A first hand account of a “bomber” piton ripping from a rappel anchor while ski mountaineering in the remote necks of Grand Teton National Park. Amidst a growing climate of “two-piece” alpine anchors, this article presents a compelling argument for placing a third, especially when pitons are involved.
John Long & Peter Croft. Note’s on Trad Anchoring. Trad Climber’s Bible. Falcon Guides. 2014
In April of 2022, while skiing in the rugged north-facing alpine cirque bridging Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain in Grand Teton National Park, Carl Osterburg, Ryan Corley and I skied to the precipice of a 70-some foot cliff. We were aiming for the “ski through” (no rope required) Tallboy Couloir but mis-navigated, unknowingly dropping into a seldom skied dead-end couloir known as the Tallboy’s Evil Twin. No strangers to high-stakes ski mountaineering, we had a 30M rappel rope, harnesses, an assortment of nuts and pitons, bail cord and the knowledge to use it – for insurance purposes. Already 1500-some feet into the descent, we opted to down-climb and rappel instead of re-ascend. I led the charge as Carl and Ryan eagerly watched, reversing a few easy steps of ice and edging out onto a sizable ledge towards a fixed sling. I was remised to find a faded loop of dyneema tied off to a single half wedged stopper in an anemic crack – terrifying in it’s own right – plus, there was a serious lacking in available weaknesses for anchoring. I was stuck.
After some substantial snow removal I uncovered a collection of sufficiently sized boulders at knee height. I wiggled in a small #1 DMM stopper, a CAMP baby angle piton and a larger BD (Black Diamond) angle piton. I was satisfied with all three pieces and waved the boys down, equalized the nest and rigged the rope for descent.
The knotted ends of our 30M cord just barely touched the snow-line below, directed into a tight chimney. As the anchor engineer I was compelled to descend first. I began lowering over the edge with an extended ATC, using a Klemhiest knot as my “third hand” rappel backup. I walked down a few meters of low angle slab before committing to the vertical chimney rappel, but just as I sagged into vertical terrain, fully loading the anchor, I heard a piercing ring. One of my pitons had blown.
The anchor shifted minorly as the baby angle dislodged from the rock, banging on the other two equalized pieces. No harm no foul, for this is why three-piece anchors exist, but the alarming sight of what I perceived as a bomber piece dangling in the snow sent shivers up my spine, especially as I stared down a life threatening 40 foot trundle into talus. I quickly hand-lined back up the slabs, commiserated with my partners, slammed in a medium knife blade and a second fiddly stopper, and committed to an overly redundant, but mentally assuring, four-piece anchor to safety below. Ryan and Carl followed suit, and we were gone into the early evening with another few thousand feet of stellar powder.
Over the past few seasons I have observed an increased popularity in two-piece anchors, especially when rappelling. I believe this is due to a trifold influence of resounding strength from modern climbing gear, the urge for climbers to save money and the promotion of such practices from certain social media personalities, movies and online courses targeting efficient alpinism. As you will read in the next paragraph, I am not opposed to two-piece anchors (and actually use them quite often), though the three-piece anchor built around at least one unquestionably trustworthy piece still remains the ideal standard for this story’s very reason. I had plenty of experience placing pitons and bailing in the alpine, and even bounce tested the anchor while in a secure stance on the ledge, yet something still went awry – and there I was, dangling from a small wire and a single pin with my life on the line. Had I tried to be more frivolous or expedient I would have been in true jeopardy, but instead I was saved by multi-generation climbing wisdom.
All said, this article is admittedly hypocritical, for I still regularly bail off two-piece anchors – and yes, there is a compelling argument for gear conservation and timeliness when several rappels are needed to escape a tight situation. However, whenever I commit to two-piece anchors I am always sure they are beyond reliable, typically two nuts sunk deep in an inescapable constriction, and preferably not the same constriction, in unquestionably sound rock. Whenever pitons are involved I am urged to place a third piece of protection, as even the best pin has skated loose beyond reasonable logic. I guess my ultimate lesson derived from this tale is that whenever the slightest inclination to use a third piece of anchoring gear arises, it seems pertinent and worthwhile to do so. No cost, either time, financial or egotistical, is worth the price of endangering a life, even if it’s a shiny 100 dollar #3 Black Diamond Camalot that need be left behind. We paid 17 dollars each, left anchor pieces worthy of repeat use from ski mountaineers to come (always inspect fixed anchoring gear and consider replacing cordage), and most importantly, returned home safely.
NOTE: This article is simply a single personal anecdote accompanied by a short reflection, not to be interpreted as advice for mountain practices. All expressed opinions are nothing more than the personal opinions of a recreational climber and ski mountaineer, not a trained guide or professional.
Climbing.com offers a valuable article for evaluating trad climbing anchors, available here.
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Ski mountaineering, rock climbing, ice climbing and all other forms of mountain recreation are inherently dangerous. Should you decide to attempt anything you read about in this article, you are doing so at your own risk! This article is written to the best possible level of accuracy and detail, but I am only human – information could be presented wrong. Furthermore, conditions in the mountains are subject to change at any time. Ten Thousand Too Far and Brandon Wanthal are not liable for any actions or repercussions acted upon or suffered from the result of this article’s reading.