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How Do Rock Climbing Anchors Work?

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Figuring out how climbing anchors work can initially seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you are a rock climber and want to know more about the anchors keeping you safe and connected to the rock, you’ve come to the right place!

If you are already familiar with anchors, looking for a refresher, or are about to take an anchor-building course and want a good overview before you start, this article will be perfect for you! We’ll discuss the different types of anchors and when some common anchors are best. Keep in mind that this article is intended to give you an overview of anchors and is not designed to teach you everything you need to know to set up your anchors.

What are Rock Climbing AnchorsWhat are Rock Climbing Anchors?

Rock climbing anchors are the things you use to keep your rope attached to the top of your climb, so you can safely lower back down to the ground after you finish your climb. Anchors can come in many different shapes and forms depending on the location you are climbing, the type of climbing you are doing, and the gear you have.

Depending on the type of climbing you are doing; your anchors will look very different. Some rock climbing bolt anchors are pretty simple and use very little gear. Other anchors, like more complicated trad anchors, can take a lot of gear and knowledge to set up correctly. Understanding how to build anchors will not happen overnight but will take a lot of work.

3 Types of Rock Climbing Anchors and Their Use3 Types of Rock Climbing Anchors and Their Use

There are three main types of climbing anchors that you can build, but each one can be built in lots of different ways. These are the general categories of climbing anchors:

1. Pre-equalized

A pre-equalized system is an anchor where the direction of pull is set in only one direction. This anchor style is common in sport climbing, where the anchor is only used to lower down or on very straight climbs with no meandering curves. The most common way to make a pre-equalized anchor is by using two quickdraws clipped into bolts drilled into the rock.

2. Self-equalizing

A self-equalizing system is an anchor that can be pulled in various directions and still maintain equal pressure on the bolts or gear in the rock. The challenge with a fully self-equalizing system is that it doesn’t have the limiting knots, which we’ll talk about in the hybrid system, so it has the potential to shock-load one of its legs if something happens. A true self-equalizing system is hardly ever used because it poses some risks that a hybrid system can mitigate, but it is worth understanding the differences.

3. Hybrid system

A hybrid system is one of the most versatile types of climbing anchors. It can be used in trad climbing, sport climbing, and top rope climbing and can fit many different situations. In a hybrid system, the anchor allows equalization from different directions of pull but also has limiting knots to help minimize the potential extension and shock loading if something fails. The most popular form of the hybrid system is called the quad anchor, a commonly used top rope anchor.

How to Build Anchors for ClimbingHow to Build Anchors for Climbing?

There are many ways of setting anchors for rock climbing, and it all depends on a few factors. The type of climbing anchor you use depends on your climbing, the gear you have to use, and the way your anchor will be connected to the rock.

Here are some of the most common anchors that climbers build, along with a little information about when you might use this anchor style. Remember, this is not intended to teach you how to build these but to help clear up any confusion about these anchors.

Simple Quickdraws: The simple quickdraw anchor is typically used by sport climbers who are only getting lowered off of the anchor once. This anchor only works on horizontally placed bolts that are not too far apart and is a pre-equalized anchor. It’s popular because it takes minimal gear and knowledge, but it is not the best option for top-rope climbing, and it won’t work for trad climbing.

Quad Anchor: The quad anchor, called so because of the four strands of rope near the masterpoint, is a popular top-rope anchor. It is easy to build and only requires a few knots and special pieces of gear. It is more versatile than the quickdraw anchor because it can accommodate uneven or farther-apart bolts. It is a hybrid system, so it offers some equalization making it great for wandering routes. The quad anchor is popular for top-roping but can be used for sport climbing and trad climbing.

Magic X with Limiters: The magic X with limiting knots is another great hybrid anchor that offers some equalization but helps minimize the potential for extension and shock loading. The anchor is quick to build and takes minimal gear and knowledge, making it popular for sport and top-rope climbers. Variations of this anchor can be used in trad climbing, but it is less common there.

Trad Anchors: Although trad anchors can look incredibly varied simply because each trad anchor is made specifically for the spot in the rock it is being used in, this is generally what they will look like. Unlike sport anchors that utilize bolts, trad anchors use trad gear to protect the climber and attach to the rock. This means that trad anchors tend to have at least three legs but can have many more. They use more gear and require a lot more knowledge to create. They can utilize some of the magic X or quad anchor skills to give them some self-equalizing abilities, but they are often pre-equalized to the direction of pull like this one.

3 Steps to Install Anchors for Rock Climbing3 Steps to Install Anchors for Rock Climbing

These are the general steps for putting up a rock climbing anchor but will vary greatly depending on your circumstances.

1. Figure out your connection to the rock

Decide if you are using bolts that have been placed in the rock, placing your own protection in the form of trad gear, or using natural materials such as rocks and trees. This will help determine what your final anchor will look like. Generally, anchors have at least two legs, so you’ll want at least two connection points to the rock. Make sure you take some time to determine how strong each connection point will be and if they offer you enough protection and strength.

2. Create a masterpoint

Creating your masterpoint just means building your anchor. While this could be as simple as clipping up two quickdraws, it could also mean using lots of gear and specialized knots to create an anchor to fit your situation. Ensure your anchor is equalized to the direction of pull and that all your carabiners lock and are locked before you move on.

3. Evaluate your anchor

Understanding how to evaluate your anchor is an essential step in anchor building. This is where you catch mistakes before they become a problem. Here we’ll show you the EARNEST method, but there are plenty of other acronyms out there that climbers use to evaluate their anchors.

E: Equalized: Make sure that the legs of your anchor are equalized and that the masterpoint is equalized to the direction of the climb. Don’t equalize your anchors by pulling up or out from the wall; instead, pull down towards the direction of the climb to ensure the anchor is properly equalized.

A: Angle: The angle between the legs of your anchor should be ideally less than 45 degrees. If the legs are too far apart, they are not sharing the load well, and if one breaks, the other could get shock-loaded and fail. The maximum angle you should ever have is 90 degrees.

R: Redundant: You want your anchor to be redundant, which is why anchors always have two legs, two masterpoint carabiners, and two or more points of connection to the rock. Check and make sure that every part of your anchor is redundant here.

NE: No Extensions: No extensions means that if one leg of your anchor fails while you are weighting the rope, how far will you, as the climber, fall before the other part of your anchor catches you? You’ll want to minimize this distance, so a pre-equalized anchor will have the least extension, and a full self-equalizing anchor will have the most.

S: Solid: Take a moment to double-check that your gear is in good condition, the rock you are using is solid and not hollow and that all your carabiners are locked. Think of this step as a once-over for your anchor to ensure you haven’t missed any glaring issues.

T: Timely: Time is less important when starting out, but if you can build and use a quad or magic X but spend 20 minutes building something really complicated, you might want to start thinking about time. Not only will you be wasting climbing time, but the more complicated an anchor is, the more likely you will make a mistake.

How Strong are Rock Climbing AnchorsHow Strong are Rock Climbing Anchors?

Since climbing anchors will have to hold a lot of force, each piece of gear used in a rock climbing anchor is rated by the number of kilonewtons (kN) it can take. A full anchor should be able to take at least 20 kN of force, but ideally, every anchor should be rated at over 25 kN. There are times when this might be different, but shooting for 25 kN will help ensure that your anchor is strong and able to withstand everything that might come your way.

First, you’ll want to figure out how your anchor will be attached to the rock. Figuring out how strong your anchor is will depend on many factors. If you are using bolts, the math is easy because a well-placed bolt in good rock will be rated anywhere from 25-30 kN. Typically you use two bolts to build an anchor, so this part of your anchor will be rated for at least 50 kN.

Next, you want to figure out how strong the gear you are using is. This includes soft goods like webbing or cordelette and hard goods like carabiners. Remember that your anchor is only as strong as its weakest point, so if your material is only rated for 10 kN, you’ll want to make sure it is at least doubled, giving you a rating of 20 kN.

Finally, you’ll want to add the weakest parts of each leg of your anchor. This will give you an estimation of what forces your anchor can withstand. You’ll want to take 25% off this number to account for any rock quality issues or human errors. The number you are left with is a realistic estimation. Still, it will probably be well above the forces your anchor will have to handle, meaning you have plenty of wiggle room for safety.

Wrapping Things Up: How Do Rock Climbing Anchors Work?

From deciding how to connect your anchor to the rock to figuring out what anchor is best for what climb, there is a lot to think about when it comes to rock climbing anchors. If this is your first exposure to anchors, please go take a class from a certified professional! There is a lot to learn, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the different anchors out there.

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