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Trad gear in various rock types?


Original Post
TrevorRoulstin · · Durango, Co · Joined Feb 2015 · Points: 45

Is lime stone safe to Trad on? Are big grains of granite to be trusted holding a cam lobe? If the stone is exceptionally smooth will it even hold a cam? When is a flake to thin to be trusted and does that change with rock type? What does an experienced trad climber change about her placements based on the type of rock she is climbing on?  These are things I wonder about. I understand gear placement is entirely situational so don't come down on me to hard.   :)    

John Wilder · · Las Vegas, NV · Joined Feb 2004 · Points: 1,530

Cams rely on friction- stoppers usually rely on a constriction, although there is a friction component depending on the placement.

In my experience, most rock will take cams no problem- but your suspicion of cams holding in exceptionally smooth rock is warranted. In general, I avoid limestone with trad gear- i understand Canada has a good amount of trad climbing on their limestone, so maybe their stuff is less slick, but the stuff in Nevada is...dicey on gear.

Thin flakes- generally if they sound hollow, they're not to be trusted- so a good tap. The thickness does vary based on rock type- i'd trust a 4" granite flake- but maybe not a sandstone one depending on the region.

There are so many factors that go into evaluating placements- generally, though, the advice defaults to- if you're not sure, over-protect until you are. I put way more gear in when I'm in a new area than when I'm someplace familiar. This is both due to the style of climbing being different and just generally not having a good sense of what the rock is like yet- this was especially true when i was new and experiencing different rocks for the first time. 

Ryan M Moore · · Philadelphia, PA · Joined Oct 2014 · Points: 35

Overprotect until you're sure is solid advice. The exception being that it is far better to not place a cam behind a potentially loose flake than to place and hope. Better to have a long fall, than a long fall with a cut rope and an unconscious belayer. Cams behind loose flakes also are a danger for the follower as if the follower takes or falls, it can pop the flake off above them.

Daniel James · · Chicago · Joined Aug 2016 · Points: 95

Limestone can work on trad decently, though there are reasons why a lot of limestone areas are bolted.  I am inclined toward passive pro for limestone because of the smoothness, but smooth or not a constriction is a constriction and thus will take nuts and hexes.  (But yes, I do have different faith in a cam on smooth limestone than I do on good and rough bulletproof sandstone)

I learned and started to cut my teeth on the Avon Gorge and the sea cliffs on Gower, both of which are all limestone.  Occasionally routes were a little run out as I recall, particularly at the gorge, but not in areas that I felt concerned about.  We climbed with a set of nuts, a set of offset nuts, and four hexes (everything DMM as per local preferences) as well as a handful of slings/runners which collectively protected things pretty well.  

Also, there is definitely some rocks types that tend to favor certain types of gear.  Limestone and volcanics often make pockets that are great for tricams, for example, so rock type can definitely influence how you rack up. 

Ted Pinson · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 190

These are really important things to think about.  Cams will generally hold in slicker rock (to a point), but they are definitely more suspect - they are much more likely to walk, although from my experience (Devil's Lake WI quartzite) they have a tendancy to walk INto the crack and get stuck rather than out.  Watch out for cracks that open up on the inside in this case, as the cam can walk itself into this area and become useless.  That said they will hold a fall and are perfectly safe, as long as they happen to be where you want them when this happens (interpret that as you will).  The biggest danger with limestone IMO is not the slickness, but the frailty; I've seen cams rip right out of otherwise "good" placements under body weight because they just sheared right out and tore out the rock.  Even a bomber limestone placement like a tricam or slung pocket is suspect, because a fall could just blow out the rock.  I've heard that there is fairly sturdy limestone (Verdon), so maybe the Canadian Escarpment can be led safely, but the nature of the rock makes placement options rare and often tricky, so I'd assume that every route is at least PG-13 if not R.

If any cams will hold in Limestone, it would be Totems.

David Kerkeslager · · Brooklyn, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 55

Metolius makes Ultralight Fat Cams that are specifically aimed at sandstone and other soft rock, but I've never seen them in the wild. They look like the TCUs, but with wider lobes. Can anyone speak from experience on whether these make a difference in soft rock?

Fehim Hasecic · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 75
Ted Pinson wrote:

If any cams will hold in Limestone, it would be Totems.

And that's because?

Rob Warden...Space Lizard · · Between Zion, Vegas, LA, an… · Joined Dec 2011 · Points: 115

Well, totem even says they designed the cams for limestone. 

Also this


Aleks Zebastian · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 175

climbing friend,

the cams they will not hold. the fear it is real.

"Dangers easily managed are not true dangers. True dangers are those most men foreswear."

- Herman Buhl

- John Long

- Aleks Zebastian

Ted Pinson · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 190
Fehim Hasecic wrote:

And that's because?

Something something softer metal, something something camming angle.  The physics behind it were discussed ad nauseum in a previous thread, but the video Rob posted is a great example of why I will never lead trad on Limestone, lol.  From my experience, Totem Basics hold noticeably better in slick quartzite than any other small cam, and the special design of the regular Totems (each lobe operates independently) make them especially go S in irregular, flaring, funky placements (you will never find a truly parallel limestone crack).

Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 483

Well I fell on a pretty large crystal granite crack Saturday, my yellow totem came out with a couple tiny dents in the lobe. No biggie.

What I worry about more frequently from alpine climbing (and PNW always trying to become green) is how clean the crack is. If there is moss/lichen/dirt/ice I'll be looking for constrictions to get a nut in first. If that fails it's time to garden with a nut tool (and back up the piece). 

David Kerkeslager · · Brooklyn, NY · Joined Jan 2017 · Points: 55
Rob Warden...Space Lizard wrote:

Well, totem even says they designed the cams for limestone. 

Also this

That video is beautiful. Thanks for posting.

Matt Zia · · Bozeman, MT · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 171
David Kerkeslager wrote:

Metolius makes Ultralight Fat Cams that are specifically aimed at sandstone and other soft rock, but I've never seen them in the wild. They look like the TCUs, but with wider lobes. Can anyone speak from experience on whether these make a difference in soft rock?

I've climbed a bunch on the Fat Cams in Wingate Sandstone and while theoretically there isn't a difference in holding power between the Fat Cams and TCUs due to the identical cam angle, the wider cam lobes spread the force out over a greater area of rock. In rock with a high compressive strength, that shouldn't make a difference, but in rock with a low compressive strength, the lower PSI could make the difference between a placement holding and a placement blowing out. I know it's mostly a mental thing, but there's something so comforting about climbing above the black Fat Cam rather than a slightly under-cammed #.75 C4.

David Gibbs · · Ottawa, ON · Joined Aug 2010 · Points: 6
Nick Drake wrote:

What I worry about more frequently from alpine climbing (and PNW always trying to become green) is how clean the crack is. If there is moss/lichen/dirt/ice I'll be looking for constrictions to get a nut in first. If that fails it's time to garden with a nut tool (and back up the piece). 

Yep, cams rely on friction and if there's anything that will reduce the friction, the cam may not hold.  Not on Nick's list but also important: wetness.  Could be actual visible water, but could just be that the inside of a crack is cooler than outside, and there's a bit of condensation providing a lubricant.  I agree with looking for a nut placement in such cases, though tricams also tend to hold far better than cams in wet/dirty/icy cracks, too.

Pavel Burov · · Russia · Joined May 2013 · Points: 50

Limestone + trad = hummer + beaks + lot of slings. Totem Cams and tricams are good enough... sometimes. Overprotect it as much as possible. And *always* check for rock quality before placing a piece.

Upd. http://krukonogi.com/en/side-anchor-piton.html - one of the best and probably the most reliable pro for limestone trad.

Jim Titt · · Germany · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 490
Pavel Burov wrote:

Limestone + trad = hummer + beaks + lot of slings. Totem Cams and tricams are good enough... sometimes. Overprotect it as much as possible. And *always* check for rock quality before placing a piece.

Upd. http://krukonogi.com/en/side-anchor-piton.html - one of the best and probably the most reliable pro for limestone trad.

Start using beaks at most of the limestone trad areas I know and expect to get beaten to pulp!

Pavel Burov · · Russia · Joined May 2013 · Points: 50
Jim Titt wrote:

Start using beaks at most of the limestone trad areas I know and expect to get beaten to pulp!

Depends on local ethics.

Personally I don't like using any tools changing rock, although there're areas where any other protection means no protection. In an ideal World we should abstain from climbing in those areas. In the real World it would mean "no climbing at all"  (or "bolt everything around") for lots of climbers.

Mike Slavens · · Houston, TX · Joined Jan 2009 · Points: 35

Your focus should be more on rock quality than rock type.  Choss is choss and bullet proof is bullet proof, doesn't matter the rock type.  I've seen sand stone hold whips on micro-cams and granite crumble easier than wet sand.  

Limestone doesn't usually form a lot of natural protection options (cracks, seams, etc.) but does form a lot of good holds for fun climbs all because of how it forms/weathers.  I'd argue that is the reason you don't see a lot of limestone trad climbs, not because of rock quality.

To "make up" for worse quality rock I try for the following strategies: 1) Use bigger pieces, 2) put more emphasis on finding constrictions particularly for cams, 3) cams will expand much more than the tapper of a similar sized nut, 4) place the piece a bit deeper.  The idea being you want to engage more rock so that if you have a small localized rock failure then you don't blow the whole piece.  

Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 483
David Gibbs wrote:

Yep, cams rely on friction and if there's anything that will reduce the friction, the cam may not hold.  Not on Nick's list but also important: wetness.  Could be actual visible water, but could just be that the inside of a crack is cooler than outside, and there's a bit of condensation providing a lubricant.  I agree with looking for a nut placement in such cases, though tricams also tend to hold far better than cams in wet/dirty/icy cracks, too.

Good point on the wet rock also. I was recently on a VERY wet and slightly slimy crack, I wouldn't commit to the crux until I had a bomber nut in. While my cams could certainly hold body weight I was not about to try taking a lead fall on them.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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