Anchor Clipping, Direct Anchor Belays (edited Sept 4). Also some newer thought here thanks to Kirk Mauthner at Basecamp Innovations.
The bottom line is this: I’ve played with factor-two falls onto anchors a couple of times with the top piece clipped and not, as have some of my friends and colleagues. It’s just not a good thing–don’t fall off before your piece, and get a good piece ASAP off the belay!
Whenever I use a “safety” system I ask what that system is supposed to do, and how well it will do what I want it to do, and what the limitations are. A reserve parachute on a paraglider works, but not below a certain altitude. It’s still safer to fly with one than not, but you have to understand it’s limitations, and not just blindly assume it will add safety. A climbing rope generally adds safety to climbing; but tie five people onto a climbing rope with no anchors between them in steep terrain and it’s NOT safer; the illusion of safety is there because there is a rope, but in reality if one person falls everyone may die, not just one. I often see novice mountaineers on steep snow roped together; they have just added a lot of danger to the equation but feel “safer.” Their safety system will not do what they expect, and is in fact worse because they feel “safer” and won’t take the care the situation warrants. In the same way clipping the top piece in an anchor often falls into the same, “I’m being safer because I’ve done something” when in fact I think it’s often more dangerous than not clipping the top piece.
Many leaders in multi-pitch climbing like to clip their rope (s) into the top piece in an anchor until they have the first piece or bolt of the pitch clipped. I’ve written about this tactic before, but more and more I’m seeing it taught as an “always do this, it’s safer” system when in fact it often doesn’t add any safety, and may in fact add considerable danger for both the leader and the belayer. Clipping the top piece may in fact also sometimes be a really good idea, but to think it’s a good idea “all the time” is, to me, seriously flawed thinking.
The main idea behind clipping the leader’s rope through the anchor as a first “piece” is to protect the belay from a factor two fall. A factor two fall, as most climber already know, is when the leader falls off above the belay with no gear in and impacts the rope/belay with a very high force. Ropes dissipate energy forces over time; with a factor-two fall the total fall is twice the distance the climber/rope is above the belay, with only half that amount of rope in the system to absorb the fall. Vicious. I’ve caught two “real world” factor two falls over the years, it’s a memorable event–big forces, very violent, fast. It’s definitely a “don’t do this” sorta situation, and on the surface it seems to make sense to clip the top piece in an anchor to reduce the impact force. But it’s often like using a rope with no gear in–nice idea, but does it add safety for anyone?
The theory is that by clipping the top piece there will be more rope in the system, and the leader won’t take a true factor two fall. The “extra” rope between the belay device and the first piece will lower the force. But if you look at the numbers this amount of rope will do very little; if the climber is 2M above the belay and falls the total fall will be 4M (factor two, 4M fall divided by 2M of rope=2). If the top piece is 30cm above the belayer’s device and the belayer was tied in place perfectly the total rope in the system would be 2.3M, and the fall still 4M, and the fall factor is still a very, very high 1.74. But most belayers aren’t tied perfectly in place, and will in fact accelerate violently toward the wall( and again, you have to actually try this with real-life violent falls, the forces are crazy high), the belayer’s hand and then the belay device will hit the ‘biner the rope goes through, and now you’re back to a factor two or very close to it in any case. If the belayer manages to hold onto the rope (if…). Some energy will be dissipated by slamming the belayer into the wall. Not much is really done to reduce the fall factor even in a “perfect” scenario. This will get very technical very fast but with a fall factor of 2 or 1.74 the actual impact force is likely to be about the same anyhow (rope construction limits peak loads for this very reason, our bodies break when subject to above about 8kN of force, and a belay device slips at somewhere between 3-4kN, so the peak force isn’t going to be what’s intuitively expected..).
But here are some things I’m thinking about:
-When the leader falls with the top piece clipped the belayer is likely to be accelerated extremely violently toward the wall, especially in lower-angled terrain where the belayer stands horizontally away from the anchor. Most people who are about to face-plant at a high rate of speed put their hands up. Most belay plates (ATC, etc), don’t work well with both hands at shoulder height. Catching a fall with the first piece clipped is like getting power-slammed into the wall at a very high rate of speed, it’s just nasty.
-After getting slammed into the wall very violently the belayer is then likely sucked up hard against the top biner anyhow, which gets rid of the lower impact fore concept almost entirely. In fact, with the added friction (never mind lacerated hands etc) the force may be more violent…
-Clipping the top piece in an anchor puts twice the load onto that piece as it would otherwise see (leaders’s fall force plus the force required to stop it). That may be too much for some gear.
-The rope the belayer used to clip into the anchor may be more useful for lowering the fall factor than clipping the leader’s rope through the anchor. This is a bit tricky to visualize, but as discussed above the belayer gets sucked into the anchor when it’s clipped with the leader’s rope and still locks off the belay device then the overall fall factor hasn’t been reduced much. But if the belayer clips into the anchor with 30cm of rope and that rope is still in the system (as it will be) then it may do a little more good than the rope running through the top piece. Or it may not, it’s going to be a violent fall either way.
-I recently belayed a leader who clipped his rope through the top piece on an anchor that was at my waist level, and horizontally about three feet away (the picture is close enough to this situation). A large flake jutted out of the wall between me and the anchor; if the leader fell I was going to get seriously injured on that flake… I see similar situations a lot now, and most of the time I don’t think clipping the top piece in an anchor improves safety for either the belayer or leader.
There are situations where it makes sense to clip the top piece, but in most cases I think it makes more sense to really visualize what’s going to happen if the leader falls and plan accordingly. In most cases I don’t think it makes sense to clip the top piece. I urge anyone who thinks it always does make sense to clip the top piece to start doing some real-world testing; that testing tends to be short-lived, it just sucks to get yanked violently into the wall. So does catching the violent fall on your waist loop, but generally less so if the belayer organizes the system for the fall.
What does make sense is to think about what’s going to happen in a vicious fall and get organized for that. Be snugly clipped in (with the rope, not some PAS or sling that’s not dynamic) to the anchor, and have a visualization for where you’re likely to go, and get as far into that position as is reasonable. So if your leader is going to fall past your ledge then get below below the anchor, with the tie-in rope snug to the focal point. Once the leader has something solid clipped the fall dynamics change again; get organized for your new trajectory, and make sure it’s safe. Years ago I hit my head with speed on a roof just over the belay stance when the leader fell and yanked me into the air. I hadn’t been thinking of what was going to happen when he fell. A “directional” belay piece for un upward pull is important when using gear anchors, but most bolted belay stations don’t offer that option.
-Wear gloves when belaying with an ATC or anything but a Gri Gri (probably with a Gri-Gri too, but I haven’t had problems other than dirty hands belaying without gloves). If the rope does run a bit you won’t burn your hands. That said, I haven’t burned my hands with a modern ATC when catching hard falls, but gloves are likely just a good idea.
Thinking about what’s going to happen in a nasty fall takes just that, thought. But I think clipping the top piece and saying, “All good!” is roughly the same as wearing a rope without any gear in between the climbers. Might be OK on a ridge or really block terrain, but most of the time it’s not a good idea…
Organize the rope’s potential path so that if the leader does fall it will run cleanly and not lacerate or break your legs, as has also happened in hard falls onto the belay. To me it’s important to realize those first few moves until the leader gets gear in are always serious, and should be respected.
Another solution to this problem is the Direct Anchor Belay, and it solves a lot of the problems. The voice over on this video is rather dry, but the ideas are good. With bolts or good ice screws this is what I’m likely to do most of the time now.
Cut and paste this if the video above doesn’t work: https://vimeo.com/44869774
The limitations are that it’s difficult to pay rope out very fast. I don’t think an ATC makes sense at all; if the first piece pops but the belayer has already unclipped the friction redirect things are going to be messy. Munters kink the rope up, but seem like the best choice.
There are very few “absolutes” in climbing systems. Clipping the top piece may be a good idea, but it’s not always a good idea.
For more reading:
A little dated and aimed primarily at guides but still very useful: http://www.outdoorlink.org/research-papers/part-5-belaying-lowres.pdf
And in German but good illustrations: http://www.alpenverein.de/chameleon/public/04c4aa2d-3f2c-9ba8-b233-a081dc9965ab/Tuber-am-Stand_19803.pdf