Anchors. Our best friend in climbing! A solid, simple and bombproof anchor is what keeps you and your partner safe. An anchor always consists of at least two or three anchor points that are connected via rope or cord material into one “clip in” point – the masterpoint.
The type and length of rope material used for anchors, varies from situation to situation. The most commonly used materials are double shoulder length slings, cordalette or static ropes from 9mm to 10.5mm in diameter for long extended anchors. Her is a more detailed description of basic gear that is used for anchors.
Dbl. shoulder length sling. This is a pre-fabricated and multi-functional nylon loop that is sewn together via a bar tag. The bar tag creates a loop/sling of circa 48 inches length.
These slings are perfect for bolted anchors, since often one sling is enough to quickly build a solid anchor. They also work great on lead where long extensions are needed to clip a piece of protection. When girth hitched through both tie in points of the harness, they create a great PAS (personal anchor system).
Cordalette. A cordalette is a piece of thin and static climbing rope that is mostly used for building anchors. Most cordalettes are either six, seven or eight millimeters in diameter at a length of 15-25 feet.
Cordalettes are useful when more anchor rope length is needed than a double shoulder length sling can offer, or when the master point needs to be extended. This is often the case with trad anchors that consist of at least three pieces. Compared to bolted anchors and due to an added third piece of protection, trad anchors use more rope material in general. Therefore, a cordalette is standard piece of equipment for every climb that involves trad anchors. It is recommended to always keep the cordalette open without a permament knot that ties it into a loop. In this way it is much easier to adjust the loop to the length that is required in a specific anchoring situation. Tying a cordalette into its maximum size loop (permanently) can be a disadvantage when building an anchor where all three pieces are very close together – in this scenario the cordalette offers too much rope which causes the masterpoint to be very low, which eventually creates an awkward belaying position (when directly belaying off the anchor, e.g. Guide’s belay).
Main anchor types. Building an anchor can be quite tricky or simple depending on the given protection and terrain. There are many ways how to build an anchor. With regard to the actual protection part of the anchor, there are 3 main types:
#1 “Sport” anchor or “bolted” anchor. Anchors that are just made up of bolts are called “sport” anchors or “bolted” anchors. This type of anchor often tends to be build quicker as it involves (pre-fixed) bolts only and no natural/trad gear.
A sport anchor always consists of 2 bolts, one piece of rope (sling or cord) material and at least 2 locking carabiners (one for each bolt/hanger). The rope (sling or cord) piece connects both bolts with each other to create a “master point” which is the main point of attachment.
#2 Traditional anchor or “Trad-anchor”. A traditional anchor always consists of at least 3 natural pieces of protection. This can be anything from camming device to stopper, hex, tree or boulder tie-off.
Trad anchors tend to require longer rope material, because placements are often further apart from each other, requiring more rope for equalization (other than bolted anchors, where both bolts are usually very close to each other). The addition of a third piece also adds one leg to the anchor which also requires more rope.
#3 Mixed anchor (combination of 1 and 2). A mixed anchor is made up of one or two natural pieces of protection combined with one bolt. This type is hard to come by since most route developers who place one bolt are also willing to place a second, in order to create a legit and redundant sport anchor
Fundamental anchor characteristics – ERNEST. Regardless of anchor type, there are main attributes that all anchors have to meet. The AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) teaches a great acronym that helps to explain what these characteristics are: ERNEST. Please note that in reference to distributive anchors we added “M”. M stands for “minimal” and respects that these anchors are not a 100% free of extension. With these types, minimal extension is inherent. Only pre-equalized anchors offer absolute no extension when one piece fails (see explanation below).
E – Equalization. Means that all the load (on the anchor) is equally distributed on each piece of protection that is part of the anchor (usually 2 pieces with sport anchors and 3 pieces with trad anchors). On a “Pre-equalized” anchor, equalization goes hand in hand with “direction of pull”. This is the exact direction from where the anchor gets pulled when it is weighted (e.g. climber resting on rope). When building an anchor, it is absolutely crucial to assess the direction of pull. Once determined from where the pull comes, it is important to proceed with tying a master point. The master point is the loop that is created when tying a simple overhand (or figure8) knot into all legs of the anchor all together.
The best technique to tie the master point is to pull all legs of the anchor into the direction of pull, pinch them off (high and while holding the direction of pull) to then tie a knot in the end.
Tying off the master point guarantees that each piece of the anchor is equally loaded in that (one) particular direction of pull. Therefore, with pre-equalized anchors, it is really important to thoroughly assess the exact direction and be willing to make adjustments if needed. If the master point is tied off in the wrong direction of pull, the anchor is not equalized since not all pieces are pulled on when the anchor is weighted.
Check out this short video clip on what happens to the equalization when the direction of pull is wrong
Some anchor models are self-adjusting and therefore accommodate multiple directions of pull at the master point. These anchors are called distributive anchors (explained below).
R – Redundancy. Means that there should always be at least a second or third piece of protection in place to provide at least one back-up for failing pieces. With bolted anchors, 2 bolts (in total) are considered redundant enough = 1 extra redundant piece. With trad anchors, 3 pieces (in total) are considered redundant enough = 2 extra redundant pieces. Redundancy is a fundamental safety concept that should always be applied when anchoring. Never rely on just one anchor point for you and your partner’s safety. Follow the redundancy principles of 2 or 3 pieces and stay safe.
N or M – No or Minimal
E – Extension. No extension refers to “pre-equalized” anchors and means that the master point may not change position if one or several pieces of the anchor fail. No extension avoids “shock loading” the remaining pieces. A master point that extends under load applies huge forces on the remaining pieces of protection which increases the likelihood of the entire anchor failing. Tying off the master point with an overhand or figure8 knot is absolutely necessary to avoid any extension in case of one piece failing. When building an anchor it is always desired to pre-equalize and thus follow “NO EXTENSION”. However, there are some situations where a distributive type of anchor offers advantages.
Minimal extension refers to the widely accepted “distributive” type of anchors (examples below). Distributive anchors have the advantage of self-equalizing themselves in various directions of pull. They automatically distribute the entire weight on each anchor point equally as the direction of pull changes (within a limited range). There are several situations that cause a change in the direction of pull while climbing. Most of these situations involve traversing climbs and the use of directional pieces while top roping or following. For these situations it is a great advantage to use a distributive anchor system because it lowers the risk of having an improperly equalized anchor. The disadvantage is that they fail to be a 100% non-extending.
S – Simple. Means that each anchor design needs to be free of unnecessary steps that are safe but not needed. There are hundreds of ways how to build an anchor and every situation is different. Being fancy and using many different slings and carabiners is mostly really safe, but often not necessary when using the appropriate amount and type of material.
T – Timely. Means that an anchor should be built within a reasonable amount of time. When trained, 2-15 min. is a standard time, depending on complexity of anchor.
Angle between anchor legs. When building an anchor, it is important to guarantee that the angle between all legs is no greater than 60 degrees. Hence, the bolts of bolted anchors are always close to each other (automatically creates an angle of 60 degrees or lower). Especially when building a trad anchor, it is more important to consider angles since individual placements of one anchor may be far apart, automatically creating a wider angle.
Main anchor style. While each anchor has to comply with this rule and the characteristics of ERNEST, there are still many different ways and styles on how to build an anchor. The most common style is represented by pre-equalized anchors. In general we distinguish between 3 styles: pre-equalized anchors, distributive anchors and a mix of both/hybrid. Here is a breakdown of the most common anchor styles:
Pre-equalized anchors. The standard pre-equalized anchor is the most commonly used anchor system. It is easy and fast to tie and more importantly has a distinct master point. Once tied off, pre-equalized anchors do not have a master point extension if there is an anchor leg failure. Pre equalized anchors also have a “shelf” which offers a second clip in point (mostly important when belaying directly off the anchor).
Since equalization is only given in one particular direction, it is really important to pay attention to the direction of pull. Classic problems with these systems are unequal and unpredictable load distribution. The length of each anchor leg and the amount of cord used, (single strand vs. loop) influences the weight distribution due to variable amounts of material elongation (stretch) in each leg. This can cause a situation where the shortest anchor leg receives a significantly higher portion of the entire load, putting more weight onto a single piece in the anchor system.
With “bombproof” anchor points this is not an issue, but with less than ideal placements this could lead to anchor point failure and in the worst case complete anchor failure. It is highly recommended to pull each anchor leg really tight before tying off the master point. In this way most of the stretch has been taken out of the system.
Distributive anchors. Distributive anchors compared to pre-equalized anchors (who only equalize in one direction of pull) automatically equalize in a wide range of directions of pull. On the downside they do minimally extend and consequently shock load the anchor in case of one anchor leg failing. However, extension can be managed with the thoughtful placement of limiting knots. The three most common types of distributive anchors are:
Sliding X: Instead of tying off a master point, one strand of the anchor gets twisted and then clipped together with the other strand. This type is best for equalizing two pieces since a third piece creates too much friction which prevents the master point from being properly equalized.
The Equalette: The equalette is a hybrid anchor that mixes the characteristics of pre-equalized and distributive anchor systems. Two pieces/anchor legs are pre-equalized in one anchor leg which then is equalized with a third piece via sliding X (the third piece creates a third anchor leg that uses double the amount of cord than one of the other pre-equalized legs). It is a great advantage that the equalette always loads at least two pieces at any given time and provides the ability for the master point to slightly move when the direction of pull changes. It is important to carefully tie off the pre-equalized side of the anchor, since this side has uneven leg lengths. Uneven legs quickly affect the overall equalization of all 3 pieces when incorrectly tied off into the wrong direction of pull. The master point of the equalette is much less defined compared to a pre-equalized anchor. This might create a messy master point situation when clipping multiple carabiners to the anchor on a multi pitch climb.
The Quad: The quad is another variation of a distributive anchor system. It guarantees redundancy through tying several isolated strands of cord material together that prevent anchor failure due to clipping individual strands. A quad can be built with two, three and even four anchor points. The quad has very similar load distributing properties at the master point as the equalette. On a sports anchor, each anchor point holds as close to 50-percent of the overall weight as possible, which decreases the chance of anchor point failure. On a multi-pitch route, when dealing with multiple bolted anchors, the quad can be pre-tied and used over and over for each anchor station.