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Evaluate Rock Quality as You Climb

Loose Rock Tip 5

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Climbers on the last pitch of Otto's Route, Colorado National Monument.

Evaluate the rock as you climb so you can avoid the loose stuff.

Stewart M. Green

Okay, you’re doing everything right. You and your partner are wearing helmets. You checked out the route you’re climbing at Unaweep Canyon ahead of time and it looks pretty clean and without obvious loose rock. You feel safe. While you’re belaying your buddy up to the top of pitch one, you scan the cliff above. Hmmmm, it looks kinda strange up there; that one section above the crack looks a bit rotten. When your buddy starts leading the pitch above, you tell him, “Be careful up there. Check out the rock before committing.”

Constantly Evaluate Rock Quality

That’s great advice to avoid loose rock and loose cliff sections. On routes, especially multi-pitch lines, you have to constantly evaluate the quality of the rock as you climb so that you don’t pull off any loose handholds and that if you do, they don’t wipe out your belayer or anyone else that’s below you.

Do a Visual Inspection First

Always check out the rock quality as you climb. Test suspect holds before using them. Be suspicious of every block and boulder you encounter. A visual inspection is the first step. Does it look solid? Is it attached to the main cliff anywhere? Are there fracture lines around the block, especially the bottom? Is it just sitting on a shelf? How big is it? Do I have to use it for a hold or can I avoid it? This last instinct is one of the best—if you can climb around a block or a loose cliff section, then by all means do that.

Climb Around Loose Sections

Loose rock is often encountered on the easier sections of longer routes, where the rock is more susceptible to weathering than on steep sections. Because it is easier terrain, it is often simple to move around the chossy section and climb more solid rock.

Test Your Handholds

If you do have to climb loose terrain, then test your holds. The best way is to simply tap or whack the offending block or loose rock with your hand. First, lightly tap the block with your knuckles. If it sounds hollow, then it is and it could break off if you weight it with a hand or foot. It it seems okay but you’re still not sure if it’s solid, than give it a good whack with your palm. Sometimes you may have to put your other hand on top to make sure you don’t dislodge it. If you feel any movement or vibration in the block, then try to avoid it.

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