Monday, July 18, 2016

First Piece in a Multi-Pitch Setting

We recently received a request to write about this subject:

Hi AAI,

I follow your climbing blog and really appreciate the humor and knowledge.

I was wondering if you could do a post on clipping the anchor on multi pitch climbs. I have heard a lot of back and forth on the merits of clipping the anchor or just climbing up a few moves and placing a gear. Here is a link to a video where some comments are concerned about the video persons not clipping the anchor. Here is another link to a post from Will Gadd who talks about some pros and cons. I am wonder where guides stand on this issue? Do they never, always or just depends on clipping the anchor?

Ironically, I found a couple of pictures that I took some time ago, thinking that I would eventually do an article on this subject. So, here we go!

To begin with, the concept the questioner eludes to has to do with the idea that clipping the anchor will decrease the likelihood of a factor two fall. In review, a factor two fall is the highest fall factor possible. It essentially means that the climber climbed up above the belayer without placing any gear, and then fell. He falls twice the distance of the rope out before the fall is arrested. In other words, it means that he fell past the belayer and placed tremendous force on the system.

If the concept of fall factors is new to you, check out this article from Petzl.

To decrease the likelihood of a factor two fall, many climbers clip one piece in the anchor, or clip the shelf.

 In this photo, the climber clipped a locking carabiner on the right leg of the anchor.
If one clips a carabiner in this application, it must be a locker. Please note that in
this photo the climber clipped the bolt on the right and then climbed up left. He 
probably should have clipped the bolt on the right.

The argument for clipping a piece to the anchor is twofold. First, the belayer will be pulled up instead of down. And second, a piece in the system will help dissipate some of the force. 

The main problem with clipping a single piece of the anchor is that a fall will double the force on the piece. In other words, you need a counter force equal to the force of the falling climber to arrest him. That counter force doubles the load. If the piece is not adequately placed or the rock is poor, the piece could blow out. 

The fact that a single piece could blow out doesn't mean that this technique is universally inappropriate. Instead, it's possible to clip a single piece if it's absolutely bomb-proof. If there's any possibility that the piece is poor or that the rock is poor, you should avoid clipping the single piece in the anchor.

Some climbers clip the anchor's shelf to put force on more than one piece.
The problem with this is that it puts the arresting piece closer to the belayer.
The anatomy of an anchor may be found, here.

Another -- and perhaps more crucial issue -- has to do with the force a fall puts on the belayer. The belayer could easily be pulled up into the first piece and potentially let go. Additionally, on a lower-angle climb, the belayer could get pulled into the wall and -- in an attempt to protect himself from getting slammed -- let go of the rope and put up his hands.

It should also be noted that clipping into the anchor doesn't completely mitigate the fall factor forces that you're trying to avoid. A fall onto a piece in the shelf or in the anchor will still put massive forces into the system.

So, what to do?

First and foremost, there is no reason to clip the anchor if you are not below it. In other words, if your anchor is at your feet and you clip it, it's not going to do anything. Similarly, there's no reason to clip a piece into the anchor if the climber will just fall onto a ledge anyway.

If the terrain is easy enough to avoid clipping the anchor, most guides will avoid it. However, if there are hard moves directly off the belay station, most guides will clip a carabiner or draw into the anchor. If a guide does clip into the anchor, he usually asks his belayer to unclip the anchor piece once the guide has placed adequate protection higher up on the route. This mitigates the problem of the belayer getting pulled up into the system as the guide gets higher. Though he certainly could get pulled up early in the lead...

Occasionally the terrain above an anchor is run-out or doesn't provide decent protection. If this is the case, it may be appropriate to use the anchor as a much more dynamic first piece. But if it's going to be a dynamic first piece there needs to be more rope in the system, so that there is more stretch in the event of a fall. The only way to do this is to place the belayer significantly (10+ feet) below the anchor. The idea is that if the belayer is significantly below the anchor, the anchor will act more like a normal bomb-proof piece in the lead system and none of the disadvantages listed earlier will apply.

There are two ways to do this:

1) The belayer can clip the rope through the carabiner at the master-point. He can then lower himself down the wall a given distance and then clip the backside of the rope to his belay loop. The advantage to this style is that when the leader gets to the next belay station and he puts the belayer on belay, the belayer can unclip from the clove-hitch and the leader can quickly pull up the slack, decreasing the likelihood of a hard fall.

2) The belayer may also simply clip himself into the anchor long. The problem with this is that his clove-hitch will be high above him and the belayer will have to solo up to it before unclipping it when it's his turn to climb.

While using an anchor as the first piece in a multi-pitch lead is common, one should think through the advantages and disadvantages on every single pitch. This is not a system that should be universally applied to this type of climbing...

--Jason D. Martin

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