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
W-Cordolette:
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
Equalette:
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
Quad:
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.

TL; DR:
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!

Click “Share” to educate your friends in the art of not killing yourself!
Cheers, and Happy Climbing!

Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach

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5 thoughts on “120 Second Anchor Building (The magic of the 3-piece quad)”

  1. Nice that you mentioned the quad… It has also become my “goto” but you do not see many climbers actually using it outside of the guiding community. U will absolutely be using “all day” in Red Rocks!

    1. It just amazes me how few people have made the connection that it’ll work for three pieces… After JL’s third edition everybody flipped their lid and overemphasized 3-piece equalization. The community missed his point that it’s impossible, and not a terribly important concern anyhow.

  2. So you just accept that the two legs you used for the 2nd and 3rd piece will not be equalized? Seems rather sloppy, especially considering the fact that which piece is bearing that side of the overall load will depend upon your direction of pull, thus defeating the purpose of dynamic equalization…though I can understand the compromise for time. Adding a sliding X solves this problem wonderfully, but creates another problem of making the arm you add it on abnormally large. Okay as long as you adjust the opposite arm, but can be a hassle if your pieces are super close together.

    1. There is always a problem, with every anchor. With the W-cordolette, you have to accept that none of your pieces are equalized, and one single piece will always take a disproportionate load. With an Equallette you achieve the same level of equalization as with the quad but with much greater complexity.

      There is no perfect answer, but more and more are advocating this system as a great compromise of effeciency without compromising safety when compared to existing methods

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