Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
I often hear it said by climbers that a classic route is ‘unprotectable’, ‘run out’ and ‘death on a stick’, usually demonstrating the fact by describing ‘psychological belays’, near missis with falling leaders, and other tales that make you question the sanity of ever going winter climbing in the first place. This type of description usually involves the old adage about taking a minute rack, after all what’s the point if a routes got no gear anyway?
This of course is a self fulfilling prophecy, a prophecy that I think often dams climbers in repeating the same old guff about how dangerous and run out routes are. Further more this often compounds climbing accidents, as any failure on a run out (even protection less) route will no doubt prove very costly in broken bones and tears.
Well I’ve climb lots of routes - many supposedly protection less, run out, and death on a stick, and you know what, they were all protectable.
Finding gear is not an art, it’s often simply about looking for it in the first place. One of the main strengths I see in great winter climbers I’ve met (people like Mick Fowler, Rich Cross, Andy Parkin) is that they are disciplined enough to stop and search out and place protection, often finding it in the most unusual places. One of there strengths is that they are creative in their gear placements, something that is learnt over years of climbing, and it’s this creativity, backed up with a good selection of protection tools, that often sets them apart from the dangerous leader and the leader who fails.
Here are five ways to make a difference when it comes to developing an eye for a placement.
1. LOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS AT BELAYS
The most important pieces of gear you will place on any climb will be at the belay, without this climbing becomes a death match that you’ll eventually loose. Whats more it isn’t any fun. Very often I see the herd approach to belays, were on arriving at the usual stance the leader simply clips into a mass of tat and rusty pegs and calls it a job well done, believing that there obviously isn’t anything any better. Wrong. You have several advantages that first ascentionist didn’t have:-
• You probably have longer ropes, meaning you can climb up further and search out other protection possibilities. Even if they are on steeper ground you can equalise them back to the old belay stance (don’t forget to use the old belay as a runner when moving up).
• You have far more gear at your disposal. Haston and Smith probably had a couple of chunky pegs, a few warthogs and a home made nut or two, meaning most routes would rely heavily on thier skill at not falling off. You on the other hand, even with a bare bones rack, will have infantly more possibility of protection open to you.
• You have ice screws that work. Learning to place screws and more importantly being able to judge their strength means you can protect many old school horror shows. Admitidly ice conditions arn’t always Canadian, but having the will to dig for good ice and equalise, will give you good gear even on routes melting faster then a 99 on a hot summers day.
2. EVALUATE FIXED GEAR
When coming across fixed gear never just clip it and go. Very often the gear will be suspect,a nd worse still in most cases you can get something better, or back it up, with another piece of gear close (why waste an extender on a crap peg?). With fixed belays for example I’ll typically climb up to it and clip it, then make a quick judgement about it’s strength. This is done visually (looked for cracked or corroded peg eyes, split pegs or rusty wires), and with my ice tool, tapping pegs to check they are in fact fixed (pegs may become loose with freeze thaw), or tapping fixed nuts to see if they are well seated, and not just bad nuts that have been forgotten. Be wary of any fixed tat, as no doubt this is either very old (and very week), or used for retreat, meaning it’s probably been compromised by the rope being pulled through it. Unless it’s a stonking great chain always equalise the anchor with your own slings, cutting the existing tat off with your knife if you have to.
3. LOOK BEYOND YOUR NOSE
Many climbers have a tendency to only look for cracks at head height, moving on when nothings found. Very often you’ll find good gear just under the snow in gullies, or slightly off route. The trick is to read the rock, looking were the cracks go, as often a bad shallow crack will open up an take gear.
4. DON’T LET TIME SLOW YOU DOWN
Worrying about speed is important, but doing a half-assed job of looking and placing good pro will probably cost you time in the end, as having no confidence in your ability to survive a fall will leave you vulnerable to doubt, and doubt will always slow you down. Get into the habit scanning for gear as you climb, then learn to place it quickly and move on, saving time for later when the gear may take more time. Decrease the distance between placements the harder to climbing, maybe going from every 20 metres on a grade I to every 20mm for a grade IX!
5. NEVER GIVE UP
No matter how hopeless things seem there will always be something; you just haven’t found it yet. Digging, traversing and gardening will eventual provide you with a nugget of gear.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram