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A toprope anchor I found in Carderock, Maryland. No, this was not staged.—Courtesy John Gregory of Dumb Anchors. Check out Dumb Anchors for many, many more cringe-inducing climbing anchors.
LESSON: Before reading on, I recommend clicking the photo above to see the full size version. You really need to see it large to appreciate what’s going on here. This anchor is ridiculous. Let’s start by looking at what was done right. That tree is a solid piece of natural protection. It’s greater than 6 inches in diameter, it’s alive, and it appears to be firmly rooted in the ground (from what I can tell). The tree has been attached to the system with a girth hitched sling. The rope is running through a locking carabiner that’s extended over the edge of the cliff. And the whole system is backed up with that big rock. This anchor could be bomber, but it has some massive issues.
Metal on metal connections—Look closely at the quickdraws in this anchor. They’re all connected to other quickdraws from carabiner to carabiner. The problem here is that carabiner to carabiner connections can move, twist, and unclip themselves. Since that’s every quickdraw in this anchor, that means there are six different points at which the anchor could fail. Not exactly ideal. The safe way to connect two quickdraws is by removing one carabiner, and attaching the loose dog bone to the free end of the carabiner you want in the middle. Basically, it should go: carabiner->dogbone->carabiner->dogbone->carabiner.
Redundancy—This anchor has some redundant elements, but not in any real meaningful way. There are two quickdraws attaching the tree sling to the locking carabiner. Those quickdraws are really only backing up each other. If the tree sling catches a sharp piece of bark that whole side of the anchor will fail. Same goes for the quickdraw chain. The legs of this anchor back up each other, but neither leg has its own redundancy.
Simplicity—Depending on which anchor acronym you subscribe to, an anchor should be efficient or timely. This anchor is neither. I count 27 (!) pieces of gear in this anchor. Every single piece of gear is a potential point of failure. Even beyond that, a convoluted anchor like this becomes difficult to assess and inspect. The same anchor could be accomplished more simply and safely with four long slings and two lockers. Two slings around the tree and two around the rock (or something better) would provide two redundant sides, with all slings running to the two lockers over the edge.
While those are the most major faults, we’re not out of the woods. The blue sling looks ready to pop off that rock. The rock itself is questionable. The anchor isn’t equalized. And the non-locking carabiner on the rope is hanging over the edge of the cliff. It could break if loaded. It’s safe to say that I would not climb on this anchor,
ANOTHER ANCHOR YIKES MOMENT
Seen in Joshua Tree. Not comfortable with a trad anchor, the climber traversed 10-15 feet and ran the rope through the rappel rings. Notice how the rope runs over the rock in several places. The couple then proceeded to toprope off this setup.—Derek Pickell, via email
LESSON: That single piece of trad gear on the top left of the photo makes this anchor much more dangerous than it needs to be. First, there’s a pretty big angle between the trad pro and the rappel rings. This will multiply the force on all the gear involved, which brings us to the other problem: extension. If the gear on the left fails, it will introduce a lot of slack into the system. 10-15 feet of additional rope could be enough to send a falling climber onto a ledge or the ground. Then there’s the belayer. If the belayer is working from the rope on the right, she should be fine (though the climber may take a huge swing). If she’s belaying from the rope on the left and the trad pro fails, the force of a fall could yank her that 10-15 feet across the ground, potentially injuring her, and adding even more slack into the system. The options here are to either clean the trad gear and belay only from the fixed hardware, or to not use the fixed hardware and build a bomber trad anchor. The best answer depends on if they’re climbing the route on the right or left.
Another issue here is that the couple is toproping from rappel rings. While not dangerous (unless the rings are worn to a sharp edge), this does wear out the fixed hardware and it will need to be replaced sooner. Do your local route developers a favor and clip two quickdraws to the bolt hangers for your toprope, or check out this option for a bolted toprope anchor.
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