Unbelayvable: A Not So Pleasant Surprise Anchor

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Kevin Corrigan
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After leading a sport climb at any busy crag in the Blue Mountains of Australia, I often set up a toprope for my partners. Afterwards, if there are other groups toproping nearby, I'll ask if they want to trade ropes. As in, we'll climb on your toprope setup, you climb on ours. It means we get an extra couple of climbs in, and can often try routes I'm not game to lead. Every time I have done this, I have checked the quality of their gear and watched that they have been climbing on the rope themselves. When I get to the top of their climb, I've always found the anchor is similar to, or better than mine (two opposed quickdraws).

Recently I traded topropes with another group. They'd been thrashing around for a bit working the route. Needless to say, I was appalled and quite frightened when I got to their anchor, 12 meters up, to find just one quickdraw holding the rope. Its gate was opening against a bulge in the rock. It wouldn't have taken much for the rope to flip out of the draw, resulting in an instant ground fall.

Thankfully when I explained this to them they were very receptive and admitted they didn't really know much. As for me, I'm going to be a lot more careful about trading ropes in the future.—Ken Eastwood, Sidney, Australia

LESSON: Any time you choose to rely on the safety systems of others without vetting them first, you're taking a risk. Trade topropes with other groups long enough, and something like this is bound to happen. But I'm not saying that we should be so guarded and cautious at the crag that we can't make new friends! Just evaluate new people before you trust them with your life. Take a gander at their anchor when you're up building yours, watch them belay, check out their equipment. Hell, the situation above could've been avoided if Ken just asked the inexperienced group to explain their anchor to him before he climbed on it. There are plenty of ways to suss out a climber's safety practices in a nice, friendly way.

Now the problem with the anchor itself is that the climbers were depending on one non-locking carabiner to hold their rope. Any time your life depends on a single carabiner, it should be a locker or two opposite and opposed non-lockers. It's also worth noting that carabiners lose a significant amount of strength when the gate is open. The other major anchor issue is that there was no redundancy. Most bolted routes have two bolts at the top. If you use both, and something terrible happens to one of them, you'll still have strong bolt to keep from hitting the ground. There are plenty of ways to build an anchor on two bolts. Here's one option. Many climbers choose to simply use two opposed quickdraws like Ken mentioned. Whatever you choose, make sure it's redundant and that there is absolutely no way the rope can fall out.

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