Clean climbing

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Traditional pitons wedged into cracks, thus destroying the rock face. Gunks Traps - Pitons on Shockley's Ceiling - 2.jpg
Traditional pitons wedged into cracks, thus destroying the rock face.

Clean climbing is rock climbing techniques and equipment which climbers use in order to avoid damage to the rock. These techniques date at least in part from the 1920s and earlier in England, but the term itself may have emerged in about 1970 during the widespread and rapid adoption in the United States and Canada of nuts (also called chocks), and the very similar but often larger hexes, in preference to pitons, which damage rock and are more difficult and time-consuming to install. [1] Pitons were thus eliminated in North America as a primary means of climbing protection in a period of less than three years.


Due to major improvements in equipment and technique, the term clean climbing has come to occupy a far less central, and somewhat different, position in discussions of climbing technology, compared with that of the brief and formative period when it emerged four decades ago.

Rock preservation

Drilled and hammered equipment such as bolts, pitons, copperheads and others scar rock permanently. Around 1970, various protection devices that were far less likely to damage rock and much faster and easier to install became widely available. Such "clean" gear, as of contemporary times, now include spring-loaded camming devices, nuts and chocks, and slings, for hitching natural features.

Contemporary alternatives to pitons, which used to be called "clean climbing gear", have made most routes safer and easier to protect, and have greatly contributed to a remarkable increase in the standards of difficulty notable since about 1970. Pitons are now regarded as highly specialized equipment, needed by a small minority of climbers interested in routes of peculiar difficulty.

Even clean gear can damage rock, if the rock is very soft or if the hardware is impacted with substantial force. A falling climber's energy can drive a camming device's lobes outward with great force. This can carve grooves into the rock's surface, or, if the cam is in a crack behind a flake, the expansion can loosen the flake and eventually (or suddenly) split it off. Wedges (nuts) can also be forced into a crack much harder than the leader intended, and cracks have been damaged as cleaners try to chisel or pull stuck nuts out of their constrictions. In very soft rock, nuts and cams both can blow right through the rock and out of their placements, even with forces as small as those generated by tugging to "set" the piece. Although hooks are often categorized as clean, they easily damage soft rock and can even damage granite.


Morley Wood during the ascent of Pigott's Climb on Clogwyn Du'r Arddu (North Wales) in 1926 reportedly was the first climber to use pebbles slung with rope for protecting a rock climb. These were replaced by the use of machine nuts in England during the 1950s.

In 1961, John Brailsford of Sheffield, England, reportedly was the first to manufacture nuts specifically for climbing. [2]

Rock scarring caused by pitons was an important impetus for the emergence of the term, and the initial reason climbers largely abandoned pitons. However, today what was in the 1970s called "clean protection" and regarded by many climbers of the day with some suspicion with regard to safety, is now recognized as a faster, easier, more efficient and safer means of protecting most climbing routes than pitons- which are now, in comparison with the 1960s, rarely used.

When chrome molybdenum steel pitons replaced softer iron in the early 1960s, pitons became more easily removable, resulting in their more intensive use and alarming damage to increasingly popular climbing routes. In response, there was a "movement" among U.S. climbers around 1970 to eliminate their use.

Although bolts continue to be used today for sport climbing, and aid climbers, rescuers and occasionally mountaineers may employ pitons, bolts and a variety of other hammered techniques, the average free climber today has no experience with hammering or drilling. Prior to the introduction of spring-loaded camming devices (in about 1980), clean climbing involved a safety trade-off in certain situations. Protection methods of today, however, are generally seen as faster, safer and easier than those of the piton era, and average run-outs between gear placements have probably become shorter on many routes. [3]

Although English climbers had long used stones wedged into cracks and slung with cord for protection, this practice was rare in the U.S. In the early 1960s, after climbing a while in Britain, Yale physicist and notable New England climber, John Reppy, imported nylon-slung machine nut protection to Connecticut's Ragged Mountain. Soft-steel pitons held poorly in Ragged Mountain's cracks, and the nuts provided a more reliable protection. Nuts were therefore used as climbing protection in Connecticut about a decade before popular use in the U.S. [4]

In 1967, Royal Robbins returned from England with a sampling of artificially manufactured chock stones. He promptly made the first ascent of the Nutcracker in Yosemite Valley using exclusively these wedges. He wrote about this six-pitch climb and others in Summit magazine and the American Alpine Journal but without much obvious immediate influence. [5]

In 1971, John Stannard, one of the world's leading free climbers, took direct action to preserve the rock. He stopped carrying any pitons, not only on established climbs but also on his trailblazing First Ascents. To encourage others to follow, he put a logbook in the climbing shop, Rock and Snow, in New Paltz, NY, where any climber could receive credit for a "First All-Nut Ascent" in the Gunks. Then, in October, he published The Eastern Trade, a quarterly newsletter "for the preservation of climbing areas". In it, he envisioned a pitonless climbing future in the USA and coined the term "clean climbing". Within a year, most East Coast free climbers had converted. [6]

The same year, another well-known Yosemite climber, Yvon Chouinard, began to commercially manufacture a carefully-calibrated line of metal chocks, or nuts, in California. Another important milestone occurred with the 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog, which included two articles on environmental concerns and climbing gear. One was written by Chouinard and Tom Frost; another was the beautiful ode by Doug Robinson titled "The Whole Natural Art of Protection". [7] Around this time, Bill Forrest also produced a somewhat less successful range of passive chocks, more successful were his experiments with camming which went on to become the first Lowe Alpine System active camming devices (sometimes jokingly called "crack jumars").

Many other prominent climbers of the era were influential participants in this early 1970s movement. As a result, within two years, climbers adopted the technique, pitons quickly fell from favor, and the switch to "clean climbing" constituted a landmark change in the sport of rock climbing. [8] [9]

Conditions today

Piton scars from an earlier era are still widely visible. Today, on a relative handful of long-established climbing routes in a few places, these old scars enable the use of clean hardware. Such hardware would have been less useful on these particular routes before the rock was altered. Some routes which had been only ascendable on aid "go free" today for the same reason: there are in some places cracks smaller than fingertips which can now be climbed without aid because piton scars provide holds which didn't previously exist. [10]

Values and regulation

Most rock climbing, both long before and immediately after the development of "clean climbing", would now be classified as traditional climbing in which protection was installed and removed by each successive party on a given route. However, the term "trad climbing" only arose later, to describe that which is not sport climbing, a comparatively recent activity in which all protective gear is permanently and abundantly fixed on certain routes.

Fixed gear certainly existed in 1970 as it does now. Some contemporary routes, like a number of long, limestone climbs in the Bow Valley, Alberta, are notable for fixed bolts at belay stances and for protection at relatively wide intervals, [11] and thus a kind of hybrid of trad and sport is possible—if supplementary gear can be placed. Perhaps the most extreme example of acceptable non-"clean climbing" is the many via ferrata mountaineering routes, of primarily the Alps.

A relatively small number of climbers believe in varying degrees that fixed gear should never be placed on any route in order to preserve the rock and its inherent challenges. [12] [13] This long-standing cultural question of doctrine is largely separate from issues that gave rise to the term "clean climbing."

Some climbing areas, notably some of the national parks of the United States, have de jure regulations about whether, when and how hammer activity may be employed. For example, drilling is not banned in Yosemite, but power drills are. Other areas have de facto local ethics prohibiting certain activity. For example, bolting is not banned in Pinnacles National Park, but the local climbing community does not tolerate rap-bolting — bottom-up route development is expected.

Related Research Articles

Climbing protection are the mechanical devices and pieces of equipment used by climbers to reduce the risks, and the effects, of a fall to the climber while rock climbing or ice climbing. It includes such items as nylon webbing and metal nuts, cams, bolts, and pitons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Traditional climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a type of free climbing in rock climbing where the lead climber places the protection equipment while ascending the climbing route; when the lead climber has completed the route, the second climber then removes the protection equipment as they climb the route. Traditional climbing differs from sport climbing where the protection equipment is already pre-drilled into the rock in the form of bolts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of climbing terms</span> For rock climbing and mountaineering

Glossary of climbing terms relates to rock climbing, mountaineering, and to ice climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free climbing</span> Climbing without using aid climbing

Free climbing is a form of rock climbing in which the climber can only use climbing equipment for climbing protection, but not as an aid to help in their progression in ascending the route. Free climbing therefore cannot use any of the tools that are used in aid climbing to help overcome the obstacles encountered while ascending a route. The development of free climbing was an important moment in the history of rock climbing, including the concept and definition of what determined a first free ascent of a route by a climber.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aid climbing</span> Type of climbing

Aid climbing is a type of rock climbing that uses mechanical devices and equipment, such as aiders, for upward momentum. Aid climbing is the opposite of free climbing, which only uses mechanical equipment for protection, but not to assist in upward momentum. "Traditional aid climbing" involves hammering in permanently fixed pitons and bolts, into which aiders are clipped, whereas "clean aid climbing" avoids hammering, and only uses removable placements.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nut (climbing)</span>

In rock climbing, a nut is a metal wedge threaded on a wire that climbers use for protection by wedging it into a crack in the rock. Quickdraws are clipped to the nut wire by the ascending climber and the rope threads through the quickdraw. Nuts come in a variety of sizes and styles, and several different brands are made by competing manufacturers. Most nuts are made of aluminum. Larger nuts may be threaded on Dyneema cord instead of wire, but this has become unusual.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Piton</span> Metal tool used in rock climbing

A piton in big wall climbing and in aid climbing is a metal spike that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface using a climbing hammer, and which acts as an anchor for protecting the climber against the consequences of falling or to assist progress in aid climbing. Pitons are equipped with an eye hole or a ring to which a carabiner is attached; the carabiner can then be directly or indirectly connected to a climbing rope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Redpoint (climbing)</span> Type of free climbing

In rock climbing, redpointing means to free-climb a route from the ground to the top while lead climbing, after having previously practiced the route beforehand or after having failed first attempt. Climbers will try to redpoint a route after having failed to onsight it, or flash it. The first successful redpoint of a route, in the absence of any prior onsight or flash, is recorded as the first free ascent (FFA) of that route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yvon Chouinard</span> American mountain climber (born 1938)

Yvon Chouinard is an American rock climber, environmentalist, philanthropist and outdoor industry businessman. His company, Patagonia, is known for its commitment to protecting the environment. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2023.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Royal Robbins</span> American rock climber (1935–2017)

Royal Robbins was one of the pioneers of American rock climbing. After learning to climb at Tahquitz Rock, he went on to make first ascents of many big wall routes in Yosemite. As an early proponent of boltless, pitonless clean climbing, he, along with Yvon Chouinard, was instrumental in changing the climbing culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s by encouraging the use and preservation of the natural features of the rock. He went on to become a well-known kayaker.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry Barber (climber)</span> American rock climber

Henry Barber is an American rock climber and ice climber who rose to prominence in the 1970s. Known by the nickname "Hot Henry", Barber was an advocate of clean climbing, a prolific first ascenscionist and free soloist. He was one of the first American rock climbers to travel widely to climb in different countries, and was one of the first "professional" American rock climbers, supporting himself as a sales representative for outdoor equipment companies including Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia, and by giving lectures and slide shows. He was an integral member of the "Front Four" quartet of the 1970s: "Hot Henry", John Stannard, Steve Wunsch, and John Bragg.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ron Kauk</span> American rock climber (born 1957)

Ron Kauk is an American rock climber. Kauk is associated with Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley, where he lived for decades, now a resident of El Portal, California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of rock climbing</span> Key chronological milestones

In the history of rock climbing, the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the 1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tom Higgins (rock climber)</span> American rock climber (1944–2018)

Thomas John Higgins was an American rock climber with many first and first free ascents primarily in the western United States. He was noted for pushing standards using a purist, free climbing style.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hex (climbing)</span> Rock climbing equipment to arrest a fall

A hex is an item of rock-climbing equipment used to protect climbers from falls. They are intended to be wedged into a crack or other opening in the rock, and do not require a hammer to place. They were developed as an alternative to pitons, which are hammered into cracks, damaging the rock. Most commonly, a carabiner will be used to join the hex to the climbing rope by means of a loop of webbing, cord or a cable which is part of the hex.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tom Frost</span> American rock climber (1936–2018)

Thomas "Tom" M. Frost was an American rock climber known for big wall climbing first ascents in Yosemite Valley. He was also a photographer and climbing equipment manufacturer. Frost was born in Hollywood, California, and died in Oakdale, California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Saxon Switzerland climbing region</span> Climbing area in Germany

Saxon Switzerland is the largest and one of the best-known climbing regions in Germany, located in the Free State of Saxony. The region is largely coterminous with the natural region of the same name, Saxon Switzerland, but extends well beyond the territory of the National Park within it. It includes the western part of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and is the oldest non-Alpine climbing region in Germany. Its history of climbing dates back to the first ascent in modern times of the Falkenstein by Bad Schandau gymnasts in 1864. Currently, there are over 1,100 summits with more than 17,000 climbing routes in the Saxon Switzerland area.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Crack climbing</span> Type of rock climbing

Crack climbing is a type of rock climbing in which the climber follows a crack in the rock and uses specialized climbing techniques. The sizes of cracks vary from those that are just barely wide enough for the fingers to fit inside, to those that are so wide that the entire body can fit inside with all limbs outstretched. Many traditional climbing routes follow crack systems, as they provide natural opportunities for placing protective equipment.

Chipping is a rock climbing technique that uses a hammer and chisel to create artificial hand-holds on natural rock. The hammer and chisel may be substituted for any other tool that can take off layers of a rock to create a different feature on the rock. Within the climbing community this is an extremely controversial topic because it permanently modifies the natural features of a rock face. While in the past the practice was accepted or ignored, as more people have become climbers and environmental concerns have grown, there has been a trend against chipping. This process can also be referred to as "manufacturing" holds.


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  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 30 September 2017. Retrieved 13 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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  7. "FROSTWORKS - Great Pacific Iron Works 1972 Catalog".
  8. Chouinard 1972 Catalog
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  10. Freedom of the Hills, 7th Edition, p. 273
  11. Ascent Notes for: Northeast Face - 5.7 Retrieved 2009-09-30
  12. "Rock and Ice Magazine: Top 10 Skirmishes from the North American Bolt Wars". Archived from the original on 2009-10-11. Retrieved 2009-07-12.
  13. "Rock and Ice Magazine: Ken Nichols Chops Again?". Archived from the original on 2009-02-18. Retrieved 2009-02-03.

External article on English history: