The anchor is the “safe haven” for a rope team. It should hold during any potential fall – whether it’s the lead climber or the follower. It therefore plays a central role in alpine climbing.
At first glance, anchor building appears quite complex: the climber must use different systems depending upon the quality of the anchor and the belay method. The climber typically chooses between either a series connection or a distribution of load. In other regions, different anchors such as the South Tyrolean method are widespread. The reasons for these different systems are the various circumstances, such as the number and quality of anchors, the pulling direction, the position in relation to each other as well as the belay methods.
Irrespective of the system that is used, every anchor has a central point where the personal anchor and the partner’s belay meet. It is important that this is properly and clearly arranged so that the climber can work quickly and effectively. If you understand the rules, you can build anchors safely, quickly and clearly!
Essentially, there are two types of anchors: a series connection or a distribution of load. The classic series connection is used for solid anchors. Here one anchor (bolt) is put under strain, while the second, unburdened anchor serves as a redundancy. This means that there is a backup for the first anchor if the first one should break. The series connection can be set up with a climbing robe or a pre-prepared belay sling with a bowline on a bight (double bight). This system is for use exclusively with good anchors.
A distribution of load is used for questionable anchors, such as normal pitons or traditional climbing equipment. In this scenario a single anchor should not solely be put under strain, and instead the acting forces should be distributed across all anchors. If an anchor breaks, the others take the strain without jolting. NOTE: Always set up a distribution of load with questionable anchors!
If an anchor has sufficient sturdiness in all directions, a belay can be set up at that point. In addition to standard bolts, a belay with only one anchor can be set up on a rocky knoll, a block, an arm-thick tunnel or a thick tree.
If there is a risk of the anchor failing as a result of an upward shift (e.g. in the case of a rocky knoll belay), the anchor must be braced. If this is not possible, in exceptional circumstances it is to be braced with the belayer’s bodyweight. In this case, the belay is set up at the anchor using the body and a dummy runner. The dummy runner will prevent a falling individual from falling onto the belayer: It provides protection that – in the event of a belay fall – ensures that the fall tension in the belay device will act upwards and the belayer can stop the fall.
Trees can be used as a belay. Here a sling is wrapped around a tree with a girth hitch so that it cannot move upwards. A belay tree should still be green, meaning it has not died and is not rotten. The diameter of the tree should be at least as thick as a leg.
To be able to make a tunnel belay, the tunnel should be at least as thick as an arm at its weakest point and should not have any cracks. Here the climber threads a sling through the tunnel. A girth hitch is not used, as this would automatically move to the narrowest, and therefore least sturdy, point of the tunnel. Instead the climber threads a sling around the outcrop so that the load is applied to its base – the most solid point of the tunnel.
In alpine terrain, rocky knolls are often used for belaying. Beware: If the sling can be lifted upwards or sideways in the event that the lead climber falls, the central point must be braced. If this is not possible, it must be braced with the belayer’s bodyweight and a dummy runner used.
If you are climbing on a route where belays are set up with two solid bolts each, a series connection is to be used. If the climbers alternate who takes the lead, the belay can also be set up with a climbing rope instead of a belay sling: To do so, the climber should hook a carabiner onto both anchors, fasten him/herself with a clove hitch to the lower anchor – which also serves as the central point – and then use another clove hitch to attach the rope to the second carabiner.
If it is unclear who the lead climber is, the lead climber is fixed or there is a three-person rope team, the belay is set up using a belay sling.
The sling’s bowline serves as the central point at the lower anchor. This is where the climber protects him or herself. Next, the upper anchor is shifted to and the sling is shortened accordingly with an over hand knot or clove hitch.
A series connection can also be applied at two anchors of unequal quality if one solid anchor is available. Along with the solid anchor, normal pitons, nuts or camming devices can be used for the second anchor.
The series connection can be set up either with a rope (if the climbers alternate who takes the lead) or with a belay sling. Here it is important that the central point is always positioned at the lower of the two anchors – regardless of the quality.
If you are unsure about the quality of the “solid” anchor, you should use a distribution of load!
NOTE: The central point is always clipped onto the lower anchor. If both anchors are at equal height, then the central point is always at the anchor pointing in climbing direction!
If there are two removable points or only two questionable anchors, the anchor should be improved. If that isn’t possible and no other anchor is available, the climber must then set up a distribution of load. The force is distributed across both anchors in the belay. In the event of a fall, the force is distributed as equally as possible across both anchors and if an anchor breaks there will be no additional force added to the system.
For two gear or questionable anchors (e.g. normal pitons), the climber clips a sufficiently long sling onto the upper and lower anchor for the distribution of load. Then he/she clips on a central point carabiner using a clove hitch or a girth hitch knot.
The climber does not use any carabiners at the anchors when setting up a South Tyrolean anchor. Instead, the anchor is set up using a sewn sling or an open Kevlar or Dyneema cord, so that the climber can connect it quickly and easily to multiple anchors. To avoid time-intensive tying and untying of knots, the central point carabiner is attached to the sling using a girth hitch knot.
If an open Kevlar or Dyneema cord is used, this is tied with a simple over hand knot after threading.
For a belay with several questionable anchors, such as on normal pitons, nuts or camming devices, the load must be distributed. All anchors are to be connected to each other with a long Dyneema or Kevlar cord (5.5mm, 6–7m) or a long, sewn Dyneema sling (2.5m). Open Kevlar or Dyneema cords are tied with an over hand knot. The central point is then attached to a locking carabiner with a girth hitch knot.
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