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Gear Guru: How Often Should You Place Climbing Protection?

Trad Climbing Doesn't Have a Bolt to Protect Every Other Move, and How You Sew Up a Pitch Can Be a Matter of Life and Death, or at Least Life and Being Seriously Gripped.

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[To see more of Zach Joing’s great climbing photography, go here. Joing took the excellent photo you see that opens this column.]

Question: I’m new to trad climbing, and I want to know whether I should place gear at even distances, say every six feet, or run it out more and place two pieces of pro close together every 12 feet.

Gear Guru says: The decision depends as much on your confidence level as it does math and physics. More so, perhaps.

The first variable to consider is rock quality. In Grade A El Cap granite, a cam in a textbook placement isn’t going to pull. A  #0 or #00 cam it might break, however. In Grade F desert sandstone and even the B stuff of The Creek, cams can and do rip out. Considering whether a small cam might break or larger ones pull goes into your “gut feeling” folder, but more on that later.

The second variable is your mental and physical condition. Psychologically, you will be more confident—less likely to fall—when you closely space pro. Typically, this will have you setting a cam or nut, and climbing until it is just under your feet, then reaching high and slamming in the next piece. This system effectively gives you a toprope half of the time, empowering a weak mind and wobbly arms.  Placing pro with such frequency is, of course, taxing and you could flame out and deliver yourself to the Hand of Fate.

Running it out, on the other hand, is the wave to your sand castle. As you get higher and higher above your last piece you confidence can wash away. Those of sound mind and strong arm can shrug at runouts.

So far we have assumed that the gear and rock are solid, and have neglected the all-important variable of having or not having a stance. For argument’s sake, we will ignore this point because if there’s a stance and hanging on and plugging gear is not a big deal, then put it in! 

You also must consider your rack. Do you have enough cams or nuts to place one every six feet? A 40-meter pitch laced up that way would take 20 placements. Do you have 20 pieces? And do those 20 pieces fit the 20 placements? The answer to both is probably “no,” so you’ll naturally need to run it out in a few spots to either economize your gear or to get to a placement that fits.

Let’s imagine now that you are at your special home crag, where the rock is bullet only in your mind. This is where leading gets interesting, or confusing since it involves math, physics, logic, and the Tibetan Calendar of Inauspicious Days.

In the scene where you set gear roughly every body length, you will fall 12 feet (you were six feet above the gear) onto it. When it fails, you then fall 24 feet onto the next placement (12 feet of rope out above that piece).

Running it out is the wave to your sand castle. Confidence washes away.

The problem you face is what smart people call a “self-similar pattern.” With the rock and the placements being similar, when one placement fails, all placements will probably fail—if anything, once the top piece pulls, the lower ones are more likely to also zipper because the fall distance and impact force increase. Bummer, because you thought you were being safe.

The way to prevent this is to break the pattern with a positive variable. Put two pieces in one place, for example.

The variables might not make a difference, but they might. On Earth, there will be positive (and negative) factors. The ability to climb safe means being able to evaluate rock and placement integrity and wisely use your knowledge. That, more than worrying about how often you should place gear, might keep you out of harm’s way. 

Question: A question, as I contemplate buying gear for leading. I know that most manufacturers rely on planned obsolescence for continued sales. Is this a strategy used by climbing-gear makers? I imagine that such a practice would be dangerous. If these companies don’t employ this strategy, how do they make money?

Gear Guru says: Planned obsolescence, notes The Lightbulb Conspiracy, is the “secret mechanism at the heart of our consumer society,” and typically occurs in an oligopoly, such as we have with climbing gear. “Shortening the replacement cycle” would be a profitable strategy if it weren’t for gravity and the high cost of product-liability insurance. Forgetting those nuisances for a moment and assuming that climbing gear is made to need frequent replacing, something has gone terribly wrong—I’m still plugging cams from the 1970s, and I could use (if I wanted) my carabiners and nuts from the same era.

Rather than planned obsolescence, climbing gear is subject to the obsolescence of desirability—I could climb on that old rack, but I don’t want to because it would be heavier and wouldn’t work as well as today’s new gear. In the words of the industrial designer Brooks Stevens, I have “the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” 

Dynamic obsolescence drives the invention of lighter and stronger ropes, more ergonomic ice tools, stickier and better-fitting shoes, and more stylish helmets. Whether manufacturing and selling climbing gear is profitable is beyond my knowledge, but I imagine that are some ducats filling pockets since we have an entire economy supporting the sport.