American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rock Protection in the 1980s

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  • Publication Year: 1986

Rock Protection in the 1980s

William Supple

AS THE QUEST TO climb the “desperates” continues, modern-day climbers are continually searching for lighter and more versatile protection adequately to protect today’s hardest routes. It is now being proven at climbing areas all over the country that increased physical and mental performance can, to a large degree, be associated with the ease of placing protection as well as the weight of the gear the climber needs to carry. This is not to say that climbing protection in and of itself has had the largest impact on the rise in climbing standards in the 1980s. Certainly the two biggest influences have been in the increased awareness among today’s top climbers in the value of physical training for hard routes and the recent advancements in modem rock-shoe technology. Few would argue that with the introduction of rock shoes like Fires, Calmas, and Sportivas the standards which most climbers can now perform at has increased even if they do not train extensively and still use older types of protection devices. While not considered protection it may be said that the increase in security both mentally and in footwork that the new shoes provide may increase confidence and thus be considered a form of protection. But the climbers of the 1950s and 1960s could not have begun to free climb at the standards now possible with the rack of pitons, steel carabiners, and hammer that was standard equipment for protecting the routes of that day.

It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s with the introduction of lighter materials and hammerless protection that free climbing standards began to rise dramatically. Carabiners made of a light, strong aluminum alloy replaced steel carabiners while the hexcentrics and stoppers introduced by Chouinard in the early 1970s began to form the free-climbing rack of today and change the attitudes of climbers to the lighter, hammerless protection, which stoppers and hexes allowed. But change did not come easily and understandably so, for it was hard to give up the security of the well driven peg for the easy-in, easy-out, placements of the new protection.

Nevertheless as more and more climbers began to praise the new gear with both words and deeds, acceptance increased and by the middle of the 1970s the lighter more versatile stoppers and hexes had secured a place in climbing history. Now that the climber of the 1970s was no longer weighed down with the bulky heavy equipment he could concentrate on pushing the standards of free climbing; and this is exactly what he did. By the mid 1970s rock faces and routes previously thought to be unclimbable without direct aid and piton protection were being done free at an amazing rate. Climbers began to search for protection that would be even lighter and more versatile than what had already helped them push the standards of free climbing. As the routes got steeper, thinner and harder, they required protection that was even easier to place, more versatile, lighter and still offered the degree of safety they were used too. The answers would be soon in coming and the free-climbing rack of the late 1970s would start to take on a new look.

Usher in the 1980s and with it the free-climbing rack of today. This is the gear that is currently helping today’s rock gymnasts to push the standards of free climbing to the upper 5.12 and 5.13 range. Although some of this gear was conceived of in the 1970s it is generally accepted as the protection of the 1980s.

Perhaps the first and probably most controversial pieces of protection of the 1980s are the Friends invented by Ray Jardine. Introduced to the climbing community in 1978 these spring-loaded camming devices were initially surrounded in controversy as their critics claimed them to be too secure and too easy to use thus lowering the level of commitment so important to climbing. But the controversy soon ended as the critics became converts and Friends were to have a large impact on the standards of free climbing in the States in a very short time. Although heavier and bulkier than the Chouinard hexcentrics and Forrest titons then popular, Friends offer a wider range of protection placements before unknown to their predecessors. The constant angle of the cams allows for secure placements in parallel-sided and flaring cracks while the trigger mechanism, used for retracting the cams during placement and removal, makes Friends fast and easy to use on strenuous pitches where speed can make all the difference in the race against failing arm strength. Soon Friends were standard equipment on long, hard, free climbs where speed and strength were critical and are still widely accepted as the active camming nut of choice on today’s free-climbing rack.

Even though Friends have been widely accepted onto the gear slings of many of today’s climbers the rack of the 1980s was still in need of a camming nut that was lighter and smaller than a Friend but still versatile like a Friend. Enter the Lowe Tri-Cam. Designed by Greg Lowe in 1973 the Tri-Cam hit the market in its present form in 1981. It is easy to use, lightweight and will fit into solution pockets and small cracks where Friends sometimes will not work. Available in a variety of sizes covering a wide range of cracks, Tri-Cams offer a passive camming nut that is decidedly better than its 1970s forerunners in security and versatility and compliments the active action of the spring-loaded Friend.

But new camming nuts are not all that was required to upgrade the rack of the 1980s. Although Friends and Tri-Cams made flaring and parallel-sided cracks easier and faster to protect, the hardest routes would demand new designs in small nut protection if standards were to be pushed even higher. R.P. nuts and Chouinard steel nuts fill the bill in this area. R.P.s were designed by Roland

Pauligk and offer a soft brass wedge which is just the thing for small incipient cracks. They offer adequate protection in seams where traditional wired stoppers are either too big or the wrong shape. In 1982 Yvon Chouinard, already marketing a similar brass wedge, took the idea one step further and introduced the same wedges in a stronger, less malleable, powdered steel. The greater strength made them quite popular and combinations of steel nuts and R.P.s are making important contributions to protecting the hard routes of today.

Another important improvement came when a curve was incorporated into the taper of wedge-shaped nuts. Wild Country Rocks, designed by Briton Mark Vallance were the first commercially available application of the curved wedge that climbers had been experimenting with in back-yard shops since the early 1970s. Rocks provide a combination of holding power and ease of placement and removal not afforded by straight-edge chocks. The convex face insures a snug fit in a wide variety of crack tapers and configurations while the concave face adds stability and provides three-point contact in almost all situations. The curve also allows for both left- and right-hand placements making them more versatile for a wider range of crack shapes. Here again the trend toward curved nuts is due to the increased versatility and added security they provide over the straight-edged variety.

Essentially we have assembled the hardware portions of the rack of the 1980s. Armed with brass and steel nuts, curved stoppers, Tri-Cams and Friends the standards of free climbing in the States continually rises without a compromise in safety. This is not to say that every climber is carrying only this assortment of equipment. But most climbers are opting for some elements of the 1980s rack perhaps in combination with some “tried and true” pieces which for whatever reasons can never be replaced.

But let us not stop here, for certainly advancements in other equipment, especially ropes and sewn webbing, have played an important role in the degree of performance and level of security displayed in today’s climbing achievements. For instance the ropes of the 1980s, although not that much different than those of the 1970s in terms of strength, are greatly improved over early climbing ropes which put the leader in a no-falls situation. The climber of today can take the falls which sometimes occur in the pursuit of a high standard rock route with little or no fear of the rope breaking. An increased awareness of rope dynamics coupled with the dedication of the rope manufacturers, producing ropes with high security, has allowed climbers to break through mental barriers concerning the safety of the gear they employ to protect the routes they are attempting. This can also be seen in the acceptance of Kevlar cord, now used for the runners on chocks and Friends, that a smaller diameter (5.5mm) cord which is lighter and less bulky than the traditional 8 and 9mm perlon can have extremely high strength. This is not to say that climbers are willing to fall as a matter of course; as most would agree that falling off every pitch is not the style in which most climbers want to pursue each ascent. But at least it is comforting to know that with the protection properly placed, the rope will not break and the pitch may be attempted again.

The final addition to the rack of the 1980s I will suggest is that of sewn webbing and shock absorbers, incorporating sewn webbing. They have had a growing impact on helping to increase the margin of safety on less well protected pitches. Sewn webbing in and of itself has not had a great effect on increased protection placements; but it has allowed for the use of lighter, narrower tapes as runners while retaining the high strength of the broader webbing. Traditionally the weakest point to be found on a tied runner was the knot; but independent tests have proven that by sewing the same tape with a bar-tack stitch the runner is then strongest at the connection and fails somewhere else along its length at a consistently higher load. By sewing narrower tapes for use as slings and runners the climber can cut down considerably on the bulk, in terms of size, of the gear he is carrying while still maintaining high strength for every runner.

More importantly though, sewn webbing has made the invention of shock- absorbing runners possible; first with the introduction of the Fall Arrest by Bill Forrest and then with the arrival of John Bouchard’s lighter, more versatile design in the Air Voyager. Both these devices effectively allow the climber to reduce the maximum load put on a piece of protection or belay during a fall. For instance they make it possible to use smaller wired nuts, with lower cable breaking strengths, in a wider variety of placements, or larger nuts in marginal placements, or in less-than-perfect rock, and still be able to hold a substantial fall without pulling. These devices may well be the biggest contribution to climbing protection to arrive in the last couple of years. They have increased the protection possibilities of all the other gear on the rack and have expanded the opportunities for new routes that may have been thought to be unprotectable even with modem equipment.

All in all the gear of the 1980s can be seen as lighter and more versatile than its forerunners. It offers a wider variety of protection possibilities and is generally easier to use but most importantly it has not sacrificed the properties of strength and security so important to good climbing protection. Certainly with the addition of the Fall Arrest and Air Voyager the possibilities in secure placements is dramatically increased opening up many new climbing possibilities.

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