Safety gear apparently made for climbing is being sold online in the UK, despite failing to meet the necessary certification standards. Paul Sagar investigates.
- Note: All the items below were listed for sale on Amazon on 17th June 2019, which is the day we took the screen shots. Items come and go on this retail platform all the time.
Update 21/06/19 Amazon tell us that all the following items have now been removed from sale. They offered us this statement:
"All selling partners must follow our selling guidelines and those who do not will be subject to action, including withholding of funds and potential removal of their account. The products in question are no longer available."
For those new to climbing or scrambling, one of the most daunting things about making the transition to the crag can be the cost of equipment. This will be especially true for those heading out with other beginners, and who don't have a network of experienced partners already possessed of relevant gear.
Due to the initial up-front costs, and an understandable reluctance to buy top-end equipment before knowing if climbing is really their thing, many beginners will be tempted to look online for deals. And one place that they will often end up – either through habit or a quick internet search – is online retailer Amazon.
Indeed, I recently did this myself. Looking for deals on helmets, I started perusing the extensive offerings available through the world's largest consumer retail website. But I noticed something disturbing: the prevalence of climbing gear being sold that raises serious safety concerns.
When it comes to climbing, the old adage "buy nice or buy twice" does not apply. Because if things go really wrong, you won't get a second chance
Whilst experienced climbers know what to look for – in particular EN, CE and UIAA ratings for specific products, as well as which brands are established and reputable – those first starting out do not. But faced with a tight budget, beginners might be tempted to go for what can appear to be better deals, on gear that is being sold as specialist rock climbing equipment. Sometimes these have a slew of 5 star reviews in hand, on a widely trusted website many already use on a weekly basis.
Yet this could be disastrous. In under 20 minutes on the site, I was able to assemble a basic sport climber's outdoor kit, apparently complete for a day's cragging, but wherein every item is at least potentially suspect – and in some cases, outright dangerous. Here's what I found.
A note on technical terminology
CEN - The European Committee for Standardisation. They write the EN Standards, to which products must conform if they're sold for a particular purpose in the EU.
CE - A CE mark means the item bearing the mark conforms to the relevant EN standard. It will be followed by a number which the identifying number of the relevant notified body that undertook the testing.
EN - These are the standards to which the item has been tested. They will define the testing methodology and the criteria required to pass as well as other things such as marking etc. Unfortunately, these are not freely available to the public but can be bought from the British Standards Institute (BSI). These standards are written by the CEN/TC 136/WG 5 working group which is a mix of national delegates, European manufacturers and notified bodies/testing houses(2).
When looking at the label attached to your kit it will have the CE Symbol, the number of the notified body and the relevant EN standard.
UIAA - Set by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, UIAA ratings are often regarded as a gold standard of climbing safety equipment. Created before normalised European standards, they were the front runners in creating the original standards for climbing equipment. These standards are created by the Safety Commission. This is a group with delegates from climbing associations from all over the world as well as global manufactures and notified bodies/testing houses. They are a global standard, often slightly more onerous than the EN standards but are a voluntary standard that is not enforceable by law, unlike the EN standard within the EU. The lack of a UIAA mark does not per se mean that a product is unfit for purpose
When choosing to buy a product the average customer is unlikely to know how to assess whether any associated labelling is genuine, or if an unscrupulous manufacturer is lying – which does happen, for example, with some goods imported from China. For more information on CE vs UIAA numbers, see this article in Rock and Ice
Regarding their own labelling, the UIAA have issued this advice:
- Only purchase equipment bearing the UIAA Safety Label and/or CE label. This ensures it conforms to the most exacting of international standards. The UIAA Safety, or CE, label can usually be found engraved or stitched on a piece of gear or in the product description.
- Avoid buying gear online except equipment from known and trusted brands and from a trusted manufacturer or reputable retailer.
The UIAA is also developing a new Black List database where any equipment illegally advertised with the UIAA Safety Label will be recorded. For a list of all the companies whose climbing and mountaineering equipment bears the UIAA Safety Label, see here.
Of all the suspicious pieces of climbing gear being sold on Amazon, harnesses seem to be the worst offenders. Multiple companies are selling things that appear to be made out of seat belt material. Worryingly, these are often modeled so as to look like the kind of alpine/beginner style harnesses that make up standard rental equipment in many commercial climbing gyms.
Just one example, which on the face of it actually looks less dodgy than some of what is out there, is the "Suntime Climbing Harness". This claims to be "perfect for mountaineering, tree climbing, indoor climbing, rock climbing", and other rope-related activities. It even has a safety label sewn into the webbing.
Closer inspection, however, reveals that the label does not cover either the UIAA or EN standards (the latter is required for climbing equipment to be legally sold as such in the EU, and hence, at the time of writing, in the UK). Yet this item is being sold for £19.99, and is available on Amazon Prime for next day delivery.
An attempt at backside covering is included in the item description: "Climbing is dangerous. You are responsible for your own actions and decisions. familiarize yourself with this harness to detect your abilities and limitations. We recommend every climber seek qualified instruction. Please have all equipment safety checked by a qualified professional prior to use."
More helpful is the review left by a diligent citizen: "As soon as Amazon takes down a dodgy-looking harness, another pops up. The safety label in the photograph does not meet EU requirements. The harness may be safe, but it is illegal to sell it in the EU."
Is it actually safe? I wouldn't want to bet my life finding out.
One of the most shocking items I've found for sale on Amazon is the "Aoneky Rock Climbing Rope".
The listed specifications include the following:
- High quality Polyester material, very strong and durable, heavy duty rot and tear resistant
- Loan-bearing of the rope reach 1000kg, safe enough to do any outdoor activity
- They are perfect for climbing, camping, hiking, boating, fishing, caving, engineering, expansion, also great for pets
For experienced climbers alarm bells will be going off all over the place here (not least the photo in which the ends are perma-stitched into a loop, apparently to attach karabiners to). The typo on load-bearing is a big red flag. Even more so is the stated "1000kg" strength rating, which is meaningless given that force is measured in kn, not kg. Another tell-tale sign is that no fall factor rating is provided. Furthermore, this appears to be a static rope, and is thus potentially very dangerous to climb on (climbing ropes need to be dynamic, so as to absorb force from a fall). Yet this is being explicitly sold as for rock climbing, and is currently listed as an official "Amazon Choice". To the untrained eye, this might seem like a legitimate climbing rope – but it is not.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the 5-star rating based on 27 reviews. No serious rock climber is rating this as anything other than 0 stars. This calls into question at least the competence, and perhaps the authenticity, of these reviewers.
Most climbing helmets sold on Amazon seem to be of good standard, but it wasn't hard to find exceptions. Take the "Vent Multi Sport Helmet" sold by Perfk. Retailing at just £17.86, this might look like a good deal. Aside from the chin guard (not relevant to climbing), it looks reasonably solid – and the description claims that it is "CE Certified", and suitable for "kids and adults, when doing outdoor sports like: rock climbing, mountaineering, snowboarding, rappelling, caving, ice skating, motorcycling, BMX, scooter, cycling, caving, rappelling, skateboarding, inline skating, rescue, roller skating, workout, construction, etc". It is listed specifically as a "one piece rock climbing helmet".
However, there's no further information on its CE mark, or the EN standard to which it conforms. And a quick check on the UIAA website indicates that Perfk are not certified with them regarding any climbing-related equipment. Does this make the Perfk helmet dangerous? I don't know. But nobody thinking of buying it does, either, because the information is simply incomplete. This is not the only Perfk helmet being sold via Amazon, and listed for climbing purposes.
A company called 2win2buy sells what it calls a "30kn Climbing Carabiner". It looks like a solid piece of kit – indeed, I myself previously bought a couple of auto-locking gates from this company, and climbed on them (full disclosure: they seemed solid, and I had no issues. But looking back, I realise I didn't know what I was doing when I purchased them and I have no sixth sense enabling me to detect whether krabs are in fact reliable; visual inspection is clearly not an industry standard. I have now retired these from my rack).
It appears from the product description on Amazon that this karabiner has a CE certification. However, is it genuine? Again, discerning and experienced climbers ought to spot the danger here. Uncertified connecting gear that has not genuinely passed rigorous testing may break under a low force, and hence kill a falling climber. But those new to the world of outdoor climbing will not necessarily know what to look for. I myself failed this test not so long ago.
This product – which may be entirely safe, but certainly is not UIAA certified – is currently available for delivery via Amazon Prime.
More generally, there is an added risk involved in buying cheap karabiners from suppliers located overseas. As several Amazon customer reviews indicate, the shipped product does not always correspond to the advertised item – which means you may order one thing, but end up with something else entirely. Hardly a recipe for safety.
The Chinese company GM Climbing has previously raised eyebrows for apparently selling karabiners that were not UIAA rated, and they were black-listed by UIAA accordingly (see here). That situation seems to have changed, or at least been clarified: the UIAA website lists a number of GM Climbing products that do pass UIAA standards.
However, not listed amongst those is the GM "Micro Belay Device" currently being sold on Amazon. This is a standard tube device, and whilst it may be perfectly safe, lacking a UIAA rating means that it should not be trusted over other certified equipment on the market. It also appears to lack a CE rating (the one given on the item's page description is for the karabiner which can be bought in a bundle with the belay device, not the device itself). If so, this means it cannot legally be sold in the EU. It is currently available for £12.95 on Amazon Prime.
Quickdraws generally seem to be OK as regards Amazon results. But even here, caution is advised. Take those sold by NewDoar. On the one hand they look like the real deal: the krabs have strength breaking ratios printed on their back-bars, and both the krabs and the dogbone slings appear to be CE and EN certified. Indeed, from a quick online search it seems that NewDoar is a legitimate company – albeit one that also sells dog life vests complete with novelty shark fins, vintage pirate telescopes, and fetching rain ponchos, all via Amazon.
However, a check on the UIAA website indicates that no NewDoar products are currently certified. Their krabs do not have a UIAA rating, and the promise in the description that they're "suitable for climbing, camping, hiking, swing and etw" may not inspire automatic confidence.
Lacking a UIAA endorsement is a red flag – though this is not to say that the product is definitely dangerous.
Worse though, the existing marking is suspect as the krab is to EN 12275:1998 when it should be to EN 12275:2013 and there is no date next to EN 566 on the dogbone (it should be 2017).
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that even kit that does purport to be CE/EN or UIAA certified actually is. One company selling very cheap quickdraws on Amazon – Fusion Climb – now appears to be fully legit: a search on UIAA sees that some of their quickdraws are now certified. But as recently as 2015, UIAA had blacklisted Fusion, whilst writing on their official twitter that "Fusion Climb may be using the UIAA name and/or Safety Label logo w/o UIAA authorization." Fusion seem to have gotten their house in order – but rogue operators may still be out there. If you are not looking at a company of good standing, the lesson, if buying gear which purports to be UIAA-certified, is to always check with UIAA via their website.
Clearly the range and quality of climbing gear sold via Amazon is extremely variable. It ranges from certified top brands ensuring quality and safety, through possibly safe but not the best bet, all the way to the positively dangerous. Amazon, as a third-party seller, is ultimately not responsible for the safety of the products sold via its platforms. In this area, it is very much caveat emptor.
What can be done? It is possible to log complaints against products which have misleading descriptions, or violate EU law regarding CE certification, via Amazon (and also other sites like Ebay, where similar issues arise). Amazon can then decide whether to take action. However, it's arguable how much of a long-term solution this is, such is the ease with which unscrupulous companies can re-list their wares even if Amazon takes down previous listings.
What is required is for climbers to look out for each other. If you know somebody getting into climbing, and looking to build up their gear collection, encourage them to use only reputable outdoor climbing outlets, and not generalist or discounting websites acting as third-party platforms. Hopefully the existence of this article will itself help alert people to the risks of buying sub-standard climbing gear, avoiding the trap of thinking that something is safe just because it is purchased via a reputable platform.
Paying more is often a pain. But when it comes to climbing, the old adage "buy nice or buy twice" does not apply. Because if things go really wrong, you won't get a second chance.
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