Rock Climbing Myths and Misconceptions: Separating Facts From Fiction

Max Lurie is an AMGA certified Rock and Alpine Guide, as well as an accomplished alpinist. Max has been climbing since 2004 and traveling to the world's greatest mountain ranges in pursuit of his passion.
Written by
Max Lurie

Climbing has a rich history of do-it-yourself culture from the early days of Yvon Chouinard forging some of the first pitons and explorers going on expeditions to the far reaches of the planet for months at a time.

A lot has changed in the past 50, 60 and 70 years with the pursuit of climbing.

We have incredible training facilities that are producing some of the world's strongest climbers. Climbing is in the Olympics. We have a wealth of information in the form of guidebooks at our fingertips. We also have peer reviewed certified professional guides and educators to help us develop our skills.

There was a strong culture of apprenticeship while getting into climbing. For a variety of reasons the explosion in popularity of climbing has spread the qualified mentors too thin for the new climbers getting into the sport.

This in conjunction with the physically talented climbers coming from the gyms out to the cliffs for the first time is a recipe for disaster. Being able to climb something is only a third of the necessary skills to do so in good style.

In this article we will explore some of the common myths and misconceptions that permeate the sport. These are things I see on a regular basis and conversations that I have with newer climbers repeatedly.

Hopefully this article will help you think more critically about the systems you use and to vet the sources of information before trusting it as gospel.

Myths Vs. Facts

When talking about rope systems for climbing I often say that the only rules or laws we cannot break are the laws of physics themselves.

Think critically about your systems. What if any is the most likely model of failure? What are you using the system for? Context matters.

We want to develop a deep and thorough understanding of the key fundamental concepts instead of using rules based thinking.

Paint your own masterpiece on a blank canvas instead of filling in between the lines with someone else's paint by numbers.

Male rock climber in Colorado

Myth #1: Clip the Hanger and Not the Rappel Ring at an Anchor

I hear this far too often and don’t know the origin of this misconception. The idea is that we should clip the hanger directly instead of a rappel ring.

The thought being that it will preserve the rappel ring and keep it for threading a rappel or other parties.

Which is all well intentioned and seemingly thoughtful. However…

Fact #1: Clip the Rappel Ring if Available

Not all hangers are created equal and some modern hangers aren’t actually meant to be clipped directly.

This is because the geometry doesn’t allow for the carabiner to move freely and can leverage against the rappel ring. In an extreme case this can cause it to snap at surprisingly low loads. This is probably the biggest reason not to clip the hanger if a rappel ring is present.

As for the notion that an aluminum carabiner can somehow damage a steel rappel ring. That is just false information. Aluminum is a much softer metal than steel.

Lastly, for the organization of the anchor, a rappel ring is plenty big enough for several carabiners and a rappel rope. So no problem there either.

Myth #2: We Shouldn’t use a Gri Gri for Trad Climbing

This is an interesting one and again I don’t know its exact origin. The thought or logic behind it is actually quite simple. That any assisted braking device (ABD) like the Petzl Gri Gri would exert a higher peak force load on the anchor when catching a leader fall.

Woman rock climbing with Alpine to the Max in Colorado

Which is something we always want to avoid, but especially while trad climbing. So we should only use an ATC which is known to slip a little bit and reduce the peak force.

Fact #2: The Gri Gri or any ABD is Perfectly Acceptable for Belaying a Trad Leader

Tests from Petzl (forces at work in a real fall) themselves have shown that peak forces exerted on the top piece during a leader fall are approximately 4-6 kN for a fall between factor 0.3 & 1 which is within the range for well placed traditional protection.

Furthermore, the added security of an ABD can be quite desirable for multi-pitch trad climbing or for pushing your limits on a single pitch trad climb.

Myth #3: Free Climbing is Only Done without Ropes

Because of the mainstream attention of climbers such as Alex Honnold, the late Uli Steck and Marc-Andre Leclerc, climbing without ropes has breached the public consciousness.

The public faces of the sport has molded people's perception of it to think that free climbing is done without the use of ropes.

Fact #3: Free Climbing Uses Ropes to Catch the Climber if they Fall

The term free climbing simply refers to the use of our hands and feet to ascend the rock face.

This is in contrast with the much less popular aid climbing. Which uses artificial gear and equipment to climb it. Some of the confusion comes from the fact that much of the same gear is used to protect a free climber if they fall as is used in aid climbing.

But the big difference is how the equipment is being used. A free climber never (ideally) weights the rope while climbing until they have completed a pitch.

Myth #4: When Cleaning a Single Pitch Sport Route we should Rappel

The origin of this practice probably goes back to the beginning of sport climbing.

When the fixed hardware was either homemade or hard to find. The logic being that we don’t want to prematurely wear out the valuable resource of fixed hardware.

Thus rappelling puts less of a wear on equipment because it doesn’t involve a loaded moving rope.

Fact #4: Modern Fixed Hardware at most Sport Climbing Crags is Specifically Designed to be Lowered from and not Rappelled

Many studies from various organizations have shown that rappelling accidents at sport climbing crags was one of the highest per capita accidents to occur in the sport.

We have come a long way in the sport and modern steel hooks are designed to be lowered from and not rappelled. This method has fewer steps and has been proven to be a safer method for cleaning a sport anchor.

For the argument about wearing down the material, yes it does. Lowered does wear out the fixed hardware faster. But that is its purpose.

Don’t we owe it to the people that installed this equipment to use it in the safest way possible?

Happy rock climbing man

If that means replacing it as necessary then that is a favorable alternative to anyone having an accident.

If you would like to support the local organizations that install/maintain this equipment you are encouraged to do so. The Boulder Climbing Community is local to Boulder Colorado where I am and they are a great organization to support.

Of course you can find an organization that is local to your favorite crags.

Final Thoughts

In climbing there is a very fuzzy intersection between security and style.

Why and how we choose to use certain techniques can greatly depend on the context of our day. There are things that are objectively dangerous to do, such as free soloing like Alex Honnold and many others myself included.

But the big difference is that we are acknowledging and accepting that risk being fully aware of it. The problem arises when climbers inappropriately use techniques or lack the knowledge to adequately assess a situation.

A perfect example would be a dangerous top rope setup. The climbers who set it up probably didn’t know they did a poor job otherwise they wouldn't have.

Therefore they are unaware of the risk they are accepting unlike those who take an even greater risk to climb ropeless.

It is very hard for us to see our own blind spots in any arena of life from work, relationships to climbing. The big difference between other and climbing is that a miscalculation in climbing can quickly be fatal. Few other things in life have such potential consequences.

So what can we do about it?

Be skeptical of new information and ask questions, even from guides and professional educators. If someone can not produce a satisfactory answer as to why something is the way they are describing it, be extra skeptical.

Just because someone has been doing something for a long time does not mean they know what they are doing. Often older climbers learn something one way and never update their practices.

The fastest way to learn how to climb is from a peer reviewed certified guide and mentor.

That way you know the knowledge they are sharing is the most current techniques and practices throughout the industry.

With their supervision you will be able to make mistakes without suffering the consequences.

This will build your wealth of experiences and eventually lead to your own self-sufficient decision making in the mountains.

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