American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

On New Rock-Climbing Equipment and Its Use

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1967

On New Rock-Climbing Equipment and Its Use

Yvon Chouinard and Thomas M. Frost

DURING the last ten years a revolution has taken place in the field of technical rock climbing. Many of the advances in this revolution are associated with the high rise in general climbing standards and refinement of existing techniques, but many of the advances have been in the development and maximum logical use of new and specialized equipment.

Technical rock climbing now has become an art form itself and is as much a part of le grand alpinisme as is free climbing. Watch a rope of expert artificial climbers moving up a vertical wall, placing and removing 100 pitons a day, belaying and sleeping in hammocks from these pitons; totally adjusted to their vertical world. Watch the leader judge the size of a crack, glance down at his hardware loop and without hesitation pick the correct size piton and drive it in just enough safely to support his weight; clip in the karabiners and rope with no mistakes and move up the étriers with the same fluid motion as the free climber. You cannot deny that this in indeed, a well developed form of art

To become this proficient takes a great deal of experience and practice. In writing this little treatise we hope to describe a few of the techniques and tricks that are an integral part of the Yosemite method of technical climbing.

Hero Loops

It would be nearly impossible to describe the use of this new equipment without first describing the "hero loop” or tie-off cord. It is a 24 to 27-inch length of 9/16-inch-wide nylon webbing that has been tied to a loop with either a ring bend (double overhand) or a fisherman’s knot. Each climber carries about ten of these and they are used in an infinite variety of ways, a few of which we will describe in the course of this text. The 9/16-inch Hero Loops are for artificial climbing. For free climbing, if possible, ¾" or 1" slings should be used. One Hero Loop plus a karabiner can be used instead of two or three karabiners to reduce rope drag; this conserves equipment on long artificial pitches.

The Yosemite Method

The most efficient sequence and proper method of artificial climbing is as follows: (1) Place piton, (2) Clip in a free karabiner, (3) Clip one or two étriers into the karabiner, depending on steepness, (4) Test the piton by applying greater than body weight (a little hop in the étriers; if the piton passes the test, then erase any further thought of its pulling out), and step up, (5) When you come belt high to the piton, then clip in the climbing rope.

The advantages of this system over any other (for instance, performing step (5) before either step (3) or (4)) are: (1) It leaves less slack in the rope if the new piton should pull out. (2) It is the most economical of time, motion and energy because it is not necessary for the leader to haul up eight feet of slack and then let four feet of it slide back down to the belayer when he moves up. (3) It is a method that can be used without variation on every piton, thus establishing a recurring pattern that minimizes delays. The only exception is on strenuous, overhanging sections where the leader requires direct tension from the rope to stay in balance. In this case step (5) should be done in place of step (4) if the piton seems to be good.

This entire method of artificial climbing depends on using karabiners that allow one to open the gate with two étriers clipped in and supporting the climber’s weight.

Racking Hardware

Speed in artificial climbing comes not from mere quick action but rather from simple efficiency. One of the best demonstrations of the efficiency of the Yosemite method or rather the inefficiency of the other schools is in the method of racking the hardware on the person. It is important to develop some sort of logical order in carrying the hardware so that the needed piton can be found without looking and can be taken off the karabiner with only one hand.

On "normal” climbs all the hardware is carried on a sling around the shoulder and hangs on the opposite side of the body from the hammer. Hardware loops are made of 1-inch-wide stiff, not tubular, nylon webbing about 45-inches-long and sewed in a loop with a 2-inch overlap. All the pitons are clipped into karabiners and are carried on this sling in an order according to their size; that is, all the Rurps and knife-blades together, then the thin horizontals on another karabiner clipped in towards the back; next the thicker blades, wedges, etc. The karabiner gate must face outward with the gate opening downward so that the pitons can be removed or replaced with only one hand. It is not only essential in difficult climbing to use only karabiners with easy opening gates but it is also a matter of safety.

On climbs where the pitons are already in place the extra karabiners are grouped in lots of two or three and are carried on the frontal side of the slings, in front of the pitons; where the pitons must be placed, the karabiners are carried behind the pitons. On big artificial climbs where many pitons, karabiners and tie-off loops must be carried, two hardware slings are used, one on each side of the body. All the blade pitons, small angles and tie-off loops can be carried on the side away from the hammer and the bongs and extra karabiners carried on the other side.

When cleaning a pitch, some effort should be made to rack the pitons in some semblance of order so that no time is lost in sorting at the end of the pitch. Changing leads on these new ledgeless climbs is often the scariest part of the climbing!

Method of Driving and Removing Pitons

The most common error climbers make in using alloy-steel pitons is to overdrive them. Getting optimum holding power from these pitons does not come from beating them to death. It comes from sophisticated placing, so that under a load they will wedge themselves and resist shifting. In a vertical crack the dominant requirement for piton holding power is resistance to rotation. The proper method is to begin by finding the section of crack that best fits the piton and provides natural resistance to shifting. This ideally will be a locally wider section of the crack that grips the piton near each end of the blade. By comparison, a poor placing is that where only a single high spot in the crack contacts the blade and provides an unwanted pivot point.

The piton size should normally allow half to three-quarters of the blade length, depending on piton size and taper, to be inserted into the selected section of the crack before driving. Pound the piton in only part way. Then test with a slight downward blow on the head to see how well it is in and how well it resists shifting. Then drive some more according to the results of the test, and retest with another downward blow until the piton appears very solid in its resistance to shifting. Then restrain the urge to give it that one extra blow — this is the one that will make the piton difficult to remove. If, however, a perfect placement is not possible then the best security can be obtained, particularly in vertical cracks, from a really hard driven piton.

Though alloy-steel pitons have a high resistance to bending, in horizontal cracks it is always better to tie off with a Hero Loop if the neck of the piton is not flush with the rock.

The overall speed of the party is enhanced considerably if the pitons are placed no firmer than required to do the job and with an eye towards removal as well as holding power, because the total time spent on any piton is the sum of placement time and removal time. Artificial pitons need hold, in theory, little more than body weight. Protection pitons may be required to hold 3000 or 4000 pounds. Much less driving is required when the crack fits the piton and therefore removal is much easier.

A perfect placement is one where a piton can be inserted with the fingers plus one hammer blow and hold 4000 pounds. It is important to remember that every single piton must be tested before use. As described above this is done by hitting the piton once or twice sideways and observing if it shifts in the crack. Any old piton left in place must also be tested in the same way. After a while one develops a sensitive feeling and can tell approximately how much a piton will hold by testing in this method.

When driving two or more pitons into an expanding flake, caution must be exercised so that each succeeding piton does not expand the crack and allow the others to loosen.

Primarily it is important to use long-bladed pitons with little taper and place them in a locally wider section of the crack that provides natural resistance to rotation.

When nailing behind the horizontal lower edge of a flake place the piton at an angle to the edge of the flake rather than straight up. This way, if the crack should expand, hopefully the piton will shift a bit downward and cunningly jam itself rather immediately falling out (see Figure 1). Insert the piton with the fingers two-thirds to three-fourths of its length, then pound it in just enough to hold without overly expanding the flake. Start driving the second piton; then clip in the climbing rope before driving it home; or clip in a karabiner and an étrier and hang onto this in case the piton you are standing in should come out. With a bit of luck the piton you are driving in will hold your fall.

In reverse, a piton that is difficult to take out because of an expanding flake can usually be removed by driving another thicker piton close by and purposely expanding the crack.

The usual mistake in removing pitons is not hitting them far enough to the side in each direction, but rather just back and forth a little way in the centre of their range of travel. The proper method is to hit the piton in one direction until it absolutely will go no further — then hit it some more before driving it back in the opposite direction, but be sure to stop before the piton starts deforming. To avoid deforming the head the removal blows should be directed to the neck areas rather than the anvil of the piton. In flared cracks, and when the sling is left clipped in to prevent droppage, the blows are applied to the neck with the blunt pick end of the hammer. Because pitons are tapered they will work themselves out. The reason a piton will refuse to come out is because it was over driven, poorly placed, or the remover has insufficient experience. Climbs have been done in Yosemite where 450 pitons have been placed and all but two or three were taken out.

There are pitons designed so that there is a specific piton to fit every size of crack from incipient to 4-inches wide. Pitons are graded in logical sizes, i.e. a 1-inch Angle will fit one-third of the way into a ¾-inch Angle size crack or a long thick Lost Arrow will go one-third of the way into a long medium Lost Arrow size crack. Therefore, if the proper size of piton is not available then the next larger size can be used and tied off with a Hero Loop (see Figure 2).

Each piton is measured and named for the thickness of crack that it will fit. It is measured at its thickest point, at the neck, next to the eye. It is important to memorize the names of each piton so that you can look at a crack and see that it is a specific size and therefore a specific piton will fit it, i.e. one has a ¼-inch-wide crack and immediately knows that a thick Lost Arrow will fit perfectly, or at a pinch two thin Lost Arrows, or a thin Bugaboo and a thin Lost Arrow stacked will fit.

Rurps

The Realized Ultimate Reality Piton was developed to be used in bottoming incipient cracks where knife-blade pitons refuse to go in. Before the Rurp can be used a sling must be attached to the eye. The best system is to tie a loop of 9/l6-inch nylon webbing or equally strong Perlon cord; the loop is normally tied to the bottom hole of the Rurp. When the Rurp is to be placed in a horizontal crack or in an overhang, then the sling loop should be tied to the middle hole (see Figure 3). This is done before the Rurp is placed and the best way is to insert one end of the sling through the centre hole and tie off the end in a figure eight or overhand knot and tie a loop on the other end.

When the Rurp is placed in a vertical crack, the eye is downward (see Figure 4), but if it appears that the Rurp will only go in to half its blade length it may be advisable to place it with the eye up and tie a Hero Loop around the blade to eliminate leverage (see Figure 5).

The ideal placement for a Rurp is in an incipient crack in granite with slightly rotten edges. In this situation the piton chops its way into the softer rock thus creating its own hole. The hammer blows should be directed in line with the head of the piton. Glancing blows create a vibration which tends to dislodge the piton. Also, always keep a hold of the Rurp with the free hand while pounding to dampen the vibration.

A good deal of practice is necessary before one can become proficient and confident in the use of the Rurp. It is a good idea to practice placing them on a boulder and then stand in étriers to see just how little a Rurp will hold.

Blade-Type Pitons

This section includes both the Bugaboo and Lost Arrow pitons, which are both fine versatile tools and treated as such can open up a whole new world of climbing.

Pitons of alloy-steels are actually much safer than those of soft steel because of their greater holding power. Tests have shown that the average pull-out load for soft pitons in horizontal cracks in hard rock is less than 1500 pounds; whereas the average pull-out load for alloy-steel pitons under identical conditions is in excess of 4000 pounds. The primary reason for their greater holding power lies in their inherent low tolerance to bending; however, this also poses a potential danger. Whereas a good soft piton will deform and usually pull out of a crack before breaking, an alloy-steel piton subject to a heavy load (e.g. in a leader fall), may break if it has been improperly placed. To forestall disaster the following guidelines should be adhered to. Proper placement of Knife-blades, Bugaboos and Lost Arrows in horizontal cracks is eye downward and driven in all the way to the eye for protection during free climbing. If the piton will go in only halfway, then the lower edge of the crack should be slightly rounded with the piton hammer and the piton should be tied off with the Hero Loop to reduce leverage.

Never use the longer length pitons in a very crooked crack, such as one may find in some limestone. A good rule of thumb to follow in placing all the blade-type pitons and angled ones for that matter is "expect them to break if they are bent over 45°”. So act accordingly — either tie off a thicker piton or use a shorter one (see Figure 6).

The Knife-blade pitons are designed for artificial climbing and cannot be relied upon to hold a free fall, even though under occasional ideal conditions they have held short falls. Like the Rurp, the Knife-blades also take experience in placing, before one can become confident in their use. They work best in deeper incipient cracks with slightly rotten sides.

For direct aid the Knife-blades and Bugaboos can be used back-to-back in many varied positions. This "stacking” is particularly useful for filling up bottoming cracks (see Figures 7, 8, and 9). The wedge Lost Arrow is tapered in two ways and is made to be used either as a horizontal or vertical as width requires (see Figure 10).

If a thicker piton than is available is needed stacked pitons can be safe for free climbing protection if they are well placed (see Figures 7 and 11).

Angle Pitons and Bong Bongs

The same general rules apply to the Angle-type pitons as for the blade types. The correct placement in horizontal cracks is eye downward. Tie off all pitons that are not driven all the way in. It is especially important for Angle pitons to be placed so they cannot be bent backwards. The smaller Angle pitons if driven halfway in upside down and clipped into the eye may break if subjected to the load of a leader fall (see Figure 2).

Be careful not to use too large an Angle piton or Bong in a crack and then make up for it by over-driving. Because the sides will flare out, Angles will continue to go into the crack as long as you pound on them. These pitons have tremendous holding power and it takes only a little bit of pounding to have a very safe anchorage. It is better to find a perfect crack and only tap them a few times. The aluminum Bong Bongs are particularly vulnerable to over driving and restraint must always be exercised. Otherwise they may split down the centre or else be so difficult to remove that they will be destroyed in the attempt. Try to get two-thirds of the piton into the crack before pounding.

Bongs can be tied off the same as other pitons; however, in vertical cracks it is sometimes desirable to place the sling around the piton as if it were a chockstone. In very wide cracks some of the larger Bongs can be placed endwise and used as chockstones.

A very good method for eliminating the leverage on Angle pitons or Bongs that are in the crack only a little way is to stuff a knotted sling into the crack and then place the piton (see Figure 12).

When removing Bongs it is especially important to hit them forward off the eye and not on the eye itself. The wider Bongs may be hit from behind and knocked directly out of the crack.

Last Note

Alloy pitons wear out differently from soft pitons. Rather than becoming unrecognizable blobs of bent iron they keep their shape for a long time, sometimes for a hundred uses, but when fatigue cracks develop — usually at the junction of the eye and the blade, or in the case of the Angles or Bongs, along their length — the pitons should be retired.

Pitons of alloy-steel rust at a much faster rate than those of mild steel or iron. For this reason keep your pitons in a dry place.

If you have a sticky gate in a karabiner, it could be that it was hit with the hammer; in that case look for a small burr on the gate and file it off. If the gate is closing off centre then put the body in a vice and force the gate over to the opposite side. Do not use oil on the gates as it attracts dirt which will eventually clog up the gate.

When the tip of your pitons become so worn that they are ragged and sharp then they should be filed or ground to a smooth radius, this will prolong their life considerably. This is especially true of the Rurp and Knife-blades, which take considerable punishment. Caution must be exercised in grinding so that you do not overheat the metal to the point that it turns color.

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