Techniques Of Protection Leading A Pitch


After you get to know the tools for protection and how to place them, it's time for the next move—literally.

It's one thing to recognize a Stopper and a hex and a Friend and to be able to use them in individual placements. You can learn all this at home or while standing safely at the base of a cliff.

It's another thing to get up on the cliff and take the lead. You now need to learn the protection techniques that let you use these tools safely in mapping strategy for an entire pitch.

You'll learn to think of the entire pitch as you make each placement. How will this placement affect the total climbing system—and vice versa? Learn these techniques and you shouldn't have any nasty surprises in a fall. That beautifully placed chock won't pop out, because you used the right tricks to make it do its job in the context of protection for the entire pitch.

Leading is a complex business. Beginners usually need an apprenticeship, moving behind seasoned climbers, before they can safely take the sharp end of the rope. Don't ever take a lead if you don't feel ready, and don't pressure others into leading. Keep the art of leading what it ought to be: exciting, challenging, satisfying, and safe.


The universal fear of falling leads many climbers to place protection before almost every move. They deplete their hardware and waste valuable time. They also miss one of the great attractions of rock climbing, the exhilaration of moving smoothly and continuously up the rock.

Other climbers under-protect, sometimes to show off their strength and daring. They get a psychological lift that doesn't do a thing to counteract the law of gravity.

But the sensible climbers—you and I—base our decisions about protection on a careful assessment of our personal abilities, the character of the rock, and the time and equipment available.

The closest thing to a general rule is to place protection where you feel uncomfortable without it. Of course, comfort level isn't always determined by a rational assessment of danger. A climber who feels comfortable making a difficult move a mere 6 feet above the last piece of protection may risk a nasty fall onto a sharp rock horn, while a climber on a low-angle friction slab with no projections to hit if he falls may be terrified at running out 20 feet beyond the protection.

In coming to your own decision on when to place another piece of protection, keep in mind the quality of the placements on a pitch. If they're tending to be poor or questionable, you'll probably put in more to increase the likelihood that at least one will hold. Knowing the fall factor, discussed next, also helps in deciding the next placement.


The relative forces generated by a leader fall are measured by the fall factor, determined by dividing the length of a fall by the length of rope run out from the belay. The higher the fall factor, the greater the force.

The fall factor is lower when the length of rope run out from the belay is relatively great, because a long length of rope stretches more and absorbs more energy than a short length. The practical effect of this fact is that when the length of rope between belayer and climber is great, a fall will usually result in a smaller force than the same fall on a short length. Therefore, it's possible to place protection less frequently toward the end of a pitch without increasing the fall factor.

The fall factor is an important concept for the lead climber to understand because it provides an estimate of the relative forces that will be generated in a fall. The lead climber—not the belayer—determines the fall factor by deciding when to place protection. Therefore, the leader should keep the fall factor in mind and take steps to minimize it. Place protection as soon as possible after leaving the belay stance, in order to eliminate chances of a fall with the maximum fall factor of two. Then place intermediate protection as the opportunity arises while you climb. You can roughly estimate the potential fall factor at different points during the lead, to help in deciding when to place more protection. Just remember that a fall near the start of a pitch puts relatively more force on you and the protection, so it generally promotes safety to place more protection near the beginning.

Your belayer has the capability to adjust the belay technique to help accommodate the fall factor and minimize the effects of the fall on you and the climbing system. However, if you allow too much friction to develop in the climbing system or lead out the full length of the rope, the belayer will not be able to dynamically feed out rope to reduce the fall forces. This can create a static belay and cause the actual fall forces experienced by the leader to be higher.


As you lead a pitch, moving up from the belay station or from the last piece of protection, you'll reach a point where you would like to put in another piece—either because you want the extra protection at that point, or because a good opportunity for a placement presents itself. Find a stance for yourself that is secure and comfortable as possible, it can take some time to put in a good placement, so you need a stance where you won't slip off or become dangerously tired.

If there's no good stance, you're stuck with some unpleasant options: downclimb and ask the belayer to lead the pitch; hang on desperately and hope to get in a placement before arms or legs give out; or charge on to the next available placement point. This unhappy situation usually can be avoided by planning ahead and placing protection before it's urgently needed. When such a situation does develop, however, don't panic. Make a decision and stick with it. Surprisingly often, the correct decision is to continue without protection to the next possible placement.

When you find a good stance, however, go ahead with the protection placement. Sometimes you'll be faced with a choice between two or more usable cracks for placing chocks. It's tempting to always place the largest possible chock, but which one you use should depend on considering several factors. Which placement would be the strongest? What size chocks should be conserved for use higher on the pitch? Which placement will be easiest for the second climber to remove? Choose your placement after thinking through all the consequences of your choice.


The normal method of attaching the rope to any piece of artificial protection is very simple and very important. A runner clipped by a carabinerto the artificial protection is also clipped by another carabiner to the rope. The finished chain of protection is this: a piece of protection, a carabiner, a runner, another carabiner, the rope (fig. 10-40a).

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Fig. 10-40. Attaching the rope to the protection: a, attaching the rope to a piece of artificial protection (artificial protection, carabiner, runner, carabiner, rope); b, attaching the rope to natural protection (natural protection, runner, carabiner, rope).

With natural protection, the usual method of attaching the rope is to clip it to a carabincr that is clipped to a runner around the point of natural protection—whether it's a tree, Hake, rock horn, or whatever. The finished chain of protection is: the point of natural protection, a runner, a carabincr, the rope (fig. 10-40b).

These standard methods of extending the protection point with a runner have two critical virtues: they reduce the effect of rope movement on the protection, and they reduce the drag on the rope as it moves through the climbing system.


The carabiner is a basic tool for connecting parts of the climbing system. A carabiner's reliability in the event of a climber's fall is largely determined by how it is placed and used.

Clip each carabiner so the solid side is against the rock and the gate is down and facing out. This helps ensure that contact with the rock won't force the gate open—resulting in a much weaker carabiner—and makes it easier to clip a runner or rope into the carabiner.

The carabiner should allow the rope to run smoothly without twists or kinks. Avoid chaining carabiners, which can become undipped if severely twisted. Use locking carabiners, or two carabiners with gates opposed, if there's danger of a carabiner being forced open as the result of a fall.

It's always best to use a carabincr to attach the runner to a chock sling, rather than tying the runner directly to the sling (fig. 10-41a). This is particularly important with wired chocks because the wire cable under load could cut the runner. In an emergency, you can loop a runner through a wire sling (fig. 10-41c). But never attach the runner to a wire sling with a girth hitch (fig. 10-4lb).

When a carabiner is clipped directly into protection (usually a bolt or piton), see that the carabiner

Incorrect Slinging Techniques




Fig. 10-41. Attaching a chock to a runner: a, correct, a carabiner is used to connect the chock to the runner; h, emergency only, the runner is looped through the chock sling; c, incorrect, the runner is girth-hitched to the chock. A cable chock sling could cut the runner under load.

will not bind against the rock. A fall could subject the carabiner to loads from several directions and cause carabiner failure.


Single runners and the shorter runners known as quick draws are usually used with artificial protection. Double runners are often used to loop around natural protection such as trees and boulders.

You can create a large runner by connecting one runner to another with a girth hitch. Two single runners connected together like this will be about the length of a double runner.

For single runners or quick draws, there's a choice of using sewn or tied runners. Each has certain advantages and disadvantages. Sewn runners are stronger, lighter, less bulky, and have no knot that needs rechecking or retying. However, they cannot be untied and retied around a protection placement. Tied runners are cheaper and have a knot for use as a passive wedging chock in emergencies. They also can be untied and then retied around a tree or other point of protection. But tied runners are bulkier, and the knot (the weakest part of a tied runner) must be checked regularly for looseness.

Energy-absorbing runners can be used to reduce the load on marginal protection. This type of runner has a series of bar tacks designed to rip out as they absorb some of the load in a fall (fig. 10-42).

A safety consideration in using energy-absorbing runners: as each bar tack breaks, it can cause vibration that opens the gate of the attached carabiner. If all the bar tacks break, the final load could be on an open carabiner. (A locking carabiner would be insurance against this problem.) With these special runners, it's important to study the manufacturer's instructions.


Keeping the rope in roughly a straight line from the belayer to the climber is the best way to reduce rope drag and to guard against unanticipated fall forces. Rope drag is at best an annoyance and at

Yates Screamer
Fig. 10-42. Energy-absorbing runner: a, Yates Screamer energy-absorbing runner in use; b, during a fall, the bar tacks will break to absorb energy and help reduce the load on marginal protection.

worst can cause a leader fall. Fall forces, if they're not anticipated and planned for, can yank your protection right out of the rock.

Reducing rope drag

Rope drag causes all sorts of problems. It can hold a climber back. It can throw a climber off balance. It makes it hard for the leader to pull up enough rope to clip into the next protection. It adds friction to the climbing system, which can increase the force on the top piece of protection in a fall. Also, rope drag can affect how well a belayer responds to a fall, by reducing the ability to provide a dynamic belay.

If the protection placements do not follow a straight line up the pitch and if the rope is clipped directly in to these placements, it will zig-zag up the cliff, causing severe rope drag (fig. 10-43b). That's one main reason to extend runners from protection to rope, allowing the rope to hang straighter and run more freely through the protection system (fig. 10-43a).

Reducing Drag Quick Draws Zigzag
Fig. 10-43. Reducing rope drag: a, correct, the protection placements are extended using runners to straighten the rope and reduce rope drag; b, incorrect, the rope was allowed to excessively zig-zag, causing severe rope drag.

There's another problem that can occur here: the increased fall distance when using an extra-long runner. The extension may help keep the rope in a straight line. But it may also add dangerous extra feet to the length of a fall. In such a case, it's sometimes better to accept some rope drag in order to get better security in case of a fall.

If the protection placements happen to be in a straight line, the rope will, of course, be straight and experience less rope drag, even if it's clipped directly to the protection. And by clipping the rope directly to the protection, the distance of any fall is minimized. However, be aware that rope movement might jiggle a chock out of position in this situation. When a rope is clipped directly to bolts or pitons, a short runner (known as a quick draw) or two linked carabiners are normally used to separate the rope from the protection.

Judging the direction of fall forces

The mechanics of placing protection is only one skill a leader must acquire. The leader must also anticipate the direction of forces that will be created by a fall and how they affect the protection placements.

Climbers can be so wrapped up in placing the next piece of protection that they fail to analyze the effect it will have on the entire climbing system. This can create a false sense of security. A protection point may seem solid and secure—but it may not withstand a fall that generates forces in directions not anticipated. It's the responsibility of the lead climber to anticipate and protect against these fall forces.

The dangers of a zig-zagging rope again command our attention. The zig-zag not only puts a dangerous amount of drag on the rope, but also can bring unanticipated forces to bear on the protection. The pieces of protection may have been placed only with the thought of holding a downward pull. Now they are in danger of taking sharp pulls from a number of directions during a fall.

Consider this: when a climber falls, the rope becomes taut in an attempt to form a straight line from the bclayer up to the highest protection and then back down to the falling climber. The zig-zag rope tries to go straight—tugging sideways or up or outward on every piece of protection as it does so (fig. 10-44). If the placements are designed to take a pull in only one direction, they may come loose. If the highest piece of protection fails, the whole system could collapse.

During a fall, the top piece of protection is

Fall Protection Fails
Fig. 10-44. Judging the direction of fall forces: a, a zig-zagging rope can bring unanticipated fall forces to bear on the protection; b, as the rope tries to straighten, it can pull up or outward on the protection, causing it to fail, especially if it was placed only for a downward pull.



Fig. 10-45. The combined force on the top protection placement during a fall

loaded with the sum of two forces: the impact of the falling climber and the force exerted by the belay in arresting the fall (fig. 10-45). If a fall is taken by a weak piece of protection, it could fail. In this situation, it would be nice to know the protection below could be counted on to stay in place. But with the rope zig-zagging all over the hill, this might not be the case.

As in the problem of rope drag, keeping the rope in a straight line will prevent most of the problems caused by fall forces. Try to make all the protection placements form a straight line back to the belayer, or extend the protection with runners to permit the rope to run straight.

Work for placements that will take some upward or outward pull. Try to ensure that all awkward placements are multidirectional by using natural protection, such as a tree or a tunnel, or by setting up opposing chocks.

Consider ending the pitch early, before the normal belay point, to avoid awkward placements. Two smaller pitches may be better than one long meandering pitch.


The full-scale zipper effect is a dramatic demonstration of the importance of anticipating force directions. It happens most readily where the belay is established away from the base of the climb. The rope runs at a low angle from the belayer to the

Fig. 10-46. The zipper effect in action: force on the bottom chock is up and out.

first piece of protection on the cliff. There, the rope changes direction and goes abruptly upward. In a leader fall, the rope goes taut and tries to run in a straight line from the belayer to the top piece of protection—putting great outward pressure on that bottom chock. If it pulls out, the line of chocks could be yanked out one by one from the bottom up—the zipper effect in action (fig. 10-46).

The zipper effect can also occur at placements higher on the pitch. Danger points are found on overhanging and traversing routes.

The zipper effect can be prevented by making the suspect placement multidirectional, using natural protection or opposing vertical chocks. At the bottom of the pitch, another method of prevention is to move the belay to the base of the climb. (This may not be possible, however, because of the danger of falling rock.)


That overhang looks intimidating, doesn't it? But for purposes of placing protection, simply pay close attention to the consequences of every placement, just as you've been doing on the rest of the pitch. Keep the rope running as free of the overhang as possible. Extend the rope with runners in order to reduce rope drag, prevent dangerous fall forces (the zipper effect), and keep the rope from being cut by the edge of the overhang (fig. 10-47). On small overhangs, it may be possible to lean out and place protection above it.


A lead climber often places protection both before and after a hard move, which guards not only the leader but the climber who follows (fig. 10-48). This is particularly important on traverses, where the second climber could otherwise face a long pendulum fall. In addition to the danger of injury, that kind of fall could leave the second in a tough spot, off route and with no easy way back.

As you lead a diagonal or traversing section, keep in mind the effect each placement could have on a second. Put yourself in the second's shoes and ask, Would I like some extra protection here ? If so, place it.

It's possible to belay the second with an extra rope, which may help protect against a pendulum a


Fig. 10-47. Placements under overhangs: a, correct, rope runs free of the overhang; h, incorrect, bends cause rope drag and rope could be cut by rock edge during a fall.

fall and provide better protection than the leader's rope. If you happen to be using the double-rope technique (described later in this chapter), do not clip in both ropes during the traverse so that the follower can receive a belay from above on the free rope.

Continue reading here: Planning A Full Climb

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