So There We Were (A Climbing Farce)

Note: embedded links will forward you to various other bits of humor that have added to this story.

So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet from the summit, two thousand feet from the base of the route, six thousand feet from the valley floor, and 40 feet away from our car parked at the top of the cliff. We were a lot of feet from a lot of different thing. We had no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind. It was certifiably bad. “Damn you Jimmy! How the hell did I let you con me into this!” The Austrian legend Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was a world renown alpinist, big wall climber, sport climber, race-car driver, theoretical physicist and the proud owner of a small bakery whose claim to fame was a loaf of bread so delicious it caused the third world war, ended the fourth before it even began, and led to humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. Given that Fitzhermannmench Von Uberfingerkraft was too long to utilize while shouting mid-pitch obscenities, most of his friends called him Jimmy. I mean really, how did I get myself into this situation?


Thirty days earlier:
So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet off the ground, a mile from where the car was parked, no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind. We were benighted upon the summit of “The Frog” because Jeremy couldn’t throw a rope properly. The tangle was an incredible solid mass about the size of a basketball, we didn’t know how to get down. “Having some trouble!?” The voice sounded familiar. “Oh my god! You’re Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft!” I exclaimed. “Call me Jimmy,” he said. Jeremy couldn’t take it anymore and had to say something “what was it like,” he said. Perplexed, Jimmy asked what he was referring to. “The first free ascent of Mt Sauron!” He zoned out for a moment and he instantly recited “It was probably the most physically and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done.” It was obvious that he answered this question on a daily basis. Given that the entirety of Mordor had been evacuated on account of the ongoing eruption of Mt Sauron at the time of his ascent, It was amazing that anyone could climb it at all, let alone free. Of course the media didn’t understand it, and simply tagged the affair with the headline “MAN FREE SOLOS VOLCANO.” He finally drifted back to consciousness 15 minutes later, “Sorry, I zoned out, I get that question all the time. Where were we? RIGHT! Rescue!”

Dramatic recreation of Jeremy's signature "Basketball Knot"
Dramatic recreation of Jeremy’s signature “Basketball Knot”

Four hours later:
So there he was, stranded. Thirty feet from his car, Fitzhermannmench Von Uberfingerkraft Jimmy had no idea where he’d put his keys. To this day I’m still not sure how he managed a three man rappel using only his moustache. He had consumed too many celebratory margaritas during our rescue and couldn’t properly explain the technique, or find the keys to his vehicle. Thanks to the wonders of Tequila it was now our turn to save the day! After we drove him home he gave us a coupon for “one free adventure.” And we happily cashed it in one month later. I gotta hand it to ya, Tequlia Monster, sometimes you do get things right!

We just wished we’d appreciated his definition of “adventure” before we made the decision to accept that I.O.U.

Getting margaritas with "Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft"
Getting margaritas with “Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft” Photo courtesy of Nathan Burns

29 days, 19 hours later:
THUD. “Shit, Here’s your corpse. Now we have the world’s first confirmed A5!” Jimmy almost seemed excited about it. Three hours earlier El Spaniard had set off on the lead for the crux aid pitch. We’d laughed good-naturedly at his predisposition for hard-aid joking “What’s hard about aid!?” Well, now that we had the world’s first confirmed A5, we finally had our answer. Given that El Spaniard had been sent to his death by an untimely fart, we all decided to concede that perhaps aid climbing was hard. The vectored thrust from his Chipotle burrito had been just enough to un-seat his hook from the dime-edge that supported his weight. We were stranded with no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind so we couldn’t afford to waste a single minute. Jimmy untied the rope and pushed “El Spaniard” off the ledge, there was no time for niceties. “Who’s next?” We all agreed that Jeremy likely had the best sphincter control. Judging by his latest triathlon times we figured he was adept at utilizing just the right amount of vectored thrust for a particular situation. In fact, they say that Jeremy won’t drink Red Bull because he doesn’t need wings to fly. Finally, we all agreed that Chipotle had to be nixed from the breakfast menu going forward, and then Jeremy set forth on the lead. Thirty seconds later he reached the end of the pitch, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. I immediately regretted the intake of breath required to breathe that sigh of relief, but Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft wasn’t phased. Apparently that moustache doubles as a gas-mask as well.

"Jimmy" in the midst of another moustache-fueled rescue. Photo courtesy of Nathan Burns
“Jimmy” in the midst of another moustache-fueled rescue. Photo courtesy of Nathan Burns, the only known person to get a photo of Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft

We were so close to the top, when the worst happened. The top of the cliff was suddenly inundated by a flood of Boy Scouts, and it began raining boulders! I had feared all along that it was too dangerous to pioneer a new route on such a popular scenic overlook, but Jimmy had lobbied hard to assuage my fears. And he bribed me with Tequlia. Damn you Tequlia Monster!

“I don’t always drink beer, but when I do… I prefer Tequlia” – Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft: The first climber ever to be sponsored by Dos Equis

One of the boulders from the top smashed into our rope pile, severing the cord instantly, and Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft dropped our only hammer. “Damn you Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft! You’ve doomed us all on this godforsaken cliff!” I didn’t feel much like calling him Jimmy at this point, not after all we’d been through that morning.

So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet from the summit, two thousand feet from the base of the route, six thousand feet from the valley floor, and 40 feet away from our car parked at the top of the cliff. We were a lot of feet from a lot of different things, it was certifiably bad. “Alright Fitzhermannmensch, what do you expect us to do now!?” I was practically screaming at him, and I was mad enough to fight if I’d had the energy leftover for it. Dazed, he says “Rapell? Ve cannot Rappel… Ve only have thirty foot rope!” as if that explains everything, and without another word he began up the final 30 feet to the summit.

Now our rope resembled a falling spaghetti monster
Now our rope resembled a falling spaghetti monster

There were no holds, just a thin crack that would fit only the smallest pitons, and Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was attacking it like a mad-man. With a bottle of wine in one hand and the rope in his other he hammered the pitons in with his teeth, a technique he had learned from Warren Harding. That final pitch consumed our last three hundred and seventeen pitons, and he ran out of gear four feet from the summit. We sat there stunned at our misfortune to be utterly benighted so close to the summit, I closed my eyes for a moment to think if there was any way out and I heard him scream “YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHHH WE MADE IT!” Unbelievably, when I opened my eyes he was standing triumphant at the top of the cliff! “Just had to pull a Donkey-Lock into a Figure-Pi, works every time!”

We’d done it! We’d made the first ascent of all 32 pitches in only 4 hours. Our speed we largely owed to Jeremy’s chipotle power, while our lives were owed to Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft’s signature Donkey-Lock maneuver, which still hasn’t actually been witnessed by any living human. We only know it exists because the maneuver earned him a sponsorship from “ShenaniGrams: The Breakfast of Champions,” which is guaranteed to supply 100% of your daily recommended value of Shenanigans in only one bowl. After jumarring the tattered rope to the top of the cliff, I saw Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft standing triumphantly near the car, holding something in his hand. “Hey guys, look what I found!!” At long last, Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was reunited with his car keys. And that is the story of how I took the most terrifying car-ride of my life. In true keeping with the lineage of Warren Harding, Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft had consumed a bottle of wine after every pitch on our ascent, and something about hearing the proclamation of “PITCH 47, SOOOO DURNK!” at 137 miles an hour in a Volkswagen Beetle just doesn’t inspire a feeling of confidence in one’s life choices.

Dramatic recreation of the ride home
Dramatic recreation of the ride home

Post-Script: Months later we questioned Jimmy about the car keys. Tempers had cooled and I no longer felt the need to beat him over the head with his full name. As it turns out, he had already onsight-free-soloed the route buck-naked wearing only a hat at the grade of 5.15d-and-a-half after drinking an entire crate of tequila and named it “Hufflepuffy Jacket.” He’d lost his car keys at the top, along with his memory of the ascent. That damn Tequlia Monster just won’t give up…

The Only Blasphemy

Below I will share with you a deeply compelling story from one of climbing’s central figures, and one of our best writers. Hearing the tale in John’s own voice imparts a depth and gravity to the story that will stay with you long after the audio cuts off. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the story of the day John Long quit free-soloing, but rather it is the story of a day where he gained a deep and powerful insight into the nature of climbing, life, the universe, and everything.

The Only Blasphemy from Duane Raleigh and Rock and Ice on Vimeo.

To read in text: The Only Blasphemy (Rock and Ice)

Cave Crack (Summer 2007)
The cops in Georgia will throw you in jail and give you a comic book hero name at a measly 85 miles per hour. This is widely regarded as obscene since dropping below 80 runs the risk that you’ll be run-over by someone in a Lexus. “Super Speeder” you become, forever marked as a degenerate in the states files. In Texas we didn’t have such absurd punishments for simply getting where you’re going. Hell, we even have spots on the interstate where the speed limit itself is 85 miles per hour, so cruising over 100 to the crag was a routine maneuver, regardless of the local limits.

“HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT!” we agreed that we couldn’t be sure given how late at night it was, but it looked disturbingly like a chupacabra, and was alarmingly close to the road. Suddenly we decided to take the speed limit, and those “Loose livestock” signs a lot more seriously. It might have just been a trick of the light and the fact that we were traveling at relativistic velocities, but that was the ugliest cow I’d ever seen. We kept it in the 30’s for the last leg of our journey.

There's no way they can just let cows wander around the highway.... Right?
There’s no way they can just let cows wander around the highway…. Right?

Later that day:
With a sickening sensation in my stomach I realized the wall behind me arched overhead to cutoff passage along the crack. From the ground I had hoped that there was sufficient space between the two bits of wall to squeeze through, but the gap was far too small. Can’t go down, I didn’t trust myself to downclimb the 50’ crack back to the floor. Can’t go up, the wall cuts off passage that way. Can’t go right, the wall is blank and offers no escape. Logically, the only escape is out left, across a blank slab. My mind cracked in two, each half attempting to console the other, neither half attempted to come up with a solution. I’d only been climbing for something like 8 months at this point in time, I wasn’t savvy enough to realize the wall behind me offered easy chimney climbing.

As my brain began to pour out my ears (it had melted from the heat of my stupidity), I formulated a “plan,” if you’re feeling gracious. If you’re not, you’d call it a half-crazed desperate attempt to avoid accidental self-destruction. I’m feeling gracious, so I believe we’ll call it a plan.

“it’s only 5.6,” I’d said. “I’ve done crack in the gym,” I’d said. “I bet I can squeeze through that gap,” I’d said. “How hard can it be,” I’d said. In all honesty it would’ve been better had I said “I’m a bloody idiot, lets go back to the car.” But then we wouldn’t have this story.

I swirled the sling like a lasso and tossed it deep in the crack. I missed. Toss, miss, toss, miss, toss…. STUCK! Shit. It’s stuck. How the hell am I supposed to get it back to try again? There was a carabiner on the end of my sling acting as a counterweight, the idea was to toss it beyond a small chockstone, lasso the little bugger, and girth hitch my sling to it as a direct point of aid. The carabiner hadn’t gone far enough for any of that, and now it was stuck.

Stuck! Aha! If it’s stuck, it’s not going anywhere! If it’s not going anywhere, I can pull on it to yank myself to safety! I sunk one hand in a bomber jam, and yanked on it with all my might on the other hand. Seemed solid, so I yarded my way out left around the corner and onto the ledge. It was good to be alive! Just to see how solid my lifeline had been, I gave it a tug.

It practically jumped out of the crack with a light flick of the wrist. Must’ve been about A3.

“Well,” I decided, “I’m never doing that again.”

We're gonna climb that mountain!
We’re gonna climb that mountain!

Alpspitze (August 2008)
First, If I’ve never told this story to my dad…. I’m really going to owe him an apology for sneaking about like this! (erm… sorry dad!)

We had approached the “Adamplatte” of the Alpspitze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the via-ferrata route, having already gained a thousand feet of elevation. Dad looked at the route and said “nope.” “Why nope,” I asked? “Because I’m an old man, and I’m tired.” Okay, can’t argue with that logic, but what does he want to do now? “I want to take a nap, head down to the cable car station, and have a beer.” Well, I reckoned I could make it to the top and back down in time for him to finish his beer, and I made a statement to that affect. He tucked into a corner to sleep, and I scooted off towards the base of the route.

The climbing was mind-numbingly easy for the first couple hundred feet and I rapidly escaped the ledge upon which the route began. Four hundred feet later that ledge was but a vague memory. Most of the climbing was along a slab with water grooves ranging from 5.0-5.5, though I knew there was a 5.8 crux pitch up high. The view of the village below was astounding, the houses even looked like ants, and then the world shifted. I clenched tightly with my right hand to counteract the sudden movement as my left pulled off a block the size of my head. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the slabs, and I couldn’t help but imagine a rag doll with my face taking the same tumble. Down, down, down it goes, bouncing off the wall, into the slab, five hundred feet back to the ledge. Maybe it stops there, or maybe it keeps falling another thousand feet to the base of the wall, which itself is a few thousand feet above the valley. I was losing it. That was too much exposure to take in. I reached up and slapped myself in the face, since no one was around to do it for me. It worked in the cartoons, so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea.

You know, this is very, very high up...
You know, this is very, very high up…

I wondered how the cliff had become so wonderfully grooved for climbing, some of the channels cut were deep enough for hand-jams. Quickly enough the reason became apparent…. The grooves were carved by water runoff, and not just any water but snowmelt. The moisture sapped heat from my fingers and they became numb to pain. Meanwhile my feet had mostly lost any semblance of friction on the slick rock, but I was too committed to downclimb and the only way off was up.

After 750 feet of climbing, approximately 1700ft above the base of the wall, I realized I was lost. I know, I know, I’m on the north face of the Alpspitze, but I didn’t know how to continue forward and get the hell off the wall, which is a surprisingly easy situation to get into it seems. I was onsighting the route, trusting in intuition, voodoo magic, and a palm-reading to get me through the proper sequences to the top, the climb mostly followed a massive slabbed dihedral up the wall. I was faced with a decision, up ahead I could see that the low angled half of my corner disappeared into the vertical segment of wall that it intersected. The only other option was up and left through a very burly looking bulge in the rock. Minutes crept past as I deliberated, finally I sunk one finger in a bolt and leaned backward as far as I could stomache. With this vantage point I was able to catch a glimpse of metal about a hundred feet further up the wall. The anchors for the next pitch glinted in the sun like that light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like I wasn’t headed for hell today.

The crux 5.8 traverse on vertical rock climbed 50ft sideways like a ballet number. Toes pointed onto pebbles and edges, arms held at just the right angle to the rock. I flowed through the moves like the water running across the cliff and I disappeared completely. There was no rock, there was no me, only the pure execution and complete focus. I never could remember the moves from that sequence, but I remember a profound sense of peace that never quite left me.


As I topped out on the wall, a couple guys were walking along the via-ferrata in the home stretch to the summit, and they looked at me very hard. Then they glanced down, and then back to me. Down and back, they grabbed the cable of the via-ferrata to look further down in confusion and I explained (in german) “I’m from Texas, there is no other guy.”

“Oh.” They said, and walked off like that explained everything. I’d really like to know how that explains anything.

After tagging the summit, I sprinted down the via-ferrata with one hand hovering over the safety cable “just in case,” swaying side to side in a headlong purposeful crash like Jack Sparrow fleeing the British in the Caribbean. Just as I came within sight of the cable car station I slowed to a walk, when I arrived at the table dad was enjoying the last sip of beer in his mug. Sometimes, things just work out.


Fly on a Windshield (Spring Break 2011)

I was full of myself, and it was a glorious weekend. I had finished my 15th solo of the day on “Pro Sweat: (5.9+). It was a slab, and slabs are supposed to be sketchy, but I had felt incredibly solid and decided to up the ante to “Fly on a Windshield” (5.10a). I sauntered over to the base, and pulled through the initial flakes rapidly to gain a precarious mantle, and then I just sat there. The holds I upon which I perched did not inspire confidence. The next sequence didn’t appear much better, worse, in fact. I had led the climb onsight only a week or two earlier and I remembered how easy it had felt, but at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was different other than the fact that my foot seemed to be slipping very, very slowly.

That’s when I noticed the bolt above my head. Apparently when I led the route, those crux moves were accomplished with all the boldness of toprope. Splendid.


Look. You have two choices, sit and think and splatter, or fucking go for it. Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. I grabbed those awful crimps for dear life, re-situated my deteriorating foothold and flung myself up at the next good hold, a muffin-sloper. Time dilated and slowed to a standstill, what looked to the outside world to take only an instant took an eternity as my entire being became consumed with the effort required to make that one single move and pull back away from the event horizon. One move, that’s the difference between life and death. SMACK! My hand connected as my feet blew out on me, and I mantled up onto a good ledge. Adrenaline surged through my body as I greeted life with a fresh outlook. But it wasn’t quite over yet, I had to climb another 100’ to the summit, mostly about 5.7, so I got back into the zone and continued trembling all the way to the top.

Fly On A Windshield

Someone on the rock nearby hollered for some casual conversation, “AHOY! I used to solo a bit too back in my day! Just never on slabs though. I always found them way too sketchy.” I thought to myself: Yeah, me too! Instead I said “well, everybody has their own style, ya know?”

It’s a known fact that Ego is the most difficult terrain to protect in all of climbing.

The Nose (December 2013)
“Its no big deal,” I said. “It’s only 5.8,” I said. “It’s slab, that’s what you’re good at,” I said. “You’re well acclimated to Granite,” I said. And so I pointed my faithful Frontier into the Pisgah wilderness aiming for “The Nose” at Looking Glass Rock.

Staring up at the route, it was far from intimidating. Sure, it’s a hold-less sea of polished granite, but those weird eyebrow features seemed inviting. We didn’t have features at Enchanted Rock, we just had a bunch of nickel and dime-edges. Features were good, features inspired confidence. I began the process of making mantels up the wall, this rock was certifiably weird. You call this 5.6!? I thought, and perhaps that should’ve been my first warning.

At the bolted belay for the first pitch I stopped and contemplated life. The next section looked steeper, but after checking mountainproject on my phone, I could tell I was on-route and this gave me hope. I considered down-climbing, and decided it would be too awkward to be worth the trouble, that should’ve been my final warning. I pushed onward, deeper into abysmal folly.

The wall wasn’t exactly blank, but everything was terribly rounded. No crisp edges on the slab to be found, the next move would require me to commit myself entirely to a tiny greasy pimple on the rock. There were no hand-holds to use if I slipped, there were no additional footholds to shore up my balance, I had to trust that foot.

I couldn’t trust my life to that foot.

As good a place as any to stand and contemplate life
As good a place as any to stand and contemplate life

I tried to ease in, too sketchy. I tried to downclimb, and found that my stupid self had performed a rather irreversible mantle maneuver to get into my current predicament. I was stuck, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I climbed up, then down, oscillating in a 15×15 box in the rock. I couldn’t find any way to escape intact, every possible way out appeared to have odds below 50%. Up, Down, Left, Right, there was no direction that looked acceptable. Finally, even though I had a half decent no-hands rest, I broke down.

I thought about my friends, my family, everyone that had ever loved me or cared for me. I thought of all the things I had wanted to see in the world. I thought of the goals I once had in a previous life that had apparently ended 30 minutes earlier, when I was too stupid to notice that it had passed, when I was to hell-bent on climbing upward to recognize that I was inexcusably committed to going forward. Once again my thoughts drifted back to my friends, and the folly of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time. Could there possibly be any greater sin than willfully jeopardizing one’s own life for no discernible purpose? Standing there, perched on one foot 150 feet off the ground, uncontrollably sobbing softly to myself, I finally understood The Only Blasphemy. There may be greater sins, but at that moment I couldn’t think of any.

I spotted some climbers at the base of the route, and they began moving painstakingly upward. I stood on that small sloping ledge for what seemed like an eternity before the leader caught up to me and passed me a sling to use as a makeshift harness. I couldn’t look him in the eye.

The Eyebrows of Looking Glass. Embrace the funk
The Eyebrows of Looking Glass. Embrace the funk

The next weekend I went to onsight-solo at Tennessee Wall and didn’t top out on a single route. I kept climbing half-way up and realizing it would be an awkward spot to reverse. That meant it was time to back-off. Still, half of eight 100’ routes still equates 400’ of climbing at a beautiful place, not a bad day at all.

Final Notes:
In the intervening years between these instances and current thinking I’ve come up with a bit of a “pre-flight calculus” that keeps me from doing anything monumentally stupid. Not that any of it can be argued as particularly smart, but it’s my idea of a good time and it keeps me laughing, if I do it right. And that’s the key thing: climbing should be fun, and it has to be done right. Gravity is unforgiving in that respect. I figure if I ever stop laughing, it’s probably time for me to quit the whole thing outright.

That encounter with “The Nose” was approximately my 75th pitch soloed, and I’ve done another 300 since without any incidents. It seems I’ve learned my lesson well, and I can only hope that it sticks. Nowadays, as soon as a route stops being incredibly fun, I’m out long before it reaches the threshold of “dangerous”.


Every now and again someone will ask me if I feel fear, and I think the above should make it very clear that I do. I’ve been asked if I value my life and understand what I’m doing, and I think I do more than most people. You doing have the option to remain ignorant in such positions as these. I’m no different from most, and I’ve done some very stupid things in my time, but the key thing is that I learned deeply from my mistakes. I had a short conversation with a crane operator one day that sums it up:

holy SHIT! So you do it for the rush!?”
-No, can’t say I do
“Well why not? I mean, the adrenaline has got to be intense!”
-No, I can’t say it is
“Well why not?”
-Because there is no adrenaline, there is no rush.
“How does that work out? Don’t you get scared?”
-Oh yeah, loads of times, usually when I have a rope and I’m pushing it. See, the thing is, a person only feels adrenalized or gets a rush when they truly, deeply believe they are in danger. And I don’t like to do the dangerous thing.

I’ve done the dangerous thing already. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t pleasant. If you climb for the rush, or for adrenaline, then you’re an idiot and you’re going to die. It’s that simple.

If I feel that rush or adrenaline, I know I need to sit down and have a long talk with myself.

Some folks get all excited about the things I’ve soloed, but these days I think you’d be more amazed at all the things that I haven’t.

I can think of a few folks straight off the top of my head who were my peers in college that have died young in the intervening years between then and now. It’s no secret that fate has had plenty of chance to call my number instead of theirs, but I’m still here. Not even the ones who’ve played it safe are immune to the ravages of time and chance. It seems we’re all just living off borrowed time, as they say. You’ve only got one shot on this dustball. Make it a good one.

120 Second Anchor Building (The magic of the 3-piece quad)

There are a few governing principles to adhere to while building a good climbing anchor, and these have been outlined in John Long’s “Climbing Anchors” for decades now as the informal acronym SRENE:

S – Solid
R – Redundant
E – Equalized
NE – No Extension

I like to emphasize one more point that often gets ignored: Simple. The more simple the anchor the better, as long as it gets the job done well. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in an industrial setting on cell tower sites it’s this: People most often ignore safety when it’s a pain in the ass to achieve. If you insist that folks utilize a safety system with 27 knots for 10 points of protection it may be solid enough to lift your house, but we’re not in the business of lifting houses. They’ll most likely say to hell with your safety and go back to doing it the old way, or invent something of their own. Sometimes, it seems folks would rather risk an un-planned swan-dive (minus the water) than deal with the slightest inconvenience. Because of this, I try to make things easy enough that they don’t have even the lamest excuse to skimp. And yet some idiot out there still refuses to wear a seat-belt… We’re not here to come up with a good “in the lab” description of anchors, but to meet reality head on in the face of Old Man Gravity.

Yes, there's an actual boat anchor in there (Photo from "Top Rope Tough Guys" featured on Reel Rock Tour)
Yes, there’s an actual boat anchor in there (Photo from “Top Rope Tough Guys” featured on Reel Rock Tour)
I’ve been constantly frustrated with anchor systems. Ever since my first multi-pitch trip I’ve always had this feeling that they were missing a certain “I don’t know what” and for about six years now I’ve been reading anything I could get my hands on to understand how to prevent accidents and understand the precise mechanics of keeping oneself safe and efficient on the vertical. The more you know, the more you can improvise and experiment. The more you know, the more likely it is you can come up with a good tool for the job. The more you know, the more likely it is you’ll find that certain “I don’t know what.” The more you know, the better you’ll understand the fine art of not killing yourself.

Now, for the first time in my climbing career I have an anchor system that I truly love building, and it’s made multi-pitch anchoring so straightforward that it feels like I’m cheating! But first a little about the anchors I disliked along the way, and the benchmarks we use to assess them.

Solid – For years climbers would simply slug a few pitons in the rock, clip them with plain oval biners, clove hitch the rope into them, and call it good. The system lacks complicated rigging, but anchor failure was still incredibly rare. Fresh pitons that have just been hammered in by your own hands are solid and multi-directional. Each piece of protection was utterly bomber, and that was the driving force behind safety in these simplistic anchors. One thing cannot be overstated: Without solid pro, no amount of rigging can save you. If every anchor point in your matrix can withstand a leader-fall on its own then the rigging is an afterthought. The main concern of rigging is that it is impossible to know all the variables. Someday, somewhere, you will get it wrong, and you’d better be prepared. Old Man Gravity is intolerant of incompetence, and remains ever vigilant in waiting us to make a mistake.

Fresh, solid pitons. As long as the gear is utterly bomber, rigging is secondary. There may have been "better" options, but the climbers determined this was "good enough"
Fresh, solid pitons. As long as the gear is utterly bomber, rigging is secondary. There may have been “better” options, but the climbers determined this was “good enough”
Redundant – For bolted belays, with absolutely bomber anchors that show no signs of corrosion or weakness, two points of protection are fine, otherwise three should be considered the benchmark. Occasionally I’ll place a fourth piece when the gear is small, though I suspect this is mental duct-tape. That fourth piece is mostly for psychological comfort.

Never trust a single piece of gear unless it’s the rope or your belay, those two items are so over-built that if they fail… well, we’ve got bigger problems than your anchor building skills. Everything else should be eyed with suspicion lest we wind up heading face first for a six-foot dirt-nap.

Keep in mind, since we’re relying on inviolate belays and ropes, they MUST be well cared for. Slings and soft-goods are to be hitched through your hardpoints, not your belay loop. This is how your harness is designed to be used. Using slings on your belay loop can cause it to wear prematurely. It is not designed for the wear and tear from your soft-goods and should only be used for connections with hardware, such as carabiners. If you don’t believe me, look up you manufacturer’s specifications and put a little research into the untimely demise of Todd Skinner. If you have to ask, replace it.

Equalized – Sure, your individual pieces are solid. Solid enough to hold a fall on their own, but just in case you had a judgement in error, and because sometimes placements can be compromised by shifting loads (for instance pivoting back and forth at a scant belay stance to avoid feeling your butt cheeks going numb), we want to help them out as much as we can. To this purpose we attempt to equalize our anchors, in other words we attempt to share the load as evenly as possible between the multiple points of protection in our anchor. For this to work well, the entire anchor must be aligned with the most likely direction of force. If it is possible for the impact on the anchor to come from varying angles (say there is a traverse for the follower after the last point of protection in the pitch), then we must have an auto-equalizing system, or employ extra pieces of gear for an omni-directional anchor.

On Belay? - "No" - Climbing! - "whatever, dude screw this anchor, and screw you"
On Belay? – “No” – Climbing! – “whatever, dude screw this anchor, and screw you”
No Extension – It should be noted that this has been revised by John Long and others to become “Low Extension.” There is no such thing as a “perfect” anchor, in large part because it is simply impossible to have a well equalized anchor with no risk of extension should a piece fail. The rigging which allows for self-equalizing must be able to self-adjust, and this naturally introduces some possibility that your rigging will extend in the event that a piece should fail. That extension will cause a shock load on the system.

Anchors are an exercise in Risk Assessment, and here we have two risks: The risk of a piece failing, and the risk that extension will cause a shock-load causing additional failures. To mitigate these risks we first try to avoid failing placements altogether with our first point “Solid.” Second we make sure to “Equalize” so that a potential shock-load will be shared between pieces, giving them a better chance to survive. Finally, we make sure that our anchor is “low extension,” as lower falls generate lower impact forces. That way, even if a piece does fail, we will minimize the shock load delivered to our anchor.

What is “low” extension? Everybody has their own answer to this, and it’s a very personal choice, but we want it to be as low as possible. One of the industrial guidelines followed by tower climbers asserts that a method of fall protection can be deemed acceptable if falls are reduced to less than two feet. In other words, the industrial definition of “low extension” is two feet. A two foot fall is fairly short and you won’t build up much momentum, and so I use this as my own personal guideline of the MAXIMUM allowable extension in a worst-case scenario, though less is always better.

Now for the anchors themselves!

The basic sliding-x setup for multipitch. Not the best anchor out there.
The basic sliding-x setup for multipitch. Not the best anchor out there.
Sliding X:
Okay, this one looks cool, slick and simple, but let’s see how it would pass John Long’s SRENE test.

Redundant – The biggest failure of the Sliding X is the fact that the entire anchoring system consists of a single sling, and if that piece of software fails you’re hosed. ­It immediately missses the whole point of multi-point anchor building. Using a Sliding-X is little better than trusting life to a single nut or cam as it still has a single piece of gear that can lead to a total failure!

Boom. Dead. Not redundant.
Boom. Dead. Not redundant.
Equalized – On the face of it, this system seems to be a perfect auto-equalizing system that will adjust to any direction of pull; however lab tests indicate that the “X” tends to cinch up on itself in about 1 of 10 falls. This causes 90% of the load to land on a single piece, and that’s no good. Even if this only happens rarely, I don’t like a system that “usually” works. The soloist in me won’t allow a gamble like that, it has to be a system that ALWAYS works as advertised, or it’s not worth the trouble.

Low Extension – By its very nature, the Sliding X is prone to large extension. In the event of a failure, it will shock-load the single sling and only remaining piece of gear. The extension can be reduced with the use of “limiter knots,” but these introduce complexity into the system and can be difficult to un-tie and deconstruct the anchor if they’ve been weighted, which makes it less likely that they will actually be used by climbers in the wild, even though they are a very good idea.

W-Cordolette in the field
W-Cordolette in the field
This is fairly simple to create, it’s only drawback in the fact that it can sometimes be difficult to line up the legs appropriately and still be able to tie the master point. Overall, it’s good enough to pass the “Simple” test.

Redundant – This is a perfect example of redundancy! Three independent legs, one for each piece, with a master point that has three loops. If any part of the Cordolette was cut, there would be backup bits of string lashing you to the wall.

Equalized – At first glance this looks like a very well equalized system; however, a little bit of logic and results from drop-tests dispel this illusion rapidly. If the fall comes PERFECTLY aligned with the direction the anchor is constructed, it will equalize okay, but if the fall comes even slightly off course, you can see that slack will be introduced into one or more of the legs, placing the entire load on a single piece. Additionally, since all rigging materials have some amount of stretch, the shortest leg always absorbs the brunt of the impact force since it’s rigging won’t stretch as far as the other legs.

The basic W-Cordollette used for multi-pitch
The basic W-Cordollette used for multi-pitch
Low Extension – This anchor should have no extension whatsoever if the fall comes in the intended direction, and minimal extension when directed off course, but it’s poorly equalized because of this. Still, if your placements are solid, and there is no swing in the fall, you should be fine. This anchor was considered the standard for a long time, and the scenarios that can lead to an anchor failure are few, and usually involve a long swinging fall from the follower, which torques the anchor out of alignment since it cannot auto-equalize, and leads to failure as the pieces of gear swivel in place to follow the arcing fall trajectory.

Equalette setup for multipitch
Equalette setup for multipitch
This was John Long’s answer to the problems of the W-Cordollette, it introduces much better performance, and a bit more complexity. With each 3-piece anchor you must (at the minimum) tie a figure-8 knot and two clove hitches. Unfortunately I have found that the clove hitches tend to bind awkwardly on most carabiners (except ovals). Additionally the master point is formed by two carabieners, and requires a third to hang your belay device, and the clove hitches have a slip-strength of only 1,000lbs (4.45 kN).

Equalette in the wild, a bit of an awkward setup.
Equalette in the wild, a bit of an awkward setup.
Redundant – Each piece has its own independent leg, and the master point has redundancy as well. Even if your clove-hitches slipped, they’re tied on different legs of a loop which is closed so they won’t slip off the anchor entirely.

Equalized – This system is always well equalized between two points (Our best so far), as the load swings through an arc it will swap between which of the clove-hitched pieces is sharing the load with your primary placement.

Low Extension – With pre-tied limiter knots this is a fairly low extension anchor, no worries here!

Three-piece "Quad" setup. My personal favorite
Three-piece “Quad” setup. My personal favorite
This one is so simple that I’ve actually built it in about 120 seconds in the field, onsight.

Originally introduced in the third edition of “Climbing Anchors” as a solution for setting up toprope anchors on routes with double-bolt anchors, I’ve found it can be adapted very well to three piece anchors on multi-pitch. This is my preferred setup, and I can typically build a bomber 3-piece anchor in 120 seconds, onsight, without tying a single knot. Once I tie the masterpoint, I leave it pre-rigged permanently.

Redundant – Three pieces, each connected to its own leg of the anchor. Three strands in the master-point, and a fourth strand closing the loop around your masterpoint just in case one side of the quad fails.

Equalized – At the worst case this will equalize two points, and if you add a Sliding-X to rig your second and third pieces to the quad your anchor will perform a decent job of 3-point equalization.

Low Extension – Just like the Sliding-X and Equalette, limiter knots prevent any excess extension in the system, and these stay tied permanently adding to simplicity of construction.

Why it’s fast – Basically you slug in two bomber pieces to do most of the work, and the third is clipped in to cover your tail if something fails. If I get the length going towards that third piece within 3″ of being snug on the anchor I’ll consider it “Low Extension.” This means the first two pieces go in very quickly, and the third one is a secondary concern, it’s just there as a failsafe measure.

Three-Piece Quad in the field (rigged on a ledge where force will be directly to the right)
Three-Piece Quad in the field (rigged on a ledge where force will be directly to the right)
Building the 3-point quad:
Essentially it’s the same as any other anchor, plug three pieces in the wall, imagine a 2’x2’ box, extend your pieces so they fit inside the box and clip it up! All you need is an 8’ sling (to tie the quad initially), and one locking biner, though I tend to carry a pair of ovals for clipping into nuts or bolts as they make it easier to handle the gear cluster at the anchor with their wide openings for organization.

When I climbed my first multi-pitch, we used a “Sliding X” made from a piece of cordolette doubled over itself twice so that each leg had 4 strands. It was beefy, overbuilt, silly, and not very well thought out, but it worked. That was the dumb system we used when google was the only climbing instructor we could afford. It wasn’t the best or the safest, but nobody died.

After that I graduated to the W-Cordollette as was the wisdom of the times, and was annoyed at how a slight shift would un-load some of my pieces, reducing the equalization to nothing. John Long’s third edition of “Climbing Anchors” confirmed my gut-feeling and provided a solution. (Yes, I’ve actually read all three aditions of “Climbing Anchors,” and actually have read the third edition twice… I might be a bit of a gear nerd… and I might have experimented these setups on numerous banisters and chairs in climbing gyms that I frequent.. Unconfirmed reports claim that I’ve read the third edition a third time to round off the numbers, but we’ll go ahead and leave those reports unconfirmed for now)

Ridiculous multi-Quad setup for a 7-piece zip-line anchor.
Ridiculous multi-Quad setup for a 7-piece zip-line anchor.
I thought the Equalette was cumbersome at first, and quickly became reasonably proficient with the setup, but it still seemed a tad cumbersome when compared to the W-Cordollete. After two years of climbing exclusively on the Equallete, I’d had it! It violated my personal first rule of safety: Keep It Simple Stupid. Simple systems introduce less possibility for mistakes, and fewer unintended consequences, and so I started looking for alternate solutions.

After tinkering with the quad for some time, I finally decided I’d made the anchor system I’ve been looking for all these years, and haven’t looked back. Performance in the field has been fantastic, and it has yielded the fastest and most comfortable solid belay setups I’ve ever been able to make. If you can find a flaw in my design, please tell me. I’d love to hear your input, but after scratching heads with several of my past climbing partners, I feel pretty well sold on this option.

Questions? Comments? Hatemail? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comment section below!

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Cheers, and Happy Climbing!

Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach