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The 12-Point Anchor System

Posted Dec 04 2012 9:00am
A number of years ago I was working one of our Alpine Mountaineering and Technical Leadership programs with Jonathon Spitzer. Jonathon no longer works for AAI, but we keep in touch. In any case Jonathon asked what system I liked to use to teach anchor systems. At the time I had a system that I thought was clever where I graded each individual piece in a student's anchor with a standard A-F style American public school rubric.

Jonathon asked, "have you ever used the 12-point system?"

"The 12-point system?" I asked. "What's that?"

Jonathon explained that it's a system used to evaluate student anchors. The goal is for the powerpoint in each anchor to have a value of twelve. The value is provided by individual pieces. A good cam or a good stopper is worth four-points. So if you have three good cams or good stoppers, you have a value of 12 at the powerpoint.

I have used the 12-point system to teach anchor construction ever since that original conversation. I find that students understand this complex topic far more effectively when it is laid out before them in this way.  Following is a breakdown of the 12-point evaluative system
  • --A four-point piece is bomber. It should be able to hold a substantial fall.
  • --A three-point piece is pretty good. It should be able to hold a short fall. An example might be taking a fall with your feet at the piece.
  • --A two-point piece isn't very good. It will hold a fall with your waist at the piece.
  • --A one-point piece is essentially aid gear. It will hold bodyweight, but is unlikely to hold a fall.
With this in mind, consider the following pieces and how they might play into a 12-point system
  • --A large cam, 1" or more -- 4 points
  • --A small cam, less than 1" -- 3 points
  • --Micro cams -- 2 points
  • --A large nut, a Stopper size 8 or greater -- 4 points
  • --A medium nut, Stopper 4-7 -- 3 points
  • --A small nut -- 1-2 points depending on size and rock quality
  • --A very large tree with a good root base -- 12 points
  • --A very large boulder that doesn't move and is on stable terrain -- 12 points
  • --A good bolt -- 6 points
The 12-point concept both plays into and undercuts the idea that you need three pieces of traditional gear to have a good anchor.  It plays into it by saying that if you can get three 4-point pieces then you will have a solid anchor. It undercuts it by saying that some pieces might not be valued at four points.

A simple three-piece  pre-equalized 12-point anchor in good rock
Note that you are not required to use lockers in the pieces and that these could have been non-lockers.

There are three additional pieces to this puzzle. The first is that the pieces must be good. In other words they have to be placed appropriately to achieve their full point status. The second is that the rock that the pieces are placed in must be good. If the rock quality is poor, you may have to subtract points.  And the third piece of the puzzle is that due to weird rock, flaring cracks or a lack of pieces that fit properly, you may not be able to build a 12-point anchor with three pieces. The rock may force you to use four, five or even six pieces.

This is an anchor "in series." An individual may choose to use this kind of anchor  when there area lot of pieces in the system to obtain 12-points, but a cordellete  isn't long enough to link all the pieces together. In this photo there are  only three pieces, but there could easily be five, and they would be dealt with the  same way, by building anchors on top of anchors.

There are times in the alpine when it is not possible to build a 12-point anchor. In this circumstance you may only be able to fashion a four or six-point anchor. To do this, place a piece or two and then tie them off to your harness. Once you're tied in, you can use your body as a supplement to the anchor and then belay directly off your harness with a tube style device. 

You should only build your body into a 12-point anchor if you need to do so for speed on a very big objective, or you cannot build a system that meets or exceeds 12-points. When you belay off your body it is difficult to escape the belay if anything went wrong...and if you're anchor is terrible, then a belay escape isn't really an option anyway.

There is only one magic bullet when it comes to building a good anchor, and that's experience. The concept of a 12-point anchor will provide you with a good foundation for anchor building, but to really feel confident, you're going to have to build a lot of anchors...

--Jason D. Martin

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