Date: 5th September 2013
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.
-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…
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I’ve had the same thought as you for a long time. Even gotten into discussions with some pretty good climbers about it and most people want to clip the anchor, though I never really agreed. I caught a 15m factor 2 fall last summer with the anchor clipped and i got yanked into the anchor so hard that I could barely breath for the next 5 minutes and thought I had broken my ribs. Put a pretty good dent in my Petzl reverso from where it hit the re-direct biner. Sure made me wonder why I had the anchor clipped…
Something I have done in the past when clipping the anchor that might make sense to reduce the fall factor is actually lower myself way below the anchor. I’ve gone down as far as 5-8m when the anchor was of marginal quality and I also wanted to give myself a larger leash to dodge falling rocks and my partner.
Thx Will. Interesting and certainly plays into my mind set of not clipping “religiously” into the top piece. However, here are some questions on this story: 1) Tying the belayer down, especially on a trad route, does increase the impact on the top piece. Anything that doesn’t give in the belay-chain (eg: using a gri-gri, belaying off the anchor) will do so. My dilemma: what’s worse, increasing impact on the top piece- which could result in a hard and long fall, create a zipper effect in case that top piece rips out- or clipping the rope into the top piece, assuming its strong enough, and possibly have the belayer get sucked into that first piece? The consequences of the latter may be not as bad as pictures as “face planting into the rock” (there most often is more of an upward direction than inward) and as long as the hands stay on the break strand, nothing really happens and the belayer can easily get out of this contrived situation by gently releasing the break to create distance to the 1st clip. 2) Take for example the belayer is belaying with an ATC style device. Should the leader fall before clipping into the first piece, not only would a factor 2 fall occur, it would do so directly onto the body of the belayer and even worse, the ATC would get loaded with one less bend thus resulting dramatically decreased friction making it impossible to hold the rope in place. Should the answer to this problem be: use a gri-gri style device (with above negative implications)? Use a munter? Belaying directly off the anchor (with above implications)? Perhaps this solution may compromise most effectively: use a bight in the rope or sling used to tether the belayer into the anchor, clip the belay device into there…. 3) What are the consequences of a fall in case the leader climber falls before clipping the 1st piece? Some of the possibilities are: factor 2 fall on a limited belay device (as described in 2 above), hitting a ledge. What is the likelihood of a fall? Eg. is the climbing super hard, even cruxy, right off the belay? Loose rock? Wet or verglased rock? The vastly subjective answer to such complex questions is situational dependent and certainly would influence the decision on 1st clip and possibly even the choice of belay device.
PS: To simplify, I used a rock climbing scenario for this- alpine and ice have a much more complex environmental factor, amongst other complexities, than rock climbing.
I am very interested to hear what you and Kirk have to say on my questions. Thanks for your time. Markus Beck (UIAGM mountain guide, Alpine World Ascents)
I’m looking forward to the video where you test various methods of catching factor 2 falls on multipitch anchors – wondering who you’ll convince to volunteer for that one
I made comment in your last post that I think you sorta touched on here… it seems that if there is a risk of a F2 fall at the anchor, that it would be better to let the system (anchor, cordlette, harness and ultimately belay loop) absorb the ~1500lb of force rather than your face into the rock, which is the risk of clipping the top piece in the anchor.
The only way to mitigate the risk is to anchor the belayer down securely with some directional pieces. The problem here is that the majority of climbs around here are 2-bolt anchors, often under ledges or features providing protection from rockfall. No one I know places directional pro at bolted anchors, so that doesn’t leave many valid situations for clipping the top bolt.
Anyways, that’s my personal deduction from your last few posts here. Interesting stuff.
I really like the idea of lowering down 3M ‘ish from the anchor, and using the master point as the first “clip in” for the leader. I’m wondering if you’d feel safe lowering yourself on a clove-hitch into the shelf then to get down there. Maybe I’m just struggling to understand an efficient way to lower yourself down… thoughts?
These are all great comments on a seemingly straght forward issue that really isn’t. All of your points are worth discussion, and consideration here and in the field, Will. I agree with Kirk on his points as well. We did research on ice screws and made some of the same recommendations in our paper(s) http://strikerescue.com/research – so you have our support from south of the border ! Much of this comes from practical experience over years of climbing. Many accidents happened because history has a way of repeating itself. We will never know who you have directly affected by writing about this on your blog, but rest assurred, I’m sure it’s saved someone and the information will continue to get disseminated.
Good stuff amigo !
To summarize what I can understand from all this, if a climber decides NOT to clip the anchor, there are some different options
1-Belay directly from the anchor, and deal with the shortcoming of whatever belay system you choose (Munter/ATC/Gri Gri and so on). Belaying a leader in this way is unfamiliar to me, so I would be hesitant to try it, but it seems straightforward enough, and with some practice I might get comfortable with it. I will definitely practice.
2-Snug yourself as close to the anchor as possible to limit the amount you will be pulled into the wall. It seems like this would really suck in a fall anyway, and would also be awkward to belay. Is this really a viable option?
3-Lower yourself down from the anchor, and possibly clip the master point. This seems like a good option when possible. Your weight will counteract (a little) the upward pull, and the forces will be distributed through the master point instead of a single piece.
4-As Markus Beck suggests above, make a bight in the rope connecting you to the wall, or use some kind of additional sling, and belay from that point. This is an interesting option, and something I have never head of or thought of before. How would that work? The belay device would get sucked up or down in a fall, but the belayer would have some measure of freedom. I wonder how they would be able to feed rope effectively with the device extended, and how they would be able to control a fall. I like the idea. This seems like something to test.
Finally, I guess the most important thing is to be aware of what you are doing and think everything through carefully. I don’t know about other climbers, but I certainly can not pretend that I am always climbing in some zen state, able to objectively and patiently consider all options and possibilities. More likely, I’m stuck in one state of mind, try something, change it, have some doubts, and so on…usually feeling various pressures to keep moving, to not screw up, and so on. Maybe this is just me, but I think that’s probably a realistic scenario for many climbers. It’s probably unrealistic to expect climbers to run through all these options in every scenario. I think all we can hope for is to get the big things right most of the time.
Therefore, as several people have said, maybe the most important thing to remember (something we can all remember) is that those first moves from a belay are really important, and the belayer has to be paying full attention until a few good pieces go in.
Thanks everybody for all the insight and ideas.
It seems to me as recommended by a colleague Dave Coley that a solution is where possible to climb beyond the belay stance and place a piece of gear then climb back down to the belay stance to place the belay.
This piece you have already placed is the next pitches first piece of gear and significantly lowers the Fall Factor. It also means that the entire climb the forces will be upwards in the event of a fall so you should be able to protect yourself properly.
There are some great comments on here from people I really respect, thanks!
A few quick notes.
Markus, it’s counter-intuitive for sure, but anchoring the belayer down in multi-pitch climbing does not greatly increase the force on the gear compared to the belayer flying into the air. I cleaned that section of this piece up, see above and let me know if it’s clear, thanks. Clipping the top piece does increase the force by about 160 percent, but that’s the same whether the belayer is anchored or not.
Belaying the leader off a bight in the rope above the belayer is likely a really bad idea–it’s almost impossible to pull “up” on the braking strand enough to create good friction on the device when the device is at all above waist level and the leader falls below the device. Remember that in a factor two fall the climber goes by the belay, so you have to pull “up” on the brake strand as the leader is now below the belayer…. You’re going to get a lot more friction with the belay device on the belayer’s belay loop. That’s why it’s important in a direct anchor belay with an ATC to redirect the brake strand above the belay device until the leader has the first solid piece clipped.
Tom, a fair number of people have been able to catch factor two falls on an ATC, not sure what’s up with that old Petzl video. I think I’m going to have to do a new video of all of this, maybe at Kirk’s tower.
Mark, true, interesting idea I have never thought of. And thanks Mr. Beverely, hope to see you up here this fall!
Final thought on this is that belays aren’t failing radically every day, so this is a lot of thinking about a problem that isn’t mostly critical. But it will be critical when it does occur, and we should be thinking about fall potential on the belay always. My concern is teaching people that something is “always” a good idea, when it pretty clearly isn’t, or is at least not the best possible solution to mitigate a perceived danger.
the main problem IMO is that many climbers cant or arent trained to stop a fall when the device flips without a redirect …
heres a story of a factor 2 fall where the belayer couldnt stop the rope and had to step on it
there have been issues with climbers not being able to control a lower in such a manner, a high factor fall would be quite a challenge for them
the other thing is that, when lowering off the harness without a redirect, if you belay off your belay loop you can get the “squishy balls” syndrome due to the weight of yr climber pulling the belay loop, which pulls against yr tie ins, which then pulls against the anchors … the brits avoid this by belaying off the rope tie in point as per the BMC and UKClimbing article …
thats with body weight … in a high factor fall i can easily imagine much greater testicular pain if the harness is positioned the wrong way
One thing that becomes very clear from this discussion is that clipping the top piece of the anchor, should you decide to do it, isn’t a substitute for putting in another runner as soon as possible after leaving the belay station. And irrespective of whether your first runner is part of the anchor or a separate piece, it sounds like it would a good idea to use a shock absorber sling where feasible.
I’ve just been climbing one piece of gear higher past the anchor on lead and then getting lowered back down to the anchor before top roping the second climber up. Then you have a nice redirect for the top rope and the second climber has their first bolt/gear clipped for the next pitch, pretty much eliminating the chance of putting a huge load on the anchor.
Just be very clear with your belayer that you are going to pass the anchor. I had a miss communication last weekend and unknowingly freesoloed to the first bolt on the second pitch. I was getting a bit of an Elvis leg going on some 5.10c crux moves and asked him to watch me. That’s when he said, “Are you lead climbing right now?”. Needless to say I nearly shit myself.
Great article and coming from the UK, where belays aren’t bolted I tend to not clip the top piece of the belay, instead try to get an early runner, even if it just above the top piece to protect from a factor two fall.
I have been to several accidents, ear all with very serious outcomes from factor two falls. The worse was some who fell 70ft up a route, the top anchor held long enough to lift all the other gear out and then the top piece ripped resulting in a 100ft+ factor two fall. It was messy.
In the UK we generally belay off the rope loop/belay loop, in a semi-direct way as our weight acts as a shock absorber for the belay. This has one great effect on factor two falls that weren’t brought up in you post. When someone is leading the way we lock the rope off in down, so as the leader heads off our reaction is to lock off down.
Chatting to all the belayers who have held a factor two fall, I think is is interesting as panic sewts in quick. First of all the rope out very quickly piles up at there feet, unable take it in quick enough the belayer panics. Some have grabbed the live rope and tried to stop a fall that way others have kept hold of the dead rope.Either way what happens next usually results in sever rope burns to the belayers hands.
If there is no runner placed in the pitch and the leader falls past the belay, then locking off down is no longer effective. If belaying off the belay loop then the leader is suddenly following, and to lock off someone following a pitch you need to lock off up and towards the belay. So the belayer whose instinct is to lock of down has no friction from the device. Hence severe rope burns. I two of the case I attended the belayers needed skin grafts.
I just though I’d add this to your knowledgable article as it is something that is hard to mimic in the controlled setting of a testing environment.
All the best
So… I got a question and some remarks. Some misunderstandings may be cause by my missing skillset in english, bear with me.
When you say anchored do you mean anchored to the belay with a sling/rope/etc. or do you mean anchored to the bottom of e.g. a ledge like a boat anchored to the sea floor? The second option would be new to me but I guess I would hold the belayer in place if the force pulled him up.
Now for the remarks.
I always belay with an atc from the belay loop and I always clip the upper piece in a belay. I could not imagine holding a fall without that extra turn that helps me get the friction I need to hold such a fall.
I also use the munter if the terrain/rock/protection unfit for anything else. E.g. I belay from a ledge and the possibilty that my partner may fall past me is given. I hope he get something in soon and till than I try to brace myself in some rock formation. I know it’s old school, the rope is redundant till the first piece is in and it is by no means a good solution.
Belaying from the anchor is something I do once every blue moon. Mostly because till now I didn’t get a bloody nose huging the belay station (-;.
I’d also like to hear your opinion on the Edelrid MegaJul. It is a bit hard to get used to but works like an atc guide and has the benefit of locking of in case of a fall. It wouldn’t solve the issue of getting pulled torward the rock but it would strongly help if you let go of the rope in that moment.
Lots of good info here, classic example of doing things that seem right when it isn’t evidence based. Definitely second the idea that having the anchor clipped makes it seem safer somehow since you already have a “piece” in when infact you’ve probably just made things worse. As for lowering out from the belay a few meters I like lower myself out from a munter clipped the shelves. Then clove into a locker once you’re down far enough. This is pretty quick and you can belay yourself back up to the anchor if neccessary.
Is there any reason the device shouldn’t go on the top piece with a vertical orientation (with the entire rig turned upside down from how it’s shown in that video)? Once the issue of a fall onto the belay is eliminated, it would seem to me that having the device on top in case of a fall would prevent a large amount of shock load should the bottom piece blow, and if the spacing or cord length is thoughtfully adjusted, the carabiner on the bottom anchor point could even be pre-rotated upward to take load in that direction without having to flip. Does that make sense? Hard to explain without a picture.
In the case of ice screws with two holes or large bolt hangers, the belayer could be cloved into both the top piece and the bottom piece directly with the rope in an order/orientation that makes sense for downward pull even while the belay is oriented for an upward pull.
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