Spring time tips for rock climbers

Ian Carroll

It’s here! Spring has sprung. For rock climbers all over the US, that means we’re crawling out of our caves, dusting off our cams and clipping back in. It’s an exciting time for all of us. Chances are, you’ve already made it out onto the rock a couple of times this season.

However, there are a number of things you should keep in mind as the temperature warms back up, and so do you. From annual gear maintenance, to taking care of your body, it’s important to ease your way back into pushing your grade and throwing yourself down big whippers.

So today we’re going to go over some important parts of stepping into spring time climbing. We’ll talk about how to wash your rope, inspect your gear, and prepare your head space. By the end, you’ll be itching to get out on the rock. Just make sure you take these important steps first.

Wash your rope

One of the most important pieces of gear you own is your rope. It’s literally what keeps you alive when on the rock. And it’s almost criminal how few climbers wash their ropes each season, or ever! I know, it can be a real pain to do, or at least it seems like it will be. However, the truth is, it doesn’t take long and can improve your rope’s lifespan and reliability for years.

Your rope is your life.
Your rope is your life.

That’s because when dirt and sediment get into the fibers of your rope, they can actually create microscopic cuts in it from the inside. As you use a dirty rope, you’re actually damaging it more with every lower, catch, and rappel than if it were clean. Keeping dirt out of your rope in the first place is also a good way to prolong its life. Try using a rope bag and a ground tarp, especially in dirty and dusty areas, like the desert or in the woods.

How to wash a rope

Just fill a bathtub or jumbo plastic tub with lukewarm water and throw your rope in (or maybe place it gently). If you want, you can buy a special rope cleaning formula online or at your local climbing store. However, you don’t want to use regular soaps or chemicals of any kind. Just water. Massage your rope around for ten or twenty minutes. Bend it, bundle it, dunk it in and out of the water.

Then drain the tub and do it again. Chances are your rope’s got at least two washes worth of dirt stored inside it. On your final wash, you can leave your rope sitting in the water for an hour or two. Then comes the hard part. Hang your rope to dry in a cool, dry place. Not in direct sunlight and not near a heater. Drying will take some time, maybe a day or more. A fan can help, and an open window or two is critical. You should rearrange the rope a number of times throughout the drying process to let every segment dry evenly.

Lube your cams

Just like your rope, cams need cleaning at least once a season. It’s not just so they look shiny and new. Trust me, they’ll never look like that again. But they actually work better and keep you safer if they’re clean.

It’s especially important to clean small cams because they have less action, and less total force exerted on the rock.
It’s especially important to clean small cams because they have less action, and less total force exerted on the rock.

That’s right. If your cams get dirty, the springs that cam their lobes into the crack start to stick and they won’t exert as much outwards force when you fall. You know how old cams feel sticky and hard to pull back? New cams feel smooth, like butter. That’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

Buy some cam lube for a couple of bucks online and get all your cams out. Make a small tub of warm soapy water and dunk them one at a time. Scrub with a toothbrush you never intend to put in your mouth again as you pull them open and closed. Then swish them around in clean water and hang them to dry while you do the rest.

Once they’re dry, drop a couple of drops of cam lube into the springs of each one as you pull them open and closed. You should feel the action ease as you do this. It’s also possible you’ll see black grease come out of the joints. A bit of that is normal, but if you see too much, it might be a good idea to repeat the process and add a little more soap to the mix. By the end, they should all be moving smooth as butter.

Inspect everything

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably playing with your climbing gear all winter. Holding it, looking at it, pretending you could go out and use it. But no matter where it’s lived through the cold months, it’s time to give it an annual inspection.

Lay it all out and give it a look over.
Lay it all out and give it a look over.

The reasons for this should be pretty self-explanatory, but like so many other maintenance tasks, a lot of climbers skip it. Don’t skip it! What if your harness was chewed on by a rat? Going into the mountains with unsafe gear is one of the number one ways to get hurt. Taking a quick hour to look over your gear in the springtime can help prevent accidents. Plus, it’s just fun to look at it all. Beware of wanting to buy more though. It only takes an hour to look over what you have. The next hour is often spent on Steep and Cheap looking up deals on cams.

Lay everything out. From your helmet, to your slings, draws, cams, nuts, you name it. Organize it, take a pretty picture, then get down to business. Look it all over using your eyes and your hands. Sometimes you can feel defects you can’t see. Be thorough. It’s usually small details that make big differences in rock climbing. Take extra care when inspecting the webbing and slings on your draws, cams, and other protection.

Before it, all goes back on your rack for the season, make sure every single piece is in good condition.
Before it, all goes back on your rack for the season, make sure every single piece is in good condition.

If anything looks questionable, consider replacing it. Remember, this gear isn’t here to look pretty, it’s meant to save your life. If your rope is frayed or your harness is ripping, it’s time to retire it. Bite the bullet, spend the money, and replace it. Look at websites like www.steapandcheep.com to find deals on climbing equipment.

This can also be a good time to tape all your gear if it’s not already marked. That way when you’re sharing gear with your buddies next weekend, you’ll know which piece is yours and which is theirs. Colored electrical tape or nail polish work great. Duct tape can also do a fine job for a season or two if it’s what you’ve got.

Hit the gym

One of the biggest problems about the off season is your body gets out of shape. Climbing isn’t like soccer, your body doesn’t just jump right back in where it left off. Going for a couple of runs isn’t going to do the trick.

Now, you may have been putting in time at the gym all winter. If that’s the case, then you’re probably already on top of what your body needs to get ready for the season. If you haven’t, it’s time to hit the gym at least a couple of times. Don’t overdo it. Your fingers, tendons, and technique are all probably a bit out of shape.

Climbing gyms are a great way to train as the climbing season approaches.
Climbing gyms are a great way to train as the climbing season approaches.

We’ve all had climbing injuries. That’s not how anyone wants to start a season. If you jump in too fast and hurst a tendon or ligament, you could be looking at ending your season before it’s started. So take it slow and ease your body back into beast mode.

Take your grade down a notch

Even if you’ve been in the gym all winter, it’s a good idea to take it easy when you get back on the rock. Don’t run right back to your project from last year. Definitely, don’t take on a new trad testpiece. Instead, go for a softer grade and ease your way into things. There’s no rush. The race is only with yourself.

It’s possible your not as strong as you were or your stamina not as full. If you go up a route you’re not ready for, you could get into a bad place on your first day out. Better to work your way up the grades slowly. Think of it like when you warm up normally, but on a way bigger scale. So expect it to take a bit longer.

Be patient with the weather

I’m from the Northwest where it’s liable to rain at any time of any day, all year. We’re pretty used to false breaks in the weather and being teased by the spring time for months. But if you’re used to sunny days from here on in, don’t push it if the weather isn’t cooperating. The season is long, and it’s just getting started.

If you’re hiking out to the crag like this, it’s time to find some overhang.
If you’re hiking out to the crag like this, it’s time to find some overhang.

If the rain foils your plans, take a day in the gym, or workout inside. Watch some climbing movies or go find an overhanging area to climb. Getting out on wet rock first thing in the season is a good way to get into trouble. The combination of winter muscles and wet conditions can put you out of your grade pretty fast. If you’re an experienced climber, you’ll know what the difference between ‘too wet’ and a ‘little wet’ is. But be sure to exercise caution and stay patient. There’s plenty of time.

Get stoked!

Now that we’ve gotten all the words of caution out of the way, it’s time to get psyched! It’s springtime! The sun is out more and more every day, and the rock is drying off. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start thinking about what kind of climbing season you want to have.

The spring is a great time to get out your local guidebooks, watch some climbing videos, and read climbing magazines. Use them to set some goals. What type of climbing do you want to focus on? Are you looking to bag as many summits as possible or push your sport grade to 12a? Are you trying to do massive multi pitch lines in foreign countries or master your local crag? If you go into the season with some goals, it will help to keep you focused and motivated all season long.

Setting goals will help you to progress and stay motivated.
Setting goals will help you to progress and stay motivated.

Me personally, I’m looking to make my first trip to Yosemite this year, start leading 11s on trad, and tackle a number of the classic lines in Squamish, my favorite granite on the planet to date. But who knows? The season is young, and a lot can change in half a year. Maybe I’ll be thinking on a whole other level by the time I make it to September.

Looking for more articles about climbing to get you stoked? Click here to check out our entire archive of climbing posts. Stay safe, stay stoked, and have a great climbing season.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival