A common mantra in Trad climbing is “the leader never falls.” Though it is ideal not to fall, the mantra may make you wonder how safe falling on gear actually is.
When placed correctly, cams and nuts (gear used for trad climbing) are safe to fall on. Most gear covers 8-12 kN or 1,798-2,698 lbs of force. This means that you’re more likely to get injured from gear being too low/belayer mistakes or from it being placed in the wrong direction than you are from the gear failing.
Some climbers are of the school of thought that you’ll never trust your gear unless you fall on it and the gear holds you but there are a few things you check to help ease your mind as a beginner.
How Should You Place Gear For The Safest Results
The way you place gear is the biggest factor in regards to the safety of using cams and nutts/stoppers while trad climbing. When the gear is placed safely, it is more likely that webbing or carabiners are to give out on you, Which is usually comforting to new trad climbers because they have already learned to trust webbing and carabiners earlier in their climbing experience.
Key factors related to safe gear placement are the following:
Use the right size cams or nutts/stoppers
When it comes to nutts, it’s usually easier to judge since it has to be small enough to slide into the rock face and big enough to get caught in the ridges and prevent anything from popping out.
Cams, on the other hand, are a little different. When you pinch the cam you should be able to move it into place with only pinching it 50-80% of the way. If you have to pinch it more, it is possible that the cam will jam and won’t be able to fully open again.
When the cam is in place, it shouldn’t be fully opened (closer to 70-80% open is better) to ensure that there is as much surface against the rock from the cam as possible. The more surface there is, the more friction and thus more resistance from coming out.
Place cams and nutts/stoppers in the right direction
The direction that the cam is placed will be a large factor in the force that it can handle when you fall. The direction of the device should support the direction that you would fall. If you are climbing up and to the right, then the device should be at its strongest when falling down and to the left, since that is the way you would swing if you fell.
You can test your placement by pulling/swinging it in the direction that you would fall. Though using your hands won’t be the perfect simulation for what would happen if your entire body fell, it should give you an idea of how the cam or nutt would move in that scenario.
Place the cam and nutts/stoppers at the right depth
The optimal depth a climber should place trad gear is deep enough that you have as much friction on the gear as possible while still being able to retrieve the gear later.
New climbers are more likely to place the gear too deep in the rock than they are to place it too close to the surface. This is likely because you may feel safer having a bigger part of the rock face between the end of the cam or nut and the cliff side.
If you place the cam too deep, then the next climber won’t be able to reach the pinching mechanism to retrieve it.
If you place a nutt too deep, then the climber won’t have any leverage to remove it.
How Often Do You Need To Place Gear for Safe Climbing?
Many climbers point at a simple math problem to identify how often you should place gear. This however, is an incomplete picture of what should be considered when learning how often you should place gear. For that reason, I have made a simple checklist of things to help you understand a more complete picture when it comes to how often you should place trad gear on a route.
The Math Equation for Optimal Frequency of Placing Gear
In sport climbing, bolts are usually 6-8ft apart and that is probably a good place to start for trad climbing as well. However, if you want to know the math equation that everyone talks about regarding the distance for optimal gear placement, then here is a brief explanation.
Placing gear is like a math problem. If you place gear at 10ft off the ground and climb another 10 feet (20ft off the ground) then a fall would result in a ground fall. This means that it wouldn’t even matter if your gear was placed correctly, the amount of rope out will result in you hitting the ground.
If you place gear at 10 ft and then climbed another 4ft before falling, you would fall a minimum of 8 feet. However, considerations such as the dynamic stretch of a rope and how much slack the belayer gave you also affects the distance.
If your rope is 60m long and it has a 20% dynamic stretch (a common rating for dynamic rope), then when the rope is completely stretched you would expect the stretch to be 60m+20% which equals 72m.
For the example above, the climber has at least 14 feet of rope out (10ft to the first gear and 4ft to the climber) This would mean that the rope would stretch about 2.8ft. 8ft + 2.8ft = 10.8ft of falling, meaning a ground fall.
This isn’t even a perfect example, however, because it doesn’t take into account the slack that the belayer has given out and the slack that may be between the climber and the gear.
The Human/Mother-Earth Equation for Optimal Frequency of Placing Gear
Let’s say you’ve concluded that you need to place gear every 6 feet but when you get to the wall, the realisticness of how rock formations change the route may help you realize it’s unlikely you’ll have a good crack with the correct nut or cam to place something every 6 feet or so. Here is a step by step process you can use for using the human/mother-earth equation for when top place gear:
- Do your research before you get to the crag. If the route has been done many times before, it is likely that websites such as Mountain Project has comments about what cams or nuts are recommended to bring for that route so you don’t have to carry too much gear and you can feel confident you have the right/enough gear and where to place it.
- When you are at the crag, review the route. Consider where you want to place the gear before you even get on the rock.
- Start climbing. While you are climbing, pay attention to your mental and physical climbing. If you find that you are on the verge of fatigue, place gear. You should always try to place gear before you get to the point where you really need it. The same is for when you are nervous. If you are super nervous, then you are more likely to make mistakes so it’s important to place gear before getting nervous.
- Do multiple climbs or the same climb over and over again until you start feeling confident with how often you place your gear. Perfect practice can make perfect so keep at it.
What happens if you place gear too often?
Many trad climbers suggest that a common mistake for beginner trad climbers is that they place gear too often. The only reason this would actually be a mistake is if you run out of gear because you placed a lot of gear on your way up and aren’t able to continue climbing.
If that happens to you, you can usually be lowered and remove gear you placed at the beginning of the climb and use that gear for the rest of the route.
Of course, you could just bring up additional gear with you but since cams and nutts/stoppers can be heavy and expensive, most climbers prefer to figure out what gear is needed and then practice until they get good at using the “right” amount of gear.
The way you practice is just by climbing often. The more experience you have, the better you will become at judging how much gear you need to bring with you while climbing.
Minimize Secondary Pulls
Most climbing routes aren’t straight up and down so in addition to force going up and down, there is often a secondary side-to-side pull as well.
Because of this, climbers recommend that you extend the gear by adding a sling or some type of webbing so that the rope runns up and down as straight as possible.
You can anticipate how big of a sling you need by looking at where you anticipate the next piece of gear to be place. If it is clear that you will be placing it directly above the current cam or nutt/stopper, then you are fine with just a carabiner for the rope.
However, if you anticipate moing a few feet to the left, then use a few feet of webbing/a sling to make it so the rope can be as straight as possible when you clip into it.
Being able to anticipate direction and distance takes practice. If this is your first-time trad climbing, then you may not be able to accurately anticipate movement, but the more you climb, the better you’ll become at looking at the route and anticipating the next gear placement.