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Master the girth-hitch masterpoint for quick, efficient anchor construction on the wall
If you’ve been paying attention at the crag or to social media, you might have seen a girth hitch used as the masterpoint of a belay anchor—like, tied in the cordelette or sling the masterpoint locker is clipped to. Since the humble girth hitch has been both variously loved and shirked by climbers over the years, this might raise some questions: Where did this technique develop? Is the girth hitch safe to use in this manner? Is it redundant? And does it compromise cord or webbing strength? Below you can find answers to all these questions, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this anchoring technique.
The girth-hitch masterpoint was initially developed in the Dolomites of Italy as a tool to connect numerous anchor components, such as multiple fixed pitons and nuts, plus whatever else the leader had placed. The limestone in the Dolomites is home to numerous well-traveled lines as well as occasionally dubious rock quality. As a result, belay stances accumulate fixed protection. Instead of attempting to sort out which old pin or stopper is best, you just use everything and tie it all off with a girth hitch. In the last several years, this technique has gained traction as a recommended rigging in many European nations, and has since crept into North American climbing. It is simply one of many possible rigging tools, and a useful one to pull out of the bag of tricks from time to time.
How to Build It
|1) To construct a girth-hitch masterpoint, clip or thread cord or a sling through each anchor component and pull down on the rigging material to tension it, as you would when rigging a cordelette anchor.|
|2) Now pass the entire bight of material through a locking carabiner (or a rappel ring for better load distribution).|
|3) Pull the bight over the carabiner, flipping it around the bottom, completely encircling the carabiner.|
|4) Pull down on the carabiner to cinch the cord or sling snug, adjusting the legs of the sling as needed to ensure equalization. Finish by setting your knot with body weight—the girth hitch must be set securely to ensure it will not slip significantly. You can now use the masterpoint carabiner to belay, secure climbers to the anchor, etc.|
Pros of the Girth Hitch
There are a number of cases in which this tool shines compared to other rigging options. This rigging is materially efficient, so it’s handy when you’ve led a long pitch and only have a few slings left at the belay. It can also be used to connect a large number of components, which would otherwise require a bulky masterpoint knot and lots of material. This lack of a bulky knot is also advantageous in winter climbing environments—the girth hitch requires less dexterity to tie, say, than a figure-8 on a bight, making it easier to construct and untie while wearing gloves. Unlike a knotted masterpoint, you can adjust a girth hitch after tying it. Since it’s fast and simple, it can also be useful when you’ve got a stack of pitches to get done before sunset.
Cons of the Girth Hitch: How Much Should We Worry about Slippage?
Rigging with a girth hitch does have some disadvantages. The first is relatively trivial: The technique requires a dedicated masterpoint locker. Fortunately, you can quite literally weigh the value of this technique against that requirement.
Further, while the girth hitch is often regarded as relatively weak, testing has shown it to be plenty strong for the forces in a climbing anchor. More importantly, the girth hitch does not necessarily meet the classic notion of redundancy. If any one leg of the anchor were to be cut by rock or ice fall, or to come unclipped from a carabiner, the remaining material might slip through the masterpoint carabiner under load. Such a slip could hypothetically cause the masterpoint carabiner to slide out from the rigging and cause catastrophic failure, potentially sending you and your partner to the deck, which would be…less than ideal.
However, this is not as serious of a problem as it may initially seem. It helps if you understand how much or how little the girth hitch might slip were one anchor leg to fail. A study I conducted with my colleague Dr. John Sohlconfirms data from prior German and Italian researchers: Slippage in such cases is minimal, often less than one or two inches. Greater slip could occur with a wet or icy sling, but this can be countered by setting the hitch well. Therefore, to minimize slip you must snugly dress the girth hitch, ideally via bodyweight, such as clipping your masterpoint to the anchor and leaning back.
Even if slippage were to occur, there are only a few cases in which it might actually cause a catastrophic failure. Let’s look at three possible scenarios:
- If a piece of protection pulled and slip occurred, the gear would likely act as a stopper knot, jamming against the girth hitch itself, mitigating the hazard.
- If a carabiner on a piece of protection came unclipped, problematic slip could occur if there were only two anchor points. This is why research demonstrating minimal slip is reassuring. This can also be mitigated in some cases by threading the sling or cord directly through the protection (e.g., the stem loop on a cam, the ring on a bolt, or the eye of a piton), eliminating the possibility of a carabiner unclipping. Or, of course, by having more than two anchor points, which is a good practice anyway, when possible.
- Rockfall, icefall, or another sharp object (perhaps a falling lead climber’s ice tool or crampon) could cut the rigging material. However, with the typical inch or two of slip, the cut would have to happen very near the masterpoint to render your anchor ineffective. In that case, since the strands of the anchor are so close together, they could all easily be cut by the same object, meaning that slip is moot, as you have catastrophic failure anyway. The far greater concern is not to build your anchor where it can be hit by falling rock, ice, or lead climbers. If you find yourself without that option, hopefully you’ve got the requisite skill and experience to problem-solve in other ways—choosing a different rigging, relocating the belay, down climbing, simul-climbing to a better stance, bailing, etc.
Real-World Examples of Girth-Hitch Masterpoint Anchors
|Double-Bolt Belay: A compact and economic solution at an anchor with two closely spaced bolts is to use an alpine draw. You simply clip one carabiner to each bolt and girth-hitch a locking carabiner as the masterpoint.|
|Ice-Screw Belay: A very similar rigging works with ice screws as well, but uses a double-length (120 cm) runner instead. The extra length is needed to ensure the ice screws are situated at least 30 cm apart, so they won’t both fail in case of an ice fracture.|
|Threading a Bolted Belay: At a bolted belay with the right hardware, such as rings or large quicklinks, you can get away without clipping any carabiners to the protection points, obviating the risk of unclipping and saving carabiners. Simply girth-hitch one end of a 120 cm sling to the farthest bolt (left photo) and thread the other end of the sling through the closer bolt, making a shape similar to the letter N (middle photo). Then combine all three strands into a girth-hitch masterpoint (right photo).|
|Creating Rigging with a Cordelette: When rigging an anchor on gear—whether cams, stoppers, or even pitons—a cordelette can be very effective, particularly if it hasn’t been tied into a loop. Clip or thread the cord through each component, then tie off the cord short so there’s just enough material to hang beneath the lowest piece of protection. (Keeping the cord short at the lowest piece lets you use a fixed-point belay on the masterpoint for the next pitch.) Lastly, rig the girth hitch.|
Practice, Practice, Practice
As with any new technique, spend time practicing the girth-hitch masterpoint in a safe location before you try it up high, where it matters. Once you’re familiar with the technique, you’ll find great applications for it, whether it’s on your next multi-pitch rock route or ice climb.
Derek DeBruin is an outdoor educator and AMGA Rock Guide based in the Wasatch of northern Utah. Equally pleased to have rock shoes, crampons, or ski boots on his feet, his pursuits in the mountains vary with the season. You can read serial stories about them on Instagram @derekmdebruin.