School of rock

By Ken Eastwood 20 January 2016
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While sport climbing allows you to tackle some pretty extreme terrain, trad climbing teaches you all the skills you need to climb just about anywhere. But first, you need to go to school.

MY NUTS KEEP falling out. 

Yes, I know, it’s a highly embarrassing problem for a bloke my age, and not the sort of thing you can discuss in all circles. But the nuts I’m referring to are the little wedge-shaped bits of metal that traditional climbers jam into rock cracks and crevices as they are climbing. They then clip the rope attached to their harness to these little nuts and, should the climber fall, they hope madly that the nuts will stay in place to prevent them from becoming a hard-to-clean-up mess at the bottom of a cliff. 

I’ve used this method virtually since I started climbing, albeit with other people’s equipment, and only recently bought my own ‘trad rack’ – a stack of gear called ‘protection’ with an assortment of nuts (or ‘wires’) and spring-loaded camming devices.
The first few times I used my own gear, I put nuts into what I thought were really good spots then, to my horror, once I’d climbed 5m or so past them, they would pop off the rock and slide uselessly down the rope. It’s an extremely disconcerting sight when you are dangling by your fingertips. 

So here I am, at Blue Mountains Climbing School in Katoomba (part of the Blue Mountains Adventure Company), signed up for a whole day of one-on-one instruction with a climbing doctor to ensure my nuts stay where they’re meant to.

Why bother?

In recent decades, traditional rock-climbing has been completely overtaken in popularity by sport climbing. In sport climbing areas, someone has already gone to the cliff and installed a series of metal bolts or rings all the way up the cliff. The climber then doesn’t need to think about where to put their ‘protection’ – they just clip their rope into every little bolt or steel ring that they come across.

As long as the bolts were installed correctly, this is generally a safer way of climbing, and more suited to climbers who have migrated to the real world from a climbing gym. It involves a lot less thinking, for a start. As long-term climbing instructor Chris Peisker, of the Climbing Company, in Natimuk, Victoria, says: “In traditional climbing, about 50 per cent of your mental attention is focused on putting your gear in, and about 50 per cent on the climbing itself, whereas in sport climbing, 100 per cent is on the climbing.” 

The concentration required for traditional climbing, the sometimes fiddly nature of putting in natural protection, and the extra weight of all that equipment tugging on your harness, usually means that people climb at a considerably lower grade when trad climbing, as opposed to sports climbing. In my case, I drop about four grades on the Australian Ewbank system when I climb traditionally. So you can lose a little of the rush of pulling off hard moves.

So why bother?

If climbing outdoors is a form of communion with the rock – a blending of the inanimate with the human form – then the experience becomes even more intimate as you climb traditionally, having to think about all its cracks and crevices, studying and feeling all its form and features. In many places, climbing traditionally allows you to get away from the well-travelled pre-bolted routes and into more interesting, adventurous routes. And there are plenty of fantastic, popular routes that require at least some level of traditional protection. If you can climb traditionally it opens up a whole new world: from the climbing Mecca of Mt Arapiles in Victoria (where every Aussie climber should go once in their life), to hundreds of long, multi-pitch routes in the Blue Mountains, Frog Buttress in Queensland, dolerite climbs in Tasmania and elsewhere.

According to Chris, people should ideally start trad climbing as soon as they can. “There’s no issue in going from trad to sport climbing, but the other way around is like going from driving an automatic to a manual; there’s a lot more skill involved,” he says. 

“For people who start climbing with trad, their experience advances along with their climbing ability. But those who go from sport climbing to trad climbing really have to take a big step backwards, and they might not feel like they’re pushing themselves that much.”

For example, sport climbers who are used to climbing overhangs are unlikely to be able to climb at that level when they are learning to place rock-solid pieces of gear into the rock to protect themselves. They’re more likely – particularly initially – to be doing gentler climbs with plenty of ledges or rest places to carefully place gear.

Climbing 101 

The Blue Mountains Climbing School has plenty of good instructors, and I chose to spend the day with Eric Butler. I’d previously climbed some big routes both in the Blue Mountains and in Warrumbungle National Park with him. He is an extraordinary young man – a quiet, self-assured adventuring 24-year-old who tells no one about his adventures, but just goes out and achieves them. Whether walking solo through the thickest wilds of Wollemi National Park, or scaling some huge cliff with dodgy rock that few others would brave, he does everything with a quiet, unassuming confidence and unflappability that just engenders respect. 

We spend our day at Mt Piddington, which is known as the best spot in the Blue Mountains to learn trad climbing techniques. There are more than 200 routes here, and the vast majority are under grade 20, with more than 50 graded 15 or less (and therefore considered ‘easy’ – the open-ended Ewbank system currently goes up to ridiculously hard climbs in the low 30s). 

We start on the 24m climb ‘Joseph’ (grade 14). It’s a cracker, rated with four stars, and Eric encouraged me to place as much protection as possible, so I put in a piece every metre or so.

Climbing protection is divided into passive protection and active protection. Active protection is generally spring-loaded and so squeezes itself into place. Passive protection includes the wedge-shaped nuts and other larger pieces called hexes that have to be placed extra carefully to hold a fall. As he followed me up the climb, he then rated every piece of gear on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being “couldn’t hold the nut tool” to “absolute, perfect bomber”. None of my pieces popped out, but I really didn’t do too well, with a lot of my pieces rated around the 5 mark. And a 50 per cent chance of breaking a fall really isn’t great odds.

Tips and tricks

We spend the next few hours on the ground, placing piece after piece into slots and holes, with Eric showing me some of the things to look for. 

“There are three things you’ve got to consider when placing gear,” he says. “Firstly, the integrity of the rock – is the rock actually good enough to hold the piece?” He points out a couple of boulders that could become detached if someone jammed a piece of gear into the cracks around them. “Secondly, what is the shape of the crack you are putting the gear in? If it is a parallel crack, use cams. If it is a V-shape, it’s more suitable for wires or hexes.

“Thirdly, how much surface area of the piece is in contact with the rock?” Eric shows me how the pieces of passive protection are shaped peculiarly so that by turning them different ways you can maximise their contact with the rock. “If it’s the right size, but you’re not getting much contact between it and the rock, just try turning it,” he says.
He then describes what happens at a micro level when a climber does fall onto a piece of gear. In Blue Mountains sandstone, the piece slides a little as the sandstone crumbles a fraction. A bigger piece of gear dissipates the falling climber’s energy over a larger area of rock than a smaller piece – so if there is a choice in a particular crack, always use a bigger piece, he says. 

Eric encourages me to “seat” my nuts better – again it, ahem, sounds a little delicate, but basically to give them a really good tug. “Really weld it in there,” he says, giving the carabiner attached to the nut three hard pulls. “Of course, it may depend who is seconding the climb – if they are a beginner [who may struggle to get out a piece of gear that is solidly wedged in place], you may have to recognise that you’ll occasionally have to leave a piece there. But it’s better to be safe.” 

We then look at the strengths and weaknesses of cams. They lose a lot of their strength if they are “overcammed” or “undercammed”, and I had a tendency to undercam them – putting them in a position where most of the spring was already extended. I generally needed to choose a larger size, or squeeze them into smaller spaces to make them more effective. “If you have no choice but to either overcam or undercam them, then overcame,” Eric advises. He shows me how to tell the ideal range. 

Because they actively grip the rock, cams are much better at holding multi-directional pulls than nuts, Eric says, “So in most cases make your very first piece that you put in a cam rather than a wire”. The cam can usually handle the movement and the angle of rope between the belayer and the climber without being pulled out. Similarly, whenever the climb changes direction, put in a cam rather than a wire. 

He also suggests that when the climb changes direction I use a longer sling (60cm) between the piece of protection and the rope. This means that the rope above is less likely to pull out the piece of gear because of the angle. If the climb is not very straight up and down, but wanders all over the place, nearly every piece will need a longer sling. This will also help minimise rope drag. 

Surprisingly, Eric then shows me how cams can walk backwards into the crack when they are moved from side to side. This is not always a problem, because it can sometimes make them more secure, but if the crack in which you’ve placed them flares towards the back, it can be a serious problem. 

Next Eric shows me how to establish and quickly equalise a bomb-proof belay, using a 7-8m piece of cordelette or thin rope. With a small figure-8 knot in each end of the cordelette, you clip the two ends into one of your points of protection. Then clip the other end of what is now a loop into one of the other pieces of protection, and then a single part of the loop into the remaining one or two pieces. You should then have a series of loops hanging down. Even up these loops, and then tie an overhand knot in the whole lot. This means that should any one piece fail, the rest of the system remains intact. 

After all this, it’s time to go climbing again. Thankfully I’ve been paying attention, and Eric follows me up with a smile. “That was a nine,” he says of one little nut near the top. “And that hex lower down was absolutely perfect – bomber!” 

Ahh, finally I can rest knowing that my nuts are now far more likely to stay where we all want them.

Where can I learn?

It is recommended that you learn trad climbing from an experienced climber or through paid instruction. The best places for instruction are in the key climbing areas of the Blue Mountains, NSW, and Mt Arapiles and the Grampians, Vic.


Blue Mountains Climbing School 

Blue Mountains Adventure Company


The Climbing Company 


Rock Climbing Adventures Tasmania

Further reading:

Mountaineering: the freedom of the hills, edited by Ronald C. Eng.