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Setting up alpine anchors

In alpine climbing, the anchor (or belay station) can be thought of as a ‘safety zone’ for both securing yourself and belaying your partner. If the anchor is not set up properly, both climbers can suffer a catastrophic fall. Therefore, it is very important to first practice setting up anchors on the ground until you are competent enough to do it fluently and safely. 

Important considerations

  • You should never set up an anchor too late. Make sure that you always have enough rope left.
  • You should assess the situation before starting the anchor setup. There may be a more favorable placement.
  • As a rule, you should always set up an anchor with at least two independent anchor points. A single anchor point should only be used in exceptional cases.
  • You should always keep the anchor in good order so that you can see what is going on.
  • With a lot of practice, you will start to become more efficient and experienced, which will, in turn, bring about more safety when climbing. 

 


Inline anchors vs. equalized anchors

In alpine climbing, some routes are very well protected and others not so well protected. Very well protected routes (also called Plaisir routes) have solid fixed protection (bolts) and at least 2 solid fixed anchor points at the belay station. If the two fixed anchor points are placed close together in a different height (thus lining up in a vertical or diagonal line), you can build an inline anchor, where just one of the point is fully loaded. In this case, apart from clipping the quickdraws to the bolts, you can concentrate fully on the climbing challenges and do not have to place additional protection or anchor points.

In not well protected alpine routes, not only the protection is questionable, but also the anchor points. Here, in addition to the climbing difficulty, you must have the ability to place removable protection such as nuts, cams and slings. In this case, it is important to have the right material with you and to handle it correctly. At the anchor, you then build a so-called equalized anchor with the available, questionable anchor points. Here, you try to distribute the same forces to the anchor points so that they all absorb the same amount of the energy and there is no extension if one point fails. With an inline anchor, on the other hand, the lower bolt takes the entire load, while the upper bolt only serves as a redundancy in case the lower bolt breaks out.

Regardless of the type of anchor, each anchor has a masterpoint used for self-anchoring and partner belaying. 

Masterpoint types:

  • Masterpoint on a webbing sling and bowline on a bight
  • Masterpoint on a locking carabiner
  • Masterpoint on the central knotted loop in static equalization

Inline anchors

In the case of inline anchoring, the anchor is built on two solid fixed points. In Europe, this is the most commonly used type of anchor. In the event of a falling load, a single fixed point takes over the energy of the fall. The other fixed point serves only as a back-up and is connected to the anchor sling in case the lower bolt breaks out. It is also possible to set up an inline anchor on a standard-bolt and another non-standard fixed point.

The following combinations are possible:

  • two bolts (best case)
  • one bolt and one piton
  • one bolt and one removable point of protection (nut, cam, sling/cord)

NOTE: The masterpoint should always be at the lower, solid fixed point. There are, however, exceptions. For example, if the lower bolt of the two bolts no longer makes a safe impression (e.g. loose hanger), you can also use the upper, safe bolt as the masterpoint, which is going to take the whole load. If both bolts are at the same height, use the one pointing in the climbing direction as the central point. In the case of two different anchor points (a bolt and a removable point of protection like a nut or a cam), the central point is also always placed at the lower point. If you are unsure about the quality of the lower point, you should set up an equalized anchor.

 

Inline anchor using a webbing sling:

  1. Take your prepared belay sling (120 cm) with a bowline on a bight and attach it with a locking carabiner to the lower anchor point (the carabiner must be clipped into the knotted loop, from now one called ‘soft eye’).
  2. Clip another locking carabiner into the soft eye.
  3. Use this carabiner to secure yourself with a clove hitch in the soft eye.
  4. Take the end of the webbing sling and clip it into the upper anchor point (bolt or removable gear) with another locking or non-locking carabiner in order to connect the two anchor points.
  5. Set the correct length between the anchor points, either with an overhand knot or with a clove hitch in the upper carabiner. For this, however, the end of the webbing sling must be clipped again into the carabiner as a back-up. In the event of a fall, the energy lower anchor point needs to take the whole load, i.e. the webbing sling should not be tied off too tightly, but also not too loosely at the top.
  6. The slack rope is then pulled up.
  7. Afterwards, the soft eye is used to belay the follower directly off the anchor, either using an adequate an assisted-braking device or an HMS locking carabiner and a munter hitch.

 

Inline anchor using the rope:

Similar principle as above, except that you use the climbing rope instead of the webbing sling and thus need less material. However, this only makes sense if you swap leads.

  1. Clip a locking carabiner into the lower anchor point, which serves as the masterpoint.
  2. Clip another locking carabiner into the masterpoint.
  3. Use this carabiner to secure yourself with a clove hitch.
  4. Clip another locking carabiner into the upper anchor point.
  5. Use this carabiner to tie the rope with another clove hitch so that, in the case of a fall, the load is completely applied to the lower anchor point.
  6. Clip an HMS locking carabiner into the masterpoint to belay the follower using an assisted-braking device or a munter hitch.

Equalized anchors

Equalized anchors are usually built using removable protection or questionable fixed anchor points. In the event of a fall, the same load is distributed to all anchor points, meaning that if one point fails, the other ones are able to share the load.

 

Self-equalization using a webbing sling:

If there are two (even three) removable or questionable fixed points (pitons) in different heights, you can set up the anchor with a webbing sling. The masterpoint is movable, thus self-equalizing, and offers an optimal load distribution.

  1. Clip a locking carabiner into both anchor points.
  2. Clip the webbing sling into the upper carabiner.
  3. At the lower end of the sling, after about 20 cm, tie an overhand knot with both strands. This serves as a limiter knot in case the upper point fails.
  4. Clip the lower loop into the lower carabiner.
  5. Pull the loop down between the lower carabiner and the overhand knot so that the knot is at the same height as the lower carabiner.
  6. Fix the length with another overhand knot in the upper carabiner so that the lower overhand knot remains level with the lower carabiner.
  7. At the lower loop, put a half twist in the top strand, making an X and forming a loop, then clip the loop and the bottom strand together with an HMS locking carabiner (masterpoint). By twisting it in, the webbing sling cannot slip through if a fixed point fails.
  8. Use the lower point to secure yourself with a clove hitch.
  9. Use the masterpoint to belay the follower up.

There are other variants of this kind of anchor. Instead of fixing the length with the upper overhand knot, you can use a clove hitch. This distributes the forces optimally between the two fixed points.

 

Static equalization using a webbing sling:

If there are at least two removable or questionable fixed points, use a webbing sling to equalize all anchor points with an overhand knot. For two anchor points, a 120 cm webbing sling is sufficient. For more than two anchor points, it is recommended to use a 240 cm webbing sling.

  1. Attach a locking carabiner to all fixed points.
  2. Clip the sling into all carabiners.
  3. Pull down the top segments of the sling between the anchor points to achieve an ideal force distribution.
  4. Knot the resulting strands together (4 strands with 2 anchor points or 6 strands with 3 anchor points) with an overhand knot, using the resulting loop as a masterpoint. You can also fix the equalized strands with a clove hitch or a girth hitch in a locking carabiner, which serves then as a masterpoint.
  5. Clip two carabiners into your masterpoint (loop or carabiner). Secure yourself with a clove hitch in one of the carabiners. Use the other carabiner to belay the follower up.

ATTENTION: When setting up a static equalized anchor, you always need to take the direction of the load into account. If the direction of the load changes a little, the whole load comes to a single fixed point.

 

Static equalization using cord:

To save carabiners and connect at least 3 removable or questionable fixed points, you can use not knotted Dyneema/Kevlar cord (6 mm diameter, 5 m length). This method also prevents the carabiners from loading over an edge.

  1. Thread the cord through all anchor points.
  2. Connect the two ends with an overhand bend.
  3. Pull down the top segments of the cord between the anchor points to achieve an ideal force distribution.
  4. Knot the resulting strands together (6 strands with 3 anchor points) with an overhand knot, using the resulting loop as a masterpoint.  You can also fix the equalized strands with a clove hitch or a girth hitch in a locking carabiner, which serves then as a masterpoint.
  5. Clip two carabiners into your masterpoint (loop or carabiner). Secure yourself with a clove hitch in one of the carabiners. Use the other carabiner to belay the follower up.

 

South Tyrolean anchor:

Here too, in order to save material, carabiners are not used in the anchor points. As the name suggests, this type of anchor setup comes from South Tyrol. Unlike the static equalization method, here the masterpoint is not built using a knot which may have to be released in a time-consuming manner. Instead, the South Tyrolean anchor uses a carabiner as a masterpoint, which is tied into the webbing sling with a girth hitch.

  1. Tie the webbing sling (120 cm with two anchor points) to the upper anchor point using a girth hitch.
  2. Thread the webbing sling through the second fixed point.
  3. Take the free end of the sling and the part of the sling between the two anchor points and pull them down. Fix the six strands in the central carabiner using a girth hitch and readjust.
  4. Clip two carabiners into the central carabiner (masterpoint). Secure yourself with a clove hitch in one of the carabiners. Use the other carabiner to belay the follower up.

 

NOTE: If the follower arrives at the anchor and then leads the next pitch, the anchor should also hold upwards in the event of a fall. Therefore, the anchor should be braced downward or sideways with another point or put under tension using your own body weight.


Single point anchors


Climbing commands

  1. When you (leader) have built the anchor and secured yourself, you call out “Off belay!“.
  2. Your rope partner (follower) then calls out “Belay off!“, which means that he/she has released the rope from the belay device. You are no longer on belay and can pull the rope up.
  3. As soon as all the slack in the rope is completely pulled in, the follower calls “That's me!“.
  4. You put the follower on belay (using the masterpoint and the corresponding belay device) and call out the command “On belay!“ so that the follower knows that he/she can start climbing.
  5. The follower then removes the previous anchor, calls out “Climbing!“ and starts ascending. To confirm that everything is ready for your partner to climb, you can reply with “Climb on.“

If there are several rope teams on the wall, it is advisable to call out the name of the rope partner together with the climbing command in order to avoid misunderstandings and unwanted danger.


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