Climbing 101 – A Beginners Guide

Climbing: An Instructional Guide

Climbing has gained in popularity and is widely used around the world. In fact, over 6,148,000 Americans have participated in climbing due to the adventure it provides and the physical benefits gained from frequent climbing.

Rock climbing is a sport and an activity that has a large range of sub-disciplines. This guide to climbing types offers an overview of the multitude of types to help beginners understand the sport more clearly.

Remember, while our information is beneficial to newcomers, we suggest that you become trained on how to climb effectively. This ensures that you stay safe when climbing and prevents the chances of injuries occurring.

You can now be able to answer the multitude of questions that are asked by your curious peers and worried family members: What’s the purpose of aid climbing? How do you reach the top of your climbing summit? What equipment do you use?

Types Of Climbing

Even if you’re an experienced climber, it can be hard to get across the different lingo, methods, and equipment that’s involved. So, we’ve created a simple and quick guide to the basic types of climbing.

Bouldering

Bouldering is a great choice for beginners who want to climb indoors. All that’s required is chalk and a pair of climbing shoes. People who actively participate in this activity are called “Boulderers.”

Bouldering.

Boulderers climb through pre-set climbing routes called “problems” that are placed on short walls. Problems are solved once the boulderer or climber has placed their hands on a finish hold. Their hands have to match the end of the climbing route to complete the problem.

  • Example: Most gyms have a bouldering section where users can climb freely. For people who aren’t experienced with ropes or want to climb alone, look for a gym that offers that opportunity.

This activity is one of the safest activities on this list. There are padded floors that are designed to absorb the impact when a climber falls off the rocks or unsuccessfully completes a problem. As a result, beginners can learn how to fall correctly and prepare for more advanced climbing activities.     

Free Climbing

Free climbing is the most popular type of climbing: it consists of climbing using your hands and feet and finding handholds and footholds to propel yourself upward on a rock. This is different than free soloing because there is a rope with a harness attached to your waist.

Additionally, free climbing has a belay partner that holds onto the other end of the rope. If you fall, the belayer holding the rope will help you get back onboard. Like bouldering, it protects users from falling and is safe for first-time climbers to use.

Free climbing is divided into two types: traditional or sports climbing. Traditional climbers use chocks, cameras, and other removable hardware on cracks of the rock in order to prevent falling.

Usually, sport climbers use quick-draws (two carabiners that are connected by a loop of sewn webbing). Sport climbing occurs on pre-set climbing routes with protective pre-placed bolts (placed on rock cracks that are unable to be protected by removable hardware).

On average, climbing ropes are about 150-350 feet long. Longer climbs can be broken up into “pitches” or sections. On belay, the first climber climbs up, clipping onto the protective pieces along the way.

Free climbing.

Once the lead climber safely reaches the top of the pitch and is secured by the anchor, the second climber follows suit and is belayed with the rope held by the lead climber. 

  • Example: In a rock climbing gym, if you use a rope whether you’re top roping or lead climbing, you’re free climbing. Virtually every single-pitch climbing (Like the routes in Rifle, Colorado)

Indoor Climbing

Indoor climbing is where people climb on artificial structures that simulate the experience of outdoor rock climbing. In 1986, the first indoor climbing gym was built in Seattle under the name of Vertical Club, Inc.

Indoor climbing has seen a large boost in popularity in rain-dense climates. It’s a great alternative in areas where outdoor climbing is difficult. Besides giving an alternative during harsh weather, busy adults find that they can use the gym and continue to climb despite the weather conditions outside (dark, snow, rain).

To improve in any sport, consistent practice is necessary. With the invention of indoor climbing, busy schedules, weather, and seasonal difficulties are less of an issue. Due to this fact, climbers can enjoy and improve within the sport fully.

Ice Climbing

Ice climbing is a more advanced style of climbing where the user climbs up ascended ice formations. Ice climbers are specialized in climbing up frozen waterfalls, cliffs, and icefalls. When ice climbing, we suggest that you go with a group to prevent injuries from occurring.

On vertical routes, ice climbers sink crampons and ice tools into the ice to move upward. Ice screws and natural features are used for lead protection. Due to water coming out of the ice, lead climbing is more dangerous than climbing on rock surfaces.

While some of the same principles of rock climbing are present, ice climbing is an entirely different beast. Ice climbs are graded based on their difficulty and steepness. Wl1 is for beginners while Wl6 is for professional ice climbers.

On some occasions, ice climbing routes can have a mixture of rock and ice. To climb these routes, dry tooling techniques are required. Climbers place their ice tools on the crevices and cracks on the rock in order to ascend upwards.

Solo Climbing

Solo climbing is when a single climber practices without a partner, without a rope, or without both. Depending on the difficulty, the method used, and the type of surface that’s being climbed – not to mention the climber’s skill – solo climbing can be either safe or extremely dangerous.

When a bouldering climbing problem takes the climber high enough off the ground where they can receive an injury in the event of a fall, it’s known as highball problems. Highball problems then turn to free soloing, which is free-climbing without any rope for support. A fall from this height can lead to death and is only recommended for professional climbers.

John Bachar and Derek Hersey were the first rock climbing pioneers of this type. However, both lost their lives due to in-ground falls. Because of this, you should attempt solo climbing with extra protection to ensure that you’ll remain safe.

Roped soloing is used to refer to anyway a climber can use ropes for protection without another climber acting as a belayer. Roped solo techniques can be used on a top rope or a lead rope, for either aid or free climbing.

Top rope soloing is common and is used on small practice crags. However, rope soloing for extended periods is unusual. It’s more time consuming, requires more effort, and relies on more technical systems than using a competent climbing partner.

Aid Climbing

Aid climbing is like free climbing, but its principles are the direct opposite. The lead climber places hooks, tiny wedges, and other devices on the cracks of the rock for anchor points. After placing a piece of gear, the climber creates a webbing ladder (etrier) and steps on it. The climber uses the ladder

Deep Water Soloing

Deep water soloing is another form of climbing that uses ropeless climbing principles. The only difference is that it uses deep water to break the user’s fall. Unlike other climbing types, it requires minimal equipment compared to other climbing types. You only need a boat to access the other climbing areas.

Deep Water Soloing.

Most of the well-known deep water solo climbing areas are found in Vietnam and Spain. But, climbers have started to find areas within the United States as well. For instance, Clear Creak in Winslow Arizona is a great climbing course that’s used by professional deep water climbers.

Alpine Climbing

Alpine climbing is the most dangerous, yet adventurous form of rock climbing to date. Alpine climbers have to apply multiple techniques learned from previous climbing styles. Certain techniques include:

  • Placing traditional gear
  • Crack climbing
  • Face climbing
  • Ice climbing

Alpine climbers excel at climbing under tough conditions. They are trained to work with minimal resources and use technical skills to reach their climbing peaks. Reading and understanding snow and weather patterns is important for this type of climbing.

More than any other form of rock climbing, alpine climbers take pride in using the least amount of gear possible and tend to carry everything they need. Knowing aid and free skills are crucial to the survival of an alpine climber. It’s important to have these skills in your repertoire before attempting to climb mountains.

Climbing Gear

Before you plan on stepping foot on a mountain, you need to purchase the best protective equipment that’s available. Doing so increases your chance of survival and helps you climb more efficiently. Here are the most important pieces of equipment every rock climber should own.

Ropes

Most climbing ropes have a kernmantle construction. This consists of a kern (long fibers) and a mantle (woven colored fibers). Its core makes up for 80% of its tensile strength and the sheath acts as a protective layer that gives the climbing rope its handling characteristics and supports the core.

There are two forms of climbing ropes: static ropes and dynamic ropes. Static ropes are used for anchoring systems and stress less than dynamic ropes. They are used for rappelling and is useful in simple climbing surfaces.

Dynamic ropes are used as belaying ropes because they are designed to absorb a falling climber’s energy. The rope stretches when a climber falls and reduces the maximum force placed on the belayer, the climber, and the rope.

Climbing rope.

Before climbing, we suggest that you know your climbing route and the optimal rope that’s required for it. This allows you to climb through your course safely and be protected by the belayer if mistakes occur. If you’re climbing outdoors, use a dynamic rope. Otherwise, get a static rope to practice your climbing techniques.

Carabiners

Carabiners are connectors that consist of spring-loaded openings and metal loops. Previously made from steel, modern carabiners are now created from lightweight aluminum. Steel carabiners have more durability but harder to wear; because of this, instructors use them when teaching groups the basics of rock climbing.

Carabiner have multiple forms; the gate type and the carabiner’s shape are determined by the difficulty of the climbing course and its intended use. Carabiners have two main types: non-locking and locking carabiners.

Locking carabiners serve as belay devices or an anchor point. They are used to prevent a gate from opening when the user is climbing. There are a few different locking carabiner types available, such as a thread lock and a twist lock. Twist locks are more preferred due to their auto-locking mechanism.

Non-locking carabiner used as a part of quick draws. No matter which one you choose, you should get a carabiner to ensure that you remain safe during your climbs.

Quick Draws

Quick draws are used to connect bolt anchors to the rope of the climbing equipment. This lets the climbing rope ascend or descend through the anchoring system without any issue. Quickdraws a connected via a pre-sewn webbing loop.

Alternatively, quick draws are replaced by nylon/dyneema webbing. They have a loop size of 60cm and can be segmented into 20cm loops between carabiners. If you need more length, the sling can convert back to a 60cm loop for better versatility than pre-sewn loops.

Carabiners that are used for clipping have a straight gate. This decreases the chances of the carabiner unclipping from its protection. Also, the carabiner also has bent gates; this makes attaching the rope onto the carabiner easier and faster.

Quickdraws are usually seen in indoor climbing. Sometimes, the quickdraws can be pre-set to a wall. When climbing up a wall, the rope must be clipped to the quickdraw to remain safe. The best place to attach a quickdraw is when its placed at waist height.

Harness

Harnesses are used to connect the climber to the rope. Located in the front of the harness are two loops where the climber creates a figure-eight knot on the working end of the rope. Most climbing harnesses are placed at the climber’s hips and pelvis. Children use a full body harness as it gives them complete support.

Man using a climbing harness.

Different climbing styles require different harnesses. For example, sport climbers tend to use a minimalist sized harness, some of them consisting of sewn-on loops. And, alpine climbers use lightweight harnesses with removable leg loops.

Full body harnesses are used when carrying heavy equipment or if it’s a possibility of inverting. Chest harnesses are used in conjunction with sit harnesses; resulting in the same level of support as full body harnesses.

On the other hand, UIAA test results show that they have a larger impact on your neck than sit harnesses; making them risky to use.

Additionally, there are canyoning and caving harnesses; which are used for different purposes.

Caving harnesses are made of an unpadded material, waterproof covering, and two attachment points. To loosen the harness, use the attachment points to release the maillon.

Canyoning harnesses are similar to climbing harnesses, but they don’t have padding. They have seat protectors, which makes rappelling even easier. We recommend that you get the right harness according to your climbing style in order to safely complete the course.

Belay Devices

Belay devices are friction brake mechanisms that are used to control a rope during belaying. They are designed to lock off a rope to protect a climber’s fall. Different belay devices are available, some which can be used for descending, rappelling, or abseiling.

Belay devices have either active or passive designs. Active belay devices use an inbuilt mechanism that locks the rope without needing extra equipment. Passive belay devices rely on a carabiner and the belayer’s brake hand to lock the rope.

It’s also important to remember that during a fall, automatic belay devices create an extra force on the anchors making them better suited for indoor/sports climbing. Most are only compatible with single ropes and are less versatile than other devices. 

Rappel Devices

Rappelling is when a climber descends from a vertical drop using a rope. This is usually done on rock faces, where there are no extra rocks to interfere with the user’s descent. Climbers user this technique when the slope is too dangerous to descent without proper protection.

Rappel device.

Rappelling devices are made for descending ropes and serve as friction brakes. Although some belay devices are used for descenders, the descenders are not optimized for belaying. This is because they don’t provide enough friction to break a fall or transfer rope through the device.

This table explains the multiple rappelling devices that are used within the rock climbing sport.

Rappel Rack

Rappel racks have a U-shaped frame that’s placed on the climber’s harness. It snaps multiple bars that pivot from the frame’s other side. The rope is tightly woven to provide a sufficient amount of friction. This allows for multiple variations in regards to rate of descent, condition, and diameter.

Racks are rarely seen in sports climbing. Cavers tend to use racks on for extensive rappels because the friction can be adjusted. Simply add or remove bars to ensure that your hands have enough friction to grip and hold onto the rocks on the course.

Figure Eight

The figure eight acts and works like a descender. Alternatively, climbers use it as a secondary belay device when the appropriate equipment is present. It’s an 8 inch shaped device that’s made of steel and aluminum.

This uses heat dissipation as its primary advantage. Square eights are better used for emergencies and rescue applications. They are more efficient at rappelling, making them better than the previous 8 for advanced and dangerous rock climbing situations.

Petzl Pirana

The Petzl pirana is another variation of the figure 8 device. It has double prongs located at the bottom and has one metal loop. While it’s made for canyoneering, it allows for multiple variations of speed adjustments and friction modes.

It uses 3 braking positions. Each position has their own friction amount, which controls the climber’s descending speed. Unlike the figure eight, the Petzl Pirana can be disconnected or loaded from the climbing rope without being removed from the carabiner.

Rescue Eight

Rescue eight is an alternative version of the figure eight. It consists of “wings” or “ears” to stop the user’s rope from creating a girth hitch or a larks head. Rescue eights consist of steel instead of aluminum.

Ascenders

As its name suggests, ascenders are pieces of equipment that help climbers ascend up the rope. Also, they are called Jumars.

Jumars work like a friction knot but uses less effort to work properly. It uses a camera that allows it to move freely. But it’s strong enough to grip on the rope when the climber pulls in the opposite direction.

Different ascenders.

Locking carabiners prevent the jumar from falling off the rope. First, the Jumar attaches itself to a harness via sling or webbing. Then, it’s locked and clipped onto a rope. On average, you need two ascenders to use a fixed rope.

One Jumar is needed when climbing up a fixed rope that has snow attachments on it.  The other hand holds an ice axe, and helps ice climbers get through the course. Another ascender type feeds the rope in both directions. This is great for solo climbs as it automatically reels in the ascender which protects them from falls.

Clothing

You can’t go climbing without the proper equipment. Having this equipment can save your life in the event of an emergency or a fall that’s above 20 feet. Here is some climbing gear that you need to have the next time you plan on climbing.

Continue reading this section to find out what clothes is necessary to provide a safe rock climbing experience.

Helmet

Helmets are designed to protect climbers from fall impact. It also protects their head from being damaged by falling ice or rock. Rock climbing helmets should be documented and approved via a certificate of compliance and comply with their user’s standards.

What materials are used in creating climbing helmets?

Rock climbing helmets are usually made from: hard plastic, polycarbonate shell, fiberglass, and polyethylene. The interior shell is designed to distribute impact force and for comfort. The interior shell usually has a harness or foam liner system.

  • Fiberglass – Climbing helmets break in order to absorb shock damage. The helmet’s exterior shell is used to absorb the energy. Nylon and plastic helmets transfer the shock damage to the interior cradle shock. This helmet type lasts twice as long as a plastic helmet. Helmets created from polycarbonate or fiberglass are useful for rock climbing
  • Plastic – This helmet is more lightweight than polycarbonate and fiberglass helmets. They are commonly used for rappelling, caving, and rock climbing.

Rock Climbing Helmet Features:

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    Weight: The average weight of a helmet ranges from 10 oz to 17 oz. Get a helmet that’s at an applicable weight for you. Consider the tradeoffs when buying a lighter or heavier helmet to ensure that the device will save you during your fall
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    Ventilation: Ventilation holes placed on helmets are small enough to limit dirt and rocks from getting inside.
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    Suggested Use: Indoor climbers don’t have to worry about using a helmet in their climbs. But when doing outdoor climbing (cave climbing, ice climbing or rappelling) then you should invest in one
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    Warranty: This varies widely amongst the manufactures and changes often. Make sure to check the manufacturer warranty for each helmet to ensure that you can get a replacement if it breaks
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    Adjustability: Climbing helmets should fit correctly without being too tight. There has to be a gap between the inner suspension and the head. The padding must uniformly and firmly hold the pressure around the head. Also, the chin strap has to be adjustable as well

Shoes

You need to get a pair of rock climbing shoes that’s suited to your style of climbing. For instance, climbing shoes that have a downturned shape are made for overhanging and steep terrain. They are most useful when doing bouldering and sport climbing.

How To Find The Best Climbing Shoes Around

Getting technical styled climbing shoes won’t help you if you’re climbing through low elevation or on the safer side of the vertical. When climbing on overhanging ground, downturned shoes hold your toes by allowing your legs obtain more of the foothold once you apply force.

However, this increased power has a slight drawback. This is because technical shoes are less comfortable and sacrifices edging support.

If most of your climbing is done on vertical ground, then a pair of comfortable flat profile shoes is your best option. You need the shoes to fit tight on your feet with little or no “dead” space. But you don’t have to injure your toes; there are some climbing shoes that have a good technical capability without having a large downturned shape.

Tips When Buying Rock Climbing Shoes:

  • Unnecessary pain should be avoided at all times. Always get a pair of climbing shoes that’s comfortable and fits you properly. Otherwise, your climbing performance will suffer, and you won’t be able to wear them
  • Over time, leather shoes will stretch at least 50% of the time. Synthetic shoes don’t stretch at all. On average, it takes 10-15 climbing routes for the shoes to be properly broken, to soften, and to feel comfortable on the climber’s feet.
  • Test out the shoes before buying them. Do they feel comfortable when climbing with them? Or do they feel too tight on your feet making it hard to maneuver in them? Keep these questions in mind and buy the climbing shoes that feel the most relaxing on your feet.

Pants

Most rock climbers tend to wear shorts or pants when climbing. For increased protection, we suggest that you wear pants. Also, it’s good to get a pair of pants that have a gusseted crotch to avoid any awkward situations.

Some climbers like to wear shorts because it gives them more mobility. However, this will expose your knees to more cuts and scrapes when they are placed against the rocks. Alternatively, you can choose 3/4th length pants or capris to receive more protection.

Climbing pants.

If you do buy full-length pants, make sure that the legs aren’t too long. Having an extensive amount of pants leg height will interfere with your performance and cause you to slip more often. If you step on them, roll up the cuffs to ensure to make it easier for you to climb.

Belay Gloves

Belay gloves protect a climber’s hand from rope burn. Also, they are useful when repelling down vertical surfaces. Look out for the following features to ensure that your belaying gloves give you the most utility when doing your climbing route.

  • Finger Length: You can choose from full finger length gloves or half finger length gloves. Full finger length gloves offer the most protection, but lack in dexterity. If you do get a pair of finger length gloves, make sure that they have close fitting on your finger tips. When getting a half length glove, make sure that it’s durable enough to protect your hands during extended climbing sessions
  • Fabric: Belay gloves are made out of synthetic leather, leather, and synthetic stretch fabrics. Usually, the palm of the glove consists of full leather. Whatever fabric you choose is up to your personal preferences. Real leather tends to feel more comfortable and molds to the user’s hand better while synthetic leather is more breathable
  • Knuckle Protection: Some gloves have additional knuckle protection placed on the back. If you’re rappelling complex lines or belaying on multi-pitch anchors. It’s also good for aid climbing as well

Carabiners

Most carabiners come in various sizes. Large carabiners are easier handle and clip onto other ropes. Also, they can hold more gear. They are used with rappel devices and belay ropes. Smaller carabiners are more lightweight and take up less room, but they are harder to clip onto ropes.

Gate open clearance is measured in millimeters and should be taken in consideration when getting a carabiner. The gate open clearance number tells the shape and depth of the carabiner below the gate. Basically, the smaller the carabiner, the less room it can provide.

Having too little gate open clearance can result in your finger getting stuck between the carabiner body and the gate. On the other hand, having a deep gate open clearance makes it hard for users to clip the carabiner together. An ideal carabiner size will make it easier for you to clip it onto the rope without it falling off.

How And Where To Store Climbing Gear?

When it comes to storage, you need to evaluate how much space you have. As you continue rock climbing, you’ll increase in gear size and growth. So, make sure you have enough extra space in your room to accommodate for this fact.

Here are some things that you’ll want to store:

  • Shoes
  • Ropes
  • Carabiners
  • Slings
  • Cams
  • Tents
  • Quickdraws

If your rack space is small, a bedroom closet or hallway will give you enough equipment storage. Clothes rails, wall mounted hooks, and sturdy shelves can hold a few harnesses, belay equipment, ropes, and other climbing gear.

Large climbing racks need more storage space. We recommend that you use an entire room or a built-in storage unit for your home for your climbing equipment.

Climbing gear storage.

Basements, spare bedrooms, and garages are useful for holding large equipment such as camping gear and bouldering mats. Even if your rack doesn’t have these items, you’ll be surprised how fast you can fill a room with just climbing equipment.

Making The Storage Space

While it is up to you to decide what storage method goes best with your climbing rack, there are some important things to remember in order to store your gear. First, you have to find out how much storage you need or want for your rack.

For instance, you can use IKEA style cubed boxes because they offer a lot of space and are customizable, easily mounted to prevent tipping, and can store a large number of accessories. Storage tubs, boxes, and bins are needed if you need to find certain pieces of equipment in a hurry.

Once you create your main area, use the surrounding walls to keep items off the floor and utilize your storage space. Command strips, pegboards, rails, and wall mounted hooks are great for hanging ice axes, ropes, carabiners, and other climbing accessories.

Before making any bad storage decisions, the main things you need to have for climbing storage are organization, strength, and accessibility. Choose storage options and shelving that you can find easily without any issues.

Organization is also an important factor to take into consideration. If you have a tendency of losing your equipment often, we recommend that you label each drawer or shelf. You also need to understand that your rack is going to weigh a lot. So, invest in some hooks and sturdy shelving to save you trouble later down the line.

What Rock Climbing Gear Should Beginners Have?

Before you get started, you have to get some essential equipment. This list will detail the required tools and accessories needed to enhance your climbing experience.

Chalk

Chalk is the most important equipment for any rock climber. It’s made of magnesium carbonate which prevents rubbing and chafing. Additionally, it improves your grip when holding onto tough rock surfaces. Since chalk is an abrasive mineral, it bonds with the moisture of your skin and dries it out.

Whether your climbing indoors or outdoors, chalk is a necessary tool to enhance your performance. Loose chalk is recommended because you can easily store it in your chalk bag. Some climbers like to use block chalk because it’s cheaper and they can break the dust up in their fingers.

Chalk Bag

Now that you’ve purchased chalk, you need a chalk bag to store it all in one place. Getting a chalk bag is all up to your personal requirements and preferences. Make sure the chalk bag comes with a solid waist belt and a good buckle to keep it in place.

Some bags have a small zipper pocket. You can store chap stick, extra bail biners, tape, a paper guide, and extra jewelry. When getting a chalk bag, make sure its one that fits you correctly, so it doesn’t fall off when climbing.

Dynamic Rope

Your climbing rope is the most important tool in your climbing inventory. Modern climbing ropes have polymers that are stretched into thin fibers. If you do plan on going climbing, this should be the first thing that you buy.

There are a few things to consider when searching for a dynamic rope. For instance, how long do you want it to be? We suggest that you get a 60-meter long rope that’s dry-treated. And, it should have a 9-10.5mm diameter in order to produce the most results.

Maintenance

There are certain standards that each accessory must meet in order for it to be sealable and fit for the purpose. As we continuously use our gear, we have to know when its time to retire our equipment and get it replaced.

Rock Climbing Protection.

Here is a rule of thumb in regards to rock climbing equipment:

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    Ropes – 5 years after being produced by their manufacturer.
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    Webbing – 5 years of storage.
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    Metal Equipment – 10 years

To properly maintain your equipment, keep it stored in one safe location. If anything appears dirty, use a wet cloth to wash it back to good condition. Remember, if you overuse your equipment, you’re going to have to replace it more frequently. Keep these tips in mind to ensure that you get the most out of climbing gear and have them ready when you need them!

Closing Thoughts

Overall, knowing how to rock climb is a very fun and challenging activity. Once you get used to it, you’ll find it easy to solve climbing problems and climb through rough terrain. We suggest that you look into our buying guide so that you can get the best equipment to assist you in your climbing adventures.

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