Pitons, also called pins and pegs, are chrome-molybednum steel spikes that climbers pound into cracks with a hammer. Soft steel works best in harder rock because it moulds to the rock, while hard steel works best in softer rock. Pitons consist of three parts: the anvil, which you hit with the hammer; the eye, to which you clip carabiners and the blade, which is driven into the rock.
Originally pegs were used as a way to aid climb up a rock face (utilizing the gear as holds while ascending the rock). Aid climbers still employ pitons by hammering them in and out of cracks (but less often because they permanently damage the rock). Free climbers also frequently use them, leaving them as permanent protection in cracks or at belays (used in place of bolts).
Pitons come in a variety of styles, but the basic types are the blade and the angle pitons. Also called “Lost Arrows” (a brand name appropriated by climbers to refer to all thin-bladed pitons), blades vary in thickness, but are flat and straight with a tapered ends. Angles come in a “U,” “V” or “Z” shape and have pointed ends. The largest angles are called bongs for the low sound they make when being hammered into rock. Smaller angles are more commonly used for both aid climbing and anchors and can even be pounded directly into smooth sandstone faces There are also the stamp-sized and shaped RURPs (short for Realized Ultimate Reality Piton). Pins come in different lengths: stubby pins, which are short and fit into shallow cracks, are ideal for aid climbing; longer pins, which can be driven solidly into deeper cracks, are good as anchors and as protection that can hold large falls.
What to Look for
Aid climbers planning on doing big “nail ups” of walls will want a wide assortment of pitons. However, the number of each type depends entirely on the nature of the wall that the climber is getting on. The climber should check out topos and talk to local climbers who have been on the specific routes he wants to get on and then determine what his pin rack should consist of.
Free climbers using pitons as anchors will want a small assortment of lost arrows and basic “U” shaped angles. Free climbers shouldn’t bother with RURPS because they were designed specifically for aid climbing and are typically not strong enough to hold a fall. And if the crack is wide enough to place a bong, climbers these days can just use camming devices, hexes or bolts for a fixed anchor. Bongs are heavy and unwieldy.
It’s important to make sure you understand what a specific piton is used for before you go nuts and purchase a bunch of them. It may be exciting to have a rack of 30 or 40 pitons to jangle in front of your friends, but only one or two of those may serve your purpose while en route. It is also important to think about the route you are going to climb as you purchase pitons. They are heavy; only buy (and carry) what works for that specific route you are planning on doing. For example, if it’s an incredible thin to nonexistent crack, buy RURPS. Finally, various companies make pitons. Most have their own style, as companies have purposefully attempted not to copy their competition, but rather provide supplementary designs. Don’t stick with pitons from just one company.
About this Author
Lizzy Scully is a senior contributing editor for “Rock & Ice” magazine and a columnist for “Rocky Mountain Sports.” She’s melded her passions for ascending rocks and for writing into a successful career in freelancing and a semi-professional career in climbing.