How to Use a Personal Tether or Anchor Chain for Climbing

Personal Anchor Systems Keep You Tied into Climbing Anchors

Dr. Bill Springer belays with his personal tether tight between his harness and two belay bolts at Sunshine Wall in Utah. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

 A personal tether, also called a personal anchor system (PAS is made by Metolius) or anchor chain, is an important component of the climbing system. A personal tether is used to attach a climber to a belay or rappel anchor by clipping an auto-locking carabiner from a loop of the tether to an equalized anchor or a piece of equipment like a spring-loaded cam, wired nut, or bolt. The tether is a series of sewn loops of webbing, Spectra, or Dyneema that is girth hitched to the climber’s harness. The free end of the tether is clipped to a gear loop on the back of the harness, with the tether either around the outside of the climber’s waist or between his legs. Personal tethers are usually 40 inches long.

Personal Tether is Fast and Convenient

The personal tether is a fast, convenient, and easy way to clip into an anchor after leading a pitch, reaching a rappel anchor, or clipping into an anchor atop a sport pitch before threading it. The tether is easy to adjust at an anchor by simply clipping one of the chain loops so that the climber is tight against the anchor. Never have slack in the chain after clipping in because a fall on a loose chain greatly increases the shock load and can cause the tether to break and fail.

Knot in Climbing Rope is Preferred Tie-in Point

In the past, climbers always tied into anchors with the climbing rope, usually tying a couple clove hitches, an equalizing figure-8 knot, or a figure-8-on-a-bight knot. This ensured that the climber was attached to the anchors and the cliff with his climbing rope—his lifeline. Using the dynamic climbing rope is still the preferred way to tie into anchors since knots are adjustable, won’t come untied, and most importantly, absorb the energy of a fall or shock load on the anchor and the climber. It is best to tie directly into anchors with the rope as your primary tie-in point, as well as clip your personal tether into them.

Personal Tethers Came from Daisy Chains

The personal tether originated from the daisy chain, a length of webbing with bar-tacked loops that is used for aid climbing. Daisy chains, usually two, are girth hitched to a climber’s harness, with each chain then clipped to an aider or etrier for aid climbing or ascending a fixed rope with Jumars or ascenders. Climbers began clipping their daisy chains directly into belay anchors as a primary point of attachment rather than the rope since it was fast and easy. Daisy chains, however, are not designed for clipping into anchors since each of the loops are sewn only for body weight and can rip apart under the load of a fall. Daisy chains are full-strength only when clipped in each opposing end. Climbers have been killed and injured after daisy chains failed after being attached to anchors.

Tethers Designed with Full-Strength Loops

In response to the dangers of daisy chains, climbing equipment manufacturers, including BlueWater Ropes, Sterling Ropes, and Metolius, began making personal anchor tethers. Metolius’ unit, called the PAS, was one of the first to appear. The tethers were designed as a chain of ultra-strong webbing sewn into links, each as strong as a carabiner. The climber could then clip one of the links tightly into a belay anchor to secure himself to a cliff. Anchor chains are rated at full strength when any of the loops are clipped to an anchor.

Why a Personal Tether is Good to Carry

While the climbing rope should be your primary tie-in point to anchors, it is a good idea to also carry and use a personal tether. Here are some of the reasons why a tether is good to carry:

  • It’s convenient to use a tether to quickly clip into an anchor, rather than hang around and tie a knot.
  • If you are working a sport route or want to hang on gear to catch a rest, a personal tether is a quick, adjustable tie-in point.
  • If you are making multiple rappels down a cliff, it is easy to clip into the next set of anchors by using a personal tether since the rope is not free to use for tying in.
  • While you can use a couple two-foot slings girth-hitched together to clip into an anchor, it’s easier and stronger to use a personal tether.
  • If you are threading the rope at the top of a sport pitch, clip yourself in with your personal tether rather than making a temporary tie-in point with a bunch of extra quickdraws.
  • When you are climbing with three or more people, personal tethers make it easy and fast to attach each person to the anchor, plus you avoid having a mess of knots and rope at the belay stance.

Tethers are made of Nylon, Dyneema, and Spectra

Personal tethers are made of several different materials—nylon, Dyneema, and Spectra. Tests show that all are strong, but nylon absorbs more force generated by climbing falls than Dyneema and Spectra. Both Dyneema and Spectra are extremely strong materials that are often used for climbing equipment, but they absorb little force, which transfers the force of a fall to the anchors and to the climber’s harness. If you do use a personal tether, no what material it is made from, do not allow it to be shock loaded by having slack in your anchor system. A fall onto an anchor system and personal tether causes high forces and shock loading on your equipment and could lead to failure of the tether. Again, it is best to use a knot tied into the climbing rope as your primary anchor attachment.

Girth Hitch Your Personal Tether to Harness Tie-in Loop

While some climbers will girth hitch the personal tether to the belay loop on their harness, it is preferable to hitch it to the tie-in loop on the harness itself. This will cause less rubbing and possible damage to harness. The tether should not be attached to the belay loop, which is an important part of the harness and integral to the belay system. If the tether or any other sling is hitched to the belay loop, it will rub the loop and cause significant wear and damage over time.

Tips for Using a Personal Tether

Here are tips and thoughts for clipping into a belay anchor with a personal tether when you are lead climbing:

  • Upon reaching the belay ledge, either build an equalized anchor with gear and clip into it with your personal tether or clip directly into a bolt anchor with your tether.
  • Either way it is best to first create an equalized anchor with slings or your climbing rope and clip the tether into the master point. This distributes the weight and possible shock load onto both anchors.
  • It is not recommended to clip the tether direct into only one bolt or other anchor, since forces would be generated only on that single anchor point, and could lead to failure.
  • After reaching a belay stance, build a bombproof anchor and clip your rope into it with an equalizing figure-8 knot or a couple clove hitches. This traditional way of clipping into an anchor is safe, easy, and quick. Use your personal tether as a back-up by clipping it into a master point on the anchors. It’s best to put the tether in a place where you can easily escape the belay and still stay tied in if there is an accident, or if you are going to rig the rope for a rappel at the stance.
  • Keep the tether and attachment system tight and weighted all the time. A short fall onto a slack anchor tether generates high forces which can lead to tether failure, particularly of Dyneema and Spectra loops. A fall of only a couple feet direct on the tether can cause catastrophic failure.
  • Some personal tethers, like those made by Mammut and Edelrid, have an arrangement of loops which allow them to be clipped into multiple anchors and remain equalized.