Being able to place gear is the foundation of safely climbing a route
that isn’t bolt- protected. You learn by practicing, by following an experienced leader and extracting his gear, paying dutiful attention to how it was set and asking questions. Watching YouTube and reading articles will also guide you, but there is no substitute for real life. Once you’ve mastered protection, an entire world of adventurous routes awaits, from the sandstone spires of Moab, to the granite flanks of El Cap.
Protection comes in three varieties: natural, fixed and the stuff you set yourself.
Natural anchors, such as trees and rock horns, though mostly used for toprope anchors by beginner climbers, can offer strong and secure protection when they present themselves on routes. Slinging a feature will require … slings. Sometimes an over-the-shoulder sling will suffice for wrapping around a tree or horn while other times you may need to girth-hitch two or even three slings together to make one long sling.
Trees are obvious natural anchors. Since these tend to sprout on ledges, they usually constitute belay rather than lead anchors. Slinging a tree is usually asy 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. Don’t 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. ALWAYS be wary of using trees as protection—make sure your woody friend is strong before you trust it with your life. It’s important to place your sling around the base of the tree, the strongest part of the trunk.
Large rock flakes, horns and chickenheads (mushroom-shaped knobs) are the most common natural anchors. Be on the lookout for these, as they can be difficult to spot. 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, use a nut tool to excavate dirt or rock crumbs from behind the flake to make a spot for the runner. 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, or weight the sling with part of your rack to hold it down.
In cracks, keep a watchful eye for chockstones, those rocks naturally wedged in constrictions. 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. A good chockstone can be as reliable as a nut or cam.
Most of us trust fixed protection—the mystery gear, usually nuts and pitons, left in place by other climbers. But we really don’t have a good idea
whether that pro is solid or might fall out on its own. Maybe it’s broken, or about to break. Back it up, or proceed with caution and get in a good
piece as soon as you can. Never remove fixed protection unless it is clearly unsafe, as even sketchy protection is better than none, and the next climbing team may be counting on that gear.
At sport-climbing areas all of the bolts will be already installed, and some will have permadraws attached to the bolts for ease of use. Usually, these
anchors are maintained by local climbers and you don’t have to give them much thought. Bolts placed decades ago, however, might have loosened or are badly rusted and in need of replacing. You’ll come across bolts like these most often on less-traveled or remote climbs. Clip them, but treat them with caution and get in good gear ASAP.
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, but you still need a basic working knowledge of them.
Pitons were originally made of soft steel, which deformed when pounded into a crack. Soft pitons were replaced by a harder-steel version in the 1960s. If you come across a dangerous piece of the older variety, leave them be—it could damage the surrounding rock; instead, place an X in chalk next to it as a warning.
Placing a piton is an art that demands consistent perfection. If you’re a novice, don’t even try and hammer one in, just stay off that route—it’s
not just your life that the piton is trusted to hold if you leave it in the rock.
If a piton looks especially suspect, remove it by knocking the “head” back and forth or up and down until it loosens, then wiggle it out with your fingers. Careful—removing a piton can cause more damage than placing one. Gentle upward taps to the piton eye will minimize scarring. Better still, leave the piton fixed. While older pitons usually aren’t safe enough to take a whipper on, they are generally safe for aid climbing. Remember that even if a piton looks solid, inside that crack the “blade” could be as rotten as a month-old apple because of weathering.
NUTS AND CAMS
Call them what you will, stoppers, hexes, nuts, or chocks, this type of protection that we collectively call a “nut,” works similar to natural chockstones. You jam these wedges of metal into constrictions in cracks. Properly set, a nut will break—or break the rock around it—rather than pull out. Nuts fall under the umbrella of “passive protection” because they don’t have any moving parts.
Cams are a type of “active protection,” with three or four spring-loaded “lobes” that can be adjusted to a variety of widths by pulling on a trigger connected to the “stem.” When downward or outward force pulls on a cam, the curved lobes press outward against the walls of the crack. The harder you pull on a cam, the more it resists being pulled out.
Why not use cams all the time? Cams are the bulk of what you’ll use in parallel cracks, such as those in Utah’s Indian Creek. If a crack constricts, or is just plain tiny, a cam may not fit as solidly. 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.
Tricams are a Frankenstein fusion of both nut and cam, though they are classified as a type of nut. Think of these as a single cam lobe, which can be placed like a nut, or like a cam. The curve of the single lobe will cam against the walls of a crack when pulled upon, or you can just place it in a constriction crack as you would a nut. Tricams can be placed either in a constriction crack or in a parallel crack.
Setting nuts, cams and Tricams seems simple, but it takes practice. The first step is to recognize what cracks will and won’t take nuts, and which size pieces fit what 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 when you fall you’ll likely load the gear at unexpected angles, so try to pull the gear out from all directions and see what happens. Remember that your test tugs will impart lower forces on the gear than falling on it. Nuts are mostly used to protect cracks less than an inch wide. If you need to place gear in a larger fissure, use a cam.
Getting a nut to wedge tightly is a matter of sizing the crack and placing the piece correctly. Select the nut that best matches the shape of the crack,
and provides the tightest wedge with the most surface contact. 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 when determining the proper fit. 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.
Perfect 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. Beware of cracks that flare open below the nut. A nut in this type of placement is more likely to be pulled loose. Choose a different spot if the placement wouldn’t hold both a downward and outward pull.
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 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 bit.
Shallow holes, piton scars and horizontal cracks are tricky to nut. Holes, common in limestone and sandstone, are handled well with 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.
If you’re using very small nuts, or the placement isn’t completely bomber, place multiple pieces of pro as backups. Clusters of gear should be arranged so the force of a fall is spread evenly among the pro.
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 set two nuts in opposition so they pull against each other to prevent them 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. Properly sizing the cam to the crack is crucial. Use a cam that’s too small and only the lobe tips will contact the rock, a dangerously weak position. Conversely, use too large a unit and you’ll overcam it. Such a placement may still be strong but it might be impossible to remove. The ideal cam placement has the cams at mid-expansion, their strongest position.
Orient a cam so the stem aligns with the anticipated direction of loading, and arrange the lobes 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 lobes can seat in a divot, where they’ll be most secure.
Outward-, inward- or downward-flaring cracks are problematic for a cam. Cracks that only slightly flare and let all the lobes 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 lobes as possible contact the rock. In shallow placements that won’t accept four lobes, consider a three-lobe unit (called a “TCU”), or special, narrow-headed four- lobe units.
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. Even
a cam set deeply in a horizontal crack can be quick and easy pro, and bomber.
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.
It’s important to understand just how much force cams put on cracks. Never place a cam in rock that isn’t bullet, such as a loose flake. It’s not uncommon for a cam to rip through soft rock. Very polished rock isn’t great for placements, either, because the cam lobes can slip.
Placing gear so it is secure against an outward or upward pull is an issue with every nut placement. Before you set any piece, nut or cam, anticipate the forces that might, through rope drag or a fall, lift out your protection. Plot your direction of travel— and potential fall—and slot your pro accordingly. Nut movement is an issue even with vertical cracks because rope drag can lift a nut out of place. Rope drag happens when you traverse
to one side, or climb a crack or series of cracks that meander.
A runner clipped to each piece will straighten the line the rope takes and absorb much of the rope’s whipping action. Simply clipping a quickdraw to each piece may be enough to keep the rope running true if you are climbing in a fairly straight line. Generally, most gear placements require a full- length runner. Often, a single pitch can require a dozen or more such slings.
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. A light upward tug on the cable or cord should free a nut. 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. Jimmy it this way and that; work it toward the opening. It helps to ask the leader who placed the gear exactly how he or she set the placement. Then you can simply reverse the procedure.
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 they’ll need. “Backcleaning” is the technique of reaching down or downclimbing or lowering to retrieve a piece of gear, then reusing that placement overhead. Backcleaning can leave you desperately far from a backup piece of gear, but it is better than running it out or soloing when you are low on gear.
Cams typically get stuck when they are jammed so deeply into the crack you can’t reach the trigger when you need to clean. Buried units are the easiest to save. Reach in with your nut tool, hook the trigger, and 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. If you jerk on the unit it will dive deeper into
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.