Learn to Climb Trad: Gear Placements and Anchors

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Julie Ellison
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This is part three of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner's Guide

The trickiest—and most important—parts of multi-pitch trad climbing are placing solid gear and building safe anchors fast. There are dozens of ways to do it correctly—as well as horribly wrong. Below are some general rules to follow, but the exact placements and structure of your anchor will depend on the specific situation: crack size and orientation, which pieces you have left to place, direction the route travels on the previous pitch and the next pitch, and the list goes on. Keep in mind the following is a good starting place, but the best teachers are a climbing mentor or certified guide and tons of practice!

All Anchors Should be EARNEST

A simple acronym to make sure your anchors are safe

Equalized

All pieces share the same amount of the load, and if one piece were to fail, no single piece would be shock-loaded, or receive all the force.

Angled correctly

The angles of the slings linking pieces to the master point (where the main locking carabiner is clipped) are each 60° or less.

Redundant

Each piece of the anchor is backed up, so if any one thing fails, the entire anchor will still be solid.

No Extensions

If one piece were to fail, the anchor shouldn’t be set up so a lot of slack is suddenly introduced and the anchor becomes extended.

Solid

Each piece should be independently strong and placed well.

Timely

The whole anchor should be built quickly and efficiently.

"My best advice is to place gear from stances. Look ahead and get a sense of what you’ll be placing and where, then commit 100% and go for it. Don’t just climb along until you get scared and then try to find gear. Plan ahead." —Alex Honnold

Basics of Placement

Bad cam, good cam

Placements Good Bad Cams Trad is Rad

Illustration: Supercorn

Left: The lobes aren’t really cammed at all (undercammed), which means it’s not solid. 

Right: Good placement. Good rock contact, correct amount of camming, and oriented to protect the direction of the fall.

From Bad to Good

Common Anchor Mistakes Corrected

Anchor Good Bad Upward Pull Trad is Rad

Illustration: Supercorn

Left: No protection against an upward pull. These nuts are only placed to protect a downward pull, so if the belayer were to get yanked up by a leader fall, this anchor could easily fail.

Right: Add an upward directional piece, like a cam. This cam will protect against forces that pull upward or out. It’s best as the lowest piece in the anchor.

Anchor Trad is Rad Good Bad Equalization

Illustration: Supercorn

Left: Unequalized anchor. In a fall, most of the force on this anchor would impact the piece in the upper left. If this piece popped, the other pieces would be shock-loaded, and the whole anchor could fail.

Right: Equalize it. Each piece gets roughly the same amount of force when the pull comes straight down. Plus, if one piece fails, the others won't be shock-loaded.

My best advice is to take notes from the clean-climbing pioneers like Doug Robinson and strive to minimize impact. His 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalog manifesto on clean climbing is just as relevant today as it was back then. Trad climbing to me is all about moving over gorgeous stretches of stone, leaving only a bit of chalk and boot rubber behind. —Will Stanhope 

The Anchor Process

Once you reach the belay stance, figure out where you can get three good gear placements, ideally about chest height and close together, but you’ll have to take what you can get. Place each piece and clip them together with a closed-loop cordelette (or a series of slings). Pull the cord between each piece down, stack the loops evenly (angling them toward where the follower will be coming up), and tie a figure eight on a bight or an overhand knot with all the loops. These loops below the knot are the master point where you should clip in (or use the anchor shelf) and set up the auto-blocking belay device.

Knowing exactly what gear you’ll need for each belay stance is ideal—but it rarely happens. Building an anchor with limited pro and placements is like solving a puzzle and a great skill to have. Ask fellow climbers who have done the route and read route descriptions for details, like “save a No. 1 and No. 2 for the anchor,” and keep these in mind as you’re climbing. If there isn’t any concrete info and you have no idea what’s up there, a good rule of thumb is to try and save a small, a medium, and a large cam for the anchor. If you run out of slings and cordelette, you can always build the anchor with the rope. And remember that natural protection like trees (must be at least 5” wide, firmly rooted, and alive!) and rock horns are ideal for slinging as part of an anchor.

To learn more trad climbing skills, see the rest of our series, Learn to Climb Trad: A Complete Beginner's Guide.