Climbing Harness Guide

In Joe Simpson’s autobiography This Game of Ghosts he gives a tense account of an accident on the Dru in the early 1980s. A bivi ledge collapsed, leaving Simpson and his climbing partner dangling from a dodgy peg and staring at a two thousand foot drop. They spent twelve hours hanging there.

“It was not long before we were suffering agonising cramps from where our sit harnesses cut deeply into our thighs and waists”.

They were rescued by helicopter and Simpson went on to survive even greater peril in the Andes, but the Dru incident is an extreme example of how harnesses have to offer comfort as well as safety.

Climbers must hope for the best but prepare for the worst, so regardless of whether you expect to spend 12 hours or 12 minutes hanging in your harness, buying the right one is crucial.  Thankfully today’s models are very comfortable by comparison to the torture devices of yesteryear.  It’s a far cry from a 1970s Whillans to a 2011 X-350a and the new Arc’teryx one won’t leave you crying!  Brands have improved every aspect of features, fit and fabrication.

Common Features of Climbing Harnesses

Waist Belt and Leg Loops

The challenge when constructing Waist and Leg Loops is to build in comfort as well as safety. Ten years ago this simply meant ‘more padding’. Central straps of nylon webbing would provide the structure, sandwiched by foam padding. Over time the foam would deform around the webbing, leaving a narrow band that could bite into your body under load. Nowadays the aim is to spread the load so that the waist belt and leg loops take weight evenly across their whole internal surface area.

Arc’teryx Warp Strength Technology – This was a ‘game changer’ that revolutionised harness manufacture. Arc’teryx have removed the ‘weft’ (vertical) fibres from their structural webbing to leave just the ‘warp’ (lengthways) segments. These are positioned to create the shape of the harness before being laminated together with soft but tough fabric. So there’s no central band to cut in and no need for extra padding. Arc’teryx harnesses are light, comfy, tough and technical. The classic is the X-350a.

Petzl Frame Construction – Petzl run high strength structural tape around the outer edges of the waist and leg loops with breathable mesh and EVA foams in between. It’s a proven method that spreads the load effectively. Their best-selling Corax model uses this bias tape along with a breathable mesh lining and a double buckle system, making a very comfy and adjustable all rounder.

Black Diamond SoftEdge Construction – An internally-seamed top edge softens load distribution. The top edge won’t dig in, while weight is transferred down to internal webbing and a tough lower edge binding. It all adds up to lighter harness that gives better freedom of movement. It’s used on their 4 season harnesses like the Lotus.

Edelrid Tri-Laminate Construction – Outer material, load-bearing fabric and inner material are all heat treated and laminated together. Weight is transferred evenly across the whole surface area and makes bulky padding unnecessary. This high-tech construction makes the harness light and sleek as well as comfortable. As found in the Creed.

Buckles

Most modern harnesses now use auto locking buckles. The alternative is a traditional ‘double back’ buckle, where it is essential to make sure you pass the webbing back through the buckle to lock off. Both work well, just make sure you know which type you’re buying! Also bear in mind that some harnesses will eschew leg buckles in favour of one size loops, often with an elastic cross-section to create a snug fit. This saves weight and for many people adjustable legs are an unnecessary extra.

Belay loop

When belaying a climbing partner you will attach your karabiner and belay plate to this high strength loop. The vertical orientation allows your belay plate to orient in the right direction for easy belaying. Some models will have a safety marker encapsulated in the belay loop. If you begin to see this red marker appearing it means your harness is worn out and should be replaced.

Tie in loops

When you attach a rope to your harness using the usual rethreaded figure of 8 or bowline knots, you will pass the rope end through the lower and upper tie in holes. In this way both waist band and leg loops are independently attached to the rope – it’s safer and spreads the load more effectively than just tying in through the belay loop.

Gear loops

Plastic or webbing loops placed at intervals around the waist band, designed for racking protection. A sport climbing harness may prioritise light weight by including only two gear loops for racking a set of quickdraws. By contrast trad climbing harnesses will have a minimum of four gear loops to provide more space for a big rack. Some will hold as little as 5kg, which means you should never attach to a belay using a gear loop.

Ice clipper slots

Some specialist harnesses include slots designed to help rack ice screws. For instance the new Arc’teryx I∙340a due in Spring 12 is will include 14 ice clipper slots for fully customisable racking.

Haul loop

At the back of your harness there is often a small attachment point that can be used for trailing a rope behind you as you climb, without getting in the way by hanging from the front of your harness. Haul loops are usually non-structural so should not be used as a principle attachment point to the rock. They are however ideal for hanging your chalk bag off…

Fitting tips for harnesses

Fitting a harness is much like fitting a pair of rock boots. It is a subjective experience and you should try a few different models and brands to get a good idea of what works for you.

Think what you’ll be wearing

If you’re a summer sport climber and gym climber, you will wear a T shirt 90% of the time. Buy your harness accordingly. However, if you’re principally an alpinist and Scottish winter climber, you will need to accommodate multiple layers of fleece and GORE-TEX. Again, wear a similar number of layers when you actually fit the harness, so you know for sure that it will work. Of course, most climbers will do a bit of everything so try and find a harness with sufficient adjustment to work over any number of layers.

Always hang in store

There’s no substitute for hanging time. Many stores will have a suspension point where you can test each harness. Check that the waist belt is supportive but doesn’t dig in. Try to minimise any gaps between you and the harness; there should be roughly a finger’s width difference. They don’t need to be tight, but should be comfortably snug. Adjust the rear webbing risers if necessary; it can make a real difference to how comfortable the leg loops feel.

Men’s v Women’s harnesses

It’s not just a question of pink versus blue! Women’s harnesses are shaped differently. The waist-leg loop ratio will be smaller and there will be a longer rise between the waist and leg loops. Slender women may find that some men’s harnesses feel too bulky and stiff, perhaps digging in at the ribs. Harnesses designed for women shouldn’t cause this problem.

Types of Harness:

Winter

When winter climbing you’ll encounter cold, damp conditions. Normal open cell foam will absorb water and then freeze, creating a solid, cold, unmanageable ring. Harnesses designed for winter will use a closed cell foam that doesn’t absorb water. These foams create a more substantial-feeling, less breathable product and make the harness less suitable for use in hot summer weather. However, they are ideal for the particular rigours of winter climbing. Specialist winter harnesses are also likely to include a healthy number of large gear loops and ice clipper slots, plus adjustable leg loops to accommodate multiple layers.

Excellent example: The Black Diamond Aspect

Trad/All round

A number of harnesses can be categorised as ‘All Rounders’. They tread the mid-ground between Winter harness completeness and Sport harness minimalism. You’ll get good support and high quality breathable foams. Usually there are four gear loops and perhaps a couple of ice clipper slots. They often have adjustable leg loops. Buy one of these and it will perform admirably in any climbing arena, from Ben Nevis to Stanage, Tryfan to Portland.

Excellent example: Arc’teryx R-320a

Sport

Minimalism is the name of the game. Sport climbing harnesses use very lightweight and super-breathable fabrics. They often have just two gear loops. The principle is that the less weight in and on your harness, the harder you can climb. Super lightweight harnesses are also an attractive proposition for alpinists and you will see experienced mountaineers wearing the Petzl Hirundos.

Excellent Example: Petzl Hirundos

Alpine

Alpine ‘bod’ style harnesses are the simplest available. Their basic construction means they cope superbly with poor weather. The clip buckle system allows you to put it on without stepping into the leg loops. So no need to take off your crampons first! Although they can be uncomfortable worn over a cotton T and shorts, bear in mind that you will usually be wearing this kind of harness over a full set of mountaineering clothing which acts as padding. For proper alpine climbing a more substantial and fully featured harness will work best. However, for easier mountaineering, glacier crossing and ski touring duties the Alpine harness is hard to beat for lightweight practicality.

Excellent Example: Black Diamond Couloir

Care and Inspection

Keep your harness somewhere cool and dry, out of direct sunlight. Most manufacturers provide a guide to lifespans based on different levels of use and storage. This is usually around 10 years if used occasionally and well stored. Regular use and heavy falls can reduce lifespan much more quickly so it’s worth giving your harness a regular visual inspection to check for signs of wear. And if you take a very big lob, do consider retiring your harness.