How do Rock Climbing Anchors Work? (Bolts, Camming & More)


As I kept going deeper into rock climbing, I started to wonder how one stays secured if he accidentally slips. I knew there must be a system that prevents injuries in case something like that happens. Then, I came across the climbing anchors term. I’ve spent half a day reading and understanding the different techniques that will keep you safe in case you lose grip on the surface. Now, I am willing to share with you how do rock climbing anchors work.

Rock climbing anchors work by attaching your rope or sling directly to the anchorage point by using a carabiner or a knot. To do so, you may use natural anchors, such as trees, icicles, boulders, and horns. On the other hand, you can use artificial ones, like pitons, camming devices, and bolts.

I will today go into the nitty-gritty of climbing anchors. I will not just highlight the generic working but also delve into the different types of anchors to help you understand how each of them works. Once you go through my guide below, you will be well-versed with the working principle of each type of anchor.

You can divide the climbing anchors into natural climbing anchors and artificial climbing anchors (source). The artificial ones have further bifurcations, as well. I will explain how each type of climbing gear works and also follow that up with a guide to select the right one.

1. Natural Anchors

Natural anchors use features of the mountain or the rock, which you can use for climbing or stabilizing yourself. These features can include:

  • Trees
  • Icicles
  • Protrusions
  • Horns
  • Boulders

You might be thinking, how you can use these natural features to climb? The answer is that they work by attaching a carabiner, lanyard, or a sling to it. It will ensure that you can take the support for climbing.

However, it is crucial to understand that not every tree or every icicle can work as a natural anchor. There are a few requirements to look for before choosing it as your natural anchor. These include:

  • You have to ensure that the natural anchor can support your weight. If there is any doubt, it is a good idea to skip that natural anchor in favor of another.
  • Also, you have to ensure that the master point of the anchor is over the cliff edge. It will ensure that the rope can run down to you without any obstructions.
  • It is a good idea to choose the master-point in your climbing path. As a result, you can follow the designated path rather than deviate from it.

If the natural anchor which you plan to use fulfills these three requirements, you can use it as an anchor and move forward. Otherwise, it is a good idea to skip it in favor of another anchor.

Why Should I Use Natural Anchors?

The answer is that all along the trail or the climbing trip, you will notice numerous such features. That is why, when you make use of the natural anchors in the way which I described above, it will be effortless for you to move forward.

Also, it will be much less time consuming than the other methods I will later present. Now that you are aware of natural anchors, let us look at the artificial ones.

2. Artificial Anchors

Most of us are familiar with artificial anchors. These are the ones that you can buy online or from an outdoor supply store. These anchors include:

  • Spring-loaded camming devices
  • Pitons
  • Steel expansion bolt
  • Stoppers

The artificial anchors need to be attached in crevices or around rocks to provide you with the grip that you need to climb. The higher the metal to rock contact of the anchor, the better it is.

It means that it can handle more weight. The exact mechanism which they use is dependent on the type of anchor you use.

I will now go into the details of the three types of artificial anchors below (source).

Belay Anchor

The belay anchor is one of the most reliable anchor types which you can go with. You can use it on a stand-alone basis. This anchor aims to allow you to attach a rope or a belay device.

How Does a Belay Anchor Work?

It consists of 2 components. One is usable as a natural anchor, and another one is the artificial anchor. The advantage is that there is a redundancy added into the anchor. That, in turn, will prevent you from falling. It also increases the weight carrying capacity of the anchor.

The redundancy also ensures that there is an added security in case the pressure on the rope increases.

As you can see, the procedure to use the belay anchor is quite easy. It is very reliable under normal circumstances. However, when the terrain is treacherous, or there is a high risk of a fall, it is a good idea to go with the next anchor, which I will highlight.

Running Belay Anchor

Have you heard about the running belay anchor before? Well, it is an anchor with the primary purpose of safeguarding you if the leader suffers from a fall. It is one of the best anchors if the probability of the fall is on the higher side.

I will go into the details of this anchor below to help you understand how it works.

The running belay anchor should be installed between the two climbers. In case, the leader falls, the follower will work as a counterweight.

As a result, the anchor will help you in arresting the fall. Under normal circumstances, it works as a regular belay anchor. It is only when the leader suffers a fall; it can facilitate counterbalancing.

There are quite a few advantages which the running belay anchor can offer like:

  • The easy arrest of the fall
  • Faster climb under normal circumstances
  • Avoiding extra load on the rope
  • Recovering from the fall at a quicker pace

These advantages of the running belay anchor mean that it is a necessity when the climb is challenging, or the probability of a fall is on the higher side.

Ice Anchor

Will the above anchors work in snowy conditions?

If you plan to climb the rock or a mountain in snowy weather, it is a good idea to use an ice anchor (snow picket). It will provide you with excellent hold, even in freezing conditions (source).

The working principle of the ice anchor is pretty simple. The snow picket needs drilling into hard snow. You can do so with the help of ice screws. Before this step, it is essential to find ice which can hold it.

Here is a well-described video on how to install this kind of snow anchors.

By now, you might be wondering what if the ice cannot hold it?

The best way to use snow picket is in conjunction with the v-thread (source). The v-thread device requires you to drill two holes into ice, which meet at the other end.

After that, you have to pass a cord through it and the V-thread device. You have to close the loop using a sturdy knot. The v-thread device, in that case, will provide you with a redundant way to distribute the pressure and also facilitate easy use of the snow picket.

Once you use this mechanism along with the snow picket, you can secure yourself. The ice picket will not come off either.

Thus, the ice anchor or the snow picket can help you in inclement weather, as well.

3. Reuse Distinction

There is another distinction between the climbing anchors that you need to know. The two types under this distinction vary in use and working principle.

The distinction primarily relies on the possibility of reusing the anchors. I will go into two types of climbing anchors based on their reuse possibilities.

Fixed Anchors

Fixed anchors are permanently driven or drilled into the Rock. You can attach a quick draw, belay device, or rope. However, once you move past that area, you don’t have to pull them out from the rock.

They will stay there. As you progress, you will install more of them to climb up the Rock. The examples of such anchors include:

  • Bolts
  • Pitons

The advantage of fixed anchors is that they provide high weight carrying capacity. The disadvantage is that due to the working principle, you need to install them along the way repeatedly.

Removable Anchors

Removable anchors, on the other hand, are equally easy to install and remove. You need not leave them in their place. They are a good option if you cannot install the fixed ones, and neither can you use natural anchors. A couple of examples include:

  • Stoppers
  • Cams

The design of these anchors is such that you can pull them out or detach them from the rock. The removable design also ensures that you have to carry limited removable anchors for the trip. It will help you in lowering the load.

If you’re wondering how mountain climbing anchors work, I’ve gone into the working details of each of the types. I will also help you understand which type of anchors you should go with.

Which Type of Climbing Anchor Should I Use?

The type of climbing gear which you choose depends on a few factors. These include:

Terrain Type

If the terrain consists of plenty of natural anchors, your reliance on artificial anchors will decrease significantly. That is why it is essential to research before choosing the anchor. You have to go through the official documentation and websites to find terrain details and information.

The Experience of Team Members

Are you wondering why the climbing experience of the team members counts while choosing the anchor? Well, if your entire team is relatively new, it is a good idea to select an anchor like running belay. It will support the team members in case of a fall.

Weather

How likely are you to encounter ice and snow? If it is very likely, you have no other option but to go for the ice anchor. That is why you cannot ignore the weather as well. If snow or ice is not likely on the climbing expedition, you can go with the regular anchors that I have described above.

Security vs. Carrying The Load

If you want to go for the most secure option, you can carry the fixed anchors along with you. If you’re worried about the weight, you can carry the removable ones.

Once you take these factors into account, picking the right anchor for your climbing trip will become easy for you.

Do I Need Training Before Using Climbing Anchors?

Yes, training is imperative when it comes to using mountain climbing gear. Up there on the mountain, you will rely on the anchors. That is why you cannot take any risk.

It is advisable that you join a climbing course or head to the nearest indoor climbing range. They will surely have a training program that will familiarize you with all the anchors and also help you understand how you can use them out there in the mountains.

You should not ignore the training as it can lead to numerous problems when you head on to your first climbing expedition.

How to Include Anchors in The Climbing System?

I have gone into the details of the working of the anchors above. However, how can you incorporate it into your climbing system?

I will answer this question below. There are two ways to do so.

1. Semi-Direct Method

In this method, you are connected to the belayer, and the belayer uses the anchor. The technique uses the belay device. The advantage of this method is that it can arrest the fall quite quickly. Also, the belayer can remove themselves from the system.

2. Direct Method

The direct process involves attaching your rope directly into the anchor. In this system, belay devices can also be used, but generally speaking, the other climber uses a different anchor. As a result, both the climbers are independent of each other. If you’re using the belay device, then only the climbers will be associated.

Thus, if you’re planning to use the anchors during your next climbing expedition, these are the two ways in which you can do so. Either way, you will have to purchase other pieces of gear so that you will be able to anchor yourself. 

On that topic, make sure you read an article by me on how much does climbing gear cost. In there, I’ve made a list of all the necessary equipment (ropes, carabiners, harness, helmet, gloves, etc.) and presented their price range.

Can a Sling be Used to Set up Anchors?

Up until now, I have only spoken about attaching a rope to the anchor. However, can you do the same with the help of a sling?

Yes, you can use a sling to set up an anchor. The advantage of the sling is that it will spread the load evenly and reduce the pressure on the main rope.

It will also mean that if you want to detach yourself from the anchor, you can do so without much effort. That is why, when you’re planning on using the fixed anchors, carrying climbing slings along with you can make the trip convenient for you.

Also, a sling would likely weigh less than a rope. On that matter, I highly suggest you read an article I’ve written on how much does a climbing rope weigh. I have provided there with 40 examples so that you can pick the one which suits you best (in terms of weight and durability). 

Conclusions

So, if up until now you were not aware as to how climbing anchors work, you can refer to my guide above. With the detailed working of each type of anchor and a small guide to help you choose the right one, you can be sure that your next mountain climbing trip will be convenient. Now, it is time to pick the right anchor for your next expedition.

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