SOME of Britain's most spectacular and challenging rock climbs have become more dangerous overnight - because a Brussels directive effectively bans the tiny aids that revolutionised climbing 26 years ago.
To Britain's 700,000 climbers, "RP nuts" are standard pieces of equipment, small brass wedges, soldered onto steel wires, which they place in tiny cracks in the rock and clip to their rope. If the climber falls, the RP nut wedges in the crack, limiting the fall and absorbing the shock.
RPs are all hand-made by their inventor, Roland Pauligk, who works 12- hour days to turn out roughly 7,000 a year from his garage in the Australian suburb of Mordialloc, Victoria. Now 57, Mr Pauligk devised RPs in 1969 for his climbing on Mt Aripiles, where shallow cracks abound. He exports them to the UK, United States and Canada. On some routes they are the only protection against serious injury or death. To top climbers, that makes them akin to religious icons.
"When you're next to an RP on a route, it's protecting you," says Johnny Dawes, whose climbing consistently explores extremes of danger. Ron Fawcett, who for two decades set standards in the sport, says: "They're beautiful pieces of equipment. They're crucial, in many respects."
But to the 1989 European Directive on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which came into force yesterday, RPs are just another product requiring Quality Assurance and Product Safety testing.
However, the costs involved, coupled with an administrative mix-up, mean they have received neither - so European retailers and distributors cannot legally import any more until they pass the tests. Only those imported before July may be sold, and the British distributor, Robert Ferrell of Orion Equipment, reckons he might be out of stock in two months.
Separately, HB Climbing of Bangor, Wales, the only British maker of products comparable to RPs, says it has been forced to drop them from its range of products because it would cost too much to test them to PPE standards, even though it is sure they would pass. "This really exposes people on the leading edge of climbing," said Hugh Banner, the company's founder and manager.
The PPE directive was originally intended to remove internal trade barriers by setting European standards for industrial safety equipment. To the dismay of British mountaineering equipment makers, who for years had met and exceeded the standards agreed by the International Union of Alpinists (UIAA), it was extended to include their products because some are used in work such as painting bridges or cleaning buildings. Now climbing gear such as harnesses, ropes and even ice screws - used to anchor climbers on icesheets - must pass the PPE tests.
British manufacturers are especially infuriated because many of the PPE standards are lower than those of the UIAA, but products must be tested again. Most European climbers drill bolts into rock rather than using removable protection, so the directive will not affect them. But to many British climbers, bolts remove the sport's thrill and risk, and disfigure the rock.
In Britain, rock climbers stopped hammering pegs and pitons into cliffs in the 1970s because they realised they were doing irreversible damage. Now they protect their ascents with the removable metal wedges or spring- loaded devices. RPs are the smallest available, and have saved many lives. "I took a 30ft fall on an RP0 [the smallest RP available]," says Shane Ohly, an 18-year-old from Cornwall who has made some of the region's hardest ascents. "This regulation is drastic. Some of my climbs can only be protected by using them."
RPs and similar-sized nuts must be replaced after a long fall because the shock distorts the steel wires dangerously. Retailers said last week that climbers were rushing to buy the sets of six, which cost pounds 50.
"The word is out that RPs might be disappearing. Sales are definitely up," said Adam Hanlon, manager of Rock+Run in Ambleside, Cumbria.
"We have stockpiled them," said Glyn Padgett, manager of the Outside shop in the Peak District - home to many "desperate" routes requiring RPs. "We've sold almost four times as many so far this year as in 1994. We have been telling people that these may be the last they get."
The tests themselves would require an inspection of the manufacturing procedures in Mr Pauligk's garage, and separate destructive testing of samples. But this would be expensive: HB Climbing, which makes a variety of equipment, had to set up new procedures in order to meet the requirements.
"It has cost about pounds 100,000 for our entire range, compared with our annual revenues of pounds 1m," says Hugh Banner. Testing RPs would be significantly cheaper, but would certainly put up their price.
Top climbers are appalled by the news. "They're a crucial part of your armoury," says Fawcett, who recalls their introduction. "In the early days we were dubious about them. But after taking some falls on them, you're quite amazed.
"It just seems like bureaucrats are trying to get hold of something and bringing in regulations about something they know nothing about."
Dawes, whose 140ft route, "Indian Face", on the sheer slab of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu in Snowdonia, is recognised as Britain's most extreme combination of danger and difficulty, says : "This just stops adventure climbing. When you're on a hard route like Indian Face, seeing the next place you can clip one gives you something to concentrate on. It means you're not blowing your mind out all the time trying to stay on."
The RPs' inventor, however, is phlegmatic at the news that his brainchild might disappear from British crags. "The directive is a good idea," Mr Pauligk said last week. "Customers have to be protected."
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