Anchor Clipping #2 (Now 3)

September 05, 2013
Will Gadd

I just spent a really interesting half hour on the phone with Kirk Mauthner of Basecamp Innovations. For those who don’t know of Kirk, he’s very much a legend among rope rescue and rope system professionals. He has his own drop tower and other solid testing systems, and uses it to resolve questions with good data. Questions such as whether it’s better to clip the leader’s rope into the anchor or not. After speaking with him I think some of my own writing is wrong on this subject, and should be cleaned up, which I’ll do shortly.

The strongest realization I had in talking with Kirk is that clipping the top piece of an anchor makes sense if that piece is super solid AND the belayer is solidly anchored down so they don’t fly either into the top piece or the rock wall and get injured. Doing so will reduce the fall factor enough to be significant. Both conditions have to be met or clipping the top piece likely doesn’t make sense. Very few of the belays I’ve had in the last few years meet this criteria “belayer anchored down, solid piece” scenario (ice, mountaineering), just realistically how it’s been. Clipping the top piece is definitely NOT an “automatic” good thing regardless of experience level, and automatically not clipping the top piece is also potentially not “good.” Drat, it’s still not simple…

Here’s a rough synopsis of what I learned in my conversation with Kirk, in the form of a “decision” tree. I hope he has time to review it, busy guy and I already took a lot of his time working through this question, thanks. Free Red Bull anytime!

Should I clip the leader’s rope into the anchor or not?

-Is the belayer anchored? If the belayer is not “tied down” then the belayer will eject violently toward the anchor and into the rock or belay, which may result in the belayer not being able to hold the falling climber. Not good.

-Is the top piece really solid, like a bolt?  If it’s not really solid then do you want to clip it? The force will be about 160 percent as high on the anchor as if it weren’t clipped, if it blows then you’re back to catching the fall below you, with a compromised anchor. If it is super solid why not do a direct anchor belay off it?

-If the top piece is super solid and the belayer can be anchored down but for whatever reason a direct anchor belay won’t work then clip the top piece, it will overall make a violent fall potentially better for both the leader and the belayer.

If the belayer isn’t anchored down solidly and the top piece isn’t bomber then:

-Recognize that the big problem with catching unanchored high-fall factor falls is when the belayer is “cartwheeled” and loses control of the rope. Snug the belayer up to the anchor, visualize the fall path, reduce the amount the belayer is going to get yanked around. Getting tumbled and slammed and therefore losing control of the rope is the big danger, it must be mitigated.

-Consider lowering the belayer 3M or so down below the anchor and clipping the focal point of the anchor with the leader’s rope. This gets rid of a factor-two fall, and the belayer is unlikely to be yanked that far up unless they are really light compared to the climber.


Other “learnings.”

-I protect traditional gear anchors (mostly nuts) from an upward pull. It’s automatic. But I don’t do it on ice, and often now my rock belays are two or three solid cams, which don’t require the same degree of protection from an upward pull as a few nuts stuck into a vertical crack. On ice I don’t place a screw to “protect” the belay from an upward pull  as ice screws are more or less omnidirectional, and are placed to hold a downward load–an upward load is likely to be relatively low impact. But we’re often not placing gear just to protect the belay, but the BELAYER if we decide to clip the first piece. This is where the big disconnect I see out there in the field lies. Virtually no one is protecting the belayer from being yanked upward and slammed violently yet they are still clipping the top piece in a belay. In my view and through talking with Kirk this is not a good practice.

-Anchoring the belayer does NOT significantly increase the impact force on the belay or gear (running the rope through it does compared to a direct anchor belay, but that’s pulley stuff, not due to the belayer being anchored). This is very counter-intuitive, but Kirk has the data. An anchored belayer does increase the force on the CLIMBER, which is why I thought it would increase the force on the gear the rope ran through. I was wrong. Interestingly long story, but it doesn’t, the peak force comes on the gear before the belayer gets yanked, and having the belayer anchored does not significantly increase the force on the gear. Having an anchored belayer does dramatically increase what Kirk called the “centripetal” force on the climber, which is why you slam the wall super violently if a belayer locks you off a lead fall.

-Anchoring the belayer in multi-pitch trad climbing is likely a very good idea, and near-essential if the first piece is clipped; we’ve really gotten away from even understanding this idea due to anchored ground belays for sport climbing being horrendous, but we’re talking multi-pitch climbing here.

-Many multi-pitch trad routes, especially on “classics,” now have bolted belays. Either do a direct anchor belay off a bolt, or anchor the belayer, but just clipping into the top piece isn’t likely increasing the safety margin if the belayer is going to get launched. Pretty much every belay I’ve done lately has been in the “launch” category, how it is here in the Rockies.

-Lots more, still processing. Thanks very much to Kirk for his time, great conversation.


Here’s the old writing. I think some of it is wrong, just need to clean it up.

It’s been interesting reading people’s thoughts on whether or not to clip the top piece in an anchor. Their thinking has helped me clarify my own. I do think it makes sense to clip the anchor in some cases. But in most cases I don’t think it does make sense, as clipping the anchor does not do what most people who want to clip it seem to think it does. If a safety system does not improve safety then I question why I am using it.

Rather than blindly clipping the anchor and thinking it has improved safety I’d suggest either blindly not clipping the anchor as I suspect the outcome may be better for more people more often, or better yet to really think through what is going to happen when the leader falls before the first solid piece and after it, and balance the likelihood of fall with the amount and type of preparation reasonably possible. I personally and professionally am more likely to use a direct anchor belay more than I am to clip the anchor in any way. So we’re gonna have to think, drat.

Most of the people proposing various strategies have simply not gone out and tested their strategies. I have. Bluntly, until someone experiences the violent forces and speed of high fall-factor falls I just don’t think he or she really has an informed opinion on this topic, but it is a fun mental exercise and this is the internet so carrying on.

Here is when I WILL clip the leader’s rope into the anchor:

-Where the top piece (or focal point) in the anchor is absolutely bomber, and the larger forces (roughly twice the impact force hits the top piece when it’s clipped than if the fall came directly on it) will be OK. But if the top piece/focal point is so bomber then why not belay directly off it? A couple of good big bolts would work, but then why not do a direct anchor belay the primary problem is a potential high load fall? I’m not thrilled about clipping even a big cam or screw so close to the belay device in a high-load fall, the loads are just going to be huge…

-Where the belayer/belay device/belayers hands wouldn’t end up getting yanked violently into the focal point/first piece clipped (lots of factors here, but getting the belay device/hands violently yanked into a carabiner is not generally going to produce good results as far as I can see). Which means the belayer has to be tied down nearly immobile in some way. Which means there will likely be higher forces on the top piece/anchor, as anyone who has taken or caught falls with the belayer tied down will tell you… Guess I won’t do that either.

-When I can use the focal point of the anchor as the first “piece” in very steep terrain (vertical or better) and place myself well below it so I won’t get yarded into the first piece or an obstacle violently. This isn’t how I’ve ever seen anyone clip the anchor, but it does seem like it should work well for sketchy climbing right off the belay without any gear.

-When I’m using a Gri Gri so it won’t matter if the belayer get slammed into a wall feature or whatever, the rope still stop even if the belayer is maimed. Maybe., and Petzl does say this is OK. But one of the best ways to make a Gri-Gri feed is to block the lever down, which is what will happen if the fall pulls the Gri Gri hard into the first piece as will will likely happen with a high-load fall. No, definitely don’t clip the first piece if you’re using a Gri Gri! Unless you’re tied down..

-When the fall will be relatively gentle, the station bomber and well above the belayer, and the belay stance is quite vertical so the belayer won’t be slammed.. Some traverses are like this, seems to be OK in my experience.

So far the arguments for clipping the top piece/focal point are:

-Reduces fall factor: Not by very much (generally 15 percent at best in a short fall, and even less in a longer one, and still a load way above what an ATC will slip at so it doesn’t much matter). Not a strong argument to me at all.

-Makes it easier to catch a fall because the fall will be gentler. See above. Nope. And that’s ignoring likely getting slammed into the wall violently.

-Makes it easier for the belayer to catch the fall as the belay device is in the “right” orientation. Interesting, maybe, maybe not. When you catch a big fall on your belay loop most people yank their hands to the side, not directly down. A big load down on your belay loop is going to pull that ATC well below your hand anyhow, just as a big load pulls it way above your hand. I think there’s a bit of truth in this idea in theory, but in reality things are so violent and fast either way that a good belayer may do well or may not, and the rope is going to slip some anyhow. Best to wear gloves for sure.

The main problems I see with clipping the top piece as a general practice are:

-At most belay stances, especially in blocky terrain such as is common on multi-pitch routes in the Rockies and Alps, the belayer is going to be violently (REALLY violently, like car-crash violently) slammed into the wall, often with really serious potential injuries that may prevent the belayer from functioning well. People tend to raise their hands directly UP when getting slammed into the wall, which makes an ATC non-functional.

-The forces on the top piece will be very high, much higher than if the fall is caught on the belayer’s belay loop. Given the variability of climbing protection from ice screws to cams I don’t like this idea.

-Clipping the top piece takes the climber’s focus away from, “What is going to really happen here if the leader falls?”

-Few climbers remember to unclip the anchor once the leader has solid gear in, which means they will get pulled violently into the rock still…

If clipping the top piece doesn’t greatly reduce fall factor and doesn’t add safety in other ways somehow then why do it? It’s like tying into a rope with a few friends and marching up a hard 50-degree snow slope and saying, “we’re safer now!”

Other ideas? I don’t have a horse in this race and am absolutely open to any ideas I’m missing, be great to continue and learn something new here. I have experimented with vicious falls, I’ve caught a lot of them, and from what I know most of the time clipping the top piece in an anchor will not produce a “safer” outcome. Maybe I have to go make a video of this…