Types of Pitons: Climbers Use Pitons for Secondary Anchors

Pitons are Old-School Climbing Anchors

Pitons are metal spikes, usually constructed of either soft or hard iron, of various sizes, shapes, and lengths that are hammered into cracks in a rock surface. An eye or ring at the end of the piton allows a carabiner and a rope to be clipped into the piton, creating a solid anchor point. Pitons are used by modern climbers as one of the last methods and tools to create belay and rappel anchors and for protection on a route since the placement and removal of pitons damages the rock and leaves unsightly piton scars.

Pitons are a Secondary Method for Protection

Yvon Chouinard in Yosemite Valley with lots of pitons before climbing El Capitan in the 1960s. Chouinard made the original Black Diamond pitons. Photograph courtesy Black Diamond

While pitons, also called “pins” and “pegs,” were once used as the main tool for protecting climbs, they were replaced by nuts or chocks in the early 1970s and then cams in the 1980s as preferred methods of protection. That said, pitons are still useful tools for climbers in places where a nut or cam can’t work, in the dirt- or gravel-filled cracks for example, and for aid climbing when clean aid trickery won’t work. Pitons are also used by alpine climbers, who hammer them into ice-filled cracks for anchors.

Parts of a Piton

Pitons are a simple climbing tool with several distinct parts.

  • Anvil The end of the piton that you hit with a piton hammer.
  • Eye The hole at the end of the piton that you clip a carabiner into.
  • Shaft The long part of an angle piton that is driven into a crack.
  • Blade The long thin part of a blade piton that is driven into a crack.

Blade Pitons

Lost Arrow pitons, made by Black Diamond, are blade pitons with an eye and a taped blade shaft. Photograph courtesy Black Diamond.

Blade pitons are exactly that—pieces of metal with a shaft that is thin and bladelike. Blade pitons vary in thickness from ones as thin as a knife blade (these are called, of course, knife blades) to ones that are about a centimeter thick (just under half-inch thick). The length of blade pitons varies from about an inch of usable length to about five inches long. The blade is tapered from the thick anvil and eye of the piton to its end where it’s very thin.

Three types of blade pitons are in common use today—Knifeblades, Bugaboos, and Lost Arrows. All are made by Black Diamond Equipment, America’s leading piton manufacturer, in the traditional styles designed by John Salathé and Yvon Chouinard. These are all hot-forged tapered pitons manufactured from hard chrome-molybdenum steel (called chrome-moly).

Knifeblade Pitons

Bugaboo Pitons, made by Black Diamond Equipment, are a type of knifeblade piton with two eyes for clipping carabiners. Photograph courtesy Black Diamond

Knife blades are thin pitons that are best used in extremely thin deep cracks. At one time, a rack of knife blades was the only way a climber could aid up a thin crack on big walls in Yosemite Valley. Today climbers use other aid climbing tools that cause less rock damage to ascending thin cracks, including Black Diamond Peckers and the Moses Tomahawk, both of which can be placed by hand for clean aid placements. Still, serious aid climbers need a few knife blades on their rack, especially for placements in horizontal cracks, under roofs, and in expanding flakes.

The most commonly used knife blades are the thicker ones (#2 and #3 Black Diamond rather than the thinnest. Bugaboo pitons, also made by Black Diamond Equipment, are thick knife blades with two eyes that are offset 90 degrees for clipping carabiners in different positions, especially when they are placed in tight corners.

Lost Arrow Pitons

Lost Arrow pitons, made by Black Diamond Equipment, are the best and most versatile blade pitons used by aid climbers. Photograph courtesy Black Diamond

Lost Arrows are blade pitons that are not only superb and useful climbing tools but also works of art. Lost Arrow pitons, originally designed by John Salathé in the 1940s, are the one pin that every serious aid climber has to have on his rack of big wall equipment. Lost Arrows are extremely durable as well as versatile. They fit in thin cracks that are too small for an angle piton, small cam, or nut but are too big for a knife blade, Pecker, or Tomahawk. LAs are durable and last a long time, which is great because they usually take a lot of beating on aid routes.

Back in the heyday of Yosemite big wall climbing in the 1960s and 1970s, Lost Arrows were essential for success but now, with all the clean aid gear available, Lost Arrows are relegated to an extra on most racks. Most modern aid climbers usually carry only the #1 to #3 Lost Arrows, the shorties, which are most useful. The longer Lost Arrows are used less often on aid climbs. The Long Dong is often used as a nut cleaning tool. Lost Arrows are also good for use in stacked piton placements when the pins are placed back to back or paired up with an angle piton in a shallow placement. They’re also good if pounded in a half-inch or so and tied off with a loop of webbing.

Lost Arrow pitons, manufactured by Black Diamond Equipment, come in eight different sizes—Short Thin, Short Medium, Short Thick, Wedge, Long Thin, Long Medium, Long Thick, Long Dong.

Angle Pitons

Photo of angle pitons, made by Black Diamond Equipment, which come in a variety of sizes from half-inch to one-and-a-half inches thick. Photograph courtesy Black Diamond

Angle pitons are made from a single sheet of metal that is folded over in a U, V, or Z shape, which reduces the weight of the piton. An eye is drilled through the metal as a carabiner hole. Angle pitons were once the most commonly used pitons on not only aid routes but also free climbs in the days before nuts and cams. Angles are generally easy to place and clean, come in a wide variety of sizes and lengths to accommodate every crack and provide a sturdy anchor, especially for belays and rappels. The shape of an angle piton allows it to compress and expand in a crack when it’s hammered, making a solid protection point with high holding power. Angles are easy to over-drive, so they are often left fixed in cracks since they couldn’t be easily hammered out without severely damaging the rock.

The classic angle piton is no longer the staple of a big wall climber’s rack since various-sized nuts, offset cams, and small cams fit securely in most cracks where an angle was once pounded. Most modern climbers only carry a few angles on their racks, and those that they do carry are often sawed off short. Short angles work great in shallow pods, where they can be tapped in and tied off with a loop of webbing. Angles work great in wet cracks as well as in shallow piton scars and holes, where they can often be hand-placed.

The most commonly used angle pitons are manufactured by Black Diamond Equipment and come in six sizes from ½-inch to 1 ½-inch. The two smallest sizes—1/2” and 5/8”—are usually called “baby angles.” Baby angles are often used as a fixed anchor similar to a bolt in sandstone; they are pounded into a hole drilled in the rock and left as a permanent anchor. A variation angle is the now-extinct Z-shaped Leeper pitons, which were ideal for creating piton stacks with other angles inside shallow holes and were a staple of every big wall rack in the 1970s.

Bong Bong Pitons

Bong pitons were once used by rock climbers to protect wide cracks on cliffs but are rarely used now. Photograph courtesy Black Diamond

Bong bongs, usually just called bongs, are not a smoking apparatus but the largest pitons for wide cracks. A bong is a big angle piton made from sheet metal that is folded in half in widths from two inches to four inches. Climbers rarely use bongs now because large camming devices and other specialized wide-crack gear like Big Bros protect big cracks more easily and don’t damage the rock. Bongs were made from steel and aluminum, with aluminum the preferred metal since it was lighter than steel. Aluminum bongs, however, wore out more quickly than steel ones. Bongs also had rows of holes drilled into the metal to lessen their weight. Climbers also turned bongs sideways to pound into six-inch-wide cracks.

The name bong bong came from the resonant sound that the piton made when pounded into a crack. Steve Roper, a Yosemite climber in the 1960s, recounts the history of the bong on the Northeast Buttress of Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite Valley: “For this ascent Dick Long…had brought along some of his prototype giant angle pitons…climbers on Higher Spire...mystified about the bonging sound...bong-bong soon became the name for any piton wider than two inches.”