“I’m afraid of heights!”

I hear this panicked exclamation escape the lips of the majority of beginner climbers. This natural fear of heights is instrumental in making sure that we live to see another day. When you think about it, it’s not as much the actual elevation that instils panic and dread in most of us, but rather the fear of falling from a lofty perch and the undesirable consequence. There are ways to reconcile the self-preserving fear of heights and go on to enjoy the vertical challenges of rock climbing.

Understanding the safety systems used to keep us off the ground during a rock climbing fall is a good first step. Most climbing equipment manufacturers get the safety stamp of approval from one of, or all of, the following organisations. The Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA) accredits manufacturer’s labs that test climbing equipment at the technical safety standard set out by the UIAA Safety Commission. The CE stamp is a safety certification required to sell goods in Europe, and since climbing equipment manufactured all over the world will be sold in Europe, the CE certification mark can be found on most climbing gear. The CE mark indicates that manufacturers’ labs are qualified to test products on an annual basis, or conform to an ISO quality assurance program. The ISO series is the company rating system that lets consumers know that the products they purchase have passed stringent and thoroughly documented quality control measures. These stamps of approval should let your mind relax a little, as you can trust that your gear has been built for the job.

Now that we know how to evaluate whether our safety system has been designed and certified for rock climbing, let’s discuss the strength of climbing gear. Always keep the information booklets that come with your gear as a reference for proper use, maintenance, and inspection. The strength of climbing equipment is rated by force in kilo newtons (kN). 1 kN of force is equal to 100kgs. For simplification, let’s think about ourselves as 1kN of force. If you take a look at a carabiner, a sling, etc., you will see a kN rating on that piece of equipment. Generally speaking, static gear, like carabiners and slings, have a strength rating minimum of 20 kN, or 2000-2500kgs. If you were to hang on a carabiner statically, you are exerting 1 kN of force on that piece of equipment. A shock load, for example falling from above that carabiner and then loading it with your weight, will increase the force exerted onto the carabiner. The human body can withstand approximately 12 kN of force before it breaks, therefore certify organisations generally require carabiners to be rated to double the amount of force that we can withstand at minimum.

Rock climbing ropes on the other hand are dynamic, which means they stretch as force is applied. This dynamic action, as well as the friction introduced to the climbing system as the rope passes through carabiners and belay devices, increases the amount of time it takes a climber to come to a stop after falling. As the falling time is increased, the force is decreased. For this reason, the lower the impact force in kN indicated on the climbing rope, the less force applied to the falling climber, the belayer, and the rock climbing gear. Don’t let the low kN impact force rating on your climbing rope scare you, but rather assure you that a fall can be fun and comfortable when all of the equipment is used properly, and the climber and belayer have been instructed on safe climbing practices.

Knowing that climbing equipment is purposefully and safely designed to keep you off of the ground, and then trusting that system, is the first step toward conquering your fear of falling, and enjoying the unique sport of climbing and the battle against gravity. Learn more from an ACMG certified guide.

Happy climbing!