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Being able to build a climbing anchor with traditional gear, both safely and efficiently, is a fundamental skill for climbing in Squamish. This post looks at five anchors that should be in your tool box. Each anchor has pros and cons and knowing when to pull out each tool will take experience. Please consider hiring a guide or getting a mentor to better enjoy the process of anchor problem solving.
Disclaimer: Climbing is inherently dangerous. The descriptions of techniques and procedures in this article are intended to provide general information. This is not a substitute for formal instruction, routine practice, and plenty of experience. When you follow any of the procedures described here, you assume responsibility for your own safety. The information below is a "personal opinion piece" and has been provided in good faith. It cannot be seen as "complete" as it does not cover every eventuality. We are simply offering readers useful information for such a complex sport. Hope you enjoy reading through this article!
Whether you are building anchors off of trees, bolts, ice screws, chock stones, pitons or traditional gear, the underlying integrity is fundamental to every other technique you employ. Choose your anchor points wisely. Your life (quite literally) depends on it. If you are not sure, include an extra cam, double up your trees, dig into better ice, or pound in another pin ... but don't have your anchor points fail ... ever!
Sometimes referred to as redundancy, every point in your anchor should be redundant, so if it fails you have a backup. To help you visualize this, imagine cutting any part of your anchor (sling, bolt, carabiners, etc.) and see if it would pull through, drop or fail completely. All good anchors will have redundancy built in.
The anticipated load of a falling climber will impact the anchor. Since the fall is transferred through the rope and into the anchor, it should be shared as evenly as possible between each of your anchor points – cams, nuts, bolts, etc. Perfect equalization is not possible in the field because of all the variables, so use your judgement and equalize as best as you can.
If you are an expert on Newton's Second Law of Motion then don't read this section. However, if you are a climber without a physics degree, you will want to understand the relationship between the motion of an object and the forces acting on it. In brief, as angles increase, the forces on your anchor points also increase. In other words, the greater the angle, the greater the force is on each point.
For example, if you connect to a single-point anchor and weigh 180lbs, that single point holds 180lbs. If you connect to two equalized points your 180lbs of weight will be shared between the two points. However, once those two points have an angle of 120 degrees between them, both points will be holding 180lbs each, which is 360lbs in total. Weird but true! To help guide climbers (without protractors when climbing), it's best to keep your angles as low as possible, ideally below 60° but no higher than 90°! 90° is the easiest angle to measure from because it's a right angle.
Consider the direction of pull when building your anchor. Sometimes the direction will be straight down, sometimes sideways, sometimes upwards and sometimes it will vary throughout the climb. Determining the "load" (or direction of pull) will help you pick a suitable anchor solution.
"Non-extending" means that if one of the points in your anchor should fail you shouldn't have a situation where the entire anchor shifts a great distance with possibly the belayer being pulled out of position.
If you build an amazing anchor with perfect gear placements, but is over a very sharp edge, your anchor is essentially useless! Avoid sharp edges and highly abrasive rock as these will either cut or damage your anchor.
If you take 30 minutes to build an anchor on a 15 pitch route, you are going to run out of daylight. The ability to build anchors in a timely minor will get you up and down faster, which will enhance your safety.
For those who love to geek out on more anchors we recommend reading the Anchor Book (download the pdf version)
Having three pieces of bomber1 gear in clean, quality rock is the foundation of traditional anchors. The three point Equalette, aka "The Classic", is one way to connect all three pieces together giving a clean central master point. This basic technique forms the foundation of the other anchors you should know and should be mastered. The cordlette is tied into a giant loop by connecting the ends together with a double fisherman's knot, with nice long tails. Clip the loop into each piece and pull down between each piece, this forms a "W" shape, keep pulling in the loading direction and tie an overhand/figure 8 knot in all the strands. The loop/master point in your hand will have three strands and should be large enough to accommodate at least 4 or 5 locking carabiners. This anchor is equalized for one load direction only, it does not self equalize and in the case of an upward pull, the force would hit the lowest cam, which is set downward. The next anchor shows how to add in an upward pull piece.
The kit required:
Anchors don't always have to be multi-direction! However, if you anticipate the leader falling close to the anchor, which could potentially lift the belayer up, an upward pull piece should be considered. Thankfully, bolts are multi-directional, and well placed cams can be multi-directional too. Often the cruxes of climbs are further away from the anchor making the need for this anchor more rare. However, in the odd time you may need to utilize this anchor, there may be no substitute, so it's a good one to know. The Multi-Directional 4 Point Eqalette is built by adding an upward pull piece. Start by clipping the cordlette into this piece and then the two strands are clove hitched to the lowest piece in the regular anchor, then follow the regular step from above to complete the anchor.
The kit required:
The Quad Anchor is a relatively new anchor and is fast becoming adopted by climbers everywhere. The Quad allows you to equalize two or more pieces, creates two independent huge master points, is incredibly strong and is self-equalizing! There's really not much we don't love about it.
To make this anchor, fold a quad length (240cm) pre-sewn sling in half and tie both strands in an overhand knot about 6 inches from each doubled end. Clip the doubled ends into your protection carabiners. Simple, clean and easy! The 4 strands between the knots are your master points, two strands for you and two for your partner.
The kit required:
When protection is spaced out or when more than 3 pieces are used in an anchor, the material required to create a "W" increases beyond the standard 5 meter of cord that climbers carry. In this example, pieces of protection can be enchained or built inline by connecting the webbing to furthest protection and then connecting each closer piece with either a clove hitch or overhand knot. This can be done on both ends of the cordlette and enables climbers to combine many pieces. As well as being used for extra pieces, this technique can also help if you only have a 120cm sling or have forgotten your cord. Adding extra tricks like this to your tool box helps you be more efficient with your equipment and helps build anchors in a timely manner.
The kit required:
At some in your climbing career you will either forget, use up or drop your webbing and cordlette, leaving you with nothing much left to work with at the anchor. Knowing how to build an anchor from the rope is a basic rescue skill, unless you are from the UK where building anchors with the rope is the norm. There are many ways to build a rope anchor. We have selected a basic one here, however feel free to head down that rabbit hole in your internet searches.
The anchor shown above is built by pulling up slack, clove hitching it to the top piece, pulling up more slack and clove hitching it to the bottom piece. When clipping the middle piece, you can now build the "W". Tie an overhand knot and then clip yourself back to your new master point.
The kit required:
Your climbing tool bag can never be too big and the learning process never stops. If this post lasts on this site for 10 years, a newer set of techniques will have emerged and that's A-Ok. Materials will be developed and new hardware will be released, but the ability to learn, re-learn and adapt to the situation in front of you is the key to a long and enjoyable climbing career. This list is by no means exhaustive and newer girth hitch techniques and direct anchor belays are not even mentioned.
The list presented here is based on 5 anchors you should know, but that is just the start! You should probably know 30 to 40 variations. Enjoy learning, being adaptable, being efficient, being safe and being an amazing partner to all the climbers on your journey.
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1Bomber - Climbing jargon that implies, "it would hold a truck". Bomber is incredibly strong and is totally reliable. Example of its use: "That anchor is bomber! I would drop a truck on that."