A Better Balm – review of hand balms for rock climbers

Chalky hand

A rock climber’s hands can get some rough treatment.  Pushed and twisted into cracks, grazed on course rock, cut and ripped on edges, worn down until the finger tips split and dried out by chalk and the elements.  The results of this harsh treatment can be irritating and painful as well as impairing climbing performance.  To help climbers keep their hands in working condition manufacturers from major companies to people working out of their kitchen have produced balms for climbers’ hands that aim to moisturise, revitalise and help skin heal. Read more

Woolly Hats for Big Heads

Me on a windy day in the Brecon Beacons wearing the Mammut Eisberg Beanie.
Me on a windy day in the Brecon Beacons wearing the Mammut Eisberg Beanie.

One size does not always fit all.  My larger than average head means that I have quite a bit of trouble finding any hats that fit.  This can be a problem as a woolly hat is essential for keeping my head warm on cold, windy mountains (particularly as I increasingly have less hair to do this job).  I don’t think that I’m the only person in this situation as people keep coming to an earlier post of mine via Google searches for climbing helmets for people with bigger or extra large heads.  So, for those of us blessed with a generous cranium and a love of the mountains, here are my reviews of some of the woolly hats for hiking and climbing that I’ve found fit my head. Read more

Ropes into Rugs and Other Ways to Recycle and Reuse Outdoor Gear

Old gear pile_1Lurking under my bed, buried in a drawer, shut in a box or in the dark in my wardrobe.  These are the places where my unused outdoor gear lives.   These are the bits of hiking and climbing gear, clothing and equipment that have been superseded when I upgraded to new, better kit, no longer work as well as they should, never really fitted me that well or were retired because they too old to be safe any more.  Now they take up space in my small London flat and provide a home for dust bunnies.  I’ve decided that they need to go.  I’ve also decided when they do go I want them to be put to good use rather than rotting or rusting away in a landfill.

A few of my unused bits of gear are still perfectly functional and someone could use them if I can get them to a new owner by selling or donating them.  However, there are some things that couldn’t have this second life with someone else.   For example, climbing ropes, slings and harnesses all degrade over time and past a certain age they have to be permanently retired because there is a risk that they will break in a fall.  However, this doesn’t mean I couldn’t reuse my old climbing rope by turning it into a rug (see SummitPost for some instructions on how to do this yourself).   The plastics and metal in my old gear could also be recycled and made into something else. Read more

Review of Rab’s Neostretch Gaiters

Rab’s new and award-winning NeoStretch Gaiters have great breathability and lots of clever touches, but a few simple design issues stop them from being perfect.

In the mudI’ve got mixed feelings about gaiters.  They’re brilliant for keeping snow and water out of your boots, but they can make for lower legs that are hot and damp with the sweat the gaiters haven’t allowed to escape.  This is a particular problem on those days in the mountains when it’s warm, but gaiters are still needed.  Even if rain isn’t forecast and the sun shines warmly, gaiters can be essential because of the risk of putting your foot into a bog or slipping when crossing a stream.  In Alpine conditions you can be toasted while on a sun-baked glacier and have to wear gaiters to cope with the snow on the peaks you’re going to climb.  Rab hold out the promise that their NeoStretch Gaiters will make life more comfortable in such situations by combining one of the new breed of highly breathable fabrics and Rab’s usual, excellent design work.  To see if this was true, I tried these gaiters out on walks in a snowy Lake District as well as warm weather and continuous, sometimes torrential, rain in Snowdonia. Read more

Outdoor Gear Competition Nut

I love entering competitions for rock climbing and hiking gear.  I like the possibility, no matter how small, that I might be lucky enough to win shiny new stuff.  It allows me to daydream that the latest, most technologically advanced piece of kit that I can’t really justify buying or else couldn’t afford might be mine.  Wanting new outdoor gear is like lusting after the latest smart phone or must have gadget.  Competitions provide me with a chance to have this gear and I enter as many competitions as I can.

Some of the magazines I look for competitions in.
Some of the magazines I look for competitions in.

Its not just competitions to win gear that you can enter – there are also competitions to win opportunities to put such gear to use.  There are often competitions with the prize of taking you and a friend away to mountains around the world or of being coached by a top climber.  Money and time stop me having these experiences the vast majority of the time, but a few clicks on an online competition and I can daydream about being the lucky winner of a trip to the Rockies or to ski in the Alps.

The odds of me winning any of these competitions are small, but the odds are much worse if you don’t enter and the possibility of winning is fun. Read more

Further Recalled

Today a group of manufacturers have issued new recalls on via ferrata lanyards.  This is the second wave of recalls of this type of equipment in the last six months and relates to a different type of lanyards than in the first wave.  The statements issued by the UIAA (the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) and the manufacturers are clear that the issues with these particular lanyards are potentially fatal.

Climbing the via ferrata Via Delle Trincee in the Dolomites.
Climbing the via ferrata Via Delle Trincee in the Dolomites.

Read more

Be Seen on the Mountain

I couldn’t see where the cries for help were coming from.  The rocky hulk of Tryfan was almost black in the twilight and was shrouded in cloud.  I could tell the shouts of help were definitely coming from high on Tryfan’s west face, but they were just disembodied voices in the growing dark.

The Moon over the west face of Tryfan in Snowdonia National Park, Wales.
The Moon over the west face of Tryfan in Snowdonia National Park, Wales.

I was in a group that had climb Tryfan earlier in the day before moving on to climb Glyder Fach next door.  It was November and we had decided to head down by the Y Gribin ridge as the light dimmed.  Cutting cross-country to get back to the cars, we heard cries of “help!” and headed in their direction to see what we could do. Read more

Recalling a Crisis

A failure of crucial safety equipment leads to a tragic death.  Major manufacturers issue urgent recalls of the equipment and an emergency meeting of the industry body decides to review safety standards.

If this were a story about a major consumer product, it would be major news.  It’s not.  This is a story about a piece of specialist mountaineering equipment – via ferrata lanyards.   For this reason you won’t find this story mentioned outside the specialist press.  It’s a story with a lot of the features of a crisis.  Although the response to it has been swift, it raises all sorts of questions about the regulation of mountain sports and the accessibility of the mountains to the public.

Climbers on the Via Ferrata Sandro Pertini

Vie ferrate

Vie ferrate are a way of enabling access to mountainous areas that would normally only be accessible to experienced mountaineers or rock climbers.  These “iron roads” have a mixture of attachments to the rock to help people climb past the sections where the rock climbing is a bit harder. Read more

UPDATE – Totally Recalled

It’s been reported that an emergency meeting of the Safety Commission of the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme – International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) will be held this week because of concerns over the safety of via ferrata lanyards from several manufacturers.

My Edelrid via ferrata lanyards in use

A couple of weeks ago Edelrid recalled some of its via ferrata lanyards after a fatal accident on a via ferrata in Austria.  Since then, manufacturers Wild Country, AustriAlpin, Singing Rock, Climbing Technology and Edelweiss have all issued their own recalls on their via ferrata lanyards.  Apparently, initial research is suggesting that grit in intensively used, elasticated lanyards abrades the nylon and causes the lanyards to fail to hold a falling climber.

I did a post on the original Edelrid recall as I think it is intriguing how much trust climbers and mountaineers put in the equipment they use and the people who make it.  My feeling is that we can probably trust manufacturers to warn us if our gear is potentially unsafe because of the premium their customers put on safety.

This wave of recalls shows there is a widespread problem with a particular type of product, but it’s not a universal recall of all via ferrata lanyards.  Read more

Totally Recalled

Earlier this week equipment manufacturer Edelrid issued a product recall for a selection of their via ferrata lanyards.  This recall follows a fatal via ferrata accident a couple of weeks ago.  Apparently, investigations have so far established an association between increased use of these lanyards and a weakening of their elasticated webbing.  As the Edelrid lanyards involved in this accident had apparently been rented, it is quite possible that they had seen greater than usual use.  However, the actual cause of the accident has not yet been established and Edelrid have issued the product recall as a precaution.

Using my Edelrid lanyards on the Via Ferrata Michielli Strobel.

Every so often you see product recalls for mountaineering equipment.  In the last year, for example, Petzl has issued product recalls for Scorpio via ferrata lanyards and some GriGri 2 belay devices.  Most of the time I just glance at these notices, but the Edelrid notice grabbed my attention because I’ve used Edelrid lanyards for the last couple of years.  My model isn’t covered by the recall and so I’m saved the hassle of returning the set for inspection and repair.  But this particular recall has got me thinking about is the trust we place in both our gear and the people who make it. Read more

Helmets for Big Heads

I’ve written an updated version of this post because there some helmets that will fit big heads have come onto the market since this original post was written.

My Big Head

Whether it’s due to excess brains or empty space, I have a larger than average head.   This makes it hard to find any headwear that fits.  Anything marked “one size fits all” does not seem to include me in the definition of “all”.  This might be only an annoyance if I were not a rock climber.  I need a helmet to protect my head from falling rocks, dropped bits of gear, impacts and banging my head against overhangs (which is a habit of mine).  If a helmet is to protect my head properly, then it has to fit properly.  Unfortunately, my big head means that the selection of helmets that will fit me is small.

Me wearing a Grivel Salamander XL helmet.

At a little over 62cm in circumference, my head is too big for Black Diamond’s popular Half Dome helmet as this has a maximum size of 61.5cm.  All helmets by Wild Country have a maximum size of 61cm.  Petzl’s Meteor III+ helmet and Elios helmet both have a maximum size of 61cm.  This is also the maximum size of Mammut’s Skywalker 2 helmet.

A quick internet search shows that I’m not the only climber whose head is bigger than 61cm in circumference and so I have written the following helmet guide for those with generous heads. Read more

Via Ferrata Virgins – getting started at via ferrata

If you have never done a via ferrata before, then there are some things you need to know and consider to have fun and stay safe.

Me on the Via Ferrata Lamon.

Your level of experience

If you are a confident rock climber or a hiker with experience of scrambling, then you should feel comfortable with much of the practice of via ferrata.  You are also likely to have the essential skills and knowledge that comes from being in the mountains that you need to keep you safe.  However, even with these skills and knowledge, I would recommend getting yourself familiar with what a via ferrata involves before trying one.

Even though I came to via ferrata with rock climbing, scrambling and hiking experience, I found reading up on the subject and speaking with friends I knew who had done via ferrata to be really useful.  Read more

Tips for via ferrata

These are my top ten tips for how to have a safe and fun time on a via ferrata.

1) Don’t fall off

This may sound obvious, but it cannot be overstated.  There are two reasons that falling off a via ferrata could be serious and should be avoided.

Tip 3 – Always clip onto the cable

The first is that the fall factor involved in such a fall are very high and higher than you are ever likely to take in a rock climbing fall.  Via ferrata lanyards are designed to take the high energy involved in such a fall, but you will still experience a high impact force (i.e. a very big jolt and shock to yourself and your gear) when you come to a stop. Read more

There’s no need to shout: using walkie-talkies when rock climbing

Clear communication between climbers is a vital part of climbing safely.  When two climbers are far apart, out of sight of each other or the wind is strong, then shouting is the usual way to communicate climbing commands and it usually works.  However, for those occasions when it doesn’t, I would recommend having walkie-talkies to hand.

Rock climbing with a walkie-talkie – climbing Colonel’s Arete (VD**) at The Dewerstone, Devon.

Why use walkie-talkies?

Safe climbing depends on climbers being able to accurately communicate information and instructions between each other.  The system of climbing commands is designed to ensure there are no misunderstandings between climbers about what exactly is going on and what they should be doing next.  However, it obviously depends on those commands being clearly heard.  It’s quite easy to come up with things that could go wrong if a shout is misunderstood or a climber makes assumptions when they cannot hear their partner. Read more