Despite having fallen out of vogue for many climbers, pitons are an important part of an alpine climbing rack in many areas. Yes, many pitons have been replaced with their more reliable relative, bolts. Or simply removed for that matter. But there’s still tons of them around depending on the area. And of course the prevalence of pitons in a given area depends on an assortment of variables including the type of rock, popularity of the route/zone and of course the general ethics of the locals. So with lots of popular routes and climbing areas around that still rely on pitons in hard-to-protect sections, otherwise runout cruxes and even anchors it’s good idea to invest in a small rack before heading out. But what to get?
After years of climbing alpine and rock routes all over the world I’ve placed or replaced my fair share of pitons. This article will highlight some of the key variables to consider when selecting a rack of pitons including the type of rock and the climbing area. Following that is an outline a good piton starter kit and the thought process behind it. But like selecting a rack of nuts or cams it can be a bit of a guessing game.
Type of Rock:
The need to reset or replace pitons often depends on the type of rock. In harder mediums like granite and quartzite pitons have pretty good staying power. The rock doesn’t change a lot year to year and so it’s not uncommon to find old broken pins still solidly attached to the rock. In limestone, on the other hand, pins always seem to be loose. Even on the busiest of routes. The rock is soft, wears easily and cracks change or grow with freeze thaw cycles.
Type of Route / Climbing Area:
In some popular climbing areas pitons have been replaced with bolts while in others a more traditional ethos or lack of organizing body has kept routes from being retro-bolted or altered. In general this type of information can be gleaned from guidebooks, Mountain Project, locals, etc. The more numerous and critical the fixed pitons are the more likely you’ll want a few spares and a light piton hammer.
On popular routes, especially later in the climbing season, pins will likely have been checked and reset or replaced by other climbers. Of course that’s not always the case and I have definitely encountered loose pitons mid to late season on a lot of climbs.
Well now that the preamble’s over lets actually look at some pitons! My general summer piton rack is made up of anywhere between 2 to 4 pins depending on the area, route and type of rock. I make sure to bring an assortment of different types of pitons so I can deal with different cracks and placements.
1 or 2 Short & Thick Knifeblades:
These will replace thinner knifeblades that are no longer adequately sized for the crack. I prefer short as they’re less likely to bottom out. The fat knifeblades from Canadian Alpine Tools or BD’s #3 or #5 Bugaboo pitons work well.The slightly thinner Camp #1 or #2 knifeblades will also do the trick.
1 Mid-Length & Mid-Thickness Angle:
Like the knifeblades, new angles are often needed to replace existing ones which are no longer quite big enough. However, as this style of piton can accommodate a much lager range of crack sizes than a knifeblade they don’t need to be replaced as often. A few swats with a hammer can re-set them and your’re good to go. As a result I don’t find that I need as many on my rack. A single Camp Corner #2 or #2 BD Angle is often sufficient.
1 Mid-Length to Short Fixed Ring:
These guys fill the gap between knifeblades and angles. They can be made of either soft or hardened steel. Generally the soft metal pitons are silver while hardened steel pitons are black. The soft steel versions are designed for brittle rock like limestone but won’t last quite as long. I find that a Camp Fixed Ring Soft #1 or #2 (10 or 12cm) work well and are reasonably light. Alternatively the Camp Universal (soft or hard) #1 or #2 work just as well but are slightly heavier. The BD Lost Arrows provide a few more thickness and length options but are again even heavier.
Rack: 1-2 knifeblades, an angle and a fixed ring or lost arrow.
Of course this is just a rough idea to get you started on a solid base rack. For some granite routes 4-5 pitons may be way over the top and all that’s needed is a couple of knifeblades. On the flip-side this rack may not be nearly enough if you’re tackling a remote limestone choss monster. Hopefully this gets you started on right foot though!