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I was out at Carderock, Maryland, in April and saw this “interesting” anchor setup. It was a toprope anchor someone had rigged with two strands of webbing extended onto a slab, with a cordelette then running from these two points over the lip to a slingshot toprope.
One webbing strand (red) was tied around a tree and had little tension, while the other (black) one was tied to a boulder of doubtful weight; the “master point” where they met was rigged with a single non-locking biner and a quickdraw. Perhaps it is not the worst…but still.
—Andres E., via email
Thanks for sending in the photos and description, Andres. I’m assuming, since this is all the information you provided, that the anchor didn’t fail and whoever was toproping on it was fine. But like you say, “But still…” It’s just not a great setup; it could have been better.
This looks (maybe) like the sort of anchor I might have rigged in my early days as a teenage toprope hero climbing with friends around Albuquerque, New Mexico. But I feel like even way back then, in the 1980s, before you could look up “How to build a toprope anchor” on YouTube—with the predictable results of varying quality—we still did a better job. Perhaps it was because the mentorship system was stronger and we were schooled early on in basic principles like equalization, reducing the number of links in a chain, using locking carabiners at critical anchor points, and so on. But who knows—maybe 16-year-old me would have bumbled just as hard.
Anyway, I’ve since learned, and after decades of rigging many improvised and often complex systems in order to equip sport-climb anchors in hard-to-access sites, have gotten it down to a science. So, here are some suggestions for whoever built this questionable Carderock toprope anchor:
1. Equalize everything: In this case, the tree (tied off with the red webbing) looks to be by far the strongest anchor point. But because the red webbing isn’t weighted, it’s effectively not part of the load-bearing system. And if the black webbing, which is bearing all the weight, were to fail (very possible, it sounds like, given the small size of the boulder it’s tied around), the sudden shift of weight onto the red webbing might sever it on the sharp spine of rock it’s running over en route to the slab. With multi-point toprope anchors like this, you need to make sure all strands of anchor webbing or rope are sharing the load equally. This could have been addressed here by simply re-tying the knot at the end of the red strand higher on the strand so that the red webbing was also under tension.
2. Use the right materials for the job: Single strands of webbing are much thinner and prone to cutting over edges than your standard 10mm or 11mm static lines. In a case like this, where I need to run ropes from anchor points way back from the cliff edge down to the lip, I always use static lines. I have many different lengths of static cord at home—from 60 meters to 5 meters—for the job. And, as you can see here, if the anchor lines run over anything sharp en route to the lip, they can cut. I’ll wrap them in a rope protector at the pinch points, or, if I don’t have rope protectors with me, tie a jacket around them.
The other misuse of gear is using single non-locking biners where the webbing strands meet. It’s quite possible that, under load, those gates could open against the rock if they were to shift or rotate. Locking biners would be a better option.
3. Less is more: The other baffling thing about this anchor is that you have the two webbing strands, then the “master point,” then a cordelette leading down to the slingshot toprope. There are way more links in the chain than necessary, with each link representing a possible failure point. (Although this is all likely because whoever built the anchor didn’t have enough length with the webbing strands to get down to the lip; they were improvising.) Again, here I’d just run static lines all the way down to the lip to reduce the number of links in the chain, which goes back to point number two, above.
4. Is that poison ivy the black and red webbing strands are running through? If so, then this climber was in for a nasty surprise later. Doh!