Being able to place solid protection is the foundation of safe rock climbing. But how do you find and set solid anchors? By practicing. By following an experienced leader and extracting his gear, paying dutiful attention to how it was set and asking a lot of questions. Reading and looking at diagrams are a distant second, but we'll give it a shot anyway. Anchors come in three varieties: natural, fixed and protection you set yourself.
Natural anchors, though the least common type of protection, can offer strong and secure anchors. To make use of them, you usually need over-the-shoulder slings. Some climbers also carry a double-length sling to loop or hitch around larger objects. Two regular runners girth hitched together achieve the same goal, although the knot and double-thick webbing can get in the way behind flakes or tunnel threads.
Trees are the most obvious natural anchors. Since these tend to sprout on ledges, they usually constitute belay rather than lead anchors. Regardless, slinging a tree is always easy and quick, saves hardware and makes a multidirectional anchor that can hold an upward, outward or downward pull. Before you sling a tree, examine it very carefully by inspecting its roots. Common sense tells you not to trust small or shallow-rooted trees or shrubs. Dead trees can be solid, provided they are large and still somewhat fresh, but avoid slinging any that could uproot or break off.
Large rock flakes, horns and chickenheads (mushroom-shaped knobs) are the most common natural anchors. Be tuned in to these, as they are easy to overlook. Often, in your glee at having latched a sinker flake or incut knob, you'll forget that the bomber hold can also make an anchor simply by draping or hitching a runner around it.
Slings draped over protrusions or flakes tend to lift off as you climb above them. Setting the slings as low and deep as possible improves their security. If necessary, take a nut tool and excavate dirt or rock crumbs from behind the flake to make a spot for the runner, you may want to pocket a few pebbles and then wedge them back in to lock the runner in place. Once you get the runner situated, you may need to clip on another runner or quickdraw as an extension to keep rope action from unseating the protection sling.
Horns and chickenheads, like flakes, are solid anchors provided they don't shear off and the sling stays put. Incut protrusions are the easiest to deal with. Girth hitch the runner so it cinches tight against the anticipated direction of pull. Rounded or merely flat horns are more problematic; often, there's little you can do to make them hold runners. Using double-length runners will help, as will securing the sling with a directional nut. Weighting the sling with gear might also hold the runner on while you are climbing, though the tug of a fall can still easily lift it off.
If you are protecting a crack, keep a watchful eye for chockstones, those rocks naturally wedged inside the crack. The security of a slung chockstone depends on how well the rock is jammed -- you may be able to lift it out and wedge it in a better place -- and how solid or crumbly the stone and the walls pinning it are. Similarly, you can sling natural bridges in the crack, formed where both walls of the crack touch, but are open above and below the juncture.
Though rare, tunnel threads -- holes that go in and out of the rock -- are usually rock-solid and good against any direction of pull. Thread a runner or piece of cord through tunnels.
Few of us would be keen to snack on a sandwich we found on the sidewalk, yet most of us trust fixed protection, the mystery gear, usually nuts and pitons, left in place by others who did the climb before us. Who knows where that gear has been or what it's been through? It might be solid, but all you really know is that someone left it behind, and for unknown reasons. Maybe it's broken, or about to break. Or just plain stuck.
Don't count on it to hold unless it is obviously good, such as a bolt that is in good condition. Bolts are intended to be left in the rock. The 3/8- and 1/2-inch variety can hold a truck and are designed to last a decade or longer. A solid bolt is tight in the rock, the hanger doesn't spin and the bolt shows little or no rust and isn't bent or otherwise damaged. Bolts placed before 1990, when hand-drilling was still the norm, are another matter. Typically, these ancient bolts will be a scant 1/4- or 5/16-inch thick, and badly rusted. Clip them, but don't trust them.
Pitons, steel spikes hammered into cracks, thrash the rock and for both environmental and practical reasons have been largely replaced by nuts and cams. You may never come across a fixed piton and you'll be less likely to ever place one, but you still need a basic working knowledge of them, just in case.
Placing a piton is relatively easy if you have a knack for pounding nails. Select a piton size that will slip about three-quarters of the way in the crack. Hammer on the pin until it feels solid. Often you can discern a solid piton by the ring. A higher pitch indicates a more bomber placement. A low thud tells you the placement is marginal.
Remove a piton by knocking it back and forth or up and down until it loosens, then wiggle it out with your fingers. Careful -- removing a piton causes more damage than placing one. Gentle upward taps to the piton eye will minimize scarring. Better still, leave the piton fixed.
NUTS AND CAMS
Stoppers, Hexcenctrics, Rocks and various other trademark pieces of protection that we collectively call nuts, all work similarly to natural chockstones. You jam these tapering shapes of metal into constrictions in cracks. Properly set, a nut will break -- or break the rock around it -- rather than pull out.
Cams operate on the camming principle. The curve of the cams forces them against the crack walls. The harder you pull on a cam, the more it resists being pulled out.
Why not use cams all the time? In parallel-sided cracks, such as those in Utah's Canyonlands, cams are indeed the bulk of what you'll use, and some pitches accept nothing but cams. If a crack constricts, however, or is oddly shaped, or just plain tiny, a cam may not fit, and even if it does, a nut can sometimes be more solid. For those reasons, you'll want a mix of nuts and cams, usually two full sets of each, and you must be equally adept at placing both forms of protection.
Setting nuts and cams is simple enough. All you need are common sense, a crafty eye, and, of course, practice. Much practice. The first step is to recognize what cracks will and won't take nuts, and what size pieces fit what size placements. Take your rack and spend an afternoon fiddling gear into cracks at the base of a crag or in boulders. A half-day of such practice will give you a season's worth of hands-on experience. Set some pieces, clip slings to them, and jump on the gear to see what holds. Keep in mind that in your tests you'll load the gear straight down, but in real life you'll likely load the gear at odd and ever-changing angles. For that reason, also try to pull the gear out sideways, and see what happens. Remember, too, that your test jumps will likely impart lower forces on the gear than falling on it.
Getting a nut to wedge tight is a matter of sizing it to the placement and keying it in place. Select the nut that best matches the shape of the crack, and provides the tightest wedge with the most surface contact. Getting the right fit the first time is a skill that even experienced climbers struggle with. Expect to try several nuts in each placement. It helps to use color-coded nuts and keep four or so similarly sized nuts racked on each carabiner. Reach up with the entire wad to size the placement. Unclip the nut that fits best and return the rest to your gear sling. Resist the urge to use a substandard nut just because it has gotten stuck. Remove it and get a better placement.
All nuts are designed to fit at least two sizes of placements. You can set them either in their narrow profile or wide, endwise profile. Try to set nuts in their narrowest orientation. Endwise placements can be bomber, especially with the larger hexes, but this is usually the nut's least stable orientation.
Sometimes, on less traveled routes, dirt, moss or crumblies might line or plug the crack. Take a nut tool or the wire of a nut and scrape away that grunge until your nut can seat in clean, solid rock.
Dream placements are those where the tapering crack opens up inside and the outer edges roll together to form a lip. A nut slotted from above and wiggled down in such an enclosure is solid against a downward and outward pull -- ideal. Beware of cracks that flare open below the nut. A nut in this type placement is more likely to be knocked loose.
The most common placement is a tapering slot in a vertical crack. Here, you want to set the nut deeply, to prevent it from rotating out, although there is no hard-and-fast rule -- if the most secure placement is shallow, put the nut there. Give the nut a good, hard yank to seat it, and take care not to knock it loose with your foot or knee as you climb past. Using runners to keep nuts from lifting out is crucial, too, but more on that in a moment.
Shallow holes, piton scars and horizontal cracks are the tricky buggers to nut. Holes, common in limestone and sandstone, are handled well with nuts such as Tricams, which, owing to their unique design, can seat in shallow pods. Tricams can also sit in square pin scars, though you shouldn't overlook jamming a small micro nut into the slot at the scar's base. When either nut seems dubious, set both and back them up as soon as possible -- a good maxim for any placement.
You won't often set a nut in a horizontal placement, but if you do, apply the same rules we just covered: Look for a tapering slot that will protect the nut against an outward tug. If you're lucky, the horizontal will open up into a pod inside and you can jimmy the nut around so it is impervious to an outward and downward pull. Otherwise, you'll need to use opposition (setting two nuts so they pull against each other) to prevent the nuts from lifting out.
Setting opposing nuts can be as simple as clipping a runner to one piece and passing the runner through the other nut's carabiner. This method only takes seconds to construct, but the sling doesn't tension the nuts together, and they can fall out.
A better method, though one that takes two free hands, is to girth hitch one sling to the nuts, then adjust each girth hitch until the nuts are properly tensioned together.
Parallel, flaring and horizontal cracks are the realm of the cam. Again, as with nuts, properly sizing the cam to the crack is crucial. Use a cam that's too small and only the cam tips will contact the rock, a dangerously weak position for the cam. Conversely, use too large a unit and you'll overcam it. Such a placement may still be strong but costly as it might be impossible to remove. The ideal cam placement has the cams at mid-expansion, their strongest position.
Orient a camming unit so the stem aligns with the anticipated direction of loading, and arrange the cams so they logically follow the crack's contours. Sometimes this means putting the cam in the placement, eyeballing it, then taking the unit out and flipping it around so some of the cams can seat in a divot, where they'll be most secure.
Outward-, inward- or downward-flaring cracks are the most problematic placements for a cam. Cracks that only slightly flare and let all the cams rest at approximately the same expansion are best. Placements get less secure as the flare widens. When a flaring crack is unavoidable, place the cam in a section where the taper is less severe, and use a long runner to keep it from jiggling out of position.
In shallow cracks, orient the cam so as many cams as possible contact the rock. In really shallow placements that won't accept four cams, consider a three-cam unit (TCU), or special, narrow-headed four-cam units, such as the Colorado Custom Hardware Aliens.
Cam placements in vertical cracks are straightforward. As long as the unit is sized right and the crack is nice and clean, it's hard to go wrong. Horizontal cracks are another matter. Here, take care not to use rigid-stem cams. These stems can be bent, and possibly broken, over the edge. One solution is to set the unit deep so just the sling extends from the crack, a secure placement but one that makes it difficult to access the trigger for later removal. A better solution is to use a cam with a flexible stem, which can take bending over an edge without sustaining serious damage.
Cams, like nuts, are also subject to the tugging action of the rope. Unlike a nut, however, a cam can swivel a bit in its placement and remain solid. Nevertheless, whenever your gear moves, it can reorient into a less stable position. For that reason, liberally use runners, even with camming units.
Placing gear so it is secure against an outward or upward pull is an issue with every nut placement, horizontal and vertical. Before you set any piece, nut or cam, anticipate the forces that might, through rope drag or a fall, lift out your protection. Mentally plot your direction of travel -- and potential fall -- and slot your pro accordingly. In a vertical crack this is easy; you'll climb straight up and you'll fall straight down. But when you traverse to one side, or zig-zag, or climb a crack or series of cracks that meander, the game becomes complicated. The drag caused by a zig-zagging rope will weigh on you like bricks and can yank out your protection.
What to do? Use runners. A runner clipped to each piece will straighten the line the rope takes and absorb much of the rope's whipping action. If you are climbing in a fairly straight line, such as a crack at Utah's Indian Creek, simply clipping a quickdraw to each piece may be enough to keep the rope running true. Generally, however, most gear placements require a full-length, over-the-shoulder r
nner. Often, a single pitch can require a dozen or more long slings.
BACKCLEANING AND SHOVING
Calculating exactly how much gear you'll need for a given climb is an inexact science, and even the most experienced climbers will sometimes underestimate how much, or what size, gear he'll need. Then, trickery is in order. Backcleaning is the technique of reaching down or down climbing or lowering to retrieve a piece of gear, then reusing that placement overhead. Shoving is when you place a cam overhead, then continually shove it ahead of you as you climb; in essence, creating a toprope. Backcleaning and shoving are strenuous and can leave you desperately runout from a backup piece of gear, but they are better than running it out or soloing when you are low on gear.
Before you attempt to remove a cam or nut, examine it to determine how it was placed and how it will most easily be removed. If a nut was dropped into a tapering crack, a light upward tug on the cable or cord should free it. If it doesn't budge, don't try again, or you could kink the cable, weakening it. Instead, loosen the stuck nut
with an upward tap from a nut tool or carabiner.
Nuts that were slotted into a crack then wiggled along to a tricky new position can be difficult to get out, especially if the nut is so buried you can't see it. Don't give up. The nut went in; it must come out. Jimmy it this way and that;
work it toward the logical opening and freedom. It helps to ask the leader who placed the gear exactly how he set the placement. Then you can simply reverse the procedure.
Cams typically get stuck because they were jammed so deeply into the crack you can't reach the trigger. Buried units are the easiest to save. Reach in with your nut tool, hook the trigger, then pull on it while you simultaneously push on the stem. If you forgot your nut tool, loop both sides of the trigger with the open ends of wired nuts or stiff slings.
Units where one of the cams flipped around or inverted like an umbrella are more problematic. Pulling the trigger doesn't help. Your best hope is to reach inside the crack with your fingers or a nut tool and push up on the inverted cam up so it presents a smaller orientation. Then, carefully retract the other cams with the trigger, and ease the piece out of the crack. Be patient. Get frustrated and jerk on the unit and you'll drive it deeper into the crack.
Overcammed units, ones that were too big for the placement, but were fully retracted then crammed in anyway, are the ones you'll most likely have to leave. About all you can do is lightly wiggle the unit to gradually shimmy it free, or try shoving the piece to a wider spot in the crack where the cams can spread enough for you to retract them.