Climbing on loose rock

Climbing on loose rock

Climbing on loose and fragile rock is an art. Tim provides some essential tips to help you get to the top without joining the boulders below!

Most routes of today are very solid with very few loose holds. Where there are loose holds, it is best to not to use them unless you really have to.

However, there are many more adventurous playgrounds where climbing on loose and fragile rock is all part the day out. It adds spice and summons careful skill and judgement. To many, Gogarth (North Wales) has an audacious reputation with more than its fair share of loose and fragile rock, with routes like 'Come to Mother' on red walls (which fell down soon after its first ascent) and Crispin Waddy's 'Death Trap Direct' that comes in at hefty E6 5c, to name just a few.


Horrific as it may seem, this style of climbing really gets some people going and has become their preferred choice!

There are other places that make Gogarth look tame - such as most of the crags on the Llyen Peninsular, and the cliffs on the north coast of Devon. Horrific as it may seem, this style of climbing really gets some people going and has become their preferred choice!

Basic principles
  • Climbing on loose or fragile rock can, at times, be somewhat harrowing. Staying 'on' the rock in these conditions can be a big part of the challenge, so a few basic principles should be applied.
  • If the rock is generally poor and unstable, put lots of gear in and equalise it as much as possible. You will need to take a lot more gear than normal and plenty of thin slings.
  • Keep at least three points of contact on the rock at all times, with your weight evenly distributed each piece.
  • Check each hold before you use it. Tap it with your knuckles if it's small, and tap the rock around it to see if there is any difference. With bigger blocks use the palm of your hand. If it moves, see how it fits into the rock.
  • If you have to use a loose hold, pull on it in the direction that pulls it into the rock. Usually that means applying a downward not outwards force - unless the hold is precariously perched under the lip of an overhang. Be careful not to lever it out and be gentle with each move, look for alternatives, and remove dirt and debris to locate better rock underneath.
  • When climbing on fragile rock spread your weight out as much as you can. Spread you fingers out over the holds too. Pull gently, tap your footholds with your feet and remember what you used for your hands. Ask yourself whether the same pressure from your feet will disrupt these.
  • Keep looking for more secure holds - these are usually not the big ones!
  • Think of the route as an elegant dance, and glide gracefully across the rock.
  • Use a thin pair of shoes for extra feeling and sensation. If a foothold breaks without coming off you'll have more chance of noticing it and you'll have ample warning to change your position.
  • If you break off a foothold, watch out for dirt on your shoe. Such an instance was the cause of Johnny Dawes' huge fall on Hardback Thesaurus (E7) famously recorded on the climbers' 'Gogarth' video.
  • Never spin or rotate your feet on potentially loose footholds.
  • Remain focused at all times, keep a clear head and if you do pull off some of the rock, check there is no one below you before throwing it down!

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