Protecting yourself during clean climbing requires substantial knowledge of the gear to be used, and of the technique used to place that gear on the rock. Here is a summary.
- A fall between two pieces of protection or directly above the belay anchor can trigger a substantial load on the belay chain (it can reach one ton!). In order that the last piece of gear placed holds such a fall, one has to follow the following basic rules:
- A bombproof belay anchor: the survival of the rope party fully relies on the belay. Its construction requires knowledge to be learnt from an expert.
- The first gear placement after the belay anchor: it is the most important of all. Because it absorbs the biggest load in case of a lead fall, it should be placed as soon as possible above and to the side of the belay anchor (or above the ground).
- Placements: they are fully dependent on the rock itself. On stable/solid rock, always favour the biggest gear placements
- Direction of the load: one should pay attention to the direction of a potential fall and place the gear accordingly. Test the gear after placing it by pulling on it.
- Be aware that rope drag may pull some of your gear out of its placement while you climb further up. Try to align your pieces of gear as much as possible by using slings and long quickdraws
- Do not forget that the climber seconding the leader has to take all the gear out!
Clean Climbing Tools
Most probably the most liked natural rock features of clean climbers are holes in the rock that allow threading slings through them.
How to use:
Choose a big enough (at least as thick as a wrist) and stable thread.
The sling should be threaded through the widest part of the rock feature, as close as possible to the base. Never use a girth hitch to tighten the sling (as one does around trees) because the sling would then end up around the narrowest part of the thread (hence the weakest!).
Try to use vertical rock features
If the holes are to small, try using Dyneema slings that are flatter.
Underneath the tree line, one can encounter trees that can be very valuable friends for protection. Every living tree that is bigger than you forearm can be used as a piece of protection and, if bigger than your thigh, as a belay anchor.
How to use:
Attach the sling as close as possible to the bottom of the tree to reduce the load on the tree. Same applies to thick branches.
Use a girth hitch such that the sling will not slip.
Using slings on spikes is particularly adapted to granite ridge routes. Using slings on rock spikes is often fast and reliable.
How to use:
Wrap the sling around a spike and pass it through as many edges and notches as possible.
Use long quickdraws to reduce the risk of the sling moving upwards.
Load the sling with several quickdraws and/or jam it as much as possible in notches to reduce the risk of the sling moving upwards.
Use a constrictor knot such that the sling will remain in its position. But beware that knots reduce the load a sling can absorb!
Using another piece of gear, secure the sling against a potential upward load. This is particularly useful if the sling is used for a belay anchor.
The bad reputation of pitons is sometimes wrong; if well placed and hammered, they can be as reliable as stoppers and cams.
How to use:
- Use as few as possible but as much as necessary.
- Use soft steel pitons for soft rock (i.e. limestone) and hard steel pitons for hard rock (gneiss, granite).
- They exist in different shapes to be used according to the size of the crack
- The crack must be stable, which can be tested by knocking on it (a hollow sound is not good).
- The piton should be mostly hammered in the crack, not only placed there by hand.
- While hammering the piton, the sound should sound clearer and clearer, else it cannot be trusted.
- Pitons can be placed horizontally, diagonally or vertically in cracks as long as it is at least orthogonal to the fall direction.
Stoppers are passive pieces of gear that are placed in irregular cracks narrowing down in the direction of fall (at least they have to narrow down towards the bottom!). Those cracks are not always easy to find but a good stopper placement is bombproof. Like other types of placements, one has to take care that the rope drag does not dislodge the stopper while climbing further up.
How to use:
- Stoppers can be placed in all cracks that narrow down in the direction of fall.
- The rock must be solid.
- Place the stopper with as much contact with the rock as possible in the direction of fall. Vigorously pull the stopper in the direction of fall right after placing it to reduce the risk of dislodging it afterwards. In some cases it can help to hammer it gently, particularly if it is the last piece of gear before a crux.
- Use a sling or a long quickdraw to limit the risk of dislodging it while climbing further up.
- Micro-stoppers are difficult to place and could hardly hold a lead fall.
Originally brought to the market by «Wild Country» under the name «Friend», there are today several brands producing them. Cams have a mobile part and they are to be placed in parallel cracks, making them fast to place and to remove. All cams use the same principle: if loaded due to a fall, the mobile part of the cam, which is in contact with the rock, will absorb the load (and the fall).
How to use:
- Place the cam in the direction of the fall, else it would move when loaded and may jump out of the crack.
- All parts of the cams must be in contact with the rock, else the cam could also jump out when loaded.
- The cam should not be fully open, else it could slip out when loaded.
- Do no place cams in cracks that widen with deepness because rope drag tends to push the cams further deep in the crack.
- Do not tighten the cam too much or place it to deep inside the crack since it may become difficult or yet impossible to remove it.
- The very small cams cannot absorb a big load, they are mainly psychological!
OMEGA PACIFIC LINK CAMS
They work like regular cams except that they can be used for much bigger cracks thanks to a three-fold part compared to the two-fold part of regular cams. Their higher weight constitutes a disadvantage.
Tri-cams sold by «CAMP» are a combination of passive and active protection. They can be used in cracks like a regular stopper or they can be used as a cam by flipping them within the crack to secure them inside.
Hexentrics are stoppers that have different names depending on the make (i.e. Hexentrics or Rockcentrics) but are generally called «Hexes». They are to be placed in cracks and work passively in the direction of the fall, exactly like stoppers. In contrast to regular stoppers, they have six edges, hence offering more placements possibilities.
Ball nuts are a combination of stopper and cam. Like cams, they can be placed in parallel cracks but they are made to fit in very small cracks. Such small cracks could otherwise only receive pitons. The width of the cams is very small, only a few millimetres. As for the smallest cams and stoppers, ball nuts offer limited resistance, providing a rather psychological protection.
Those who wish to climb very wide cracks or even «offwidths»offwidth can use Big Bros sold by «Trango». They are some sort of pipe/cylinder that work like a pull up bar extended between two walls; one has to push a trigger, which allows screwing the pipe wider until it fits the crack width.
How to use:
Use Big Bros in parallel cracks or offwidths.
The rock should be clean and solid.
Place it horizontally. Both ends should be against the inside of the crack and ideally in little depressions/holes to reduce the risk of the device slipping out.
Press the trigger and screw until both ends firmly sit against the insides of the crack.
Use a sling to connect the Big Bro to the quickdraw.
- Saxon Knots
A static knot is a simple piece of rope with an overhand knot at one end, which will be placed in a crack exactly like a stopper. In case of a load, the knot expands in the crack, hence holding the fall. We recommend the following book: «Kinderkopf und Affenfaust (2010)» from Gerald Krug published by Geoquest Verlag in Halle (ISBN 978-3000149528).