Building Rock Climbing Anchors: 6 Beginner Problems

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My Anchors students often ask, "Will we be able to safely climb on our own after our course?" A logical question, but a tough one to answer. While most students walk away from a one-day rock climbing anchors course with enough skills to build anchors well sometimes, a comprehensive anchor building curriculum is simply too broad to fully address in one day. Not knowing what situations students will run into tomorrow, or what their judgment is like, it's really difficult to say, "Yes, you are ready." But knowing most students are going to strike out on their own regardless, I owe them a better answer than, "No, you need more practice." In Anchors I, we address foundational concepts like knot tying, placing primary protection, and building systems to create redundant, equalized anchors. These core concepts are involved in ALL climbing anchors, so this groundwork is critical. Once students understand these concepts and get some practice applying them, they are ready to build their first anchors. We typically have time in class for everyone to build 2-3 anchors, which is usually enough to start grasping the big picture and begin building confidence that this is NOT rocket science but rather a careful application of simple concepts. At the same time, we don't have enough time in one day to master the individual elements, like placing all the different kinds of protection or tricks for adjusting rigging without messing up the entire anchor. As we wrap up class, I generally tell students to expect the following common challenges when they start building rock climbing anchors on their own.

1. Visualizing Potential Protection

When I was first learning how to build anchors, I had a great climbing mentor who consistently embarrassed me with his anchor skills. I would finish an anchor after 90 minutes of frustration and turmoil and ask him to look at it. And he would kindly say, "Yeah, this is pretty good Nick. But you also could do something like this..." And he would deftly place a nut here, a hex there, and sling an *obvious* horn in about two minutes, yielding a more elegant solution. His efficiency stemmed from him ability to quickly visualize his needs and available options, and I endeavored to someday achieve such prowess.

Experienced anchor builders are able to quickly scan an area and see efficient, elegant protection potential before they even touch their gear, saving themselves time and trouble. This visualization is probably the single most helpful skill in building rock climbing anchors, but one that often develops slowly, with practice. The more often you build anchors, the more quickly you will identify the "obvious" hex crack or #5 nut slot... it just takes time.

2. Knowing Your Rack

As you gain tenure making primary placements, you get to know the shapes and sizes of your gear, as well as the character of the rock you are working with. Eventually, you will know which piece fits a given placement with maybe 80% accuracy. Gain ground here by guessing which piece will fit a given crack before you try it; the process of guessing and then testing (versus holding the entire size range in your hands and applying liberally) will sharpen your familiarity.

3. Consistently Placing Bomber Primary Protection
Alli looks for a good nut placement while building rock climbing anchors.
Alli looks for a good nut placement while building rock climbing anchors.

As John Long stresses in Climbing Anchors, fancy anchor systems are worthless if the primary placements that support them are not sound. The trouble for most beginners is deciding what is sound and what is not. Walk along the cliff tops at Devils Lake any weekend afternoon, and you'll see many examples of questionable primary placements... nuts with poor surface contact, cams placed with too little compression, webbing slung around rocks that move easily. Climbers don't make these placements because they want to experience anchor failure, they do so because they either don't know how to properly evaluate their work, or they simply don't take the time to. And 99% of the time, things work out okay, because these anchors have a lot of redundancy built in and the loads they hold don't test them much. But impending doom is really not the reason to make quality primary placements... there are even better reasons:

• Learning to place bomber protection is A+ training for trad leading. As the saying goes, practice does not make perfect... only perfect practice makes perfect. Learn how to do things right with your top rope set ups, and you'll be on the fast (and safe) track when you start leading. • Awesome anchor work wins you respect with other knowledgable climbers. These are the folks you want to meet, share ropes with, and learn from. • There's great comfort in knowing your anchor can hold a truck.

4. Identifying a Good Master Point (The First Time)

Deciding exactly where I want my master point is the first thing I do when building a rock climbing anchor, as every other decision follows from that one. This skill is trickier than it might seem though, and I often see students choose difficult master points when a much easier one might be 6-24" away. Obviously, you can't change the location of the climb, but it helps if you choose master points where:

• your static line or webbing falls into a natural niche or groove that will help it stay put • a natural protrusion allows you to wrap your static line or webbing around it, creating a snug and stable web to hold your master point steady • the master point sits 3" - 12" below the edge, where you can easily manipulate and weight it

5. Letting Go of Problem Cracks/Placements

Sometimes I get attached to a certain crack, deciding it MUST hold a good placement, and waste lots of time trying to fit a piece where it just does not work. I see students do this all the time, hell-bent on using a certain crack when there are much better opportunities right next door. The sooner you realize a certain placement is taking way too much time and effort and walk away from it, the better off you are.

6. Avoiding Stuck Protection

Students often get gear temporarily stuck in class, which is natural for anyone beginning to experiment with gear placements. Learning how to efficiently remove stuck gear, and how to avoid sticking gear in the first place, is a skill everyone learns with time. A few pointers to ease the learning curve:

• Keep your gear shallow. When your gear gets too deeply into a crack, it becomes difficult to see and manipulate. While sometimes "going deep" is unavoidable, there is often a better placement closer to daylight. • Move slowly. The surfaces of most cracks have a high degree of subtle variability. When looking for that perfect spot, especially when the fit is tight, jiggle your gear around slowly and subtly, so you don't stick yourself in a dead-end. • When a piece does get stuck, note the way the piece came into its placement and how you will reverse the placement to get it out. Most often, reversing the moves is the fastest, easiest way to free your gear.

GOOD FEEDBACK IS KEY

Like most sophisticated skills, building rock climbing anchors involves a skill set best learned through practice, over time, with regular feedback from experienced mentors. The feedback piece is important to make sure mistakes are identified and corrected before they are cemented in your practice. You can get feedback from many sources, including:

  • A qualified instructor. Of course.
  • More experienced climbing friends. If you're lucky enough to climb with a group of tenured climbers, they will probably be happy to examine and critique your anchor. If you don't have climber friends, be outgoing and friendly at the crags and you soon will.
  • Fellow climbers setting anchors nearby. If someone is setting a route next to yours, ask them to take a look at your work. Even when I'm guiding, I will usually look at an anchor if someone asks me to. Every climber out there was once in the same position you are, looking for an objective critique or some reassurance of their work. Reach out and ask for help, and you'll probably get some good feedback.
  • A friend who is learning with you. While your co-learning friends may have little "expertise," two heads are usually better than one. Building rock climbing anchors is much better done in groups than alone, as you inherently have others to critique and question your work, and vice versa.
  • Books and internet resources. Reading before and during your anchor training helps you connect with objective, peer-reviewed information sources to get perspective on the techniques you're learning from instructors and friends.

Smart climbers diversify their approach by taking advantage of ALL the above resources.

What's your experience with anchor building? Have you run into any (or all) of the above problems? If you have something good I didn't mention, please add comment and I'll add to the list. Thanks!