Unbelayvable: The Infamous American Death Triangle

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Kevin Corrigan
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Every Monday we publish the most unbelievable stories of climbing stupidity submitted by our readers. See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition, online or in print. For more Unbelayvable, check out the Unbelayvable Archives.

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How not to build a climbing anchor. (Click for full size.)

>>I was setting a toprope anchor when I noticed this anchor next to me (see above). It was the classic American death triangle, using one sling and one carabiner at the bottom.—Caden Picard, via email

LESSON: Ah, yes. The American death triangle, a climbing anchor so dangerous it has its own Wikipedia page. The site sums it up simply, stating "[these anchors are] infamous for both magnifying load forces on fixed anchors and lack of redundancy in attachment to the anchor." The problem with a triangle setup is the strand that runs between the bolts or pro. This causes downward force to pull them towards each other, magnifying force in the process. It can potentially generate enough force to cause the anchor to fail. To add to the problem, the sling is not redundant. If a strand is cut, the anchor fails. A V-shaped anchor with a low angle is preferable, as it keeps the direction of pull downward and minimizes the amount of extra force added by trigonometry. Tie a knot down near the power point and you've got yourself a redundant anchor. See how to build quick, easy, and strong anchors in Bolted Toprope Anchor. Never use anything with "death" in the name unless it's the Euro Death Knot. That one is actually OK.

>>I was climbing at a local crag. My partner and I had just witnessed a belayer drop her climber 15 feet to the ground. She was using a tube-style device completely wrong. Her elbow was pointed up to the sky and she had tried to catch the fall with the brake strand up next to the climber's side of the rope. It didn't work. Shaken but unhurt, the climber got back on the wall and made it to the top of the route. We watched in horror as he prepared to lean back and weight the rope, now 35 feet off the ground. The belayer's hand was in the exact same position. I sprinted over to the woman and yanked the rope down into the proper brake position just in time. She was grateful, and I calmly talked her through the rest of the lowering process. When the climber (her husband) reached the ground, he glared at us and said, "She never listens to me."—Submitted by Tracy Taylor, via email

LESSON: The fault here is on the climber. He knowingly ignored obvious signs that his belayer was unable to perform her duties and put himself in danger in the process. It's your responsibility to evaluate your partner. If they're not competent, don't put your life in their hands. If they drop you 15 feet to the ground, don't immediately hop back on the wall. Give them lessons on the ground or in the gym until they can demonstrate that they know how to belay properly and are comfortable doing it. While this guy thinks his wife "never listens," it seems more likely that she just needs a thorough and patient teacher. But if you do find yourself with someone that just can't get the hang of it, then don't climb with them. If your belayer fails, you fall.

>>I witnessed one of the stupidest displays of belaying I've ever heard of. Two climbers set up on a long, overhanging route. The belayer was in flip flops. They were both oblivious to the length of the route and the length of their rope. Once the climber began lowering, it became obvious to everyone around that the she would not reach the ground. Many onlookers (including myself) offered to attach another rope and help get the girl to the ground, but the belayer refused everyone. He had too much pride. He ran out of rope when she was still 40 feet up. With just 12 inches to spare (and no knot in the end), he kept hold of the brake strand and started climbing the slab at the start of the route in his sandals. He went up until she made it down, then downclimbed himself without any protection.—Mike Warn, via Climbing.com

LESSON: As we talked about last time, you should check the length of a route before you start. Did you know the Mountain Project app is free right now? There's no excuse. While it's possible that the slab in the above scenario was easy, non-technical terrain, there are too many other red flags to let this guy slide. First, if your rope length is at all questionable, you need to tie a knot in the end. Once the end of the rope flies through your fingers, it's too late to do anything about it. Second, if several onlookers offer you help, that might be a sign that you're not doing things the best way. The consequences are too high in climbing to hide behind your pride. Accept help when you need it. Adding another rope to this system would have easily and safely avoided any problems. For example, climbing 40 feet to lower the climber 40 feet. The best case scenario leaves the belayer with 40 feet of downclimbing to free-solo.

See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print. Got an unbelayvable photo? Send it to unbelayvable@climbing.com.