Trad Climbing Master the art of anchor placement

Mastering the “[1]art” of protecting yourself.

♦Traditional Climbing, Placing Protection, and Lead Climbing Skills

Thinking about placing your own pro while climbing, or on the sharp end of the rope?  I highly recommend training.  Books, videos and such are good, but cannot hope to replace a skilled instructor; they fill in the large void books, videos and such cannot cover.

I took this picture while climbing in Switzerland.  Mammut sponsored a Dealer Training Seminar.   We would train in the morning at their factory, and climb in the afternoon.

Some of you may be familiar with Becky’s Wall, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Salt Lake City, Utah?   I haven’t been up it for a while, but I have enjoyed climbing the route many times.  The previous day someone placed a stopper and something happen, and he fell.  It was a fatal fall.   Maybe he did not understand the finer details of placing pro.

Some climbers place pro with the idea of “falling on it,” not thinking about making sure it stays in place.  Making sure it stays in place is much more important than falling an extra foot or two.  Early in my climbing career I watched some of my pro get lifted out by rope drag, but I did not fall.  Rope drag, and[2]vectors cause quite a few anchors to dislodge, and in a few cases they are followed by a sickening “thump!”

In fact, I have watched two climbers ground out.  I was belaying one of them.  The both lived, Vectors caused anchors to fail during fall, was the reason.  Trad climbing is great, but you and your belayer need to be sharp.

I believe my belayer saved my butt.  He had been trained well and he cared about being there.  He understood the real picture, not the imagined one that some have.   He caught a long leader fall that I took.   This relationship is critical.  I actually stopped climbing for about a year because I looked down while on lead and my belayer was in la la land.

I would not have risked the long fall that I took, had I had an average belayer.  I had climbed Lost Arrow with him, and he attended a bunch of my classes.  I have a very high respect for him.  That bond helps you climb better and it can create a magic synergy.    Synergies make everything better.

Having rope drag lift anchors out is common on lower part of Becky’s Wall.   This is because it starts off at maybe 50° and you climb directly over the anchor, which lends itself to lots of rope drag of the worse kind.   I am guessing he climbed passed his pro, and his short slinged pro, or no sling, allowed rope drag to lift the stopper out of crack.  Then he tried to down climb and replace it, or tried to climb higher to another place where he could get a piece in.   His pro probably slid down the rope to his belayer.  I know I have joked about that when it has happened to me, “At least you won’t have to clean it.”    Then he slipped, and while falling, he caught a foot, did a somersault and landed on his head.

Here’s a belay hero story.  Click this link.

I compare learning to climb, to learning to fly a plane.  When I learned to fly, I watched my learning progress from the beginning, to becoming a Recreational Pilot, to a Private Pilot, to getting a High Performance Rating.  There is so much to learn it is easy to overlook something, or misunderstand it.  That happened to me one while flying that is another story.  While learning to climb, I have had a few close calls, but I gues that is to be expected if you have much experience.

“School teaches you the rules, experience teaches you the exceptions.”

I noticed that Commercial Airlines are one of the safest ways a person can travel, statistically speaking, per mile traveled.  Why, quality of maintenance and training.   Unfortunately, when something goes wrong it can be rather dramatic, as it is in climbing – people take notice or in other things.

What stands out in my mind is the progression chain, and that training is a key factor.  It helps to avoid mistakes.  While learning to climb I was not able to attend formal training, and made more mistakes than I needed to; some almost ended my career.  Why didn’t it?  Either I was conservative enough, got lucky, or had some divine intervention.  Regardless, I have learned a lot and hope to pass it on.

Funny thing (sort-of), I taught myself to climb.  I had no idea of what was possible, and common, and what was not.  So when I started ice climbing I did not know people didn’t just free climb up the ice, without putting in pro.  Ice screws were for belaying. . .  Using an ice axe in one hand and an ice hammer in the other seemed like protection enough.  When it came to rock climbing it was a different story.  My first time up Becky’s Wall, I aid climbed most of it.  It was later when I saw people free roped climbing it, that I started pushing protected leads, while free climbing rock..   I guess that is what you might call a paradigm shift.   I included an ice climbing clip just in case you are interested.

May I share something I teach and recommend?  I suggest “Placing anchors to stay in place, not to fall on.”  Beginning climbers often place pro to fall on, they want their fall, if it happens, to be short, and they fail to consider other factors.  I like to teach, “place anchors to stay put, not to fall on . . .”  A longer sling can help combat rope drag lift outs, or in some cases an opposed anchor is a good idea.  Even active camming unit need attention.

It has been my observation that many climbers have no formal training from a skilled instructor.  Is it true?  I don’t know.  I am not saying they can’t make very difficult free moves in the gym, or even on the rock.  What I am saying is they should be able to make difficult moves, and have technical expertise in placing anchors and lead skills as well.

Active camming units have helped to some degree, but even they can be upset by rope drag, or resultant forces and angles of force.  I have watched two people fall and pull their pro, and hit the ground in front of me.  The first guy, we figured he was [3]dead.  We stuffed him in the back of a hatchback and drove him to the hospital. After “I watched” a second person fall and pull their anchors and hit the ground in front of me, I decided to write an article about the use of pro.  With bolts it is not as critical, but I have seen and purposely pulled out a number poorly placed bolts.

Understanding principles allows us to engineer, or build, predictable outcomes.  It is the difference between the technician and the master.The biggest thing that I seen get people in trouble (me too) ar “resultant forces and resultant angles of force (**Vectors).”   It is a subject that is poorly covered by most publications.

In the early 2000’s I gave a presentation at the International Technical Rescue Symposium, regarding these, which was well received, and I have devoted an entire chapter to these resultants in my upcoming book, “Ropes, Pulleys, Rigging Systems, and Avoiding Dangerous Resultants.” Anyway, if you are going to trad climb, it is a good idea to cover your bases.  Training is a good investment.

Here’s the article on the art of protection, and another related one, that may be of interest. I wrote them a while back, but they still apply, because they are principle based.

“Ways, Means, Methods, and Techniques change, Principles never do.”

It is a two part article covering things that, at the time, was not in many, if any, books.  Much of it still isn’t.


[1] An art, “The art is in the striving; the goal is not ultimately reached and left behind.”

[2] Vector is in our case, a noun, for naming an angle of force.  It is a common term in mathematics.  It is a quantity possessing both magnitude (force) and direction (angle), represented by an arrow the direction of which indicates the direction of the quantity and the length of which is proportional to the magnitude.

[3] This story even got a write up in a few climbing guide books including the Ruckman brother’s books Wasatch Climbing and American Fork Canyon Rock Climbing