Beaks are an ingenious type of piton which offer protection in super thin cracks, where even micro nuts are too big to fit.
They are most commonly used for aid climbing but they can also play a crucial role on winter climbs, alpine routes or bold trad sketch-fests.
Beaks are most often placed with a hammer, but they can also be hand-placed (see below).
To place beaks well, you must first understand the physics that cause them to lock into a placement - taper, hooking power and outward force. Each of these are described below.
Beak Physics: Taper
Most beaks have a tapered tip, being smaller underneath than on top. This allows them to be placed similarly to a nut.
Look for tiny constrictions in the crack and slot the beak in just above. Then gently tap it a couple of times with your hammer to seat it in position.
If you hit it too hard, you’ll damage your beak tip or the rock which is holding it in place, or it will be really difficult to remove.
Beak Physics: Hooking Power
Similar to an ice tool, the tip of a beak is angled downwards. This allows the beak to ‘hook’ over constrictions far back in a crack.
It also means that the beak cannot pivot out under load (like a knifeblade piton).
Beak Physics: Outward Force
If the crack has no constrictions or undulations, a beak will rely on the outward pressure from the sides of the crack to remain in place. Think of the beak as a wedge. You’ll need to hammer it in fairly hard for it to be good.
The beak’s tip should slide 2/3 of the way in the crack initially, and then go up to the eye when hammered. If it can be hammered all the way in, you’ll need a bigger size. Over time you’ll be able to judge this before you hammer it.
Unlike knifeblade pitons, beaks do not torque into uniform vertical cracks. So unless there is a slight narrowing or constriction, you’ll probably be better off placing a knifeblade instead.
If possible, always clip a quickdraw directly to the hole on the beak, rather than the cable.
Eliminating the cable gives you a few extra inches of aiding height, and also results in a stronger piece of gear (the 3kN cable on BD Peckers is the weakest part).
Clipping a shock-absorbing sling to the beak instead of a quickdraw will make it even stronger.
If you place a beak at the base of a roof or small overlap, it may become ‘geometrically fixed’.
To be removed, it must be tapped upwards, but this will be impossible if there is a roof in the way.
Think about how you would remove the beak before you hammer it in.
Placing Beaks: Diagonal, Horizontal and Roof Cracks
When a beak is weighted in a diagonal crack, the tip twists into the crack. This offers a little more security on slightly diagonal cracks.
However, on steep diagonals or horizontals, the beak tip is likely to break, especially in the smaller sizes.
To combat this, you can clip your aiders to the upper hole (via a loop of 5mm cord if the hole is too small). This reduces the leverage on the beak’s tip, making it less likely to break.
In horizontal cracks, a rurp or knifeblade piton is often a better choice, since they are stronger when weighted this way.
Beaks can stick in roof cracks if there is a constriction for them to hook over. If not, you’ll be better off placing a knifeblade.
You’ll need to go against clean climbing ethics to get an upwards driven piton of any kind to hold your weight. Weld it in with your hammer as hard as you can. The harder you hit, the better it will be. Then apologize to the rock for your destructive behaviour.
Placing Beaks: Stacking
Stacking means having two or more pitons side by side in the same slot.
Stacking is useful when a placement is too shallow for a large beak and too wide for a smaller beak. Start by placing the first beak, then tap a second beak immediately next to it. Clip them both, making sure the beak which reaches furthest back is weighted.
For hard aid routes, it is worth taking some ground-down beaks (sawed-off halfway along the tip) for features like this.
Placing Beaks: Expanding Features
Climbing on loose or expanding rock is a trouser-filling experience. If you climb a hard aid route, you will certainly encounter a lot of it.
Any thin flake will have some amount of elasticity to it. To test how expanding (or loose) the rock is, give it a gentle tap with your fist or hammer. The lower and more hollow the sound, the looser the rock. Find an area of rock that you know is solid and listen to the difference.
Like walking on thin ice over a deep lake, the goal is to move slowly, putting as little pressure on the feature as possible. Once you start up a long expanding flake, you are usually committed to reaching the other end.
Cams and cam-hooks are much better suited to expanding flakes, since they expand along with the rock. However, if the crack is too thin for these, you’ll have to hammer something instead.
When you hammer a beak, or any other piton, behind an expanding flake, the crack becomes wider. Because of this, you will need to select a bigger beak than you would for solid rock.
This is simple if you are just making a single expanding aid move. Problems arise when you must make many consecutive moves up the same expanding feature. In this case, the crack widens more each time, meaning that the piece you are hanging from will probably fall out - with you attached to it! Here are a few things you can do to reduce this:
1) Clip the next piece with your daisy chain before you hammer it in. Keep your daisy tight so that you don’t shock-load it if the lower piece falls out. Give it a few taps to seat it in position. Then commit to it by hammering it in quick and hard.
2) Reach as high as possible between placements. The higher you place a piece, the less the flake will expand at your current piece, therefore meaning it is less likely to fall out with you attached to it.
Also, using less placements means the feature is expanded less overall, which means the whole thing is less likely to break off.
3) Seek out constrictions in the crack for micro nuts or copperheads, or hooks on the outside. Place gear as deep in the crack as you can. Anything that will put less outwards force on the flake is better.
When cleaning an expanding flake, you’ll often find the lower pieces easy to remove (if they haven’t already fallen out) and the last piece impossible because the flake has clamped down on it. You may have to jumar up to the top of the expanding section and remove them in reverse.
There is a delicate balance that you must find between expanding the flake too little (with each piece barely wedged in) and expanding the flake too much (causing the whole thing to break off). This is something only learnt through experience.
Placing Beaks: Loose Features
Loose features must be treated differently from expanding features. The main problems are that it’s hard to differentiate between the two, and expanding features often have loose sections within them.
The key to climbing on loose rock is to understand why the rock is loose and how it is attached. Most loose features can be weighted in a certain direction without causing them to break off the wall – you just have to figure out exactly what that direction is.
However, hammering anything in loose rock generally results in the rock fracturing. If you must use a beak on a loose feature, treat it like a nut for constrictions or a hook for flakes. Be gentle and keep your hammer away.
Be aware of clipping gear to the rope that is behind large loose features; if you fall, the broken rock could hit your belayer or chop your rope.
Placing Beaks: Hammerless
The ethics of hammering beaks or any other piton is as boring and unsolvable as the debate about placing bolts. There are three facts that emerge from it all:
1) A hammered beak is almost always a stronger and better piece of gear
2) A hammered beak causes more damage to the rock
3) The harder you hit, the more damage you cause
I have a confession to make.
I have personally hammered several thousand pitons into pristine granite, limestone and even soft sandstone, changing the placements forever. Each one was necessary, or so I tell myself.
Some of them I tapped in gently.
Some of them I smashed in as hard as physically possible, red-faced and screaming with genuine fear and desperation, on the verge of insanity, holding my hammer in both hands with every second blow missing the beak and breaking the rock around it. After 50 or so full-strength pelts, the beaks were so far buried that not even God could remove them.
Whether you hammer beaks or not is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong answer, though there are some general guidelines:
If you are on a fairly safe route that is commonly climbed clean (without a hammer), then perhaps you should place your beaks by hand. If you are on an A5 nightmare, with endless expanding flakes and death blocks, then feel free to weld those beaks in properly when you get the chance. The pitch will probably fall off before anyone else climbs it anyway.
Use your judgement and be honest about what you did up there.
After placing a beak, tap it downwards to seat it into position. Ease your weight onto it and give it a bounce test.
Be careful when bounce-testing beaks which are hooked into the top of dead-heads. If you bounce too hard, the beak tip will probably cut through the head, or pry it out.
To be removed, beaks will need to reverse the way they went in.
This is usually done by tapping them upwards. Hit them from the bottom (be careful not to hit the cable) or underneath the head. You may need to tap them back down and up a few times to unseat them.
They can also be removed with a funkness device.
Clip one end of your funkness device to the beak’s lower hole (you can clip the cable too but it tends to weaken it) and the other end to your hammer. Give it a gentle tug outwards. You may need to tap it back into position and then tug it again a few times to loosen it.
You can also clip your funkness to the upper hole on the beak for a more upwards (rather than outwards) pull.
For stubborn beaks, you may have to hit the beak upwards until you can slide something between the stem and the rock. This creates a pivot point.
Hit the stem back into the rock to pivot the beak out.
Rack beaks in groups of 3-6 per carabiner.
It’s better to clip the upper holes (if they have them) so the beak tips point downwards. This reduces how much they get stuck on your pants and leg loops.
Aid Climbing Beaks: Summary
Beaks are incredible pieces of gear that can offer security in places where none existed before. Place them carefully, sparingly and use your hammer as little as possible.
There is a big difference between gently tapping a beak into a constriction and smashing it in so hard that the whole feature turns to dust and the beak is stuck there forever.
Practise placing and removing them on a chosspile boulder before you weld them into an established aid route.