How Big Is Your Rack?

I know you’re thinking, didn’t take long for Kelly’s blog to go downhill (followed by: I hope he posts pictures).

Well, someone recently asked me, “Is it better to bring doubles and triples of everything, or try to get used to running it out and climbing with a lighter rack?” It’s a loaded question, impossible to answer because so many variables exist. A few things to consider, though…

A big part of it depends on your end goals. If you’re psyched to crag forever, and weight and bulk aren’t issues, sure, bring it all. Keep it safe – placing lots of gear is safe, and top-roping even safer. If you want to push your boundaries and expand your options for adventure, and embrace routes that pose psychological as well as physical challenges, or if you aspire to alpine routes, then indeed you’ll need to learn to handle runouts. But how? It’s really no different from any form of training – through progressive overload. Get yourself used to it gradually.

Be smart, though; don’t get hurt. If you know you need a blue TCU to keep you from decking at the crux, you’d be a fool to intentionally leave it behind. But often times you don’t know what gear you’ll need. And weight matters in the mountains, and you’ll never get up anything – and it’ll suck carrying everything – if you’re bogged down with the kitchen sink. But what if I don’t have the blue and I need it?

You’ll never have everything you think you need. And so you deal with it, or you go down.

I’ve done both, plenty. The most profound examples I can remember were on my two

gear shot Azeem

Before I dropped part of it...

Pakistan trips with Josh Wharton. On our new route, the Azeem Ridge, on Great Trango Tower in 2004, we started up the 7,400-vertical-foot route with a pretty basic rack. We knew the lower parts would be moderate, but up high was a mystery. Also, we dropped a quarter of the rack on the second pitch (my lead, but it was Josh’s fault, I swear…). Anyway, several times on the route we simply had to run it out. Fortunately, Josh drew the hardest leads – and often, as luck had it, he didn’t have the right gear. What to do? He punched it. Before you say, “That’s sketchy,” remember that it’s all relative. On his cruxes, I’d have been sketchy. He was solid. We all run it out in life – for some it’s on class-four terrain, for others it’s 5.11 in the Karakoram.

29 Cordes - JW rap2 LR

Bailing off Shingu Charpa.

Two years later, a couple hundred vertical feet from the summit of Shingu Charpa, after three days and 45 pitches, we retreated from “easy” ice slopes – we hadn’t brought proper ice gear (it was the same gear we got away with on the upper parts of Great Trango), and we deemed it too dangerous. Live by the sword, die by the sword… It’s a dark art, figuring out when to punch it and when to bail.

So, some thoughts I’ve developed, many of which I still struggle with, as climbing can be scary:

1. Improve your climbing skills. Drop the “I’m a trad hardman” attitude or whatever, and realize that bouldering and sport climbing help with technique and strength. This improves your confidence when you most need it. Just don’t get too accustomed to clipping a bolt every few feet. Mix it up.

2. Be realistic with your fears. Do you really need to place four pieces of solid gear within a two-foot span, when the pieces below are also good, and the fall would be clean? Wean yourself off of the unnecessary. Realism with fear requires you to balance consequences of a fall with likelihood of a fall. This relates to your skills and confidence. Yes, I know, anybody can fall anytime. We take risks every time we go out. It’s a dance of probabilities. If you don’t accept this, you should stay home.

3. When you go long stretches between gear, make sure your gear is good. I’ll often place a couple of pieces, a mini-anchor, when I know it’ll be a long time until my next gear (you’re stopped anyway, and placing two – or three – pieces at the same stance is faster than two pieces placed at separate stances). This allows me to climb with more confidence, which means I climb better, which means I’m less likely to fall.

4. Teach yourself to be OK with safe falls. When sport climbing, or even when rock climbing above solid gear with a clean fall, occasionally jump off. What? Yeah, jump off. (Unless you’re wearing crampons, which can catch on things and break your legs.)

5. Learn to trust your gear and, if it’s safe, try until you fall. For people used to trad, ice, and alpine, this can be hard – I’m often a total wuss at this (too often just giving up, downclimbing to a piece and hanging), but am working on it, and trying until I fall has greatly improved my climbing. Get used to the good gear catching and holding you. Learn to use it well.

6. Embrace runouts when it makes sense. When does it make sense?
  • When a fall is clean. In the gym, unless they’ll yank your membership, if you’re on the wildly overhung wall it might be fine to skip a clip now and then. You get used to just climbing without the security blanket of the self-top-rope inherent to many gym and sport routes. And if you fall? So what – nothing but air.
  • When you’re certain you won’t fall. But still, don’t be a fool – most accidents seem to happen on easy terrain, when we drop our guard and get complacent. Keep in the back of your head: “If I slip here, or if rockfall beans me, what happens? Is it time to place pro?”
  • When you have no choice. That’s when you’ll be grateful for all of your training, and your strong head.
Josh OW day 4

Josh Wharton at 20,000 feet on Great Trango Tower, about to punch it without the right-sized gear.

If you climb enough, and certainly if you climb in the mountains, you’ll someday face a situation where you don’t have the needed pro, it’s a dangerous or even lethal fall, and then what are you going to do? It’s easy for the climbing-instructor-guy in all of us, the one who sits there with his bullshit “told you so” attitude after every accident, to say: “You go down.” Oh yeah? What if you can’t reverse the moves or can’t lower off? (That does happen in real-world situations.) Or what if, quite simply, you want to go up more than you want to go down?

Then, you do what Josh did on day four of our route on Great Trango, 7,000 feet off the deck and without the gear he needed: you remember that you’ve built up to this and that you have the skill, and so you take a deep breath, focus, and climb like you know how.

Either that or you go down.

13 thoughts on “How Big Is Your Rack?

  1. Interesting post, especially since gear is such a relative subject.
    I especially agree with your points 1 and 2 and I would add (if you let me) that Arno Ilgner’s The Rock Warrior’s Way is a great book to help you get into that place in your mind where fear becomes a bit of a friend. It has some cool tips about training and setting the right mindset to help you deal with sketchy and otherwise nasty runouts. My little two cents….

  2. “When you’re certain you won’t fall. But still, don’t be a fool”

    This is really true. After a mysterious foot slip fall on an “easy” route, on my 1st and only piece 20 feet up, I make it a habit to think about the possible fall on easy runouts, and when it gets totally out of control I try to plug in a piece.

    • No doubt, and good to hear from you, Nate (are you still wearing your Halloween costume, ha!). Man, I shudder to think of some of the times when my foot has slipped and I’ve been stupidly runout. It can be all too easy to just get in that groove and keep on moving, and go too far. I need to get better at this myself when I’m on easier terrain. Same as you, I try to force myself to think about it.

  3. Thanks for the great advice. I’ve been running it out lately and your words affirm the things I’ve been thinking. Thanks Kelly. We’re headed to ted rocks and being able to run it out is important there.


    • Right-on. It is a bit weird, I guess, to kind of “encourage” runouts, but indeed, as you say, sometimes, in some places, you have to be able to do it. So, it’s simply reality, and ya need to know how to do it and think about it smartly, I think, when the time comes. Or just back off when you’re not feelin’ the love, no shame in that, either (geez, I hope not, anyway, since I’ve bailed soooo many times!). Have a great trip!

  4. Thank you Kelly for answering my dumb really ment a lot to me that you took time out of your busy schedule to do this and, I got a lot out of it as well and will be rereading it at various times too.

    • My pleasure, Brandon — ha, not dumb at all, though. Was a great question, it got me thinking and organizing some of my thoughts, something I can always use!

  5. It would be cool to see this in climbing or R&I, get more exposure.I started out mostly on alpine trad and it has always been scary for me to push my limits as a rock hound. Sport climbing does help me push till falling and several large falls on gear have helped my confidence. So I guess a slow progression has been good for me, I know trad gear really well, run it out on easier aspects but remember to place enough. I never had more than a single rack but will carry doubles when I know I need it.

    • Thanks, Geoff. I’m the same — started out ice climbing, actually, and it’s taken a long time to get comfortable with the notion of whipping off of things. The judgment is really the key, though — knowing when it’s OK. Likewise, gaining confidence has been a huge help.

  6. Thanks for the inspiration Kelly. Very helpful for even the meekest of us climbers. Cool to see that some safety fundamentals/mind-sets stay pretty standard no matter your grade. Love point 6 – there’s nothing better than being prepared to make the right choice and for now choice but up. I’m working on it. Unfortunately, my rack is not big at all . . . it’s in Estes. Just down to draws these days. Off to Krabi for winter break. Looking to definitely punch it now, take some sporty falls, and get the head headed right for Lumpy this summer.

  7. excellent article Kelly. To me it happens that at the crag I tend to back of more but on trips I am on warrior mode and just keep climbing.

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