Lost Climbing Gear: What Really Is Left Behind

I wanted to know the answer to two simple questions, what do climbers lose and what is found around climbing areas. I looked at 12 years of posts on MountainProject.com’s lost and found forum. That search gave me over 11,000 posts, twice as many ‘founds’ to ‘losts,’ and quite the list of technical gear. I imagined most of the lost climbing gear would be water bottles, hats, carabiners, and other miscellaneous things. Was I ever surprised at what was actually lost.

Have you ever wondered what climbers lose? I mean truly lose, and not get tangled in with their buddy’s gear. We did, and we found out. For climbers, MountainProject.com is an easy source that has a relatively large geographic coverage compared to some other forums that are focused on a regional area. We have no affiliation with MountainProject.com, and are only using them for they have a relatively large lost and found forum focused on climbing. There are other forums that have lost and found sections, however they are generally limited to a particular location like the Appalachian Trail, or have a broad subject matter. This raises another problem that we’ll cover in a different article, which is how to connect an owner to found gear.their

Posts were collected from the forum dating from January 2006 through December 2018. That netted nearly 11,000 posts. Somehow, I expected this data collection and analysis would be quick. How much stuff could climbers lose anyway? A lot. 

word cloud of lost climbing gear

OK, so there were 1000’s of lost posts, and only a 100 or so of found posts, right? Who’s going to return found gear?!?

There was nearly a 2:1 split between found posts and lost posts. Yes you read that correctly. More posts reported found items, than items lost. There were several funny or bogus posts about losing one’s nerve, finding the hottest day on the mountain, and losing one’s first love. I removed these from the study, leaving 9,538 posts.

The remaining posts contained single and multiple items. Nearly a fourth of the posts were not descriptive like this: “found a couple of items, pm me with a description and I’ll get them back to you” with a location in the title. I would guess the poster is trying to avoid returning the item(s) to someone posing to be the owner and trying to get free stuff. Below is a figure showing the amount of items named in posts.

Seventy seven percent of the posts had descriptions of the items lost or found. The posts not describing the item were only on items found. I think this shows some people want to get the item back to the rightful owner. Perhaps these items were of greater value, and people may feel these items are targets for theft. The only flaw in their plan is that the owner would need to know where they lost it, since the location was the only descriptive piece in the posts.

Bump….Bump, hey anyone there? I lost some stuff...

One of the distressing results is the low number of replies to the posts. I did not look at the contents in all replies, but only 26% of all the posts had replies. That does not mean only 26% of the posts had reunited the lost item with the owner. But one would hope for more. However, being an online forum there are private messages that could occur without registering as a reply. It was not possible to determine how many posts were successful in returning lost gear.

Ah, so there are 4,000 found carabiners, right? I mean no one is going to lose a cam, or a whole rack! That's worth a lot of money!!

As one would expect from a climbing forum, a lot of the reported items were lost climbing gear. Also considering climbing areas are outdoor recreation areas like forests, parks, and BLM land, the other gear shown is reasonable to have in the mix. Some may be surprised at the number of shoes and ropes reported. 

How do so many lose their shoes, and aren’t ropes the largest and most important piece? Most climbers use tight fitting specialized shoes that are incredible at sticking and holding onto rock, but are absolutely miserable for walking. Therefore most climbers will have hiking shoes to get to the route, change into climbing shoes to climb, then switch back. Shoes are lost in that transition. 

A rope? How does an entire rope end up as lost climbing gear?

Lost ropes, while a key safety component and in some cases the only way down, can easily be left behind when they become stuck on rapels. A stuck rope is merely a rope used to rappel and after repelling the climber tries to retrieve the rope by pulling it. During the process of pulling, a number of things can happen that pinch or capture the rope. When this happens, and there is little hope or energy left in retrieving it, the rope is left behind to be retrieved by the next climbing party on the route, hopefully. Now on to the first big bucket of lost climbing gear.

If you are not a climber and still with me, thank you. The pie chart above shows the breakdown of the Climbing Gear bar in the previous chart. Not every post made for a nice clean fit into these categories. The general approach used to categorize the gear was to find the best single category for each post. The only exceptions were posts with unrelated items in them such as someone finding a watch and a cam. The first two, Draw/Sling and Carabiner, are expected. These are small, relatively inexpensive compared with the other gear. So it’s reasonable to see someone not paying attention and losing them. Posts mentioning a carabiner on a sling were categorized as a draw, and not split across the Draw/Sling and Carabiner categories.

The third item, a Rack, completely surprised me. To the non-climbers, this is a sling or harness full of various pieces of the other gear items in this chart. Generally a full Rack will hold everything a climber needs to climb. To simplify reporting the data, I considered some collections of climbing gear to be a rack. The only exceptions were collections of slings or draws. So not all Racks in this dataset are complete racks. Full racks or not, it is a financially significant thing, and I am surprised by the number of Racks lost.  Most importantly people are reporting them found! These are worth real money used. It would be easy to separate out the parts and sell them online. Knowing at least a dozen of my friends have had gear stolen from their cars, I was surprised to see people reporting having found the very thing stolen from friends. A rack can easily be separated and individual items sold online, yet there they are being found and the finders are trying to get it back to the owners.

The next two, cams and belay devices, are as likely to be lost as carabiners and slings. Cams are frequently handled in conditions where only one hand is free, and are easily dropped or mishandled as a result. Both cams and belay devices are also easy to misclip back onto one’s rack. This is when you think and feel like you have reattached the device to a gear loop, but the other gear hanging around the device is suspending it. The moment you move and the gear shifts, the misclipped item falls. I’ve done it, and I think every climber has done it at least once. 

Next on the pareto are nuts and stoppers. Just like cams, carabiners, and belay devices, these are very easy to drop, mishandle, or leave behind. The unique characteristic of cams and these nuts/stoppers is they can become stuck. I did not track the number of posts, but posts did report having found and removed “stuck” gear. Cams, nuts, and stoppers are placed into cracks in the rock and under the right conditions can become locked into the rock. They obviously are meant to be removed, yet given the right conditions they become an intricate puzzle piece that takes time and technique to remove, or in some cases a permanent fixture. Tricams are another example, but not enough were reported to make a category for them.

Helmets are next, and I am not certain how this many helmets would be lost. Since they are bulky and generally attached to one’s head, it seems not something one would lose. I can only imagine they are set down on a trail and left behind, set on the roof of a car, or fall out of a pack while hiking. 

The rest of the list are snow and ice gear. I suspect the small numbers are due to MountainProject mostly serving rock climbing, and other forums targeting the alpine and mountaineering routes have more of this type of gear. Aside from regional sites like CascadeClimbers.com, I haven’t a forum covering multiple regions of mountaineering. Let me know in the comments if you do.

While reviewing these posts, it occurred to me that a finder of gear really needs to know what it is in order to effectively identify it on a lost and found forum. Picture someone, completely unfamiliar with climbing, finding a cam and trying to describe it. Alternatively, imagine yourself as the owner trying to find your missing gear after you returned home. Where would you begin to look? What if the location where your gear was found is far from the spot you last remember having it? The people finding the gear may have no idea what it is, and be unaware of online forums that have lost and found sections.

That is one of the top reasons for starting this website and product line. If your gear had your contact information on it, the person finding the gear has a reasonable chance of returning it. One of the common comments that I have heard since starting this label business is people are not going to return the gear. They find it and keep it. With twice as many found posts to lost posts, I don’t think that is true. What I think really happens is a person finds lost gear, looks for and doesn’t find the owner in the immediate area, and either tries to find the owner through an online forum, or gives up. I believe if that same person found gear with a phone number or email address on it, they would reach out to the owner. It’s happened to customers. Some have received text messages before they realized their gear was missing. They were thankful for our tags. Have a look for yourself and tag some of your gear.