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Alternative Anchors

ANCHORING— Alternative Anchoring

This article contains a discussion of techniques that can be dangerous if incorrectly applied or if used under the wrong circumstances. Many of the techniques described here should be considered only as a last resort. The majority of these techniques reflect the preference of the author and not of the canyoneering community in general. In all cases, these techniques should not be used until the canyoneer has practiced them frequently and successfully in conditions that are not dangerous.


By Dave Black

This is an update of the original article that appeared in the e-magazine Canyoneering USA in March of 2001. The original article is left largely intact. Changes, corrections, and additions are written in italics. The article and the update represent only my opinion and what works for me.

Since the original article, the controversy of bolting and other invasive anchor techniques continues. A campaign of natural anchor education by the American Canyoneering Association has had a positive effect in the mediation of disputes and has led to more widespread use of natural anchor techniques as well as a softening of the stance of many of the “bolt police”.  Unfortunately, a greater threat to clean canyoneering now looms on the horizon. The new Colorado Plateau guidebook by Kelsey espouses and legitimizes the use of an even more insidious and damaging form of invasive aid: the act of using a geologist’s hammer to chop holds and huge holes into the sandstone.

Before we get deep into this article, let’s get a few things out of the way. First, this is not a how-to on anchors. For that I’d recommend any good climbing text. Second, I’m not writing this to bash bolting and bolters. For an excellent, honest look at the bolt ethic, I’d recommend Tom’s article. Third, I’m neither a guiltless prima donna when it comes to bolting, nor am I an ultra-radical clean-climber with a death wish. My views on anchors come from nearly four decades of taking what I consider to be the middle road: that bolts have their place as a last resort. In those years I’ve probably placed a hundred bolts…most if them on crumbling limestone walls in the Greek islands and on the desert granite in Arabia, places where I was very often alone, had no alternatives that I considered reliable, and where the stakes were too high to screw with.

Having said that, there’s something instinctively annoying about finding a clump of bolts in a formerly pristine setting, especially when there are cracks, trees, boulders and other alternatives nearby. I’m constantly reminded of a climb in Ogden Canyon called Delusions. One day, after decades of being climbed free, this 50-foot route sprouted 7 bolts. I can’t tell you how upset it made me. What made it even more annoying was the fact that the climber who had placed them was an excellent athlete perfectly capable of leading the route safely without them. In fact, the next day, I lead the route myself, bypassing the bolts and placing over seventy bombproof removable anchors just to make a point. Why had he put them there? In the egocentric world of testosterone-sports there are really only a few reasons people place bolts where there are good alternatives: they’re too lazy to carry a rack, too inexperienced to know better, marking their territory (existential graffiti); or planting their flag on a supposed first descent/ascent.

Even more annoying than unnecessary bolts are the mega-holes that have recently been chopped in our canyon sandstone to accommodate hooking techniques. This ugly twist in invasive anchoring was recently being practiced and promoted by one of America's best known canyoneering guidebook authors. His chopped holes showed up in places like Zion and Cedar Mesa. The effects of his promoting such a technique will certainly be serious, as evidenced by the fact that three chops have since appeared in Fry Canyon.

Anyone looking for proof that natural or non-invasive anchors are a viable alternative needs to look only as far as slot canyoneer/author Steve Allen. Labeled an “environmental fruitcake” by at least one less environmentally friendly guidebook writer, Steve has done his decades of technical and “Mae West” slot explorations without drilling a single bolt. As the canyons fill up with more touristy canyoneers who are less experienced and in too much of a hurry to refine clean techniques, Allen’s clean canyons are falling to the bolters (and choppers). In fact, the impetus for this article came from my reading articles about descents of Quandary Canyon Direct. After 1997, bolts had been placed in the canyon. I questioned some canyoneers about the need for bolts on that route, and in return they wondered how Palmieri, Wright, and I had done it without bolts in 1997, and how Allen had done it without bolts on a much earlier descent.

Clean anchor techniques are explained in great detail in many climbing texts. While the principles explained in those texts apply equally to technical canyoneering, there is some room to expand on those ideas and to introduce “new” ideas. A lot of time and space could be spent explaining it all, but our discussion here will be brief. It’s up to the reader to develop his or her own anchor ethic, and certainly to practice his or her anchor techniques to gain a safe level of proficiency before putting them to the test in more exposed or remote locations.

In a nutshell, this is a brief look at some alternatives to climber’s “hardware”: bolts, pitons, metal wedges (“nuts”), spring-loaded camming devices, etc…equipment that for one reason or another the user would prefer not to leave behind. In some cases (bolts and pitons) it’s the permanent damage it will do to the rock. In other cases (cams) it’s the cost of the device. Let’s divide the alternatives for these into the following categories: natural anchors, “software”, deadmen & pickets, counterweights and “tossed” anchors, human anchors, and sequencing.

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