Roger Nattrass’ Gear Room Tour: Part Four

Check out the fourth chapter of our peek into Roger Nattrass' gear stash...

Welcome back to Roger Nattrass’ gear room, everybody!

Roger is a local legend in the South African climbing community – having started climbing back in 1984, he has nabbed coveted first ascents (including being the first South African to climb grade 31), established and bolted classic routes around the country, written the quintessential guidebook for KZN climbing, co-founded the Southern Rock climbing gym and shop, and much more.

With his many adventures over the years, he has amassed quite the collection of gear and recently decided to share some highlights with all of us on Facebook & Instagram. He has graciously allowed us to re-share these in the article series you are reading.

This week we’re taking an in-depth look at shoes and shoe design, along with kneepads, harnesses, clip-sticks and more.

Check it all out below, keep an eye out for part five, and enjoy ogling!

No 31: Rubber. Climbing shoe performance depends on both shoe design and rubber selection. Stickier rubber will wear faster but may keep you attached to the face. Harder rubbers are better at edging on small footholds and are way more durable. They are often found on entry-level shoes. The second pic is a nice summary of all the rubber types available. The next time you buy a pair of shoes, start by looking under the soles. (The table is from

No 32: Shoe design. Climbing shoes vary in design as they compete to give you differing capabilities at the toes, ball of your foot and heel. All the parts of your foot used for climbing. The shoes have outsoles (the rubber), mid soles (a stiffener – if required) and the insole. The latter is usually just a continuation of whatever material the upper is made from. Shoes with stiffer mid soles and thicker rubber make for better “edging” – standing on tiny edges. These shoes usually have a flatter construction, relaxed heel band and a relatively roomy toe box. Soft, downturned shoes (banana shaped – imagine high heels but without the heel) perform better on steep rock where hooking and pulling with your feet is more common. The rubber is thin, the heel band tight, there is little or no mid sole and the toe box is very snug. This type of shoe is often asymmetrical – they appear “windswept” when viewed from below. They turn your foot inwards to get better purchase on the steeper rock faces.

No 33: Closures and cups. These four shoes illustrate the four commonly used closure systems. From left to right – lace up (for that perfect tension, often on high-performance edging shoes). Double velcro (probably the most commonly used on all-round performance and entry-level shoes). Single velcro (for shoes that are essentially slippers but offer tightening around the arch which allows for aggressive heel hooking). Slippers (the softest shoes – ideal for smearing, crack climbing and steep rock. They have to be bought super tight to get the performance you want). The second pic demonstrates the differences you can get in heel cup design. The upper shoe is designed for that kind of move, is well sculpted and has a bunch of appropriate rubber. The lower shoe is a specialist edging shoe – for vertical faces where heel hooking is less common.

No 34: Knee pads. Yes, it is true – climbers have two hands and four feet. Pads make a big difference to the difficulty of a climb – so much so that some climbers declare they used them if they succeeded on a route. A well-positioned knee bar or knee scum will take a lot of tension off your arms. The lower pad is an older tubular design. Most modern pads are the wrap-around (upper) type. The blue one was homemade by my good friend Dylan Williams. We were able to experiment with different thicknesses of rubber and materials. It turns out I like a thick rubber pad – something you cannot purchase commercially. The neoprene sticks to your skin like glue and is super flexible. This helps avoid the scourge of knee pads – slippage, so obviates the need for tourniquet-grade tension.

No 35: Harnesses. Climbing harnesses have gotten lighter and more comfortable than those available 30 years ago, when comfort translated into weight. Modern materials are lightweight, hold their shape and spread the load over pressure areas. A climbing harness is strong. It can handle one ton of weight and impact forces up to 15kN. They are wear items so I tend to replace them every 2-3 years. The rope causes significant wear at the leg loop. Modern harnesses have additional wear protection here (3rd pic). Gear loops have also improved in design and strength (pic 2), improving safety as inexperienced climbers have been known to belay or rappel off these loops in error. Manufacturers don’t publish the strength ratings of the gear loops, but all are designed to hold more than body weight in case of errors. The central belay loops can hold a static load of 1,5 tons. The grey harness has adjustable leg loops so will fit over winter clothing. Most climbers choose non-adjustable loops for rock climbing.

No 36: Belay glasses. These prism lenses enable you to look up without holding your neck in constant extension. Completely solves the problem of “belayer’s neck” and are mandatory for climbers (belayers actually) over the age of 40. These are the original brand and are crafted out of glass. They have the largest field of view of all the brands and optometric grade optics but you pay handsomely (R2 600 a pair!) for such performance. Plastic lensed glasses are available, way cheaper (R800 +) and don’t crack when dropped. Seems like a no-brainer to go that route, but I remain a steadfast fan of the OG belay glasses from CU.

No 37: Humans vs nature. Potentially a controversial issue (actually definitely controversial). Living in subtropical KZN these items are a must for local climbers. Access paths are continually growing closed and trees located near climbs often need the occasional bough trimmed back. I never go out climbing without a set of clippers. The hand saws are needed infrequently (and a chainsaw very occasionally…)

No 38: Sticks, part one – cheat sticks. Sneaky, wise and crafty ways to get “the rope to the top” if your minds and/or arms are not up to the job. There are commercially made cheat sticks out there but most climbers manage with a welding clamp on a painters pole. The wire “Giraffes” (TM) are my own design and I have experimented with aluminium and Perspex Giraffe heads. This useful tool can put draws up, take them off, clip the rope into a draw or pull the rope down after an attempt, leaving the first draw clipped.

No 39: Sticks, part two. A collection of walking sticks – a must for irregular terrain with a heavy pack. The latest designs (3rd pic) are super lightweight and are mostly used by trail runners. Made from aluminium or carbon fibre. If hiking with a heavy pack I recommend adjustable poles (to shorten heading up and lengthen heading down) and get a pair with shock absorption capabilities otherwise you will suffer with palm bruising on a long descent – trust me I know this. The green stick has a commercial cheat device that I added. The black pole is a monopod for camera stabilisation. Finally, the gold stick with a bent tip is the original selfie stick. My own design again, but was made for an old Apple iPod – one of the first ones to come with a camera.

No 40: Helmets. Protection for your best asset! Helmet design and tech continues to advance. Modern helmets are lighter, stronger, cooler (in both senses), more comfortable and more adjustable. The latest releases have “MIPS” technology which allows the helmet to slip in a controlled manner to deflect a glancing blow. Helmet use is more commonplace these days. I don’t use one for steep sport climbing where routes and their falls are clean, but I do for trad and multi-pitch routes. Personally, I feel it is often more important for the belayer as rockfall or gear-fall can be dangerous, even deadly. Novice climbers should always use one as it takes some time to learn how to fall in a safe and controlled manner.

And that’s all for now, folks! A huge thank you to Roger for sharing his expansive knowledge – keep your eyes on our Facebook and Instagram pages for the next chapter…