Bay Area Rock Climbing Message Board › Climbing safely outside- Are top rope anchors safe?

Climbing safely outside- Are top rope anchors safe?

Richard B.
Richard_Bothwell
Group Organizer
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 17
Hey everybody,

I've been climbing for a long time, and guiding climbing professionally for the past 12 years. I've seen climbing's popularity rise and fall several times over the years. It seems like outdoor roped climbing is experiencing a resurgence of popularity right now, which I think is great. I think the Meetup group is a great way for local climbers (and aspiring climbers) to get together. I've met lots of new friends through the meetup group myself. I'd like to see the group stay as safe as possible as people take their climbing outside.

This summer I've seen more questionable, suspect, and downright dangerous top rope anchors than I've ever seen before. I always expect to see a few bad anchors over the course of a season, but this year it's gotten to be such a frequent occurrence that I feel like the climbing community needs to do something. I see so many bad anchors now that I've started taking pictures of some of the questionable anchors I see.

I've attached three pictures of anchors I've seen recently at Castle Rock, Cragmont and Pinnacles. One is so close to perfect, but falls just short. The other two are well... dangerous.
In most cases it seems like the person who built the anchor had an idea about what makes an anchor reliable, but falls just a little short of making it happen. In some cases the anchors are so bad it's a wonder that no one got hurt climbing with them.
In all the cases the climbers had the gear necessary for a great anchor, but didn't seem to have the training to build them correctly.
In at least two of these cases, there was a new climber out with a more experienced friend.
In one case the climber was happy to get some advice on improving the anchor, in one case the climber thought his anchor was fine, but was receptive to hearing how to improve it, and in one case the climber seemed to have an attitude of "I know what I am doing, and you can't possibly show me anything better"
I think it's safe to say that in every case the climbers thought they were being totally safe, or else they wouldn't have been climbing on the anchors at all. Unfortunately thinking you are safe is a long way from being safe.

These were anchors that people were actually climbing on, thinking they were being safe. What do you think?



One of my biggest fears is that newer climbers are going climbing outside with people who may be awesome climbers, pulling down hard on 11d's in the gym, but don't have a solid understanding of how climbing anchors work, and how they fail. Every time you tie in you are making a decision to trust the system you are climbing on. What are you basing that decision on? Is your logic "my partner is a really good climber", "my partner has been climbing for a long time", or "my partner has taken an anchoring class, can quote the Climbing Anchors book, and is happy to explain how the anchors are constructed"?

So what can we do to keep our climbing community as safe as possible? I'd like to hear what other climbers think, but here are a few of my ideas:

Take a Gear and Anchor Class- I admit I have a bias. I teach this class for the Outdoor Adventure Club. I don't care that much where people take the class, though. There are several other good providers for similar classes. When taught well it's a great class for anyone climbing outside.

Read some books! There are a couple of great anchoring books available now. The 2nd ed. of John Long's book Climbing Anchors is good, as is the anchor book The Mountaineers puts out.

Ask other climbers- I'm happy to offer tips to any climber I meet on the rock. Of course if you're asking random climbers how to do things you should also figure out how much you trust their information. For all you know they might have less knowledge than you!

Be receptive to advice at the crag- Giving and receiving advice on the rock can be a sensitive diplomatic mission. I've been on the giving and receiving end of advice at crags. Most people on the giving end are trying to be genuinely helpful, and many people on the receiving end tend to be very defensive. Even if you feel like what you are doing is perfectly safe you might be able to learn something from someone else.

Ask questions here on Meetup- I think this could be a great forum to share questions and information. If you have a question about setting up an anchor you are probably not the only one. By asking it here you'll probably get a range of answers, too. There are often several fine options for setting up anchors, and you (and I) might learn something new!

Keep learning- I have to recertify my AMGA certification every couple years, and every time I do there are new things to learn. Techniques and tools we used in the past are improved or replaced as new information, materials, and techniques become available. What we considered a great anchor in the past may not be the best anchor today.

Hopefully we can find a way to cut down on questionable anchors before any of our friends and climbing partners get hurt. I welcome a discussion!

That's it for me- I have to get back to work.

Richard Bothwell
Outdoor Adventure Club
A former member
Post #: 3
OK, since Richard didn't offer any analysis I'm willing to give it a go. As always, this is my opinion, and we all know what those are like. Before you take any of this to heart convince yourself that it's right. It's your life hanging from the anchor you build, and when you're playing you-bet-your-life you should always question everything and convince yourself that you're doing something reasonably safe.

(1) A self cleaning american triangle? At least they used two pieces of webbing; that's redundancy, right? The take away from this one is that webbing is strong when you pull on it along it's length, but it's pretty easy to cut with a knife, which is what the bolt hangars will act like. Also by tying it off this way they've caused the forces on the ropes and bolt hangars to be increased dramatically. It would have been better to clip off each runner to its own hangar using carabiners or, less acceptably, to tie off the triangle with clove hitches to carabiners clipped through the hangars.

(2) While redundant, this is neither equalized nor non-extending. With the rope placed as it is all load will be taken by the bolt on the right, and when it fails the whole rig will be pulled toward the climber, shock-loading the middle bolt. Should the middle bolt fail the same shock-loading will happen to the left-hand bolt. The cherry on top is that the rope is being dragged over the rocks, which can damage the rope. The solution would be to build the anchor with the leg lengths adjusted so that all three bolts bear part (idealy 1/3rd) of the load with the carabiners supporting the rope hung over the edge of the cliff. that being said, this is in my opinion the most acceptable anchor. Under typical top loading conditions I don't think it would fail catastrophically.

(3) There's another bolt... right over there.... You're already using 2 quick-draws... you couldn't just move one to the hangar that's 8 inches away? The FAIL here is not using the second bolt to make a truly redundant anchor. Bolts should never be treated as bomb-proof. They can and do fail all the time. The golden rule is that you should never build an anchor that relies on a single piece of protection.

I have to second Richard in saying that the John Long books are great resources. I've thumbed through the 2nd edition, and it looks pretty good. Try and find the first editions of "Climbing Anchors" and "More Climbing Anchors" if you can, though. The two editions seem to have very different styles, with the first edition being composed mostly of illustrated examples of good and bad anchors along with an analysis of the good and bad points of each anchor and any variations one could make.
A former member
Post #: 33
Thanks Richard for bringing this up. Keep in mind that climbing is a high risk sport and with its increasing popularity you will come across questional safety. For many beginners, it is easy to put faith in the seemingly more experienced climbers that you may climb with but in reality you are putting your safety and life in the hands of another person. This goes beyond anchoring since even with a bomber anchor a careless belayer can be just as dangerous. Nothing replaces proper training and I encourage everyone to take classes. At the very least, knowledge can very well save your life and there are plenty of excellent books for the various aspects of climbing and doing it as safely as possible. Practice the proper procedures, make sure you know the right ways to communicate while on a climb and do it clearly and concisely, learn to identify inadequate bolts and hangers, and never stop learning by asking questions. Soon enough you will come to recognize the risks and learn how to deal with them.

Remember, safety, safety, safety.
Kent
user 5513054
Oakland, CA
Post #: 1
(2) While redundant, this is neither equalized nor non-extending. With the rope placed as it is all load will be taken by the bolt on the right, and when it fails the whole rig will be pulled toward the climber, shock-loading the middle bolt. Should the middle bolt fail the same shock-loading will happen to the left-hand bolt. The cherry on top is that the rope is being dragged over the rocks, which can damage the rope. The solution would be to build the anchor with the leg lengths adjusted so that all three bolts bear part (idealy 1/3rd) of the load with the carabiners supporting the rope hung over the edge of the cliff. that being said, this is in my opinion the most acceptable anchor. Under typical top loading conditions I don't think it would fail catastrophically.

Regarding the cordelette anchor:

Check out supertopo.com, rockclimbing.com, and Long's newest book for recent developments regarding anchor theory. Current thought is that extension and shockloading are not as big of a concern in most conditions after all.

Rope over the rocks is a concern, but not necessarily prohibitive. Context is key. Rope runs over rock all the time, the sheath is design to protect against minor abrasion.
A former member
Post #: 4
Regarding the cordelette anchor:

Check out supertopo.com, rockclimbing.com, and Long's newest book for recent developments regarding anchor theory. Current thought is that extension and shockloading are not as big of a concern in most conditions after all.

Fair enough, I won't argue the physics here as I think that sort of talk requires a bar, cheese fries and a few pints, and besides I'd probably agree with most of what you'd have to say. I will point out that taking a few extra minutes to have an equalized, non-extending anchor is better than spending those few seconds of free-fall worrying about whether some dude on a message board knew what he was talking about. Or John Long for that matter.

These are top rope anchors, and while they'll probably never experience the forces needed to pop all or any of those bolts the practice people get building good anchors in the best of circumstances will help them in making decisions about how to build the strongest anchors when conditions and options aren't so good. Doing something half-assed once probably won't hurt you, but bad habits kill. Take the extra 2 minutes and build the anchor properly.

Rope over the rocks is a concern, but not necessarily prohibitive. Context is key. Rope runs over rock all the time, the sheath is design to protect against minor abrasion.

context IS everything. Take for example the fact that on one hand rubbing is racing, but on the other hand while bumpers are made for bumping you don't see many people handing out love-taps at stoplights when space in the turn lane gets a little tight. Halfway up the shield with a looming thunderstorm is one thing. Top-roping in pinnacles is another. So, why abraid the rope if you don't have to? For that matter, why abuse any of your gear if you don't have to?
Kent
user 5513054
Oakland, CA
Post #: 2
I will point out that taking a few extra minutes to have an equalized, non-extending anchor is better than spending those few seconds of free-fall worrying about whether some dude on a message board knew what he was talking about. Or John Long for that matter.

I should have fleshed out the point behind my first reply: There's new thought (reportedly based on drop tests) that "master point" cordelettes aren't actually the strongest solution in most cases and that true dynamic equalization is more important than trying to fully eliminate extension & shock-loading. So I encourage others reading this to not automatically go by the old rule of thumb and to look into new developments to decide for themselves.

So, why abraid the rope if you don't have to? For that matter, why abuse any of your gear if you don't have to?

My understanding is that the rope is built to withstand some abrasion, so I don't agree that some abrasion is abuse by definition any more than is putting a rope on the dirt now and then. If it's a two-use anchor and there are no sharp edges and minor rock rub, IMHO it's not worth taking the extra time to extend the anchor to eliminate the minimal abrasion that will occur. This is what I meant by context... I do agree with you that abrasion can in some cases damage the rope, but I'm pointing out that sometimes rock rub and abrasion are acceptable - again to encourage beginners reading this to look at the actual situation when making their decisions.

Edit: Partly where I'm coming from is a belief that analyzing the situation and tailoring behavior / solutions to the situation at hand rather than applying the same rules in all cases is the best habit...
Richard B.
Richard_Bothwell
Group Organizer
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 18
Hey Mel, Kent, Brian and the whole Meetup crew-
Here's the long reply, mostly about the anchors- I'll post a short reply immediately after this.

I'm glad there's been a little discussion here. I agree with all three of you-
I think Brian's right- safety is critical.
Kent is spot on by keeping up to date with the latest thoughts on climbing safety.
And Mel is right on track by being skeptical. Mel is also tracking perfectly regarding the best venue for this discussion, although I would opt for burritos over cheese fries with my pint. Climbing has a great tradition of discussing some of these finer points in social settings. What's better than sharing route beta, recalling epics and making climbing plans over a few pints? I think it's one of the more fun aspects of climbing.

Mel and I met at the Waterfall at Castle Rock this summer. I thought Mel had a great perspective on things. He was definitely knowledgeable, happy to discuss some finer points of anchoring and belaying from above, but most of all he was skeptical. I thought it was a cool stance. Sort of "I am going to take the information, process it, and I'll consider it, but I'm not buying in just because you say so". Mel seems to apply the same skepticism to John Long's recent findings on self equalizing vs. pre-equalizing anchors.

My 2¢ on the anchors pictured-
One bolt with 2 quickdraws- The guy knew he needed redundancy, but didn't quite understand what redundancy means for a climbing anchor. Two, three or four carabiners doesn't make the bolt redundant. Even the sporto anchor of 2 draws, one in each bolt would be a huge improvement. Really interesting to me is that he did use another bolt. It's barely visible at the bottom left of the picture. It was about 15 feet below the anchors. I am not sure why he chose to use that bolt, and not the second bolt where he built his "anchor".

American Death Triangle This is one of my all time favorites. There are three serious shortcomings here, any of which would make me consider the anchor unsafe.
1) The American Death Triangle (ADT). Anchor systems should form V shapes, not triangles. We can talk in great detail about the force multiplying affect of the ADT, but only over beer and fries. Don't do it. Pulling the strands down between the bolts eliminates the ADT.
2) Your nylon (or Spectra) should go through your metal! This is bad on two levels. Bolt hangers are designed to hold carabiners, not slings. This climber should have clipped carabiners to the bolts and the slings to her carabiners. Unless you are setting up a rappel through rap rings or rap hangers, none of your cord, webbing or rope should touch metal that you didn't bring with you. It is considered bad form to run your rope through chains or cold shuts as a top rope anchor. I've seen several anchors at Owens that have been worn halfway through by people laying their ropes in the shuts and top roping off them. Set up a good top rope anchor, use it, then set your rope up in the shuts/chains when you are going to rappel. The anchors will last longer.
3)Tri-Axial loading- In this anchor the carabiners holding the rope are being subjected to a tri-axial load. Bad. In the spirit of Mel's skepticism, I have to admit I don't know what the strength of a carabiner is under a tri-axial load, I know I've been taught forever that it's a really, really bad thing, though. I'm trying to get some clarification from friends at Metolius and Black Diamond, though. I'll let you know if I hear anything.

The cordolette anchor Things got a little spicy with the cordolette anchor. Mel seems to be concerned with the rope running over the rock, and the poor equalization. Kent poo-poos the pre-equalized anchor, or at least points out that John Long is currently poo-pooing it. Kent also said something like a little friction isn't going to kill the rope. I think all the points are good ones. I'd add this-

It's hard to make out in the picture, but one leg of the cordolette is connected to a bolt by a double length runner that has been doubled over. By extending the runner to full length the "master point" of the anchor would be extended over the edge, eliminating the friction and rope damage possibility.
Also, the anchor builder has two carabiners through at least one of the bolts. Why? Redundancy for a climbing anchor does not mean there are two of everything, it means there is no one critical link.

Lastly the angles between the legs of the cordolette are larger than they need to be. As the angles between the legs gets larger, the forces put on each bolt gets larger too. If you want your bolts (or other pro) to share the load, keep the angles tight. If the angle between the legs exceeds 20º the load on each piece is greater than half the total load. As the angle grows, so does the force. At 80º each bolt in a two bolt anchor would take 70% of the load applied. Yep, load the anchor with 1000 pounds on the rope, and each bolt would have to hold 700 pounds, so the total load on the bolts would be 1400 pounds. The anchor configuration multiplied the force! At 120º the load is doubled, go a little farther and you have an American Death Triangle, putting huge forces on each bolt. Here's a fuzzy diagram for you:

As for the friction of rope running over the edge, I try to avoid it as much as possible. I buy 6-7 ropes a year, and they almost all go bad from friction over the rock. Kent has a reasonable point about how durable ropes are, and not to stress too much about it, but in this example there is no reason to have the "master point" positioned where it is. It could easily have been placed over the edge, reducing the friction of the rope over the rock. It's tough to tell in the picture what the angle of the rope running over the edge is. If it's gradual, maybe it's not a big deal. If it's a 90º edge I would avoid it at all costs. Ropes are strong but few are designed to take a load over a sharp edge. If you and your friends are top roping your favorite hard climb all day, there is going to be a lot of sawing action on the rope at the edge as your friends flail their way through the crux. The same spot on the rope is going to be worn every time, unless you make a real effort to move the tie in knot.


Richard Bothwell
Outdoor Adventure Club
Richard B.
Richard_Bothwell
Group Organizer
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 19
Here's my short reply:


Edit: Partly where I'm coming from is a belief that analyzing the situation and tailoring behavior / solutions to the situation at hand rather than applying the same rules in all cases is the best habit...

I would agree as long as there is a base knowledge. I'm not worried about either of you guys building an anchor that fails. I am worried about someone climbing with their "expert climber friend" who sets up an anchor on one bolt.

For most people who are new to anchor building I would suggest that having a good set of rules to follow every time is a good idea.

Richard
A former member
Post #: 34
This is a great discussion on anchors and the visuals are great for people to see.

The comments about the cordelette brings up some other interesting issues. According to Bob Gaines, there's the possibility that the cordelette does not completely equalize the load. As we may all know even with top roping, the routes aren't always a straight line to the anchor. As the climber moves from side to side along the route the bulk of the load will shift from leg to leg. Even with a straight route, often times you can visually see which legs are getting the bulk of the load as someone is climbing. However, there is the discussion about the importance of equalization and shock loading. I argue that entirely depends on the bolts... what type of rock are the bolts in, what is the angle of the bolts, etc, etc. I've seen craptastic bolts and placements on relatively soft stone which makes me cautious about load equalization for the anchor.

An interesting method I've used is the equalette. Dispite some of the pictures and diagrams on the net, in relation to top roping, this is really easy to setup. It equalizes well (even with side to side movement) and is redundant. It can be a pain to remove the knots once done but it seems to serve my purposes really well.

My view on abrasion is simple, this is your safety gear, keep it in as good a shape as possible. There are times where it is unavoidable. Regular close inspection of all gear is essential.

As for the "death triangle", word to the wise, look at the picture, anything that looks like that avoid at all costs.

Picture 3 with the one bolt anchor is interesting. It almost looks to me like the hanger on the other bolt is at an odd angle. Possibily the hanger is loose in what some call a "spinner". Perhaps this was the reasoning behind not using it. However, the bolt does look solid and would be at a 90 degree angle to the load. Personally, I would have used it as it would be better than not. A solid inspection of the bolt would be necessary though.

Training, knowledge and experience! Live to climb a long life!
Richard B.
Richard_Bothwell
Group Organizer
San Francisco, CA
Post #: 20

Picture 3 with the one bolt anchor is interesting. It almost looks to me like the hanger on the other bolt is at an odd angle. Possibily the hanger is loose in what some call a "spinner". Perhaps this was the reasoning behind not using it. However, the bolt does look solid and would be at a 90 degree angle to the load. Personally, I would have used it as it would be better than not. A solid inspection of the bolt would be necessary though.

Good thoughts all around, Brian.

I don't mind "spinners" so much, but I definitely stay away from "wigglers".

I think even if the climber had a great reason for not using that second bolt, he isn't excused from making a sound anchor. One of the comforting things about top roping is having plenty of time and resources to build anchors, and the choice to climb or move somewhere else. I'd use the second bolt even if I thought it was suspect. I'd also tie off the tree that is 20 feet behind both bolts, and use a cordolette (or equalette if you prefer) between all three points if I thought the bolts were questionable. If I thought that second bolt was suspect and didn't have the resources to construct a solid anchor there, I would choose to climb another climb rather than use one bolt as an "anchor".

There are plenty of times in a climbing career when we do things we wish we didn't have to, like rapping off of one # 8 stopper, or being 20' above a Leeper hanger on a Star Dryvin bolt, but we never have to set up a top rope anchor, and we certainly don't have to climb on a bad one.

Richard Bothwell
Outdoor Adventure Club
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