I’m new to trad climbing, and I want to know whether I should place gear at even distances, say every six feet, or run it out more and place two pieces of pro close together every 12 feet.
—Dandy Don, via rockandice.com
Assuming the gear holds, you could either fall 12 feet or 24 feet before rope stretch and dragging your belayer off his toilet chair and into the first placement of Ow! My Balls! (5.7).
In the above simplistic world where gear doesn’t break or pull, the choice is clear—place gear more often.
The first variable to consider is rock quality. In Grade A El Cap granite, a cam in a textbook placement isn’t going to pull. A #0 or #00 cam it might break, however. In Grade F desert sandstone and even the B stuff of The Creek, cams can and do rip out. Considering whether a small cam might break or larger ones pull goes into your “gut feeling” folder, but more on that later.
The second variable is your mental and physical condition, which fall on my “hardness scale” somewhere between Bruce Lee and Fat Albert. Psychologically, you will be more confident—less likely to fall—when you closely space pro. Typically, this will have you setting a cam or nut, and climbing until it is just under your feet, then reaching high and slamming in the next piece. This system effectively gives you a wussified toprope half
of the time, empowering a weak mind and wobbly arms as surely as scoring a smoking hot date. Placing pro with such frequency is, of course, taxing and you could flame out and deliver yourself to the Hand of Fate, or your belayer on his potty chair, whichever.
Running it out, on the other hand, is the wave to your sand castle. Confidence washes away and every move above your pro casts you in a starring role on Naked and Afraid. Only by grace and a little elbow grease do you survive to spin a campfire tale.
Those of sound mind and strong arm can shrug at runouts. For these simians, punching for the anchors and slipping in an occasional bit of pro to appear responsible will save time and juice.
So far we have assumed that the gear and rock are solid, neglecting the all-important variable of having or not having a stance. For argument’s sake, we will ignore this point because if there’s a stance and hanging on and plugging gear is not a big deal, then put it in!
Let’s imagine now that you are at your special home crag, where the rock is bullet only in your mind. This is where leading gets interesting, or confusing since it involves math, physics, logic, and the Tibetan Calendar of Inauspicious Days.
In the scene where you set gear roughly every body length, you will fall 12 feet (you were six feet above the gear) onto it. When it fails, you then fall 24 feet onto the next placement (12 feet of rope out above that piece).
The problem you face is what smart people call a “self-similar pattern.” With the rock and the placements being similar, when one placement fails, all placements will probably fail—if anything, once the top piece pulls, the lower ones are more likely to also zipper because the fall distance and impact force increase. Bummer, because you thought you were being safe.
The way to prevent this is to break the pattern with a positive variable. Put two pieces in one place, or use a nut instead of a cam when a nut might have a higher holding capacity.
The variables might not make a difference, but practically we know that they might. On Earth, there will be positive (and negative) factors. The ability to climb safe means being able to evaluate rock and placement integrity and wisely use your knowledge. That, more than worrying about how often you should place gear, will keep you out of harm’s way. Next!
This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 227 (July 2015).