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]

Within several years, another well-known Yosemite climber, Yvon Chouinard, began to commercially manufacture metal chocks, or nuts, in California. An 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 by Doug Robinson titled "The Whole Natural Art of Protection". [6] 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, including John Stannard at the Shawangunks in New York, were influential participants in this early 1970s movement. As a result, climbers en masse rapidly adopted the technique, pitons quickly fell from favor, and the switch to "clean climbing" constituted a landmark change in the sport of rock climbing. [7] [8]

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. [9]

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, [10] 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. [11] [12] 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 is any of a variety of devices employed to reduce risk and protect others while climbing rock and ice. It includes such items as nylon webbing and metal nuts, cams, bolts, and pitons.

Traditional climbing Style of rock climbing

Traditional climbing is a style of rock climbing in which the climber places all the necessary protection gear required to arrest any falls as they are climbing, and then removes it when the pitch is complete. Traditional bolted aid climbing means the bolts were placed while on lead and/or with hand drills. Traditional climbing carries a higher level of risk than bolted sport climbing, as the climber may not have placed the safety equipment correctly while trying to ascend the route; for some of the world's hardest climbs, there may not be sufficient cracks or features in the rock that can accept protection gear, and the climb can only be safely attempted by bolting as a sport climb.

This is an index of topics related to climbing.

Glossary of climbing terms List of definitions of terms and concepts related to rock climbing and mountaineering

This glossary of climbing terms is a list of definitions of terms and jargon related to rock climbing and mountaineering. The specific terms used can vary considerably between different English-speaking countries; many of the phrases described here are particular to the United States and the United Kingdom.

Rock-climbing equipment

A wide range of equipment is used during rock or any other type of climbing that includes equipment commonly used to protect a climber against the consequences of a fall.

Free climbing Form of climbing not using aid climbing

Free climbing is a form of rock climbing in which the climber may use climbing equipment such as ropes and other means of climbing protection, but only to protect against injury during falls and not to assist progress. The climber makes progress by using physical ability to move over the rock via handholds and footholds. Free climbing more specifically may include traditional climbing, sport climbing, bouldering and most forms of solo climbing. Free climbing a multi-pitch route means free-climbing each of its pitches in a single session. At the end of each pitch, climbers anchor themselves to belay stations where they can rest.

Aid climbing Style of climbing

Aid climbing is a style of climbing in which standing on or pulling oneself up via devices attached to fixed or placed protection is used to make upward progress.

Nut (climbing)

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.

Piton Metal tool used in rock climbing

In climbing, a piton is a metal spike that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer, and which acts as an anchor to either protect the climber against the consequences of a fall 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 attached to a climbing rope.

Rock climbing Sport in which participants climb natural rock formations

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations or artificial rock walls. 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.

Yvon Chouinard American mountain climber

Yvon Chouinard is an American rock climber, environmentalist, and outdoor industry billionaire businessman. His company, Patagonia, is known for its environmental focus.

In rock climbing, an anchor can be any device or method for attaching a climber, a rope, or a load above or onto a climbing surface—typically rock, ice, steep dirt, or a building—either permanently or temporarily. The intention of an anchor is case-specific but is usually for fall protection, primarily fall arrest and fall restraint. Climbing anchors are also used for hoisting, holding static loads, or redirecting a rope.

Henry Barber (rock climber) 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.

History of rock climbing

The following is an overview of the history of rock climbing including its origins in Europe, and a compilation of notable events in the development of the sport.


A tricam is a type of climbing protection equipment. A versatile nut/cam hybrid, the Tricam was invented by Greg Lowe in 1973, and came to market in 1981. They are currently manufactured by C.A.M.P. of Premana Italy.

Hex (climbing)

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.

Tom Frost 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.

Saxon Switzerland climbing region

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.

Crack 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.

A removable bolt, in climbing, is a spring loaded metal camming device used to anchor a person or a load to a rock or cement wall temporarily. Removable Bolts negate the need to install permanent protection bolts to the wall, which can be costly and cause cosmetic damage. RBs are designed for use in bolting new sport climbing routes, setting temporary anchors on traditional routes, and on back-country expeditions where abandoning gear or placing permanent gear is not optimal. RBs are particularly popular when placing permanent bolts on steep walls with limited features, where other means of temporary protection, such as hooks, traditional camming devices, or slings, are not an option. By drilling a hole and inserting an RB, the bolter can ascend higher up on the rock before placing the next permanent piece of protection, thereby leaving a reasonable climbing distance between bolts on the finished route. RBs have also been designed and produced for fall prevention and safety in construction and mining operations.


  1. [ permanent dead link ]
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 30 September 2017. Retrieved 13 January 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. Waterman, Laura; Waterman, Guy; Peter Lewis, S. (1993). Yankee Rock & Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States. ISBN   9780811731034.
  4. Nichols, Ken (1982). Traprock: Connecticut Rock Climbs. American Alpine Club. pp. 49–50. ISBN   0-930410-14-9.
  5. "nutcracker" [ permanent dead link ]
  6. "FROSTWORKS - Great Pacific Iron Works 1972 Catalog".
  7. Chouinard 1972 Catalog
  8. [ permanent dead link ]
  9. Freedom of the Hills, 7th Edition, p. 273
  10. Ascent Notes for: Northeast Face - 5.7 Retrieved 2009-09-30
  11. "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.
  12. "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: