5 Gear Choices For Increased Safety On The Hills

When the lock-down restrictions ease, the numbers going hill-walking in Ireland will undoubtedly increase, some will be experienced and returning to the hills, others newer and less experienced.

This extra increase in participation will no doubt put extra pressure on the mountain rescue services, all while they try to keep their own volunteer members, and their families, safe from harm.

Mountain Rescue advice for safety on the hills

Mountain Rescue teams have issued advice for people to be cautious in their return to the outdoors, to not take on more than they are able for, be it physically or navigationally.

They have also advised that those in need of rescue or assistance should prepare themselves for potentially longer response times or even the possibility of an overnight on the hills while waiting for daylight to safely navigate home.

Nobody, experienced or otherwise, goes into the hills planning to have an accident, but accidents still happen. Now is a good time to plan and prepare for the possibility.

I have included at the bottom of the page a checklist of the everyday gear people should bring on the hills. To many it will be obvious what these items are but below I’ve listed 5 emergency items hillwalkers should consider bringing out too, but hopefully never need.

I’ve also recommended Irish based outdoors, suppliers, as now more than ever it’s important to shop local.

Group Shelter

Also called a bivvy bag or bothy bag, this is possibly one of the most important items any hiker can carry with them.

Essentially a portable tent, without the bulk or weight, they can be stored in the bottom of your pack with convenience. They come in all sizes from smaller 2 person ones to larger 12 person sizes and are low cost.

They provide immediate protection from cold and biting winds or rain and within minutes of getting inside them, the body heat of the group will be keeping everyone toasty.

Whether you are lost in bad weather or keeping an injured friend warm while waiting for rescue, the benefit of a group shelter cannot be overstated.

I think this should be mandatory equipment for all hikers and considering the present need for social distancing, perhaps each hiker should carry a small personal one instead of the norm of one between a large group.

Adventure.ie sells an excellent Life-systems 2 person option in their Glendalough Store and online.

 

Headtorch

Getting caught out in fading light or after dark is an easy thing to happen. Without the ability to see where we are going, we are faced with the option of stumbling around in the dark or waiting it out ’til the next morning.

Neither are pleasant options. Tripping over a small divet can be more likely than walking off a big cliff, but both can injure you badly.

A cheap 5 euro generic headtorch isn’t a good option here, they won’t stand up to the rigours of mountainous weather.

Considering reputable outdoor brands like Black Diamond and Petzl have entry-level head torches from 20 euro, this should again be a no brainer, just don’t forget the fresh batteries.

Both Adventure.ie and Alpinesports.ie stock excellent affordable options.

https://store.adventure.ie/gear/lighting/

https://www.alpinesports.ie/equipment/lighting.html

First Aid Kit

There are excellent ready packaged options out there aimed at outdoor users and all the leading outdoor shops will stock them, but sometimes they have apparatus included that we are unlikely to use. Even more likely is that we don’t replenish the commonly used items in our kit. Cuts, sprains and breaks are the common injuries.

If cost is a barrier or you don’t want to carry the bulk of an all purpose first aid kit, then just make your own. It doesn’t have to be complicated, get a waterproof dry bag or zip-lock bag and stock it with alcohol wipes, gloves, face mask, plasters, different types and sizes of bandages, an extra large bandage to control bleeding and a roller bandage. Also, a small roll of duct tape.

It will be easier to keep track of what’s been used, it will barely take up space in your bag and you’ll be more likely to carry it.

A whistle should be included too, by far the best way to get attention in the hills or to assist a rescue team in finding you in poor visibility.

Foil Blanket

Also sometimes called space blankets, there are plenty on the market at a low cost, low weight addition to your backpack. They are super efficient at retaining body heat for an injured person and their big benefit is that they can be worn by a cold or near hypothermic hiker while moving.

There are some very cheap pocket sized options, which are really useful, but its worth noting they pose a potential risk to helicopters in that they can be sucked up into their engines. So remember to pack them away if being approached by a helicopter following an incident.

This is less likely to happen with heavier and more robust (albeit costlier) emergency bivis blankets like this one offered by Great Outdoors.

https://www.greatoutdoors.ie/shop/emergency-bivvy

Map and Compass

Experienced hikers get disoriented all the time and its not an issue, its not knowing how to relocate and get back on track that can be the issue. So many hikers go into the hills, either without a map and compass or with a set, but without the knowledge and practice of how to use them.

Navigation is a tool that needs to be kept sharp in order for it to be effective. So if you’ve never learned how to or its been a long time since you did, you probably wont “figure it out” while under pressure on the hills.

Consider getting some navigation training or doing a refresher. Currently there are numerous providers offering online refreshers. While they aren’t a substitute for a full course, they are an excellent option for preparation that we can be taking in advance of being allowed on the hills again.

When full courses are allowed to run, The Mountaineering Ireland approved Mountain Skills course is an excellent place to start. While I am a provider of the course

climbit.ie/mountain-skills-training-courses/

there are also multiple other providers and with some research it’ll be easy to find an Instructor who teaches the course regularly and comes highly recommended. If in doubt as to who to choose, look for Instructors or Leaders who advertise the AMI or UIMLA badge. Trust the badges as a sign of a professionalism and quality in the outdoors.

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Regular Gear checklist:

waterproof jacket and trousers. No matter what the forecast is, waterproofs should always be carried. Mountains can create their own weather systems, different to that of the local lowland area. They can also be excellent as a windbreaker layer, even if its not raining. The two jackets I use are a North Face Summit Series Goretex jacket and a Columbia Outdry jacket and I really like both. I tend to spend a lot of money on my waterproof jackets and go slightly cheaper on my trousers.

hats, gloves, buff. and spares in a dry bag. I have both expensive items and cheap Penneys items. All will work, just some will work better than others, but cost doesn’t have to be a barrier.

Baselayer – again you can spend a lot of money or go cheap with generic items, once they are made from a material good for wicking sweat then they are good enough. Polyester/merino/bamboo are good, cottons are bad.

hiking boots. On Irish mountains we don’t get the perfect quality trails and tracks that you find in other countries so appropriate hiking specific boots with ankle support are essential and runners are just a bad idea. Don’t buy them online either as fit is everything and a good outdoor shop will be able to help you choose the best fit for you. I personally like La Sportiva boots, they work well for narrower feet, so aren’t for everyone.

warm breathable layers – again you don’t have to buy specific hiking clothing, obviously purpose designed clothing will perform better, but any active wear or clothing designed for the outdoors is appropriate. For women gym leggings are a great option instead of trousers. Like baselayers make sure they aren’t cotton or denim. Cottons and Denims don’t dry fast and you can lose a lot of body heat as your system works hard to warm up the cold fabric. This is an issue on a wet day as well as a hot day, when sweat covered clothing can sap at our energy levels stealthily.

Spare layers – a warm mid layer, either fleece layer or a softshell, stored in a dry bag is essential for if the weather changes or if we get cold while stopped.

Hiking socks. Specifically designed hiking socks are expensive, but they last a long time and will help prevent getting blisters and that’s worth any money. I like Bridgedale socks.

food/water/snacks Enough for a long day on the hills, but also consider bringing some “what if” emergency snacks too, in case you are caught out longer than you intended.

Backpack. A well designed backpack allows you to carry all the weight on your hips and is designed and cushioned appropriately. Its sore and frustrating if you carry the load on your shoulders all day and when we are sore and frustrated we make bad decisions in the outdoors. Bad decisions that can lead to incidents. I only ever use an Osprey Talon 33 Litre bag for day to day hiking and highly recommend it. It makes sense to buy a bag from a company that only design and make bags as all their research and development goes into that product.

– Trekking Poles. – I always carry a pair when Im in the outdoors, I don’t always use them, but I always have them with me. At first they can feel awkward to get used to, but once you are used to them they are excellent for moving efficiently and extending the lifespan of your knees. I use them a lot in descent to assist with a recurring knee injury. They can also be great to give to a nervous companion on steep descents, as a crutch for someone with a light sprain or to use as a splint for an injured arm or leg. I use Black Diamond Trail Poles.

All of the above might take some time and cost to put together, so now is as good time as any to start preparing, so that we are ready in advance of needing them. The gear might also seem heavy and restrictive, but the extra weight will soon be forgotten about and will ultimately only make us fitter on the hills.

While I’m aware that the above might seem excessive or over-cautious, I genuinely can’t think where Id leave any of it out in normal circumstances, so I definitely don’t advise leaving any of it out for the near future, when our need to be self-sufficient and stay injury free in the hills will be more important than ever.

I hope the above is of some help and I’m happy to answer any questions, so please feel free to get in touch if you do.

Why A False Loop is Unsafe

A false loop is created when a sloppy stopper knot is tied to back up another not, most commonly in the case of climbers tieing into the rope.

What’s wrong with a false loop?

Often they are just small loops, which lessens the potential of what can go wrong, but as seen on a recent post online, some people do climb with excessively large false loops, which can lead to a whole new array of problems.

Let’s look at when and why a false loop isn’t desirable in climbing:

They’re unsafe

If a climber clips into the false loop instead of the rope loop for safety, let’s say on a multi-pitch belay stance, it could be catastrophic. There have been recorded instances of this occurring and leading to accidents.

Bottom roping

If running a group session in a climbing wall with novices, it would be easy for a novice to remove the carabiner from the proper loop and clip it to the false loop and again there are recorded incidents of this happening each year.

 

Leading

If the loop was excessively large, a lead climber could accidentally clip into a quickdraw via the false loop and not the live rope.

If this was on trad gear they could possibly lift out the trad gear and if it was on bolts they could be yanked backwards, causing a fall onto a false loop.

It just looks plain wrong

If someone can be that sloppy with the simplest knot, then how sloppy are they with the rest of the aspects of their climbing, like building anchors.

Entrapment

Much like if you tie in with too big a loop, the large false loop can snag on protruding holds or create a suspension hazard, like in a climbing wall where there are large upturned holds.

It’s even possible for body parts to become ensnared or trapped in a loop. In the picture above it would be quite easy for the climber to catch a leg or arm in the false loop, creating an unorthodox fall.

The potential for a choking hazard on a stupidly big loop is there too, were you to get your head stuck in the loop.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post or other skills and remember always buddy check and “dress & stress” knots thoroughly!

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When should I Retire My Rope?

Is climbing on an older well used rope the equivalent of knowing you have bald tyres on your car and hoping you don’t skid on a slick road?

Ropes are expensive and we all like to get the most out of them, but knowing when to retire or assign them to an alternative use is an important decision.

When should I retire my rope?

RECOMMENDED LIFESPAN OF CLIMBING ROPE

Lets first look at some approximate guidelines from manufacturers about the life spans per usage of a rope:

Daily usage: less than 1 year

Weekly usage: approx. 1 year

Regular monthly Usage: approx. 3 years

Regular annual usage: approx. 5 years

Rare annual usage: approx. 5-7 years

Never used: approx. 10 years

How accurate are the Guidelines?

The guidelines make for interesting reading as I know ropes get used way past their recommended lifespan all the time.

With any guideline and approximations, there is a degree of vagueness and manufacturers will err on the side of caution.

These are also “normal usage” guidelines and don’t allow for what happens to the rope during the lifespan, the abnormal conditions it experiences, or even how it’s been stored and cared for when not in use.

A rope getting heavily stressed over an edge on its first day of use could be dangerously damaged, way more than one that’s barely used by its owner over a 5 year period.

Let’s look at two identical 10.0mm dynamic single ropes I have purchased:

Rope 1

Purchased in 2011, the rope was used a lot at first for leading on trad, then for bottom roping and now gets used solely in a teaching capacity for demonstrating setups.

It has no fuzziness or swollen lumpiness, no sheath slippage and through touch and bend inspection, no apparent damage to its core.

It’s lost some of its dynamic quality, but for the eye to see, looks in great condition. It is no longer ever used to climb on

Rope 2

Purchased in 2016, the rope was used as an all-rounder at first and used often. It saw a good amount of work and was used on a good number of occasions for roped scrambling.

It was used on multiple occasions to direct belay off some coarse rock. Its diameter is visibly swollen, it now measures 12mm with callipers and has a fuzzy and rough exterior.

There is no bunching or sheath slippage or apparent damage to its core.

It lost some a lot of its dynamic properties and is visibly in poor condition and is no longer used in any capacity.

Work vs lifespan

The point of the above two descriptions of rope is obvious, the latter had a harsher workload than the former and as such measuring its lifespan by time alone is a useless factor.

As climbers, we must be diligent to record the various uses and hardships that a rope goes through and be willing to absorb the cost of repurposing a rope when its time has come.

Storage conditions

The conditions we store our ropes in has a massive outcome on their lifespan. All manner of things can affect the quality and safety of the rope and often the damage can be hidden internally.

  • UV damage to the sheath from overexposure to the sun
  • Chemical damage from contact with solvents or corrosive materials
  • Collected dirt/grit/salt damage grinding on the inner core

We must be as careful when we store them as we are when we use them. Below are some of the common issues leading to rope damage.

  • Using regular ink to mark our rope rather than specialised marking ink
  • Leaving ropes on a floor in the shed as cement dust is corrosive
  • Oils and diesel: Left in the boot of our car coming in contact with the rope
  • Some powerful batteries can give off gases, so be careful if storing ropes near power tools

Guidelines for good rope maintenance

Below are some tips for extending the lifespan and maximising the safety of our ropes.

  • Regularly inspect your ropes by touch when coiling and flaking your ropes.
  • Fully investigate any irregularities to the touch or feel of the rope or if unsure, ask a more experienced person to also inspect anything suspect.
  • If you can see the core of the rope protruding from the sheath, it’s too damaged to use as a single piece of rope.
  • Likewise, if you feel a flat spot in the rope, consider the internal core too damaged to risk using.
  • Wash them occasionally using just lukewarm water or manufacturer-approved cleaning agent.
  • Dry them properly and don’t store them wet or damp where they won’t dry out.
  • Use a rope bag when at a dusty/dirty crag to keep grit from working inside the sheath
  • Don’t buy a second-hand rope, you can’t tell where it has been or what it has done.
  • Don’t lend a rope to somebody, unless you totally trust them to look after it and tell you how it was used/abused.
  • Store the rope in a dedicated bag/box/area, where you can seal the container and contact with a chemical is impossible.
  • Consider retiring any rope that has been subject to a fall with a very high fall factor rating. These types of falls are uncommon but do occur.
  • If the rope becomes stiff and unworkable, it’s possibly time to retire it, as its properties have been compromised beyond their intended usage.

Ok, so when should I retire my rope then?

To sum up, if your gut instinct tells you a ropes integrity might be compromised, either by its uses, appearance, how it feels or how you stored it, consider retiring it and buying a new one.

We change our climbing shoes all the time when we notice damage to them and they are considerably more expensive than the average 10mm single rope.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

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The Benefits Of Double/Half Ropes

I try to use double ropes/ half ropes as much as possible when I’m climbing trad routes unless I’m climbing at a very small crag like Ballyryan.

If you’re not used to using them, they might seem like an extra faff and for new climbers, there’s a cost factor, but once you start using them you’ll never go back.

Half/Double ropes shouldn’t be confused with twin ropes.

What is a double rope?

As per the diagram below, twin ropes both get clipped to each piece of gear, while half/double ropes get clipped to alternate pieces.

Double ropes and twin ropes

So what are the benefits of using double ropes?

Your ropes run in straighter lines.

Use one rope to clip pieces placed on the right and the other to clip pieces placed on the left.

This makes falling way safer than if you were just using a single rope.

In the event of a fall, it allows the pieces on each side to be pulled in a downward direction. If you had been using a single rope, the forces of pull on the gear could have been sideways and not downwards.

Straight line belay

 

Makes long abseils easier

If you have to bail off a long multi-pitch route or you purposely intend to abseil from the top of a tall crag, then a lot of faff and hassle can be solved by climbing on double ropes. For example, using 60m doubles its possible to abseil down the main face of Glendalough, saving loads of time.

It reduces rope drag

On wandering climbs like Doolin Rouge or The Ghost, where the few bits of gear available are on opposite sides of the climb, it would create massive rope drag to just use one rope.

While sometimes unsafe (point 1 above) and generally just annoying, if you were to use a single rope on a meandering climb a point would arrive where progression would probably be hindered.

Not only will progress be hindered but a zig-zagging rope will be more likely to “walk” your cams and lift placed nuts from their original placement, which could lead to the piece failing in the event of a fall.

It can make building anchors simpler

If you’ve done a long pitch and are running short on rope, it gives you twice as much rope to play with and can be the difference in making a straightforward quick anchor.

Reduces potential deck outs

The potential for deck outs or larger falls can be avoided by alternating the ropes you clip in on, a good reason to use doubles on straight vertical cracks.

When using a single rope, the moment you pull slack up to clip into gear can be the most dangerous.

Safeguarding the second climber

If the person seconding you is nervous or not psyched on seconding traverse sections, then you can place additional high runners, not so much to protect you on lead but to protect their potential to swing while following you.

Doing this with a single rope uses up a lot of extendable quickdraws or creates a ton of rope-drag

Dissipation of force under load. If you fall, using two ropes can spread the force of the fall between the gear on either side, but this can also be down to having an attentive belayer.


Gear placement with double rope



Teams of 3 can move faster

If you’re climbing as a team of three, then the leader can bring both following climbers up at the same time in parallel (albeit slightly staggered).

Disadvantages of Double rope

Belaying

It can initially be a bit of a faff to get used to, but you’ll soon learn a system that works for you and be cruising with it.

Cost, weight, storage

Everything is twice what is with a single rope, but I think the advantages trump these inconveniences.

Clipping both ropes

If you clip both ropes to the one quickdraw, you could possibly damage or burn the ropes as they abrade against each other during a fall. So make sure you don’t clip two ropes into the same QD or learn more about using triple rated ropes.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

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Understanding Dynamic Ropes

Considering the importance of the rope in climbing, it’s surprising how little most climbers understand their construction and ratings.

Below is a brief explanation of what the markings on the packaging of a new rope mean.

It would be easy to write at length on each of these markings and at times it’s been harder to make a concise but sufficient explanation.

understanding dynamic ropes labels

What do all the markings mean?

This particular rope will serve me well for climbing single pitch routes in the Burren during the summer but of less use to me at Dalkey, Glendalough or Scottish Winter. Let’s see why:


The 1 indicates that this is a single rated rope.

Single rope: designed to be used on its own.

Half/double ropes: designed to be used as a pair, with only one rope clipped into each piece of protection.

Twin ropes: designed to be used as a pair, clipping both ropes into the same piece of protection.      

 

Triple rated ropes are designed to be used as single, twin or half ropes. As such are the ultimate multipurpose tool and are priced accordingly.

If you want to see the advantages of half/double ropes, you can read this blog post I wrote about them

UIAA Falls: 7-8

This does not mean that after experiencing 7-8 standard lead falls, your rope is no good and should be retired. A common misconception.

Modern ropes don’t generally break, they cut or abrade.

The kinds of forces used in testing are extremely severe and not generally the kind of forces the average lead fall can create.

All UIAA certified ropes undergo a similar test process. To pass, it must survive a minimum of 5 simulated falls without breaking. This rope has failed after 7-8 of those test falls.

Delving into those fall factor forces is separate a blog post in itself, so while it’s safe to say that this rope is perfectly strong enough to withstand a lot more than just 7-8 “normal” lead fall scenarios.

Maybe if I have had a couple of big whippers in a row then I’ll take a break from using this rope and allow it to shrink back to normal size.

If I was to have the kind of fall simulated in the test, I’d probably not be going for a second attempt at the climb.

A higher fall rating can however indicate a better quality of rope, with increased durability and lifespan.

Impact Force, 8.4kn.

This is the force transmitted from the rope to the climber under a fall, essentially, the ropes ability to absorb the energy of fall.

The lower the number the more pleasant the fall.

Again, it is tested using high fall factors and doesn’t allow for the forces being absorbed by the climbers and belayers bodies, rope slippage through the belay device etc, which would occur in a real-life fall and would also contribute to a comfortable “soft catch“.

This rating can be a consideration for the trad climber as the lower the IF number, the better the dissipation of the forces created during a fall and the less force transmitted into the placed protection.

A sports climber taking multiple lobs on a project might appreciate the comfort of a rope with a low IF number.

In the case of bottom/top-roping, you ideally want a higher IF number as the forces created during this type of fall are low and we probably want less stretch, to avoid the climber hitting their ankles off a ledge or the ground.  

Elongation in Use, 6.5%

This is the amount of rope stretch created when hanging a static weight from the rope. In testing, they use a static weight of 80kg.

So if an 80kg person was to hang on the full length of this rope, it would stretch to become a 42.6-metre rope or 6.5% of the length of the rope.

The thinner the rope, the more likely it is to stretch further. A rope will stretch more when wet but it will lose its elasticity the more it is used.

proportion of Sheath, 40%

This is how much of the construction of the rope is made up of sheath and how much of it is made up of the inner core (60%).

The core is where the primary strength and elasticity of the rope is, but the sheath determines its ability to withstand abrasion and its durability.

Remember, ropes generally don’t break, they cut, so this is an important rating to take into consideration.

This is why I have one set of ropes of working with (these run over more edges and take more abuse) and a different set for personal climbing (these have less wear and tear but bigger falls).

UIAA water absorption, 46%

Wet ropes stretch more, get heavier/harder to use and can make using ascenders and Gris-Gris difficult, so it can be important that they are water repellent, especially in snow and ice conditions.

This particular rope has a high absorbency and wouldn’t be much good for ice climbing, but will be just fine for use at a short single pitch crag on dry summer days.

As per the UIAA test, a true water repellent rope should have a water absorption rating of 5% or less. Some “Dry” ropes don’t achieve this as they are only dry treated. Like your waterproof jacket, the treatment wears off over time.

Elongation at 1st fall, 31%

This is the percentage of stretch in the rope the first time a dynamic fall or load is applied to it. Like the elongation in use test above, an 80kg weight is used and replicates a severe fall scenario.

While a maximum 31% stretch may seem like a very high and worrying number, it will always be less in reality, where we won’t achieve the forces created in the UIAA test.

However, it might just make you think about not using your brand new ropes on a short lead climb where the crux is at the bottom of the route.

The elongation percentage will reduce over the life of a dynamic rope.

Sheath Slippage, 0%

The less slippage between the core and the sheath of the rope, the more durable it is.

We’ve all seen the ends of a rope in a climbing wall get bunched up and fat from this, or feel a thin spot on a rope where it’s been damaged, so you would think 0% is an ideal score here.

However, ropes with less slippage can be less pliable and soft to handle. Some sheath slippage can even be a good thing if the rope is running over a sharp edge as the load is spread across a greater area.

Any visible damage or alteration to the rope from sheath slippage should be treated with caution and cut from the rope or retire the rope completely.

Other markings

While length, diameter and weight per meter of the rope are self-explanatory markings, they are helpful to let us know what category and preferred use to put a rope into.

So what rope should you buy then?

There’s no point spending a fortune on ropes if your style of climbing doesn’t need all the design features possible for a rope.

A low price doesn’t mean low quality, it could just mean fewer options to use it.

If you climb exclusively indoors you shouldn’t be concerned about ratings like weight or water repellency and should go for a thick robust and competitively priced rope. The Beal Wall master perhaps.

If the majority of your climbing is on smaller single pitch trad routes, then any single rated 50m rope will get you through most days in Ireland and will be super affordable. Something like the Tendon Smart 10mm.

For sport, any single rated rope will do once its sufficiently long enough to let you climb AND lower off the route. If it’s a particularly long route then definitely thinner lighter ropes are better.

But if you intend to or do a lot of multi-pitching in Ireland then get a set of 60m half/double ropes as well as the above 50m rope and mix and match between the two sets. I use DMM Crux 9.1mm ropes and they are class.

If you intend to go to Scotland in the winter, bring doubles and make sure your ropes are proper dry ropes or at least dry treated.

However, if money isn’t an issue and you want simplicity and a great all-round option, get a set of triple rated 60m Beal Joker unicore Golden dry ropes to have the solution to all the above climbing scenarios.

Well all scenarios apart from a 30m+ sports climb that is.

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

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Sleeping Systems For The Outdoors

A reliable sleeping system for the outdoors can be compared to a chain, only as good as the weakest link.

Why prioritise buying an expensive sleeping bag and not prioritise the mat you are sleeping on, or think by just having a good quality tent, you can skimp on what to use inside it.

 

Sleeping Systems For The Outdoors in Kerry
Wild camping in Kerry

Crucial Elements of Sleeping Systems For The Outdoors

This blog is aimed mostly as those who go hillwalking in Ireland or the UK, or trekking abroad and not so much aimed at the needs of alpinists.

Obviously the approach to sleeping systems taken by alpinists can be extreme to suit their needs for fast and light, while on Irish and UK hills we can afford to carry a little extra weight without it being too tasking on our objectives or safety.

Let’s look at the parts of the system for sleeping systems for the outdoors, especially in Ireland and the UK.

Sleeping Bag

Whether you choose down or synthetic insulation it doesn’t really matter too much, there are pros and cons of both.

Down will pack and compress to a smaller size, but requires greater care and will be less effective if it gets wet. Synthetic insulation will take up a larger space in your backpack but isn’t as costly as down.

My personal preference is for a down sleeping bag and the one I have been using since 2012 is the Rab Ascent 700.

It didn’t break the bank especially considering how many times I’ve used it, has always performed and can be paired with a liner layer to increase its warmth.

Most bags come with a three-part rating, comfort, limit and extreme. Personally, I base all my opinions about a bag’s warmth on the limit rating and I view the extreme rating as a complete work of fiction.

The Rab Ascent 700 has a limit rating of -12c. I’ve used it all over Ireland, the UK and on approximately 150 different nights spent at high altitude in the past 4 years, albeit sometimes paired with a liner.

Id highly recommend it to anyone serious about spending overnights in the outdoors.

It weighs about 1.3kg, which is light enough for Irish Hillwalking needs. Yes, you can get bags as warm that are half as light, but they are three times the price and Id imagine nowhere near as durable.

Ultralight gear can seem important, but shouldn’t be a massive consideration unless you’re going to the Alps or greater ranges.

Sleeping Bag Liners

I once bought a 16 euro sleeping bag in ALDI as a liner and paired it with my Rab bag above and successfully used it on a 23 trip to the Himalayas to do Island Peak.

At the lower tea houses, I just used the cheap bag, and mixed and matched between the two for the trip as we ascended. Our highest tented sleeping altitude was 5500m.

This is hardly applicable to the Irish hills, but the point is that a liner can give you versatility and a layering system that can work effectively for you while protecting and elongating the lifespan of your sleeping bag.

There are all types of liners on offer. Very thin silk ones only marginally increase the thermal properties of a system but are great for keeping the inside of your sleeping bag clean.

A fleece liner can be a bit bulkier but is cheap and offers a good return in terms of heat retention.

Sleeping Mat

A good mat is essential. It doesn’t matter how good a bag you have, if you cant insulate your body from the ground, your heat will be leeched from you and you’re destined for a poor night’s sleep.

You can choose a fold/roll-up mat or an inflatable one. Again each has its pros and cons, a fold-up is cheap and simple to use, but has loads of bulk.  An inflatable can be punctured and a good one is relatively more expensive.

You can make all the arguments for or against which type is your preference, just make sure you bring one.

I’ve been using a Thermarest pro lite for a good few years now. I bought it the same day as I did the sleeping bag, from Nigel at Alpinesports.ie

Its never been punctured, but then I’m careful when using it. Carrying a simple repair kit will solve any issues.

Tent

Sometimes picking the right tent for you and your needs can be confusing and it’s easy to think the price is a good indication of value.

The tent that I use most often for the Irish hills cost me 50 euro in a sale. Its cheap, generic and basic but it’s heavy, 1.5kg heavier than I ideally want. It has stood up to many nights of high winds and desperate non-stop rain though.

Wild Camping in Ireland
Heavy, but it works

 

On foreign, expeditions, I use a Mountain Hardwear Trango tent and love it too, but it costs 800 euro and I wouldn’t want to have to carry it every day. It’s too heavy and oversized to carry in a backpack for the hills at home.

 

Camping in the Himalayas
The Trango 3 at 5500m advanced base camp, Island Peak

The point is that the price differential between the two isn’t a factor, they have different characteristics to handle different scenarios, but essentially they both fulfil their primary function, they keep a barrier from the wind and the rain off my head.

I do keep meaning to buy a lighter tent for use on the Irish hills. I used a Marmot Limelight 2p tent for a week-long trip recently and would strongly consider buying one, but apart from the excessive weight, my current one works well and will do me for a while yet.

Bivy Bag

I have a lightweight waterproof RAB bivy bag that I will sometimes bring for an external layer to my sleeping bag if heavy rain is forecast. It also adds another thin layer to retain warmth, but I often leave it at home too.

It doesn’t take up too much room when compressed and protects the sleeping bag, but it’s not always essential.

There are heavier bivy bags on offer, more like a 1 person tent, which would have obvious weight and space-saving options in place of a full tent.

It’d be a bit grim to use though, as they lack in space or comfort and for me take away from the fun experience of camping in the outdoors.

I considered this approach for my ML assessment, to go light, but was so happy I didn’t afterwards. I trialled it as a system on a multi-day hike in The Mournes, but I didn’t enjoy it, so went with my tent for my ML instead.

The comfort of being able to sit up, organise your gear and get a bit of headspace on a tough weekends assessment was invaluable and worth carrying the extra weight.

Dry Bags

I like to put all the gear in my rucksack inside dry bags, it makes packing and finding things in a hurry super-efficient, but mainly its to guarantee a dry sleeping bag at the end of the day.

A night sleeping in a wet bag would be grim.

Use heavy black plastic bags if you haven’t bought dry bags yet, but don’t rely on the compression sack from your sleeping bag to be waterproof enough.

If you’re confused as to what best suits you then maybe don’t just buy online, speak to someone like Ronan at Adventure.ie, he’s active in the outdoors, a qualified International Mountain Leader and an outdoor gear shop owner, so he knows what works and chooses to stock good quality items.

I personally like the look of the Salewa Micra II Tent they are selling at the moment, for that price, weight and waterproofing it looks like a great deal.

Camping in the Mournes
The Mournes

 

I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.

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Belaying: Harness Loop Or Rope Loop?

Should you belay from your harness loop or rope loop? 

First and foremost, if you are tied in with the rope, it is always preferable to belay from the rope loop. 

However, we don’t always tie in (indoors, sports) and there are sometimes exceptions.

Let’s look more into this below, from the point of view of the belayer and the leader.

 

Indoor climbing/Single Pitch Sports climbing/Bottom Roping

There is no need for the belayer to tie in with the rope, so belaying directly from your harness loop is the obvious and safe thing to do.

Be sure to regularly check the stitching and quality of your harness loop for wear and tear and signs of degradation and retire harnesses when they become unsuitable for use.

Bottom Rope belay
Bottom rope belaying directly from harness loop

You would expect the bolts/chains/anchors to be of solid quality in these instances and its of little relevance to factor in shock absorbency on the system.

Just make sure to always tie a knot at the end of the rope or to a rope bag to prevent the rope from pulling through the belay device, there are numerous recorded instances of this occurring every year, causing serious accidents.

Single Pitch Trad Climbing

Do we belay from the harness loop or rope loop for single pitch trad climbs?

Belayer/second: It’s a strong personal preference of mine that the belayer/second always ties in from the start and belays off their rope loop in this scenario. This is for two main reasons:

Shock absorbency

If the leader was to fall, belaying from the rope loop will give a little more shock absorbency under loading.

While you would expect the paid out rope to dissipate most of the forces created by the fall, in my opinion, on trad gear, every extra bit of shock absorbancy is wanted. Reducing forces on our leader placed trad gear is generally a good thing.

Preventing incidents

On a few occasions I have seen the belayer not tie in, belay from the harness loop and the leader pull up all of the slack rope through the placed gear when safe. Perhaps unnoticed by the second as they put on their shoes.

This isn’t a massive issue if the climb is straight-up vertical, where the rope can be lowered back down to the belayer, but this can lead to placed gear being left behind.

Mainly this becomes an issue when the route traverses or zigzags. Getting the rope back to the second and ensuring they are safe en route would be quite difficult and could lead to them taking a wild swing or even decking out.

Lead climber: Fundamentally, it’s safe for the leader to pick either option. Should a second fall the comfortable option is the most sought after and that is why we would belay off the rope loop.

 

harness loop or rope loop for top rope
Leader belaying from the rope loop

Second falling problems

The forces of a seconds fall on our body while belaying from the harness loop can be very unpleasant.

We don’t really have to think in terms of shock absorbancy for the anchor system here, as in most scenarios the leader will have had time and space to make good anchor choices.

This might be different in areas of poor rock quality. The last two times I belayed my second off my harness loop were at Murroughkilly and Oughtdarra.

Both are areas where the rock is extremely friable and anchors are complex to build. In this instance I belayed off the harness loop as I want my body to be the first shock-absorber, then the rope system.

Harness loop or rope loop for Multi-pitch Trad/Sport Climbing

Belayer/second: for the same reasons as above I would expect them to belay off the rope loop while on trad multi pitch routes. Either option is safe for sports climbing multi pitches, but the rope loop is again the preferable option. For incident prevention, I would expect the belayer to be tied in from the very start.

Lead climber: While sports climbing its likely that there will be bolted anchors at stances and that you would belay directly off them, so this really isn’t an issue here unless you suspected your bolts to be compromised.

Compromised bolted anchor
Compromised bolted anchor

Trad climbing throws up a few choices though. If you have placed multiple bomber anchors and are swinging leads, I would preferably do as a single pitch leader would and belay off the rope loop.

If you weren’t swinging leads and the anchors were bomber, id either belay off the rope loop or more probably build a sling based system and belay directly from that.

But sometimes on a trad multi pitch your anchor doesn’t make you warm and fuzzy, so as a leader you would belay your second from the harness loop. It might be uncomfortable if your second falls, but it might just be the difference in your anchor holding or being compromised.

Harness loop belay
Rusty Pegs and small wires? Maybe an occasion for a harness loop belay.

 

Every scenario is different and the above are general rules I try and follow as much as possible, but its also worth saying there are always times when breaking the rules is appropriate for the scenario, experience or further training will tell you when.

I hope the above info is useful. If you would like to discuss any aspect further, please get in touch and Id be happy to chat.

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Cams: Breaking The Rules

For some Trad climbers, placing cams can be more nuanced and less obvious than a sinker large nut in a perfect constricting crack.

Common myths and absolute rules of using a cam can also lead to misunderstandings. Remember, there are few absolute rules to placing gear, think of them more as best practice guidelines as opposed to hard and fast rules.

Below I have listed some of the misconceptions about cams I’ve heard and occasions when its appropriate to break the rules.

You can’t place cams in The Burren

Limestone is considered a soft rock. Not the kind of soft that you can take ground falls and be happy, but soft in that its top layers or microns are softer than that of granite or quartzite.

If I have the choice between a nut and a cam, I’ll probably use a nut every time. But if I have the choice between a cam or no gear at all, I’m clearly going to try a cam.

When looking to place cams in limestone, we should allow for the softer nature of the rock and treat our cams a little more like passive pro than active pro.

We should look for the constrictions and rugosities that exist on limestone cracks and we should attempt to place our cams into the crack where its wide, sliding the lobes behind the knuckles or constrictions.

How to place cams in the Burren
A nicely constructed cam

Find those constrictions

When done right, this makes the placement not only reliant on the active camming of the lobes. but also the passive piece of metal is just too big to squeeze out of the crack. I find I even adopt this technique on all rock types now, optimising placements.

On routes like Nutrocker, where the crux crack is very uniform and highly polished, I think we have to work harder on limestone to find an optimal placement than if the rock was granite.

A technique I use on limestone is to imagine a thin layer of ice covering the walls of the crack. That forces me to seek out the above-mentioned constrictions rather than just rely on the cam working as it normally would.

Failing that I just seek out the deepest possible placement without inserting the trigger. This at least allows the lobes more opportunity to hold.

Theres plenty of good nut placements on Nutrocker anyway, so it’s not like we have to rely on a cam, but most people know the climb and it serves well to visualise the rock surface.

You cant place Cams in horizontal cracks

This came up recently on an RCI training course I was running. One of the trainees had been admonished by a climbing partner for placing a cam in a horizontal crack.

In fairness, this was a thing when the stems of cams were rigid metal and there was a potential for the stem to crack off the edge of the crack under load.

Just Bomber Gear Cam
Pic courtesy of @justbombergear

This is way less of an issue these days as manufacturers have gone to great lengths to engineer flexible stems from spun wires.

Wider Lobes always on the bottom

When using cams we should always aim to use the wider outside lobes on the widest area of the rock. Think about lobes as legs. If we adopt a wide legged stance it’s hard to push us off balance, but if we stand with a narrow stance, it’s much easier to be unbalanced.

Especially on horizontal cracks of a uniform nature we ideally want the wider outside lobes to be on the bottom side of the crack. This is the most desirable outcome, as it leads to less walking, more stability and spreads the load better.

Wide lobes down in crack

 

Exceptions to the rule

However, we dont always get presented with a perfect uniform crack and there are always exceptions to the rules. The opening or “mouth” of a horizontal crack can be flared and funky for example.

 

placing cams wide lobes up

 

In the photo above, the cam just won’t slide anymore inside the crack when the wider lobes are on the bottom (A). Whereas using the same cam with the wide lobes pointing upwards it slides much further inside the crack (B) and ultimately looks to be the better placement.

In an instance where the top edge of the horizontal crack may extend wider than the bottom edge of the crack, it can happen that an “upside down” cam placement is the best option to achieve surface area contact for the cam lobes.

How the lobes are making contact can sometimes rank higher than which way the wide lobes are orientated.

You cant use a cam in a bottom rope anchor

While cams can walk or their placement be altered by a moving rope, they are acceptable to use as an anchor, if an alternative isn’t available.

Yes, if you’re setting up a bottom rope anchor, the anchors will be out of sight when in use, so ideally its highly preferable to use a sling, nut or hex, but we dont always get preferable choices and have to use whats there.

Maybe by equalizing two side by side cam placements with a sling, into a singular anchor point, we can lessen the potential for walking or movement, obviously used as a part of a bigger anchor set up.

For example, trying to set up a bottom rope on the popular Cronin’s Crack without cams will have you exploring.

All 4 Lobes must be touching the rock.

4 points of contact are the best. 3 points of contact can be fine, but you want it to be the two wide outside lobes camming and possibly sacrifice one of the inside lobes

I once placed a small cam on a route called Sunken Business in The Gap. Only 3 lobes were in contact, with one of the outside lobes hanging in free air, but it was all that I could find to place at the time and the only piece between me and the ground.

I continued to climb and actually reached a positive hold, but couldn’t take my mind off what looked like a funky cam placement, I freaked out a bit, started to downclimb, slipped, fell and thanks to great belaying and 3 lobes I stopped about 1 inch off the ground.

It was a weird way to learn a lesson but a lesson learnt all the same.

I dont recommend testing your gear this way if possible though.

I hope the above info is useful. If you would like to discuss any aspect further, please get in touch and we can chat.

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Types Of Carabiner

There are many different types of carabiner, all designed for different purposes. This can be confusing when starting to build your first climbing rack.

We might see many types on sale in a climbing shop, but for the most part, when rock climbing we use very few different types, especially as beginners.

This video should give you a basic understanding of the types of carabiner we need to start climbing. From clipping bolts or gear, building anchors or belaying.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post or other skills and never forget, always lock your gates!

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