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).
If there’s one thing that terrifies me on a big wall then it’s creeping up on fixed heads. It’s here that I’ve experienced my biggest fears and falls, including a huge plunge off the second hardest pitch of the Reticent wall (graded A4+ which means I should be dead!).
Over the years my approach to heads has change, with the way I deal with them being modified by experience, often breaking many of the rules I set myself in order to stay safe on a wall. Here then is a very short article with a few ideas for those who like me aren’t that keen on these devilish pieces of pro.
1.RULE No.1: NEVER TRUST A HEAD
No matter the age, how solid it looks, or the number of lard asses you know who’ve passed over it, never trust a fixed head. Treating all heads as suspect will go a long way to limiting the chances of a fall. Here’s a few reasons why:
1.2 Don’t judge a book
Some heads that look bomber and well placed well are time bombs, obviously only staying put for the person who placed them by some force greater then our understanding as climbers! When you jump on it that single crystal the size of a ant’s ‘hard on’ will crumple and sent the head and you back down to earth.
Learning to place heads, especially ripping out heads you’d spent a hour placing with the first bounce, will teach you that even if a head looks great, it can easily stink.
1.3 Don’t trust your test
The design of a head, with a single cable looped over inside the hammered swage, means what holds that cable in place is also the thing that has to be deformed for it to be placed correctly. The result is that even bomber heads can be effected by cable creep, especially when aggressively bounce tested.
What happens is that you bounce test the piece for 20 minutes, increasing the force until you know without a doubt that it’s bomber, only for the wire to pop as soon as you spent 30 seconds on it. The reason is that every bounce has pulled the cable through the head, until only a small amount is left in place. See testing below.
1.4 Not all heads are for hanging
On the harder routes you may come across ‘balance heads’, simply placed to hold the leader in check, giving them the extra reach to get a better piece higher up (their feet/weight being primarily held by a lower piece). These heads will look terrifyingly bad/small (0 copper heads!), and will probably cast you off if you fully weight them.
A bunch of poor heads may also have been equalized to form up one ‘better’ placement, perhaps in conjunction with a beak.
In both cases you need to use your judgment, careful testing and top stepping.
2. TESTING HEADS
2.1 Eyeball then first
Take a look at the head before you jump on it. How well is it placed? How rusty are the wires? Is the head corroded (if it’s green it’s been there a while). Can you see the end of the wire at the bottom of the head?
2.2 The Test
Unless you a very long string of heads, I would go for the skyhook style of test when it comes to fixed heads, being body weight plus a bit. This should tell you that the head is good enough for a careful and well executed move, but perhaps not a fall.
To do this I usually clip in my daisy, weighting the piece with my full body weight (holding my lower piece as a back up). Once I’ve hung on it for a second or two, I’ll increase the force slightly (small bounce /pushing back on my harness), until I feel it’s going to hold.
This approach works well when it comes to passing short sections of fixed heads, as over-testing could lead to an adequate head being ripped out, resulting in time waisted, and potentially a worse placement (old trenched heads). Note: On big sections of fixed heads (Aurora for example) I would probably give the bigger heads a full bounce test, just to convince myself I would survive a fall!
3. MOVING UP
On fixed junk, and hard aid, the trick is to keep the force of your body moving level so as not to exert a high peak force on the gear. This means moving fluidly. You need to keep all your gear untangled, and have your spare daisy ready to clip the next piece as soon as you can, both to increase speed (the quicker you get of fixed heads the better), and as a back up to the piece you’re on blowing.
4. FIXED HEADS AS PRO
If you’re doing a trade route and have a short section of heads, or a single head (Zodiac for example), set between good gear, then I would leave the heads unclipped, or only clip the biggest head. This will result in a bigger fall, but reduces the chance of ripping out a head that will have to be replaced.
On hard routes with long head sections I would clip every head, not matter how small, often equalizing big sections of heads with a cordellete/ripper sling/dmm Revolver as gear. On hard aid you never know what will stop you, and as it happened when I took my big plunge off the Reticent wall the piece that stopped me just happened to be a REALLY poor head (rusty cable, oxidized head etc), so even if you follow rule no.1 you never know.
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