Natural anchors are a great form of protection when climbing on rock, snow or ice. They can make the ascent quicker and lighter and help save on gear and equipment. Using natural anchors is also cleaner and more environmentally friendly. There are times when natural anchors are the only form of protection available and on rock or snow ridges they allow you to move more quickly which means spending less time in the danger zone.
When climbing a rock or snow ridge, you are usually under pressure to climb quickly, due to factors such as changing weather conditions. Moving lightly on this kind of terrain means you'll be less exposed to electrical storms and you can complete the route in the desired time, without pressure.
During a descent it's also possible to use natural anchors to position a rope for a rappel so that you don't have to leave as much of your own equipment behind, which is a great resource if you find your almost out of gear.
This is the gear you, or someone else leaves behind on a wall. The most common kinds of fixed gear is glue-in bolts, expansion bolts and pitons. It's normally found at rappel and belay points and sometimes at intermediate points on the pitch for clipping in the rope. You can also find fixed gear in cracks, like knotted cords and stoppers or cams. However, before clipping onto these items, it is essential that you check they're reliable and in good condition for use as an anchor.
This is the gear that's placed and then removed. Cams, stoppers, pitons, ice-screws or snow stakes are the most common. They are used both for setting up an anchor system or for belaying the next pitch. On multi-pitch routes, a great variety of gear may be required for carrying out the climb safely. However, the amount and range of protection used will depend on your level of experience and your technical and physical ability. A strong roped team won't need to carry as much gear as a less experienced one. This doesn't mean safety is compromised, but that a route is safer if the team has more confidence, and this level of confidence comes from experience and mental & physical ability.
To use a natural anchor as protection, you need a cord with a diameter no less than 7mm. Stitched slings offer greater resistance than knotted slings and it's convenient to carry both short and long slings and cords for greater versatility. You can occasionally make an exception and use narrower cords for tying to bolts that have lost the hanger or for sticking out pitons. Of course, the wider the diameter of a cord, the stronger it is.
Before tying to any kind of natural anchor, it's important to check its resistance. Check that the thickness of the rock, tree or ice is strong and stable enough to use as safe protection by trying to move it carefully. On other occasions a visual check is required, for example to see if a natural rock bridge is solid enough. The solidity of a natural anchor will also depend on the type and quality of the rock. Granite is more resistant than limestone, which, in turn is more resistant than sandstone. Then come conglomerate rock and schist. But whatever the rock, it is important to study it before you place the sling or cord. The same rule applies to ice as the quality of an ice column varies in solidity, so care is essential.
Lark's head Knot
It is an interesting fact that this knot greatly weakens the cord or sling. It tightens round the anchor well, especially if this is fairly smooth, but the sling-on-sling effect causes a great deal of friction. When the angle is closed and it grips tightly, the strength of the loop is considerably reduced, as shown in photo 1 (traction is perfect, but loop strength is reduced). The sling isn't weakened as much if it doesn't tighten so much around the rock and if the angle is open, but this means it doesn't totally grip the rock. It can be used, but it's certainly not the best option, as you can see in Photo 2. ( grip isn't perfect but loop strength is greater). The lark's head knot can be used on certain occasions, especially for progression on aid-climbing anchors, but it should be avoided when setting up a belay point, where 100% resistance is required.
Photo 1 / Photo 2
This is a practical knot for looping around ice-columns or small rock protrusions. The resistance of the clove hitch is greater than the lark's head, but it's slow to tie. On the other hand, it is convenient for preventing leverage when you come across sticking out pitons. In photo 3
. you can see a clove hitch on a rock protrusion or chicken head.
The resistance of this knot is similar to the previous ones. But it is practical for using on small rock protrusions. It also works well for connecting to pitons or fixed bolts that have lost the hanger. Photo 4.
shows this knot on a rock protrusion.
Photo 3 - Photo 4
Knotted single cord
This is a safe way for tying off a tree, rock protrusion or ice-column. It uses the maximum strength of the sling or cord, except for the knot used to join the ends together (double fishermen's or webbing knot). The only inconvenience is that you need time to tie it. Photo 5
shows a cord tied round a natural bridge.
Knotted double sling
This system is better because it has twice the strength of the single sling, except for the joining knot (unless it's stitched) and it's quick to install. Like the single cord, this sling doesn't need to tighten round the anchor. In photo 6
you can see a double sling around a chockstone.
Rock climbing usually offers a large number of natural anchors, for protection and belaying as well as for setting up a rappel. The features of the terrain dictate which material is required but it's not always possible to find a natural anchor that offers enough protection. When ice-climbing, first observe the quality of ice and stay away from soft or rotten ice, which is too weak for use as an anchor. In snow, it's also important to observe the resistance offered by natural anchors.
Photo 5 - Photo 6
Blocks and boulders
Blocks of rock offer excellent protection, both for belaying and for progression. Before placing the sling, check that the block is solid and doesn't move. At the same time, check there are no sharp edges that could cut it. If need be, you can file down a sharp edge or protect it with other gear (backpack, clothing, a bush, etc.). Where possible, loop the sling near the base of the block, which is its strongest point. The angle formed by the slings at the master connection should never be greater than 60 degrees. When using rocks for progression, use a long sling to extend the anchor so that it doesn't slip off. In photo 7
the sling has been extended so that it can't slip off the rock if the rope is accidentally tugged. At a belay, you can tie onto the sling and belay your partner from your harness so that your body acts as a counterweight, preventing the sling from slipping off. In photo 8
you can see how the climber has tied his rope to the sling on the rock and is belaying his partner from his harness. Another way to prevent the sling from accidentally slipping off is by placing an inverted anchor and attaching it to the sling. Connect the protection using another sling which can be tightened with a clove hitch. Photo 9
shows a sling tightened by an inverted cam. In this case a Camalot has been placed in a crack under the sling on the rock and the cam has been tightened using an auxiliary cord and two clove hitches. This inverted anchor prevents the main sling from sliding off the rock.
Horns and chicken heads
A sling can be tightened around small rock protrusions to keep it from slipping off. A sliding knot will keep the sling in place, as shown in photo 4.
Natural rock bridges
In most cases, natural bridges offer an excellent anchor. They are stable and resistant both for setting up a belay or rappel as well as for protection. To put this into practice, take a trip to Naranjo de Bulnes, in Asturias, and experience the limestone rock and natural bridges. The size of the bridges and holes determine the overall strength of the anchor. A good range of auxiliary cords and single and double runners are required for use as protection and it's quicker to place a stitched sling through the bridge as this is double the strength of a single sling and avoids wasting time knotting the ends. Once you've passed the sling through the hole, simply clip on your carabiner or quickdraw and then clip on the rope. To set up a belay or rappel, use more resistant slings for greater safety. Never rely on cords or slings left on a bridge. Use a new sling to guarantee your safety. Many bridges used for rappel are full of old slings and these should be avoided or, substituted for a new one. When possible the old and damaged slings should be cut off and removed. Photo 5
shows a natural bridge with a single sling for a rappel.
Chockstones also offer a good anchor point, both for protection and for setting up a belay point. It is important to check the condition of the chockstone by carefully pushing down on it to see if it's stable. Again, it's quicker to place a stitched sling through the bridge as it will be double the strength and avoids wasting time knotting the ends. Photo 6
shows a double sling around a chockstone.
Trees & bushes normally offer a good anchor point. Before slinging a tree, check that it's alive and stable. Also try not to get too much resin on your sling. The sling or cord should be placed at the base of the tree, which is its strongest point. Again, make sure that the angle formed by the slings at the master connection are no more than 60 degrees. For a rappel, extend the sling so that the rope is under the ledge of the wall to make it easier to recover the rope. In photo 10
you can see a tree sling prepared for a rappel.
Ice columns provide a good anchor point providing they are stable. Place a sling around the base of the column for maximum resistance. In photo 11
a sling has been placed round the base of an ice-column. At belay points, you can reinforce the column with other gear such as an ice-axe or ice-screw, so that the force is evenly distributed between the anchors. It is important to knot the sling to prevent the system from stretching if one anchor fails. Photo 12
shows an ice-column reinforced with an ice-axe, to distribute the force between the two anchors.
Photo 11 - Photo 12
Cornices & moats
In snow, on many occasions a cornice or the edge of a moat can be used to create rope drag and belay your partner. This is a quick way of getting out of a sticky situation. In photo 13
the climber is body belaying his partner, using the raised surface of the moat to create friction so that he can detain his partner more easily. The greater the angle of the rope in contact with the snow and ice, the greater the friction, whicm means better control of the rope.
If necessary, you can use a variety of natural anchors to set up a belay point. Simply connect the points together to distribute the force between the anchors, in the same way as if you were setting up a normal belay point.
QUICK PROTECTION AND PROGRESSION ON RIDGES AND CRESTS
Using a rope is necessary in these situations, but it can also create a false sense of security on non-technical terrain with loose rocks or when placing protection isn't an option. If, for example, you're climbing a sharp, pointy ridge with no placements for protection, a fall would really complicate the day, so extra care is necessary. In these cases, a short rope should be tied to the next climber, about 3 metres long on rock ridges and about 6 metres on snow ridges. On Snow ridges it is also a good idea to carry a bit of extra rope in your hand to give you time to react. The strongest climber should walk in second place so that he can constantly pay attention to the one in front. If the leader falls to the left, the climber behind throws himself to the right to act as a counterweight and vice versa. This is an extreme measure but it may be the only option available to detain a fall on a ridge. If the snow slope is more gentle you can use the self-arrest technique and then simul-climb together. On rocky ridges the procedure will be similar but you need to be very aware of the possibility of the sharp rock edge cutting the rope. Wherever possible, it is better to belay your partner on complicated and dubious pitches.
Rocky crests often offer great anchor points. Just put your sling around a rock and clip the rope to your harness with a locking carabiner. Now that you're safe, the next step is to belay your partner. To do this you can use any dynamic belay system (Munter Hitch, figure-of-eight, belay plate) to reduce impact force on the safety line. If necessary, you can even body belay, which is quick and effective. Photo 14
shows a climber tied to the sling on the rock. On certain occasions, body belaying is quick and safe, but it's important that the rope anchoring you to the rock is tense, so that you aren't thrown off balance if your partner pulls hard on the rope. Depending on the conditions, you may need to belay from your harness, with a Munter hitch, for example, (photo 8)
. On other occasions you can belay the second climber directly from the belay point. Just clip a carabiner to the sling on the rock and use a Munter hitch, guide plate or other assisted-braking belay device, (photo 15)
Another quick way to belay your partner is to pass the rope directly round the rock to create friction. The climber should stand slightly lower than the rock to close the angle and create more friction. The braking capacity is provided by the friction between the rock and rope (photo 16)
. On snow ridges, use your gear to make a belay point (ice-axe, snow stake, ice-screws, etc.) or natural anchors such as a moat, block of ice, etc. and you can use the same process as on the rock crest. The penetration of the rope in the snow will help create greater friction and resistance on the belay system, (Photo 13)
. On rocky crests, the lead climber will progress by placing protection as required and according to the morphology of the terrain.
Photo 14 - Photo 15
A practical, quick and lightweight safety system is with webbing or cord slings. Find a solid rock and pass the sling around it and then clip the rope on with a carabiner.
Check that the ridges and edges of the rock won't damage your gear. If it looks dubious, you should change to another rock or try and protect the gear. At the same time you should check that the sling won't slip off from an unexpected movement of the rope. Another form of belaying is to simply pass the rope between rocks or through cracks. This is quick but it requires practice and constant observation to prevent the rope from slipping out.
Snow ridges often offer limited places for natural anchors, so you may have to use snow stakes. You might find that you can only place a few anchors during a pitch, in which case it is important to assess the possibility of a fall and try to ensure that the distance isn't excessive or dangerous.
Climbing crests or ridges should be light and shouldn't waste time, due to the weather conditions. This doesn't mean skimping on safety measures, simply that you are aware of your own climbing capacity on that particular terrain. Each time you belay your partner, use the right safety techniques and pay constant attention. Your body position is very important, especially when belaying from your harness or body belaying, so always find a good, stable position and try to distribute your weight evenly on both legs. Remain vigilant and anticipate the direction of the pull and position yourself accordingly. Sometimes you'll need to sit, others stand. But pay equal attention, whatever the situation. When climbing in a team or with a short rope, this attention should be doubled, simply because any member of the team could fall unexpectedly at any time.
Choosing a good natural anchor requires time and practice. You can't pass a sling around the first rock you find half-way along a ridge. It's essential that you always carefully check the stability and condition of the anchor you intend to use. The resistance of natural anchors depends on their solidity, so it's essential to choose wisely. When aid-climbing you can use less resistant anchors for progression with your etrier and much stronger anchors that would arrest a fall safely.
Climbing on adventurous terrain is always exciting and it's an experience that takes you back to the origin of mountaineering. Rock and snow ridges offer unlimited opportunities for progression, using natural anchors and are perfect connections between those golden peaks in the sky.
Text & photos:
JosÃ© Carlos Iglesias
UIAGM Mountain Guide