In the piton days, a leader carried one or two of these slings, eight feet long, tied in a loop, to put around chockstones, trees, etc. or to create a four-foot extension on a piton placement to alleviate rope drag. It also could be used as a “diaper seat” around the butt and between the legs for a makeshift rappelling harness. Four-foot slings were also common.

Smaller webbing— ½” and 5/8”—was used for tying off pitons in bottomed-out cracks (necklace-sized ones were called “hero loops”), as rappel anchors, and for other miscellaneous purposes. Larger webbing (2” seatbelt or tubular) was used starting in the mid-70s as a more comfortable swami belt, sometimes in conjunction with a pair of tied, homemade leg loops. A climber today can choose from a huge variety of sizes and lengths, and stronger, modern materials (Spectra and Dyneema) to use as slings, quickdraw dogbones, etc.

Harnesses 

Most climbers in the 1960s tied directly into the rope using a bowline or bowline on a coil. This worked fairly well for short climbs, but the need to be safely anchored independently from the main rope was very useful on longer climbs, aid pitches, and setting up rappels. When the swami belt came along, the climber then tied a bowline into the swami, which offered a slightly better cushioning in a fall or when hanging on tension on an aid climb. By 1970, most American climbers were using this, especially when leading. The first commercially available harness in America was made by Bill Forrest in 1968. It was about 3 inches wide for comfort, sewn carefully, had detachable leg loops, and was well-engineered for strength and longevity. There was also British competitor, the Whillans Seat harness, though it had a reputation for endangering one’s privates in the event of a long leader fall.

By the 1980s, almost all climbers had switched to state-of-the-art sit harnesses. They now had buckles for body-size adjustment, gear loops, and easily-checkable tie-in loops. Today’s lightest harnesses weigh mere ounces, with advents like pre-threaded buckles, wear indicators, and so on.

Carabiners 

By the end of the 1960s, due to advances in strength and affordability, most climbers had switched from the heavier and stronger steel carabiner to aluminum. Oval-shaped biners were often used on longer aid climbs, where the weight of 40 or 50 steel pitons and 35 carabiners was obviously significant. The oval biner was significantly weaker if the gate was even partially open, so they were usually not used on runout pitches of free climbing; instead, climbers used D-shaped biners. A few climbers carried one locking carabiner on dangerous leads where a gate might open in a fall. On longer aid climbs, climbers carried about 30 single “free carabiners” to clip into pitons, only one biner per piton, in order not to run out of biners by the end of the pitch. Free climbers carried 10 to 15 free biners in addition to the chrome-moly pitons, and often would clip pro with two single carabiners (or a runner) to reduce drag. Bent-gate, light, aluminum D, and wiregate carabiners are used today, and the modern rack might have only a few free carabiners—the rest are already on cams, alpine draws, or quickdraws, ready for speedy use.

Oval carabiners (lower right) were standard for aid climbing in the 1960s.

Oval carabiners (lower right) were standard for aid climbing in the 1960s.

Pitons 

Pitons were invented in Europe more than one hundred years ago, and were used almost exclusively for climbing protection and anchoring all over the world as late as 1970. The only exceptions were in some parts of Great Britain, Australia, and Germany/Czech Republic. The first pitons were made of soft iron, which were pounded into an appropriately-sized crack with a hammer and left in place, often becoming rusted and unsafe. By 1947, the best pitons were made of stronger steel, were exterior-plated to increase longevity, and were now able to be knocked out of a crack to be reused a few times. Besides the obvious economic benefit, this enabled climbers to carry fewer pitons on multi-pitch routes.

A big advance came in Yosemite by Swiss-born blacksmith and climber John Salathé. He hand-forged a few extremely hard pitons that could be knocked out and reused many times, for the FA of two of the longest rock climbs in Yosemite at the time: the Lost Arrow Chimney (1947) and the North Face of Sentinel Rock (Steck-Salathé; 1950). Yvon Chouinard, after talking to Salathé in the late 50s, decided to make his own pitons here in America, and taught himself to forge steel pitons out of an alloy (4130) of chromium, molybdenum, and iron. He started in his garage and sold a few pitons out of his VW van, but soon demand was so great that he had to hire employees. He went into business, the beginning of Great Pacific Iron Works, Black Diamond, and Patagonia. Despite the fact that these pitons cost almost 10 times as much as a basic soft iron piton, he was making the finest pitons in the world: stronger, harder, and reusable dozens of times. These pitons enabled the big-wall climbers of the 60s to do long El Cap routes having 400 or more piton placements, yet only carrying a rack of perhaps 50 pitons. This brilliant technological innovation was designed for safety, efficiency, and preserving the rock by not leaving decaying iron in every crack. However, it had an unforeseen environmental side-effect: severe, cumulative rock damage when the pitons were removed.

A typical free climbing rack in 1970 was 15 or 20 pitons from Knifeblade to 2” Angles, racked 2 or 3 each on an oval carabiner for easy identification and speedy access. No responsible climbers today carry pitons for cragging—they are used primarily for big-wall climbing, mostly on aid, and as free protection in limited cases.

Erickson's pitons (front right) from his earlier climbing days, before he swore them off in favor of protection that would not damage the rock.

Erickson's pitons (front right) from his earlier climbing days, before he swore them off in favor of protection that would not damage the rock.

Nuts 

Steel, hexagonal machine nuts, with the threads filed out and a short loop of thin nylon rope tied through them, were used for protection in Britain in the 1950s. Manufactured, aluminum, wedge-shaped artificial chockstones supplanted the nuts in the ‘60s. A few of us in America sent away to the UK for these, and carried a couple to supplement our racks of pitons for versatility. Although a handful of moderate, nuts-only ascents were done here by 1970, American climbers were exclusively using pitons, because they were perceived as safer.

In 1971, a few American eco-pioneers, including Tom Frost and John Stannard, citing damaged rock due to piton removal, argued in print for limiting piton use. Stannard’s photo of Serenity Crack in Yosemite, which appeared in Summit magazine, with a large piton scar every few inches for a whole pitch, was appalling. Yet, like fossil fuels today, everyone began to see the problem, but no one sold his car.

A few weeks after Duncan Ferguson and I made the FFA of the Naked Edge, (October 1971) using pitons for protection, I saw the picture of Serenity again and had a transcendent moment. I unilaterally decided to take action. I told Duncan that I was going to sell my pitons and only carry a rack of nuts for protection, regardless of the perceived increase in danger. Furthermore, I would only climb with partners who would adopt this radical policy. He agreed to join me. We sold all our pitons (we had just put up the hardest, long free climb in America, and some thought we were giving up climbing forever!) and bought a larger range of nuts to carry on our new routes and FFAs. The stunning new selection of Stoppers and Hexentrics, made by Chouinard and Frost, greatly eased this transition.

As far as I know, Duncan and I were the first Americans to totally quit carrying pitons, in December 1971 or January 1972. We climbed in Boulder, Estes Park, Tahquitz, and Yosemite in early 1972 and seemed to be the only ones. In spring 1972, Doug Robinson’s landmark, clean-climbing essay in the Chouinard Catalog came out, and Stannard set up the “First All Nut Ascent” book in the Gunks, both instrumental in converting climbers to nuts. By mid-1973, most of the leading free climbers had converted to clean climbing, and by mid-1974, almost all American free climbers (unfortunately not many aid climbers) had evolved to exclusive nut use. The tube chock for wide cracks and the Crack N Up for tiny cracks soon followed. The next major improvement came in 1979, when the RP, a tiny brass nut, was brought to America from Australia. Today, nuts are still widely used—and feature such advents as ultralight nuts and offsets—but only in cracks smaller than about one-half inch. Cams have taken over for all larger cracks.Cams 

Nuts don’t work well in soft rock, horizontal cracks, or parallel cracks. The solution was a device that cammed and expanded. About 1970, Greg Lowe designed and fabricated a prototype camming device and showed it to Ray Jardine. (Lowe would patent his device a couple years later.) Jardine, designing and testing in secret, made some important improvements, finally selling his “Friends” around 1978. Cams revolutionized clean climbing, and over the last 40 years have improved to fit a wide range of cracks, as well as increasingly flaring pods (e.g., using offset units).

Cams

Nuts can be pulled out as the leader climbs above, and do not work very well in soft rock, horizontal cracks, and, especially, in parallel-sided cracks (Yosemite, Utah desert, etc.). The solution was a device that utilized a camming effect to grip the rock as it expanded. The very first cam for climbing was invented by the Russian Vitaly Abalakov in the 1930s, but unknown in America. About 1970, Greg Lowe designed and fabricated a basic prototype camming device, showed it to Ray Jardine, and Greg soon applied for a patent. Ray secretly took the idea and made several significant improvements in the 70s, testing his camming devices and eventually selling them as “Friends” about 1978. They revolutionized clean climbing, as they were quicker to place and remove than nuts, and were easily used in parallel-sided cracks, and were even safe in slightly outward and downward flaring cracks. Over the last 40 years, cams have been improved to fit securely in even smaller and larger cracks, and also in increasingly flaring pods (e.g., offsets). Today, cams are, by far, the most common form of traditional protection.

Climbing Shoes 

Shoes (I consider these a form of “direct aid,” though I use them) have improved dramatically in the last 50 years. In 1970, most American rock climbers were still using tight-fitting, lug-soled Kletterschuhe or similar hiking shoes. These were imported from Europe and were comfortable enough for hiking (since they would be worn all day) and yet, hopefully, tight enough to stand on small holds. The RR, a lug-soled boot, designed by Royal Robbins for rock climbing, was popular in 1970—it was great for edging, big walls, and approaches—but terrible for friction.

In the very early 60s, Chouinard had tried a pair of smooth-soled shoes PAs (Pierre Allain), but thought they worked poorly in Yosemite. Nevertheless, about 1964, Gunks pioneer Rich Goldstone saw an ad in a magazine and sent away to France for a pair of excellent edging shoes, RDs (Rene Demaison), liked them, and became the first American to embrace smooth soles. By 1966 several Eastern and Mid-Western climbers and boulderers followed his example. I don’t think anyone in California used smooth soles at that time. It wasn’t until 1973 that the EB (Edouard Bourdonneau), poor for edging but sticky for friction, became the shoe of choice, especially in granitic areas where cross-pressure, crack climbing, and smearing were ubiquitous. From 1973 to 1982, almost every free climber was using the EB. The only exception was a stiff edging shoe sold by Chouinard and called Shoe-nards, excellent for tiny holds on dead-vertical walls.

The major breakthrough in shoe rubber was made by Boreal in 1982 with the Firé, the first of the “sticky-rubber” shoes. The new rubber was significantly stickier than previous compounds, upping one’s ability by letter or even number grades. In the following 38 years, shoes have improved markedly in terms of material and design. Today’s rock climber can pick from dozens of very sticky, excellent shoes, specifically designed for cracks or edging or smearing or pockets or overhangs or offwidths etc.

Erickson racked up with his now-historic gear in Eldorado Canyon.

Erickson racked up with his now-historic gear in Eldorado Canyon.

Chalk 

Chalk use (another form of “direct aid”—and one I don’t use) began with John Gill, who used it for boulder problems only, starting in 1954. His bouldering partner, Rich Goldstone, was perhaps the first to use small amounts of chalk (stuffed in a pants pocket) on roped climbs in the Gunks, about 1965. While most climbers accepted its use for bouldering, it was not widely accepted on lead climbs until the mid-70s—and of course is widely used today, with more chalk blends and methods of delivery on the market than can be detailed here.

Kneepads

When thin, white painters’ pants became the rage in the early 70s, a few Yosemite climbers started using basketball kneepads to protect their knees in squeeze chimneys and offwidths. These remained popular through the late 1980s, when specifically-manufactured, grippy rubber knee and elbow pads (from caving?) were utilized. With the advent of sport climbing and severely overhanging routes on blocky stone (e.g., Jailhouse Rock, Rifle) requiring kneebars for rests and kneescums for technical moves, climbers began to sew and also manufacture climbing-specific sticky-rubber neoprene kneepads.

Taped Mitts

In the early 1970s, Valley crack climbers started wrapping parts of their hands in athletic tape to protect them on wide finger cracks, cupped hand jams, fist cracks, and offwidths. This soon led to the home-made “mitten,” made of athletic tape in such a way that it could be taken off at day’s end and reused. By the 1980s, manufactured, protective, crack gloves were sold to climbers. Many climbers still use mittens to this day. Unfortunately, both are very size-specific, so if the crack width on a route crux varies more than half an inch or so, it can make the route a few grades easier or harder.

Chalk Bags

Small nylon bags for carrying crushed chalk on roped climbs were first used by Jim Bridwell in Yosemite about 1970. He recognized that Yosemite cracks were more easily climbed when chalk was put on all important parts of hands and fingers, not just fingertips for bouldering.

Quickdraws 

I was certainly not the first person to put two carabiners on a short sling. However, in January 1972, for the purpose of preventing the body movement of a lead climber pulling a wired nut up and out, I came up with the idea of two carabiners pre-fixed to a very short piece of 5/8 inch webbing. Duncan and I always carried four of these and used them each time we placed a wired Stopper for protection. I think Duncan came up with the name; it was not me. They had the unintended advantage of allowing a leader to clip in to a fixed piton or bolt more quickly on strenuous climbs, and strong, modern, sewn Quick-Draws are used to this day.

Ice Gear

Fifty years ago, crampons and tools were most useful on alpine ice. As climbers began courting waterfalls and mixed terrain, advents like drooped picks, curved shafts, leashless tools for dry-tooling, and customizable frontpoints came along.