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I was at Devil's Lake in Wisconsin. There was a Boy Scout event in the area. While walking near the railroad tracks, I came across a group of 20 scouts. They'd set up three topropes on the wall next to the tracks. I was horrified when I noticed that the belayers had anchored themselves to the railroad tracks. To make matters worse, the wall is on a blind curve. The belayers would have mere seconds to unclip themselves in the event that a train came through. Admittedly, the rail line is lightly used, with around one train going through the area per day. But I couldn't comprehend how everyone in the group thought this was an acceptable setup. Since it was such a big group, I opted for alerting the rangers. They shook their heads and headed over to try and fix the situation.
—Aaron, via email
LESSON: Do I really need to tell people not to tie themselves to railroad tracks? Unless you're the victim of a mustachioed cartoon villain, you should never be tied to railroad tracks. That should be common sense. To apply this more broadly to climbing, the belayer should always try to choose a position away from potential hazards. Make sure you're not in the path of any imminent rock or ice fall. Be aware of any loose rocks or roots underfoot that could trip you. And stay out of the path of oncoming trains.
Let's pretend for a minute that the Scouts followed their "Always be prepared" motto and checked the train schedule. Ground anchors are not inherently dangerous for toprope belays, but you should consider the pros and cons before opting to use one. A ground anchor will limit your mobility and could potentially trap you in the path of rock fall. On the other hand, they do provide security if the climber greatly outweighs the belayer. In a frictionless system, a belayer holding a climber of equal weight would be pulled up toward the anchors in a fall like some kind of horrible seesaw. The reason this doesn't happen is that the carabiners at the anchor provide friction as the rope runs through them. This is why we don't build anchors with pulleys. That said, the scenario is still possible if a climber is significantly heavier than her belayer. If that's the case, use a ground anchor. The point, like with most things in our sport, is that you should look at the situation with a critical eye before making a decision.
Further reading: For some tips on how to provide a safer, softer belay, check out 25+ Ways to Be a Better Belayer.
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