Before we get deep into this article, let's get a few things out of the way. First, this is not a how-to on anchors. For that I'd recommend any good climbing text. Second, I'm not writing this to bash bolting and bolters. For an excellent, honest look at the bolt ethic, I'd recommend Tom's Canyoneering Guide's article on Ethics. Third, I'm neither a guiltless prima donna when it comes to bolting, nor am I an ultra-radical clean-climber with a death wish. My view on anchors comes from nearly four decades of taking what I consider to be the middle road: that bolts have their place as a last resort. In those years I've probably placed a hundred bolts - most if them on crumbling limestone walls in the Greek islands and on the desert granite in Arabia, places where I was very often alone, had no alternatives that I considered reliable, and where the stakes were too high to screw with.
Having said that, there's something instinctively annoying about finding a clump of bolts in a formerly pristine setting, especially when there are cracks, trees, boulders and other alternatives nearby. I'm constantly reminded of a climb in Ogden Canyon called Delusions. One day, after decades of being climbed using removable gear, this 50-foot route sprouted 7 bolts. I can't tell you how upset it made me. What made it even more annoying was the fact that the climber who had placed them was an excellent athlete perfectly capable of leading the route safely without them. In fact, the next day, I lead the route myself, bypassing the bolts and placing over seventy bombproof removable anchors just to make a point. Why had he put them there? In the egocentric world of testosterone-sports there are really only a few reasons people place bolts where there are good alternatives: they're too lazy to carry a rack, too inexperienced to know better, marking their territory (existential graffiti); or planting their flag on a supposed first descent/ascent.
Anyone looking for proof that natural or non-invasive anchors are a viable alternative need look only as far as slot canyoneer/author Steve Allen. Labeled an "environmental fruitcake" by at least one less environmentally friendly guidebook writer, Steve has done his decades of technical and exciting slot explorations without drilling a single bolt. As the canyons fill up with more touristy canyoneers who are less experienced and in too much of a hurry to refine clean techniques, Allen's clean canyons are falling to the bolters. In fact, the impetus for this article came from my reading articles about descents of Quandary Canyon Direct. After 1997, bolts had been placed in the canyon. I questioned some canyoneers about the need for bolts on that route, and in return they wondered how Palmieri, Wright, and I had done it without bolts in 1997, and how Allen had done it without bolts on a much earlier descent.
Clean anchor techniques are explained in great detail in many climbing texts. While the principles explained in those texts apply equally to technical canyoneering, there is some room to expand on those ideas and to introduce "new" ideas. A lot of time and space could be spent explaining it all, but our discussion here will be brief. It's up to the reader to develop his or her own anchor ethic, and certainly to practice his or her anchor techniques to gain a safe level of proficiency before putting them to the test in more exposed or remote locations.
In a nutshell, this is a brief look at some alternatives to climber's "hardware": bolts, pitons, metal wedges ("nuts"), spring-loaded camming devices, etc. - equipment that for one reason or another the user would prefer not to leave behind. In some cases (bolts and pitons) it's the permanent damage it will do to the rock. In other cases (cams) it's the cost of the device. Let's divide the alternatives for these into the following categories: natural anchors, "software", deadmen & pickets, counterweights and "tossed" anchors, human anchors, and sequencing.
Again, natural anchors are well covered in climbing texts. Vegetation (trees), boulders, and natural chock stones (a pebble, boulder, or even a tree trunk wedged in a crack) are the most common varieties of natural anchors we see or make in the slots. We often see miniature arches or horns of rock that can be used as anchors. Common sense will tell you if it's solid or not against the direction of pull, and setting up the anchor is as simple as putting a runner around it. Often one of these types of anchors will be the only good one for some distance. I like to carry a lot of half-inch tubular webbing to use to extend these anchors when there are no alternatives.
A brief aside here regarding webbing. Ethically, the amount of webbing used should be kept to a minimum, and it should be earth colors if it's available. If you see old webbing, carry it out as garbage. NEVER TRUST WEBBING THAT HAS BEEN LEFT BEHIND. Always, always, always replace old webbing in slot anchors. Many climbers will tell you that old webbing is OK because sun-damage is not significant. That's dandy on the climbing crags, but down in the slots it's not the sun we're worried about, it's the SAND. The hydraulic sandblasting that it gets when water runs through the slot readily destroys webbing. The damage to the webbing is often not visible, yet a year-old sling may crumble to your touch.
| ||A little searching will often reveal a very secure natural anchor within a reasonable distance from the drop. |
(Red webbing used for example purposes only).
Our next alternative anchor category is "software". By this I mean more environmentally friendly homemade versions of climber's hardware. Almost a century ago, and even and when I first started climbing in the mid-60's, economically deprived climbers often made their own primitive anchor collections out of rope. Two or three rope diameters of different lengths, tied with various knots, could provide a climber with a relatively good range of "knot chock" sizes. The art has been preserved somewhat over the years by a few die-hards. Doug Hansen wrote an excellent article on knot chocks for Summit Magazine (in 1986 I believe - if you know someone who has a copy, share it with the rest of us). I've used knot chocks extensively in the slots. Because they are soft, stretchy, and can conform to the shape of the crack or pocket, they will often work in delicate placements that would break out with metal nuts or cams. However, this is another case where you really need to know what you're doing before you put it to the test in the slots. Improperly tied knots can slip out under a load. Probably the safest versions of knot chocks are rope or web loops of various diameters and widths, tied with grapevine (double fisherman) or water knots.
| ||Knot chocks. Note that most are tied with two sizes of knots and are bi-directional. Leaving one or two of these behind costs a fraction of what it costs to leave behing a bolt & hanger. Knot chocks don't damage the rock and can be replaced easily by the next group. When using knot chocks, careful testing is important before committing life or limb to the anchor.|
Another old technique that I've started using lately is to carry an assortment of small, thick wooden wedges and short sections of dowel that my son makes for me in his shop class at a percent of the cost of the commercial metal counterpart. I slip these into cracks with a piece of half-inch or 9/16 web around them.
| ||Three knot chocks in an outwardly flaring crack. The lower two are equalized and backed up by the upper chock. During actual use, one of the lower chocks blew out but the system remained intact. The rope in the picture is 8mm. The use of longer ropes (60m or more) will cut down on the number of anchor systems parties will have to place to descend a canyon. If the additional weight is a problem, reduce the diameter of the ropes you take. |
There are a number of ways to make effective deadman anchors. The process basically consists of burying an object (log, boulder, sand-filled stuff-bag or backpack, etc) in the dirt or sand in such a way that its bulk prevents it from pulling out. I personally don't like deadman anchors as a primary anchor. They often require considerable excavation and I've had them blow out when I thought they were solid. I can usually find an alternative. I will occasionally use a deadman for a "series" anchor to add strength to another weak link in an anchor system (e.g. with human anchors).
Pickets are long pieces of metal or thick wooden stakes driven into the ground at about a 100-degree angle to the direction of pull. They're made of anything from rebar to T-bar to long wooden stakes to conduit, depending on the material you're going to drive them into. They are most successful when backed up in a series. I used these frequently in the sandy dirt of the Middle East, especially when dropping caves, and they can provide a lot of security where you would otherwise have to rely on a deadman. When you're done with them, just pull them out.
Testing any anchor is a good idea before using it. A few basic principles apply:
1. Properly placed pitons should ring, not "clack", when you lightly tap them with a hammer.
2. Especially in soft rock like limestone and sandstone, bolts tend to collect moisture and allow acidic solutions to develop in the hole. This is the reason many bolters epoxy their bolts. Also, with use bolts simply mash their way out of soft rock. Check closely for solution pockets and watch for movement of the bolt when you manipulate the hanger.
3. Don't bother testing old webbing. Consider it unsafe and replace it.
4. Where there are multiple fixed pieces, use more than one by utilizing equalization or load distribution systems (see a climbing or rescue text).
5. Test all anchors or anchor systems in the direction that it will be loaded when in actual use.
The key to load tests is to do the test in the same direction of pull that will be placed on the anchor when folks are actually rappelling or lowering from it. Here are some suggestions, in the order of the load they will generate.
1. sharp tug - This probably won't generate even as much as body weight, but it can "set" your equalizing system and let you visualize the directional forces on each piece.
2. hop - Hang a loop from the anchor. Step in to test it at body weight, then hop in the loop. A hard hop will generate about twice your body weight. It's about the minimum you'll need to anchor a very carefully-walked rappel (sloppy rappels can generate loads of almost a ton - no bounding Rambo rappels here). If your anchor is back from the edge, a hop will not generate the load in the direction of pull, which will be more horizontal.
3. pulls - For anchors back away from the edge a horizontal pull may be needed to replicate the direction of load. If you're going to pull in a horizontal direction, make sure you secure yourself or redirect the pull away from the edge. Otherwise, if the anchors blows out you could find yourself launched back over the edge into the abyss. Probably the safest way to do pull tests is from a seated position. A 1:1 pull that moves you from your stance will hold at least body weight. If you're really serious about pull testing, find an opposing anchor and set up a 4:1 cordalet pig-rig from it (a simple procedure that takes about 30 seconds to set up. See rescue texts.). Pull for all you're worth from a seated position and if it survives your maximum pull or if you pull yourself from your stance you'll know your anchor is good for at least 4 times your maximum pull strength or 4 times your body weight. You could spend all day setting up additional opposing anchors to redirect (aim) the load back away from the edge (more secure for you when you're testing) and stacking additional mechanical advantage systems. How complicated you get with this will depend on your level of comfort and confidence with the anchor itself and with the amount of room you have to work with.
Counterweights and Tossed Anchors
Two particularly effective and often life-saving improvised anchor techniques are the counterweight and "tossed" anchors. These are techniques you can use to get out of potholes, to traverse across holdless walls, to set up a tensioned handline to the far side of that bottomless pit, etc. Once you figure these techniques out, you'll find yourself using them frequently. In the simplest form, your backpack, log, etc., is tied or clipped to a rope or cordalette and tossed up over the rim or into the target crack. It may jam hard into the crack, or it may give you just enough counterweight on the other side of the pothole for you to pull yourself hand over hand to the rim before it flops back over to your side. These are fun anchors to tinker with. You'll be surprised how effective they can be. They can also be frightening and dangerous. Be sure to secure the sling or rope ends. A few people have found out the hard way that if they toss their pack over the rim and they aren't secured to it in some way, the backpack and rope will just keep going and disappear from sight. Not funny.
What I'm about to write regarding human anchors will probably be the most controversial part of this article. Using humans as climbing anchors, however, has been commonplace for centuries. I have often found myself tucked like a wedge into some comfortable crack, feeling bombproof and indestructible, or with my legs firmly stemmed across a tight slot, comfortably belaying my partner below. This type of human anchoring often provides the easiest and quickest way of setting up impromptu belays in an otherwise impossible slot setting. A good understanding of the physics of belaying is absolutely essential when using human anchors like this.
While doing a few technical slots with Steve Allen a few years back, he showed me an interesting technique he had been using to allow a lead descender to downclimb belayed by a single human anchor. This was a technique he often used in those uncomfortable situations where there are no anchors, just that smooth sandstone floor. It was a simple but effective technique in which the belayer/anchor tied one end of a rope or cordilet into his harness and hip-belayed the lead descender from the other end, with the rope running through the descender's harness carabiner like a pulley (see drawing). It was a quick system with virtually no set-up time, and the descender could unclip or the belayer release the belay as needed. In an anchorless situation, it was the simplest way of accomplishing a roped descent without slamming in a bolt. I'll just call this the Allen system. As I watched it I perceived, as I'm sure the reader has, that although it worked, it was very risky. If there was a slip, or the individual needed to be lowered, the full weight of the descender would come onto a single unanchored belayer sitting unprotected on a smooth sandstone floor. It occurred to me that a greater degree of efficiency and safety could be gained by applying a 2:1 mechanical advantage to the system. By tying one end into the waist of one anchor/person and belaying off the waist of another, the weight of the descender would be divided between the two. Since then I've used the variation several times and although I'm still never completely comfortable with a human anchor system of this type, it has worked well for me, without incident. Certainly it would be prudent to back the human anchors with whatever additional anchoring there might be (deadmen in the sand, counterweights off an opposing rim, tie-ins to otherwise useless brush or a heavy upstream backpack, etc.). This technique requires perfect tripod belay stances and maximum contact of the rope with the rock between the belayer and the descender.
| ||Lowering or belaying a canyoneer using two braced canyoneers.|
Human systems like these are definitely best suited for short short drops and large "boulder moves". Using the Allen system, or variations where the drop is long, overhanging or not visible for initial inspection is asking for trouble.
One of the more obvious problems with the Allen system and my 2:1 variation was the fact that in the end, the last person down has to descend without a belay or a rappel anchor. No matter how you set it up, the last person down is on the sharp end of the stick. That person needs to be the most competent climber in the group. This brings up the subject of sequencing people and their skill levels as a means of avoiding the need for a bolt anchor or for leaving gear behind. There are many times parties will be faced with climbs and downclimbs that require belaying of the weaker or less experienced members over terrain that more experienced individuals feel comfortable ropeless on. In these cases the weaker and less experienced generally should be the first ones down or the last ones up. In many cases, however, it may be desirable to send another experienced person down or up first so that the others can see a particular sequence of moves and holds. This is a judgment call with each group and each individual, and depends largely on the type and size of group you're with. When lives are in danger no person should be pressured into doing something the he/she is honestly not prepared for or willing to do, and that's when it's either time to turn around and call it a day, use and loose that precious climbing hardware, or to drill that bolt you've been dying to slam in.
Obviously many of the anchors we've discussed here are inferior in strength and security to a good set of bolts or fixed hardware. Your training and practice with alternative anchors BEFORE you get to the canyons will make your trip safer and much less stressful. An understanding of the use and equalization of multiple anchors will increase your confidence and competence. Get a good book on anchors. Study belay and rappel dynamics meticulously. Talk to climbers, cavers, canyoneers, and riggers of every kind including the old-timers. The benefits of digging through old literature and talking to experienced people cannot be over-emphasized. All of the "new" techniques we periodically see re-emerging (e.g. retrievable single line rappels, Muenter hitch, etc., etc.) are resurrections of old stock methods.
| ||Cliff hangers and sky hooks are great for backing up weak anchor systems (human anchors in the Allen system, for instance) or for providing a delicate, retrievable, and psychologically comforting top rope for the last person down when sequencing a short
downclimb. Once down, a flick of the rope will usually dislodge it. Hooks can also be used for simple direct
aid moves out of deep potholes or across steep walls without having to slam bolts in. |
Practice, practice, practice. Carry a bolt kit if you want, but use it as a life-saving measure, not as a lazy quick-fix or a means of "marking your territory." Somebody has been down that canyon before you, and has left it like it was. Try to do the same for the next party.