Give me a choice between two equally useful items, and I'll always opt for the simpler version over the one with all the bells, whistles, and embellishments. Of course, give me something with elegant, clean lines that out performs the over-complicated, and I will sing it's praises.
When it comes to climbing holds, I'm currently singing the praises of the brainchild of shaping luminary Ian Powell, Kilter Climbing Grips.
I've been a fan of Ian's shapes since before I knew they were Ian's shapes. Grips like the "Comfy Crimps" and "Hueco Patina Flakes" from e-Grips, a company founded by Ian in 1996, have long been in my go-to bucket for training problems.
Kilter offered to send me a few sets of holds for review, and I simply gave them my angles and the grades that we usually train on, and shortly after, a box arrived, containing some of the nicest, simplest shapes I've seen in some time.
Though Ian is certainly recognized in part for his beautiful artistic designs on holds (such as e-Grips' "Tribal" and "Drop Art" series), and he was one of the first to add embellishment to the non-use part of a hold, the grips they sent to me are very much a case of form follows function. A quick look at Kilter's offerings shows that with the exception of their Sandstone line, which very well may be the most beautiful representation of my favorite stone that I've seen, the entire Kilter line follows this theme. In fact, while you might expect that a prolific shaper such as Ian would have thousands of shapes to choose from, I appreciate and admire the curated selection of complete lines of holds that Kilter is rolling out. It's obvious at a glance that care and thought went into the somewhat minimalist nature of the brand.
Inside the box on my living room floor were three sets of holds, representing two of the Kilter lines, Winter and Noah. The Winter grips came in sets Medium 4 and Medium 8, and the Noah set is Small 3.
After I'd made a Christmas morning mess of my living room, I set about fondling the grips (and like any other kid on Christmas morning, imagining the cool moves I was going to be using them for). Immediately evident was the texture. Distinctly less abrasive than nearly any other hold I've used, these are the absolute only holds that I haven't felt the need to sand lightly before affixing to the wall. These grips are the perfect texture for training. Enough friction that you can utilize it on slopey edges, but smooth enough to save your skin during those particularly hard sessions.
Let's take a look at each set:
Winter, Medium 4
**This set appears to have been renamed Small 3 since the time this review was posted.**
This set comes with 10 different grips. They are all about hand size and low profile, so they take up little wall space. There are four small pinches and six "hooded" crimps that vary from slightly slopey to slightly incut, making them useful on our 30 degree wall for problems ranging from cruxy V4's to sustained 3 or 4 move V10's and harder.
There are a couple of interesting things going on in this set that I don't find with regularity in commercial holds.
First, depending on how you orient the pinches, they can be useful several ways. The pinches are essentially opposing hooded crimps, positioned in such a way that all four can be used comfortably with either hand.
Skinny pinches are one of my weakest areas, unlike many of today's gym bred mutant climbers, so the four little pinches have particularly highlighted that weakness. For instance, in the photos above, the hold that my left hand is on has become the bane of my existence. I can move dynamically off of it, but in a different problem that crosses to the hooded edge at about 11:00 from my face, I can't hold it for quite long enough, while Taylor makes the move look V3. Because of this, they've appeared regularly in my limit boulder problems as of late, and likely will for some time to come.
Second, the crimps have an upturned "hood" on the sides of the edge. The Kilter website describes them as "open slots," which is a great way to frame them. This feature serves a few functions. First, it forces a little more accuracy on big deadpoint moves, like the one shown in the photo to the left. Second, it makes getting into a full crimp a little tougher, and doesn't allow the climber to wrap the corner of the hold with a thumb, almost as if it weren't a protruding hold at all, but an inset. Third, when one of these hooded edges is used as a foot, as they are in our tracking problems, the climber can't simply slide a foot down the wall and catch the corner. To make the most of the hold as a foot, the climber will have to very purposely toe into the edge, as if stepping into a slot or pocket.
Winter, Medium 8
**This set appears to have been renamed Small 5 since the time this review was posted.**
This set comes with 10 grips, all of which are about one pad deep and range from a generous three fingers wide (the most incut of the set) to a solid four finger width. While a few of the holds are just barely incut, they mostly are perfectly flat, a feature I don't often see on gym holds. On our 30 degree wall, these, much like the Winter 4's, can be found on problems spanning between V4 and V10 or harder. They become particularly challenging when oriented in any way other than horizontal, forcing the climber to have to really control tension, balance, and body position to make use of them.
I'll be perfectly honest; these were my favorites the minute I pulled them from the box. The clean simple shapes appealed to me, but what really sold me is that someone had created a full pad flat edge with the perfect edge radius. Not so slopey that you're really only getting half a pad, and not so sharp that it's going to become painful after a few attempts. Frankly, I'm not even sure how that balance was achieved here, but I've learned not to question genius.
When I began to put them onto the wall, I adhered to my normal policy of not "setting" problems, but instead making choices based on a general rough sketch of the type of movement a hold location and orientation could provide. It became clear very quickly that when I turned one of these grips into a vertical orientation, as a sidepull or gaston, shit got serious. With the utter lack of any sort of incut on most of these holds, fighting the barndoor requires more from your body, and less from your crimp strength. Also, I immediately saw their use as a friendly, distant, "I'm never gonna get there, more or less latch it," type hold. There's no reason to hold back going to these, so you might just get there sooner than you think.
Noah, Small 3
**This set appears to have been renamed XS 3 since the time this review was posted.**
This set comes with 20 small but incut grips that somehow keep the same great radius on their incut edge that is found on the flat and slopey grips from Kilter. This set ranges from about 1/2 pad to full pad, and on our 30 degree wall can generally be found on problems ranging from hard V2 or 3 up to V6. For harder problems, these holds would really shine on a steeper wall, but are perfect for our V4-V5 climbers at this angle.
Several of the holds in this set have a feature that I found myself wanting to use on the wall, and directing the movement that way every chance I got. They have an incut, scooped "hood" on one side, creating a chance for the climber to use the corner of the hold almost like a pocket. I see it outside all the time, but never indoors with such subtlety as Kilter has created here. When those holds are turned just right, climbers discover the feature immediately, and unlike many of the holds that I've used in this manner outside, it's friendly, so you can really dig in.
The fingertip incuts in this set have become my favorite warmup grips, as well as holds that I'm not afraid to dive toward when I need a jump problem that forces me to control a swing. For Red River training, they are an absolute must for 4x4 style interval workouts.
I see our V5/6 climbers trending more and more toward the Noah Small 3's every session. They aren't quite big enough to call "finger buckets," forcing try hard even though the holds are friendly and incut. Not to mention, several of the grips are small enough to force three finger usage (or maybe even two for those of you with sausage fingers), which requires more precision than your average incut hold. To add to the need for precision, the "landing" surface behind the incut is comfortably uneven. When hit just right, your fingers sit just perfectly snuggled into place. If you're a little off, you're going to have to try a lot harder to pull through.
If you prefer sloppy footwork, moves that require no precision, and texture that eats your skin, then these Kilter grips are definitely not what you're looking for. However, if you're searching for new, interestingly simple shapes that you can add to your wall without sacrificing the skin that we so often do while training, then you've found the holds you need. They've quickly become favorites on our wall, and I find myself going to them again and again due to the need to learn how to use them effectively, rather than just get better at holding onto a miserably tiny hold.
Kilter Climbing Grips are obviously crafted with an eye toward the movement that they encourage. My biggest complaint (and one that I often make) is that setters and hold companies focus on bad holds and big jumps, rather than on quality, difficult movement. After all, it's often the space between the holds that is hardest to navigate, not the holds themselves. Ian and Kilter are aware of this, and have created a line of holds to reflect this seemingly lost idea. Add to this the best texture in the industry, skin-friendly edges, and grips with no wasted space, and you can't lose.