Whenever I teach people how to place gear on the lead they always ask how solidly they should place their protection. I reply that they should set all gear as solidly as possible - putting aside worries about the second getting it out - because when you’re on the sharp end it’s your ass on the line not your partner’s. This attitude should produce wires that don’t pop mid-pitch and hexs that only a locksmith could key into cracks better. I think this attitude is an important one to foster, as too many climbers come to grief when potentially bomber gear is wasted through weak gear placements. (How many accidents have you heard about caused by gear ripping out of good placements?) The problem with placing gear more aggressively is it’s harder to remove it - hence this article.
This isn’t to say that leaders can get away with leaving gear for their seconds to clean because it’s been shoddily placed. No, cams still need to be placed correctly, not over-cammed, or left to walk into cracks and get jammed and wires should be placed so they can be removed without the use of a sledgehammer. Before we go into stuck gear let’s first look at correct placement.
NUTS AND HEXS
Rock type, placement shape, nut size and weight all play a role in determining the quality and longevity of your placement. Unfortunately in most cases all these factors are beyond your control and so you’re left with your experience in placing gear in order to make it work.
Firstly, make sure whatever you place fits as well as possible. This comes down to familiarity with your gear and an eye for a placement, both of which are developed from both leading and seconding (i.e. removing other people’s gear).
The standard way to locate a wire well is by pulling securely into place. This is done by yanking down on the wire while it’s still attached to its racking krab, using other wires as a way of increasing your force on the wire to seat it. Once you’ve clipped in your extender, try to aggressively imitate the action of the rope in order to see if the wire will be lifted out. If it looks like it may, then yank it using the extender to set it harder. If you’re on a route where your life will depend on a single nut then consider using your nut key to hammer it home. This is often done on winter and Alpine routes (using the pick of the axe), as the number of runners is generally small and so dependability is much more important.
Again place the cam as best you can (not over or under-cammed) then, once clipped, try and imagine whether or not the movement of the rope could cause it to move. If in any doubt us an extender to limit any chance of walking. You can also double the cam up with a wire in order to reduce the chance of the cam moving out of its optimum position. This could be either a second piece of protection (you can never have enough protection), or as a direction piece designed just to keep the cam on task.
If you’re climbing winter or adventurous routes then you may have to use pegs. The art of placing pegs that can then be removed comes from understanding the mechanics of the peg you’re placing - peg shape and placement - and the amount of hammering it will need in order to set it well, without fixing it forever. A peg placed in a secure horizontal crack may only require a few solid taps, as it’s the shape of the peg that cams into the crack when weighted. On the other hand a peg like a Lost Arrow placed in a vertical crack will require a great deal more hammering because it’s smooth sided (unless it’s placed between constrictions) and is held by the wedge effect of being wellied into the crack.
The most important aspect to remember when placing a peg is that it must be in a position where you can hit the side(s) of the peg. This mean that you should be able to knock the peg backwards and forwards, plus be able to hit it with the hammer. It’s easy to hammer home a peg into a hole or under an overlap or roof, but once you try and clean it you may find it’s fixed forever. The bottom line with pegs is that the more you place and remove the better you get, but if in doubt just welly them in until you think your arm’s going to drop off.
THE NUT TOOL
If you don’t have a nut tool then buy one. A nut tool will pay for itself very quickly and can prove a very flexible little gadget. Firstly, what you need to remove stuck gear is a good nut tool. All the major manufacturers make nut tools of varying designs, all of which have their own pros and cons. My main concern when buying nut tools is their strength, as having a tool you can really torque, hammer and prise with is crucial (I’ve broken two nut keys so far).
One thing that’s important to add to your nut tool is a long clip-in loop (30+cm of 5/6mm). This is approximately the same length as the tool and is clipped into the rope so you don’t have to worry about dropping it when battling reluctant gear - and can also be used as an emergency prusik. This loop can also be used for pulling hard to reach cam triggers back, wrapped around both trigger bars and pulled while the thumb pushes the stem.
I know a lot of climbers who don’t bother carrying a nut tool when leading, but this is a mistake. It’s common to place the wrong wire in the only slot, then find you can’t get it out (you don’t trust it, yet it’s stuck). Nut tools are also perfect for threading slings through tight constrictions and cleaning out dirty cracks (I wore mine out on the Troll Wall). They can also be very useful for prising apart stubborn knots and great for spreading Boursin on your sandwiches.
One other point is that I see a lot of climbers carrying their tools on tiny accessory karabiners. Although lighter, they are harder to unclip off the back of your harness and can’t be used for anything else, unlike a full strength karabiner. I once did Left Wall and placed so many runners that by the time I got to the top the only karabiner I had left was on my nut tool. With this single karabiner I had to set up my belay and bring my mate up on an Italian hitch - luckily for me it wasn’t only designed for holding a set of keys.
GETTING WIRES OUT
Give a nut tool to anyone and they’d probably know how to get most gear out. The amount of energy needed to remove a piece is gear is in direct relationship to the amount of force used against it and the amount of contact the nut has with the rock. The smaller the surface area contacting the rock the lower the energy needed to secure it. This is why a Rock 1 seems welded into place when you lob on to it and a size 9 Rockcentric comes out with a few taps. If the leader has just given a big nut a few hard tugs then it’s probably not going to come out with your fingers - but if they’ve done the same with an RP1 you may need to spend a lot of time recovering it.
Once the wire is beyond being fiddled out with your fingers you’ll either need to give it some hard jabs with your nut tool, or yank it out via its extender. Yanking wires out is the quickest form of removal, but should be avoided on small and micro wires as it can reduce the wire’s strength in the long term (it’s for these wires that nut tools come in most handy). You can often remove really stuck wires by levering them out, perhaps placing another piece of gear above or below to act as the fulcrum.
One good technique for removing wires that have been yanked down tight is to pull it out the way it went in. To do this, push the wire up through the nut, so a wire loop extends upwards from the top. Clip your extender into this and give it hard yank upwards. This should pull the nut out the way it went in. If this doesn’t work you can increase the shock load by clipping multiple krabs together and yanking it out that way (also a good way of removing stubborn pegs - clipping one end of the chain to the peg and the other end to your hammer).
Sometimes you’re faced with a nut that can’t be pulled out or tapped out with your tool. In these situations you may need two hands free so you can hammer it to loosen it. With most nut tools your only option is to hammer the nut tool with a large karabiner or hex. Another option is to use the palm of your hand, but this is only really an option with a tool like the DMM Stiletto or Metolius Freenut tools (the Freenut is one of the best nut tools on the market as it includes a built-in wire gate).