On Tuesday I’d been out climbing with a friend at Upper Scout crag in the Langdale valley. As it’s a venue I visit regularly I was looking for ways to keep my mind active whilst climbing these very well known to me routes. I spent time placing protection in places I may not usually, trying to using different pieces of protection, and creating belay anchors a little differently. Going the extra mile you might say. Time was also spent covering some of the self rescue scenarios that may arise whilst climbing, fairly straightforward techniques, but as with everything, practice is a good thing and time well spent.
Something I find newer climbers struggle with is tidying slings neatly when dismantling a belay anchor. The biggest problem here is the knot used to equalise the protection by creating a ‘master-point’. These knots, usually either an overhand or figure of eight, can be difficult to untie and it is common for climbers to resort to using their teeth! Not ideal and we think it’s best avoided, especially so in the Covid world we are currently in.
Last year an article was published on the well known climbing website UKC (link below) showing an alternative method of creating a master-point when equalising anchors. I watched the video links and read the article, feeling unsure initially but really wasn’t sure why I was unsure. What was being shown made perfect sense and the physics prove it. Instead of tying a knot in the equalisation sling, a larks foot or girth hitch (same thing) is used and the locking karabiner that this is attached to becomes the master-point.
Cloves hitches are something that most climbers use every time they climb, the angles they put onto a sling are quite similar to that seen in a larks foot, and we accept the clove hitch as okay to use, but so many question the larks foot. I’ve done so myself in the past, why?
The answer for me was because I was told by other climbing guides and instructors, and older climbers that a larks foot is bad. The end! No, not quite….There was never any convincing science forthcoming with these statements, yet I accepted it as so many of us do, not wanting to be the one that questions. So when watching the video, I felt somewhat disappointment in myself for not questioning more. We are all on a continuous learning curve and questions can make this more progressive.
Petzl are a world leading climbing and caving equipment manufacturer and along with the Alpine guides of South Tyrol, they highlight the benefits of the larks foot equalisation method. It’s all backed by scientific evidence using drop tests, so not just hearsay. That’s enough for this method to make it into my little toolbox of tricks.
This doesn’t mean it’s the ‘new’ way and only way going forward. I’ll certainly still being using a wide variety of other methods, some of which will be explained below.
I had used this method whilst out climbing on Tuesday, simply to demonstrate it to my friend, but also as an efficient way of climbing, it really is more efficient. After publishing a photo of it online a good friend got in touch to ask about it and we discussed things in more detail. I wasn’t able to fully answer all the strength questions and this led me to delve back into it, revisiting why it is such a worthwhile technique to know.
The physics, forces and strength ratings are beyond the scope of this blog post, so for those wanting to know more, the following links are both worth looking at:
Using a sling to equalise climbing anchors:
This method is favoured by guides the world over and with good reason. It is easy to manage, helps keep the belayer out of the belay system, can be very efficient, makes changeovers more straightforward.
But what about the downsides? Yes there are a few. The biggest being that a sling is a completely static piece of equipment, so in the event of a fall, higher forces will be exerted onto the protection and the climber. This most be carefully considered before using this method. More equipment is also needed, as at least 1 sling per belay will be required.
The first method with the sling is one many climbers will know and use. The sling is clipped into 2 pieces of protection and equalised using a figure of eight knot, this creates a master-point (see figure 1). This is straightforward and quick to make, but can use up a length of sling very quickly, so a 120cm long sling will only be enough if protection is quite close together. If carrying a 240cm sling this can help if protection is further apart. Having only 1 knot to release makes this method quite quick to tidy up afterwards.
Next up we incorporate clove hitches at the anchor points (see figure 2). This allows us to use more of sling, unlike in the above method where we can only use 60cm of a 120cm sling. The slack section of sling between the 2 anchors is redundant and there must always be at least a small amount of slack in this section. Using the whole of the sling means we can effectively use anchors that are further apart and still maintain an acceptable angle between the protection. You’ll also notice we have added the DMM Pivot belay device to this set up. Using a sling to create a master-point allows for easy use of these devices.
So far we have focused on using slings to equalise anchor points. There many be times when we prefer / it is better to use the climbing rope, so now let’s explore some of the ways we can use the rope to safely attach to anchors.
A common method of doing this is by using clove hitches and attaching these to a karabiner on the climbers harness. A bite of rope is clipped through each anchor point and brought back to the harness where it is clipped into a locking karabiner using a clove hitch for each. The clove hitch is a preferred method due to its ease of adjustment. But a figure of eight or overhand knot will also work, just take more time! See figure 9.
There have been a wide variety of examples shown here, all of them work and are safe if used correctly and appropriately. Choosing which system to use when and why can be tricky and that isn’t an area we are going to discuss fully in this post, but will offer a simplified view of how I often make decisions about anchor attachment:
1) Block leading / 1 climber does all the leading - in this case I find it more efficient to create equalised anchors using a sling or multiple slings. This tends to mean quicker, more efficient changeovers at each stance. This method generally uses less karabiners too.
2) Alternate leading - I tend to employ the rope whenever alternate leading as in this case it will be slightly more efficient than taking the time to unravel a sling. As the rope is dynamic, adding this to the belay can help reduce the forces on any protection in the event of a fall.
Efficiency is an important part of anchor building, although trying to be fast and forsaking safety is not to be recommended. So these techniques should be practiced well in advance of any bigger mountain routes where time could be a factor.
Seeing climbing teams spend 10 even 15 minutes at belay stances is actually not that uncommon. On a 3 pitch climb with a straightforward descent that timescale is perfectly fine, pleasant in fact. Translate it onto a 15 pitch route with an intricate and rocky descent with some abseils and we see where problems may arise. 15 stances x 15 minutes = take a torch and sleeping bag!
RRP - as with anything, getting better, more efficient, happier, and slicker, all takes time and practice. Think RRP - Regular Relevant Practice
Or even better add another R with RRRP - Recent Regular Relevant Practice
If unsure about anchor and belay systems, want to know more about equalising climbing anchors, or any other climbing related skill please do get in touch. We would be very happy to put together a skills course focused on your climbing needs.
Thanks for reading.
Disclaimer: Anchors are a climbers lifeline and vitally important. Building and attaching safely to either trad or sport anchors can be achieved in many different ways and the most appropriate method will vary depending on what anchors are being used, the route, the climbers, and a multitude of other factors.
Whilst all the techniques described above are safe if used appropriately, there will be times they could be deemed to be unsafe if used in the wrong setting. This blog post isn’t intended to be a ‘how to’ guide, it has been written to provide some insight into the various methods.
If in doubt about equalising climbing anchors, consider booking onto a course. We'd be delighted to arrange a bespoke course to include any topics covered here.