First time multi-pitching? Not sure how to build an anchor? Check out this ultimate guide to get you started in the right direction!
This guide is the outcome of countless hours spent hanging and belaying off multi-pitch anchors, wishful thinking about the solidity of gear placements, and regret about the discomforts of belaying off that tiny pinnacle which looked so cool in the guidebook photo.
Beyond our personal experiences, we’ve also done a deep dive into writings by the foremost experts to discover what really counts when building a multi-pitch anchor.
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What is Multi-Pitch Climbing?
Multi-pitch climbing means climbing a route that has two or more pitches. Whether you’re scaling a 3000-foot alpine epic, or just going for a two pitch scramble up a local classic, you’re climbing a multi-pitch, and will need to think about multi-pitch anchor systems.
Common to all multi-pitch climbs is that at some point, your pitch will end, but the climb still has at least another pitch to go.
At the end of your pitch, you’ll need to make yourself secure – and hopefully comfortable – at an anchor point. From here, you’ll need to safely bring up the second climber and remain at this anchor while you belay your partner up the next pitch.
When ending a pitch and beginning the following pitch, at some point, the lives of the climber and their partner will depend exclusively on the safety of the anchor.
The way you build your anchor can also impact how comfortable you’ll be while using it to belay your partner up to you and whilst belaying them up the next pitch.
Anchor building is vital stuff if you want to stay safe and enjoy your multi-pitch climbing. Read on to learn our key tips for the best multi-pitch anchor systems.
What is Trad Climbing
What is trad climbing you say? It’s basically a form of climbing where you place pieces of gear into naturally forming cracks. In the case of a fall the gear will create a wedging acting which will prevent your falling. Many (if not most) of the multi-pitch climbs on planet earth are trad (total guess there, would love a comment with some stats).
Trad vs Sport Climbing
Trad vs sport climbing in comparison is simply differentiated by the type of gear you use. In sport climbing you use pre-drilled bolts to clip into for protection. In trad climbing you are using the type of gear described above. Though the techniques in the article applies to both disciplines, the majority of these techniques are for trad specific anchors.
Building Multi-Pitch Trad Anchors
“Jeez, they’ve been up there a while, what’s taking so long?”
Suddenly, you hear your partner call down:
“Ok, I think it’s okay. Climb on. But… maybe try not to fall.”
With a lump in your throat, you begin following the pitch. It’s probably fine, but still, you feel unwittingly thrust into your own version of Free Solo.
When you reach the top, you find that you’ve been belayed off a thread around a finger-width chockstone, equalized at an alarming angle between two slightly flared gear placements.
You shoot a dirty look at your partner, but all they can do is sheepishly repeat, “I told you not to fall.”
Building a multi-pitch anchor can be a stressful experience. Suddenly, your life and that of your partner depends entirely on the quality of the anchor you build.
It’s important to take this responsibility seriously. But it must also be done quickly and reliably.
Time spent building anchors is time lost from the day’s climbing. Five minutes of hesitating about the trustworthiness of your anchor, multiplied across five or ten pitches of climbing, can be the difference between finishing your route or giving up and abseiling down in the dark.
Things To Consider When Building An Anchor
Use redundancy, both in the number of pieces and where you place them. Try to spread the gear between different rock features. This way, your anchor doesn’t entirely depend on the integrity of one cam or one piece of rock.
You may need to set an extra directional piece that is adapted to the next pitch. Make sure that a tug in the wrong direction when leading the next pitch won’t lift your anchor gear straight out.
This is particularly important when building your anchor on nuts or flared placements. It’s most likely to be a problem when the next pitch immediately leads into an overhang or traverse.
Setting a directional can be as simple as placing an inverted piece under the anchor and clipping it to the master point loop on a tensioned sling. However, avoid clipping your directional straight into the master point carabiner, as this may cross-load your carabiner and weaken it.
Explainer: What is an Anchor’s Master Point?
An anchor’s master point is it’s main working point. This is the point you’ve worked to create so that you have somewhere to clip into that shares the load, in a redundant way, between all points of your anchor.
Simply put, the master point is the loop or knot through which you will clip your belay device, personal anchor and any other essential pieces.
Likewise, a master point carabiner is the main carabiner clipped through your anchor’s master point loop or knot. This carabiner will typically be used to hang your guide mode belay device, as well as being a handy point of attachment for your personal anchor and other gear.
Use Varied Gear
Try to use gear that you don’t think you’ll need when leading the next pitch. It would be a shame to use your red and yellow cams to build an anchor, only to find that the next pitch is 100ft of sustained hand jamming.
Use natural anchors where possible. A huge boulder or live tree is quick to sling and often more reliable than a hastily placed piece of gear.
Build the most solid (aka bomber) anchor that you can, rather than just using what’s available in the most comfortable spot. It’s easy enough to extend a belay stance out to somewhere comfortable, but no amount of wishful thinking is going to improve a mediocre anchor.
Minimize Shock Loading
Place gear in a way that will minimize the shock onto the anchor if one part fails.
If one part of your anchor fails, it could potentially shock load your anchor sling or other pieces as the anchor’s master point swings into its new position. Alternatively, it could extend the anchor beyond the ledge on which it was built so that the belayer and anchor master point are now hanging in space.
Choose anchor pieces that are closely spaced and at small angles from each other to reduce these risks.
Keep It Simple
There are many ways of connecting pieces in a trad anchor to equalize them and provide redundancy (Bedogni, 2015; Shokoples 2008). Many of these methods are based on scientific study and lab testing.
But the problem with fancy and complicated anchor systems is that they are fancy and complicated.
When you’re tired or in a rush, like someone 8 pitches into a 12 pitch multi-pitch, it’s best to keep things simple. I once left my chalk bag at a belay platform and only noticed a full pitch later, just because I was so worn out.
Make your anchor too complicated and you’re likely to spend too long building it and double checking it, or worse, make a mistake that leads to injury or death.
Angles and Force Multiplication
When building your anchor, you should try to place your protection so that it creates the smallest possible angle between pieces. Forces on anchor pieces multiply rapidly as the angle created between pieces on the anchor sling increases.
Keep the angle under 90° between pieces at the anchor’s widest point. By the time you get to 120°, the force acting on pieces will be double what would have been in just a straight down pull. At this point, you’re no longer sharing the load between pieces; you’re just creating backups in case an individual piece fails.
At an angle beyond 120°, the forces on the individual pieces will actually be more than if they were just placed separately, rather than being equalized.
This is because the weight pulling down from your anchor pieces exerts a direct force down in the direction of gravity. But by equalizing your pieces, you’re also adding a vector force pulling horizontally.
You can use your hand as a rough protractor to quickly guesstimate the angles between your pieces. If you make an L shape between your thumb and index finger, this will give you an angle of about 90°, and your thumb and pinkie spread to their maximum should give you about 120°.
Once you’ve got your anchor pieces appropriately placed, you’ll need to connect them together. Equalization means connecting your pieces together in a way that shares the load between them. Here, you’ll find our selection of the most popular and reliable methods for anchor building.
Knotted Sling With Master Point
In our opinion, the most reliable anchor is the knotted sling with master point. It’s simple to build and visually inspect, redundant, and provides some level of equalization. However, this anchor type will not readjust itself if a piece fails or if you misjudged the direction of pull.
To tie this anchor, you’ll want a 6+ foot anchor sling or cordelette. With some small adjustments, this anchor type can also be built with your climbing rope.
To Build This Anchor:
Once you’ve placed all of your pieces, clip the sling through the carabiners on the end of each separate piece.
Now, pull downwards on the bit of sling between pieces 1 and 2, and between pieces 2 and 3. This should create three separate loops within the system.
With two fingers sitting at the base of these loops, point the low point of the anchor sling in the direction of the seconding climber. This will usually be straight down to the last point on your preceding pitch. Try to keep the tension equal in all three loops.
Finally, tie a figure-eight knot on a bight to join all three loops together. Your master point locking carabiner will go through this new loop at the end of your knot.
The figure-eight knot on a bight is an easy and secure way to create a clip-in point on a section of rope. It’s also easy to verify that it’s been correctly tied.
Building a Multi-Pitch Anchor With Your Own Rope
A pre-equalized anchor with a tied-off master point, as described above, can also be tied using the climbing rope.
Select the strongest anchor piece and clove hitch the rope to it. This will be your personal anchor rope, so make sure it’s long enough.
Learn how to tie a clove hitch, a fast and easily adjustable way to clip ropes and webbing]
Now attach the rope to the other two anchor pieces, too, and clove hitch them in place.
Create loops of equal length between the anchor pieces. The low point of these loops will be your anchor position, so you may need to adjust them in the direction that you want to tension your anchor.
Now simply tie off your anchor loops with a figure-eight knot on a bight to create your master point. You may need to further adjust the hitches on your anchor pieces to ensure that all the pieces are equally tensioned in the direction of the force.
When building a multi-point trad anchor, you are adding redundancy to your system. But if no bomber placements are available, the idea behind building your anchor on multiple pieces is also to share the load between them.
In theory, three okay-ish placements should add up to one bomber placement when the load is perfectly shared between them.
However, the reality is that self-equalizing anchor systems will never achieve perfect equalization. The longer legs in your anchor will take less tension than the shorter legs, just because of the stretch of the sling material used in anchor construction (Beverly et al., 2016).
The knots used to tie off anchor legs will also be of different tightness, and therefore skew the anchor loading. Further, as the position of the master point equalizes, the forces acting on the anchor points will become unequal because the angles acting on the pieces change (per our explanation about angles and force multiplication above).
And finally, equalization will never be perfect just because of the friction resisting perfect movement of your master point locking carabiner across the sling (Chasse, 2016).
Additionally, should one of your points pop in your self-equalizing anchor, the shock loading of the remaining parts of the system will be higher than if you’d just set up a roughly pre-equalized and tied-off anchor.
Still, in some cases, it may be preferable to build a self-equalizing anchor. If you only have dodgy gear options available, some degree of equalization is probably your best bet.
Building a Sliding X Anchor
This is the classic self-equalizing anchor. You will need a sling for every pair of anchor pieces, so a three point anchor will require two slings.
This anchor design can also be adapted to use premade quad anchor slings. Just use your quad wherever you would otherwise be building a sliding x.
First, if building this anchor on three points, identify your best anchor piece. On a three point anchor, you’ll actually need to join two sliding x slings, with two pieces on one sling and only a single piece on the other. The single piece will take approximately 50% of the anchor load, so make sure it’s your best one.
Clip a sling through two pieces of gear. The sling’s bartack should be near one of the end carabiners.
Take one strand at the midpoint of the sling and twist it 180°. Clip a carabiner through this loop and the other strand of the sling.
Unclip one side of the sling and tie an overhand knot a little above the midpoint. Repeat with the other side of the sling, creating a tied off section around the middle.
The closer you tie these knots to the midpoint, the more you reduce the anchor’s ability to equalize. However, you are also reducing its ability to extend and shock load if one of your points should fail.
Repeat the process with a second sling to connect your 3rd piece to the midpoint of the sliding x sling you’ve just set up. You may need to add a 3rd sling or quickdraw into the system if the anchor leg is not long enough. Clip into the midpoint of this second sling as your anchor’s master point.
Building an Equalette, AKA the Quad Anchor
The Equalette anchor takes ideas from a bunch of different anchor systems to create a simple, self-equalizing and redundant anchor that minimizes extension. It has the added benefit of creating two separate master point strands, adding redundancy and versatility.
Like when building a Sliding X anchor, on a three point anchor, your pieces will be unequally loaded because the load is actually split between two ends of the central point. Therefore, you’ll first need to identify your strongest anchor piece.
Clip each end through the anchor pieces with the biggest angle between them.
Now identify the direction in which the anchor cordelette’s centre will pull under load. Unclip each side of the cordelette sequentially and tie overhand limiter knots to either side of this centre point, sectioning off a good chunk of the cordelette.
The closer you tie these knots to the midpoint, the more you reduce the anchor’s ability to equalize. However, you are also reducing its ability to extend and shock load if one of your points should fail.
Leave the anchor cordelette clipped directly into one piece, ideally your strongest piece. Now take the other end of the cordelette and tie two separate clove hitches to connect the other two pieces into this end. Try to equalize the load between the two pieces on this end of the cordelette.
Leave a good loop of slack between these two hitched pieces to avoid creating an angle between them, which would multiply the forces on them.
Clip your master point locking carabiner into one of the strands of cordelette between the anchor’s two limiting knots. You can also use two carabiners clipped separately into each strand for redundancy.
Avoid clipping a single carabiner through both strands; if one of the anchor pieces should fail, your master point carabiner would come sliding straight off the end, with deadly consequences.
A Note on the American Death Triangle
Never connect your anchor pieces in an open triangle.
As the angle of pull between your anchor pieces approaches 180°, the force multiplication skyrockets. At 170°, each piece will be holding almost 6 times the load it would experience if it was just resisting a straight-down pull. Even your #6 Camalot might have trouble with this one.
Using Natural Anchors
Hurray. You’ve arrived at your belay ledge and found a solid natural feature exactly in the line of your route. All you have to do is sling it and your anchor is built. No fuss or time wasted.
Natural anchors are usually built on trees, boulders, protruding flakes and other features around which you can easily wrap a sling.
If a natural feature is sufficiently solid, you can use it as a single point anchor. If in doubt, use multiple pieces. Some rules of thumb for a single point natural anchor are:
When using a tree as an anchor, check that it’s sufficiently large, solidly rooted, and doesn’t move when shoved back and forth.
The American Alpine Institute recommends that trees should be at least 5 inches in diameter, 5 feet tall and alive, to be used as a single point anchor (Martin, 2019). However, other experts say that trees should be at least 8 inches in diameter, and unless they’re huge, should be linked into at least a two-part anchor (Bisson & Barrington, 2002).
Common advice is that a tree used as a single point anchor should be at least as big as your thigh.
If your tree meets these criteria, anchoring on it is as simple as doubling your anchor sling around the lowest part of its base and clipping in. Place the sling low on the trunk to take advantage of the tree’s strongest point and avoid unnecessarily stressing the tree.
If the tree is so wide across that your anchor sling can’t be wrapped around, you can anchor to it using your rope.
Walk around the tree to create a loop around its backside. Now, on the side from which you came up, tie a figure-eight knot on a bight or an alpine butterfly knot on either end of the rope around the tree.
Tie these knots at least as far out from the tree as the diameter of its trunk. This is to avoid creating a large angle on your anchor or cross loading your anchor’s master point locking carabiner. Where these knots meet will be the clip-in point for your master point locking carabiner.
Boulders can be brilliant anchors. I’ve even seen single freestanding boulders used as safe bolted anchors in popular single pitch climbing areas. However, common sense rules must apply.
Boulders need to be in good contact with solid, flat ground. Avoid boulders on sloping and/or sandy surfaces.
It should be impossible to move the boulder by leaning on it or shoving it. Be careful when doing this test; you don’t want to send it crashing down onto the climber below you!
There are no hard rules for the size of boulders that can be reliably used as single point anchors because of the differences in rock density between areas. A large boulder that cannot be moved and weighs several hundred pounds is probably going to be okay.
If in doubt, Bisson & Barrington (2002) recommend that a boulder should be at least 4 feet in diameter and even then, unless absolutely mammoth, used in parallel with another equally good boulder or natural feature.
When tying your anchor on a boulder, the same considerations apply as when anchoring off a tree.
Horns, Threads, Chicken Heads and Other Rock Features
There are many natural features that can be creatively used to build when anchor building to save on placing gear. When it comes to using rock horns, threading through natural rock constrictions, or slinging chicken heads or other protrusions, it’s difficult to give any hard and fast rules.
Many rock features that look dicey as single point anchors are frequently used by alpinists as anchor points. This is particularly the case when rappelling, which exerts far less force on an anchor than would a falling climber.
However, when better possibilities are available, you should always use these in preference when anchoring the lives of yourself and your climbing partner.
When slinging any smaller rock feature, this should only be used as part of a redundant, multi-point anchor. Threads, chicken heads, and slung horns can be very solid, but all of these are subject to the same considerations of rock quality and location as if you were placing a cam or a nut.
Building Multi-Pitch Sport Anchors
So, you need a break from carrying around that double-rack and equalizing optimistic cam placements.
You’ve booked a ticket to Europe and you’re going to clip bolts next to some quaint town that dates back to the 11th century. You plan to fuel your 1000 ft multi pitch exclusively on locally produced cheese. Your friend, who just came back from your limestone paradise destination, confirms that the routes are generously bolted; and yes, that includes the anchors, which are beautifully rust-free.
To build a multi pitch sport anchor, all you’ll need is a 48” double length slingError: Unknown Link Type
and three carabiners, of which at least one must be a locking biner.
Clip each of the anchor bolts directly with a carabiner, spine against the rock. Now clip both carabiners into your sling.
Run your hand down the sling between the two biners. Orient the centre point that you’ve created in the direction of the last bolt on the previous pitch.
Now tie a figure-eight knot on a bight in the midpoint of your sling, tensioned to equalize it in the direction of the seconding climber. Clip your locking biner into the master point, and voila.
Some More Things to Consider When Building an Anchor
Hanging Belays vs Ledgers
When building a hanging belay, all the same rules about anchor building apply as when building an anchor on a ledge.
Aim to place multiple pieces that are varied and bomber. Put your gear in multiple rock features where possible. Keep angles small. Equalize the anchor as best you can.
But when on a hanging belay, directional gear takes on extra importance.
If your climber takes a whip while leading the next pitch, this could lift the entire anchor system out of the wall. What would just be unnerving on a spacious ledge becomes seriously dangerous in the case of a hanging belay.
If the leader’s gear holds, then this will leave both leader and belayer hanging in space; if the leader’s gear doesn’t hold, the results could be deadly.
Try to make sure that at least two of the pieces in your hanging belay will withstand a pull in the direction of the next pitch. This is usually an upward pull.
Alternatively, make sure to place a fourth, inverted piece in your anchor as a directional. Use a sling to connect this to your anchor’s master point, and make sure it’s under tension.
Rope Management – Coiling Your Rope at a Hanging Belay
Hanging belays are badass. But what’s not badass is futzing around with coils of rope at a hanging belay. You need a system.
Some people like to coil their rope on their personal anchor as they haul up their second. But this makes life complicated when belaying your partner on the next pitch, as suddenly there’s a giant coil of rope hanging directly in the line of your belay loop.
Next time you’re at a hanging belay, try bringing an extra double length sling to use as a rope hanger. Clove hitch one end of the sling into a biner, clip the other end of the sling into the same biner, then attach this to your most conveniently accessible anchor point.
As your second climbs up and you pull in slack, periodically coil the rope onto your fancy anchor hanger, luxuriating in the knowledge that you’ll be able to comfortably belay your leader’s next pitch.
Anchor Extensions on a Big Ledge
Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to have a huge bivvy ledge to belay on. Or maybe you’ll be belaying on a large, flat top-out. These situations are usually very comfortable, but they often mean that your nearest spot to build an anchor is quite far back from the lip of the last pitch of climbing.
In these situations, build the best anchor available and then extend it out using your climbing rope (Martin, 2017).
Flake out a length of your climbing rope starting from your tie-in point, equivalent to the distance from your anchor to the edge of the pitch below. You can reduce it by about 15% to account for rope stretch; better to be a little tight than to swing out over the edge of your belay ledge.
Tie a figure-eight knot on a bight or an alpine butterfly knot at the point furthest from your tie-in point. Clip this into your anchor’s master point locking carabiner. This is now your super extended personal anchor system.
Tie another figure-eight knot on a bight or alpine butterfly at a point on your end of the rope, about 5ft up from your tie-in point. You can now hang your guide mode belay device off this and belay as though your anchor were next to you.
Your anchor needs to be bomber and redundant. But just how bomber is good enough?
The situations which are most likely to significantly load your anchor are:
- Belaying off your anchor to bring up the second climber
- Hanging belays
- Leader falls above the belay ledge, before the leader has clipped any protection on the new pitch.
A static weight, hanging directly down from an anchor, should exert a force measured in newtons of approximately 10 times the climber’s weight in kilograms. Therefore, a 165lb (75 kilogram) climber should only exert a static force of about 0.75 kilonewtons. This is puny compared to even the force of your smallest cam.
However, the reality is that forces quickly multiply in the real world. Your anchor is unlikely to be pulling straight down, multiplying forces on the pieces. Your second will have some slack in their rope, and is sure to stretch the rope and bounce when falling, adding to the forces in the system (Attaway, 1996). And maybe you need to haul your second through a rough patch, adding a pulley force (Powick, n.d.)
Some of these situations could see your anchor holding the same weight as a big lead fall.
[Diagram showing anchor above ledge, with seconding climber going up pitch. Diagram should show belay at an angle, slack in the rope and top belayer straining on rope. Multiplier sign next to all of these features]
A hanging belay must be strong enough to deal with all of these potential forces, with the added consideration of the belayer’s own weight added to the system.
However, the worst case scenario could see the leader taking a factor two fall, coming straight off the belay and plummeting down past it without placing any gear.
A 165lb leader taking such a fall would generate almost 6 kilonewtons of force, enough alone to snap some smaller cams and nuts. Worse still if this fall pulls the belayer out of the direction for which the anchor was equalized, multiplying the force on the gear.
The lesson here is that fall forces can grow quickly. Build a bomber anchor every time.
Basic Gear List For Building Multi-Pitch Anchors
Excited to put your multi-pitch anchor building skills to use? How about a trip to the mythic Potrero Chico and its epic routes, up to 23 pitches long? Maybe a pair of crack gloves, to protect your hands from those long days of alpine crack climbing you’ve got planned? And perhaps it’s time to invest in a proper trad rack so that you can safely get up your multi-pitch objectives.
Attaway, S. W. (1996). Rope System Analysis (1).
Beverly, M., Attaway, S., Scherzinger, B., Wilson, S., Modisette, D. R., & Miller, M. (2005). Multi-point Pre-Equalized Anchoring Systems. (2)
Bisson, C., & Barrington, T. (2002). Teaching Climbing Anchor System: The Easy Way. Association of Outdoor Recreation & Education Conference Proceedings, 40–46.
Chasse, D. (2016). Revisiting the Quad for Load Distribution and Stance Management (3).
Evans, T. (2016). Peak Fall Arrest Force During Simulated
2-Point Multipoint Anchor Limb Failures. (4)
Martin, J. D. (2019). Natural Anchors.(5)https://www.climbing.com/skills/learn-this-belay-extensions/
Martin, J. D. (2017). Belay Extensions. (6)
Powick, K. (n.d.). Climb Safe: Top Roping is Not So Safe.(7)
RopeRescueTraining.com (n.d.). Rope Rescue Rope Angles. (8)
Editorial staff for The Wandering Climber. An expert roundup of climbing nerds from across the world!