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Bay Area Rock Climbing Message Board › Climbing safely outside- Are top rope anchors safe?

Climbing safely outside- Are top rope anchors safe?

Glen C.
user 10413171
Santa Clara, CA
Post #: 8
Hello Richard,
I'm a photographer, and one thing I'm doing right now is working on climbing photography. One method I have used is to setup a fixed line along or next to the route and use ascenders. However the times I have done this so far the fixed lines were setup by another more experienced climber. So something I am really interested to ask is what techniques you most recommend for setting up a fixed line?

And just for fun here is one of my shots from using this system:

A former member
Post #: 8
Nice shot, is that in "The Pit"?
Glen C.
user 10413171
Santa Clara, CA
Post #: 10
Yep, thats the Ort wall in the pit at the Grotto. Went last summer, and planning to go again this month.
A former member
Post #: 1
wow those are scary. I'm also a guide and have gone through AMGA courses yet I still need to take an exam or two. I recommend that everyone that is going to climb outside learn the technical side of climbing thoroughly before attempting on their own. A single pitch instructor course is cheap and will teach you to save your ass in a pinch or someone else's for that matter. You'll also learn about anchor building and gear placement etc... better deal than you can get paying a guide. It's 450 for a course that is 3 days. I have only been climbing around here for about a year now and have definitely noticed a very large number of climbers making potentially deadly mistakes. Partly I blame the gyms which fail to properly teach even proper belay technique and so therefore start bad habits immediately. Then when me aka Mr Guide comes along and makes a suggestion on someones safety they say I know what I'm doing blah blah blah and I say ok and leave it at that, praying that they don't hurt themselves. I've found myself at Pinnacles, Castlerock, etc.. not even being able to climb because people were not open to suggestions and I felt being a guide and a WFR I had to stay and make sure that nothing bad happened. Please people. learn from a guide. It's really the only safe way to learn to climb. I'm going to make a pole...
A former member
Post #: 7
A single pitch instructor course is cheap and will teach you to save your ass in a pinch or someone else's for that matter... You'll also learn about anchor building and gear placement etc... better deal than you can get paying a guide. It's 450 for a course that is 3 days... Please people. learn from a guide. It's really the only safe way to learn to climb. I'm going to make a pole...

O.K., I'll bite. I think the original poster was on the right track with lamenting that many climbers aren't humble enough to take some constructive criticism-perhaps playing dumb and using a Socratic method would work better than direct criticism. I'm a pretty big fan of learning by doing, and being willing to criticize your own work is the key to learning by doing.

Because of my leanings towards learning-by-doing I happen to think the idea that you're only going to become a safe climber by shelling out a wad of cash and listening to some guy for 3 days is wrong. Taking a course can expose a person to lots of new ideas, and for that it's a great way to bootstrap oneself into good practice. However, taking a course will ensure only that you get a certificate and maybe some handouts, but that's about it. It doesn't insure that information actually gets into your head, stays there or gets used properly. Becoming a safe climber starts and finishes in three places: (1) your heart (2) your head-one you fill with information where ever you can get it and the other you fill with a sufficient quantity of humility-and (3) an industrial sized bottle of elbow grease.

I say elbow grease, because I believe learning to be a safe climber is a process that looks something like:

Step 1: start with a healthy dose of something like John Long and after a few days of thoughtful contemplation move on to other reference texts. Step 2 is going out with some gear to a local boulder or bed post or set of living room furniture and building anchors and then playing around with them. Build an anchor. Look at what you've done. Figure out what's good about it, but more importantly figure out what's bad. What about it, based on what you've learned, is funky, or spooky or outright deadly. Did you make a compromise? Why? What could you have done or brought to avoid making that compromise? Are you doing something recommended by an "expert" that seems bogus? Do you know where to go for a second opinion? Repeat this process as often as possible with complete disregard for your pride. When you find something you don't like go back to your books, check the message boards, talk to your climbing buddies and then think about the possible solutions. Step 3 is to go back to the rock, try out your solutions and brutally criticize them. Wash, rinse and repeat till you've become a safe climber.

The real learning happens during the process of building and using anchors, and doesn't depend so much on where you got the original information from, whether it's a $20 book or a $500 class.
A former member
Post #: 3
only slightly agree. i'm on the whole IFMGA track. the slow version...
so having a license is necessary for one legitimate guiding and two to gain technical skills some of which you just arent going to learn from a book. by taking the courses you are put into real situations that you have to deal with so are ina sense forcing yourself to learn. no bedpost compares to the real deal.
now i first learned to climb from books. my third time climbing i led a 5.9 crack at redrocks. forced myself to learn quickly. i however have a background in working in technical environments where safety is a concern. most people don't have this experience. not all books have safe information in them. theres always one thing that's not too kosher. belay technique for one. some say do the pinch drop thingy or whatever that is. you know the technique you see 99% of gym rats using. well im sorry to say but this is not an ok habit to be in when you decide to take your skills outdoors and then to leading where you have a partner 30' above there last marginal piece and your belayer is dillydaddling with the belay instead of just going straight to breaking position.
every situation is different outside and being outside is the only real way to learn. people do die all the time because they tried to learn on their own or from a book rather than getting assistance from an experienced climber and therefore end up in a situation they dont know how to handle and bite the dust because of it.
how many book recommend saying take rather than tension. i know of at least one. something as simple as this can kill someone and you are most likely only going to learn this from an experienced climber or a guide. take is the same as safe one syllable. tension is 2 and clearly definable from take. in other countries they use safe to say off belay. if you climb enough you will run into a situation where your neighbor on the route next to you uses this. when you say take they hear safe and then all of a sudden someone dies because of you. people take climbing way more lightheartedly then they should. they get comfortable with the shitty technique they learned from a friend of a friend that learned at the gym that taught them poor technique or skills and then well they dont last long if they get serious about climbing and put in enough hours for something to inevitably go wrong. that's enough of a rant for now...
A former member
Post #: 8
by taking the courses you are put into real situations that you have to deal with so are ina sense forcing yourself to learn. no bedpost compares to the real deal. now i first learned to climb from books. my third time climbing i led a 5.9 crack at redrocks. forced myself to learn quickly. i however have a background in working in technical environments where safety is a concern. most people don't have this experience. not all books have safe information in them. theres always one thing that's not too kosher.

And are we to take everything the AMGA/IFMGA/PADI/NAUI/FIFA/etc. says as best practice just because they say it? You do put some thought into what you've learned in the class, right? You've gone out and tried what they've taught you and then thought about what works and what doesn't and the conditions under which the methods they espouse are best practice, haven't you? My point is not that you don't need to go outside to gain experience with anchor building (though I will submit that two or three runners girth hitched around table legs make pretty good substitutes for bolts when discussing principles of anchor building), but rather that spending $500 on a class ensures nothing about the safety of the anchors you will build. A guide led class may expose you to best practices, but if you later fail to implement them properly, fail to understand them well enough to adapt them to new situations, or fail to be curious enough to look for new and better ways of doing things, then you will end up being an unsafe climber anyway. Learning to climb safely should be a _process_ where you start small and get bigger over time, where you treat all advice as suspect till you implement it, evaluate it and confirm that it is good, where for every two steps forward you take a step back and reconsider how you're operating. If this is the attitude under which you're operating, you'll build the difficulty of the climbs as you refine your toolkit of skills and techniques.

Like I said in the previous post, classes are great places to get fresh ideas and contrarian views that will make you rethink your accepted practices. These are good things, and may be worth paying for, but the information classes offer is available in many other places.
A former member
Post #: 4
how many people are able to actually analyze though? I have not met many that can make safe judgment of their technical skills. Maybe that's because theres a lot of new climbers nowadays. I'm not sure. I agree with the above post and will state that now that I think about it grasping the basics on your own like tr anchors off bolts etc... is something you would want to teach yourself. Once you have some experience going out with a licensed guide that can answer questions that have formed etc.. will help a lot. it will make a world of difference.
now the reason i say licensed is really for one reason only and thats standardization. The reason why this is important is because (maybe not all standards are the best) standards are generally tried and true thus not going to fail. The end product is based on essentially (with climbing at least) trial and error. Climbing has been around for a long time so most errors have been worked out to a science. When you learn from someone that took it upon there own self to learn without books or a guide or even better a combination of the two you end up possibly getting taught technique that still lies in the trial stages when it's already been standardized and refined so you are basically getting someones theory or opinion rather than the the end product. Now of course it's all a gamble. maybe that unlicensed persons experience has in fact led them to the standard.
to take this one step further. climbing will always find you in new situations where maybe the standard doesn't work and you need that other persons POV on how things should be done. but now that you've learned the standard you'll at least know what your getting into and that maybe what you are doing is risky but the risk is low and well the only thing thats going to save your ass.
hope that all makes sense.
Richard B.
Group Organizer
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 89
Hey Zeth, Mel, and everyone in the Meetup!

Wow- I disappear for a few months to go backcountry skiing and teach avalanche classes, and while I'm not looking a lively discussion starts!

I'd like to mention the original intent of this discussion- To increase the safety of bay area climbers. To use Meetup as an online community to share knowledge, and raise the level of safety for local climbers.

I'd still love to see newer climbers commenting in this thread. I'd be stoked to hear a few questions about climbing anchors from newer (or more experienced) climbers, and to get a discussion going about what makes a climbing anchor safe or not. The whole idea was/is to get people climbing safer.

The point isn't where you learn to build your anchors, or who teaches you, but that you're building solid anchors.

One interesting thing about climbing anchors is that everyone who makes a climbing anchor believes he/she is being safe. No one says " I don't know what I'm doing, I have no confidence in my anchor building skills, but I've built an anchor... who wants to climb on it?" Every anchor I photographed was being climbed on! The person who made the anchor thought they were safe, and their friends climbed on it, thinking their "expert friend" knew what they were doing... I'd really like to use this forum to provide an opportunity for people who aren't sure to speak up and ask questions, so we have a safer climbing season this year!

As for the lively discussion between Mel and Zeth, I kind of agree with both of you. I learned what I know from a combination of sources. My base knowledge came from books, including Freedom of the Hills, Morrow's Guide to Knots, and the original Climbing Anchors book. I was a student in Gear & Anchor classes taught by a guide service, I've been through several AMGA guiding programs, swiftwater rescue classes, etc. There is definitely value to each source of information. Most importantly, I am always open to new ideas! If you see me at the cliffs doing something, and you think I could improve it, come over and tell me. We'll talk through it, and see what we think together.

Books are awesome sources of information, for sure. In my experience books give you information, but don't help you think or problem solve in unusual situations, like how to set up an anchor on the blobby feature at Goat Rock in Castle Rock, and books don't provide feedback. If you learn something in a book incorrectly, you'll continue to do it incorrectly. At least one of the (bad)anchors I photographed was built by someone who had an open copy of Climbing Anchors on top of the cliff with them.

Bedpost anchoring is a great way to practice anchoring skills away from the crag, as long as you're practicing good technique. Once again, there isn't great feedback. Table legs won't tell you that you've set up an American Death Triangle, for instance.

Guides are great sources of information and can provide feedback, but have to balance the goal and all the objectives of the day. If you hire a guide to take you up a multi pitch climb, he/she can explain what's going on at each anchor, but he/she probably doesn't have the time to teach you the difference between tying a cordolette with a double fisherman's vs. a figure 8/ overhand, or how best to utilize a clove hitch in your anchor building. If you hire a guide to spend a day teaching Gear & Anchor skills, you'll get a wealth of information, but may have trouble recalling the information later, at least without a book for support.

Guiding courses, at least the AMGA Single Pitch Instructor class, is a great way to learn industry standard techniques, which change over time. Passing an SPI exam is the minimum requirement for being a guide for the Outdoor Adventure Club, but there are plenty of qualified people in the world who never take an AMGA class. The class is geared toward climbing guides/instructors rather than purely recreational climbers, though.

A Gear & Anchor class is a great source of information as well. I'll happily admit my bias- I've been teaching Gear & Anchor classes for over 10 years, and I think a good anchor class is the best way to learn anchoring skills. You can go from zero or minimal skills to having a solid understanding of anchoring concepts in one day. Classes are also the best way to get you thinking about how to solve tricky situations, and can be the easiest way to learn to tie some knots. A Munter Mule is easy to tie, but practically impossible to learn from any book I've seen.
Even so, we always recommend getting a copy of Climbing Anchors as a reference, and we encourage everyone who takes our class to follow up with us with any questions they have, because we cover a wealth of information. I've even had people send me pictures from their cameras, while at the crag, asking what I think about anchors.

From my perspective, there is no one best way to learn this information. It's a combination. Learn from a book, but ask questions to more experienced climbers. Learn from a class, but have a book to refer back to. Learn from your friends, but ask where they learned, and double check what they tell you with other climbers or books. Not sure about your anchors? Ask a nearby climber at the crags, but remember you may be better trained than the person you ask. I've bumped into Mel at Castle Rock, and I'd trust his feedback, based on what I've seen him do. I've never met Zeth, but if he's completed AMGA rock classes he's got a solid base of knowledge, and I'd listen to what he has to say.

Ultimately your safety is up to you, which is one of the greatest facets of rock climbing, I think!

I encourage anyone who has a question about anchoring to ask it here. Let's get a discussion going that will help people climb safer. Mel, Zeth and I might all have different ideas about how best to learn things, but I am quite sure we'd all like to see people learning to be safer, and I am happy to share my knowledge and experience with anyone who asks, here or on the cliff.

If you are interested in a Gear and Anchor Class, we (the Outdoor Adventure Club) teach them throughout the season. We have one coming up at Castle Rock on April 3. I'm happy to offer the discounted OAC member rate to anyone from the Meetup who attends our climbing classes, just put the word Meetup after your last name when you register. Last year we had several people from the Meetup attend our Anchor Class, as well as our Self Rescue Class and Multi-Pitch tech class.

Hey that's it for me, I'll be back in town as soon as the snow melts, and I'll see you all in the gym and on the rock. Until then you're invited and encouraged to ask any questions you have about building climbing anchors.

Richard Bothwell
Outdoor Adventure Club

Mike K
user 6839315
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 1
What you learn from a single book might suggest that there's only one way to build an anchor in a particular situation, but a well-taught course will challenge you to think, discuss the pros and cons of different approaches, and encourage you to continue to learn as you go.

I've taken Richard's course, and it definitely fell into this category. I will always want to have my anchors examined, and discussed, and criticized -- I hope to keep learning and improving my anchor building skills for the rest of my life. I'll listen to anyone with a good idea, no matter how much or how little experience they have. In the end, I need the judgement to balance the tradeoffs that are present in every situation, and make decisions that my life, and the lives of my friends, depend on.
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