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It Doesn’t Matter How Strong Your Gear Is If You Don’t Follow These Basic Rules

Cams and nuts can hold up against very high fall forces if placed correctly—but placing them correctly involves more than just shoving them in the first cracks you see.

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Rock Assessment

This article is excerpted from Rock Climbing: The Art of Safe Ascent, by John Long and Bob Gaines—available May 1, 2021.

We look back to the Yosemite pioneers, sixty-plus years ago, climbing Half Dome and El Capitan with braided gold line ropes and homemade pitons, and are amazed they survived. Yet statistics show that the accident rate in the 1950s and 1960s was lower than it is today. During the entire “Golden Age” (roughly 1957 to 1968) of Yosemite climbing, there is no recorded case of catastrophic anchor failure. We’re right to wonder: How so?

In 1960, when big wall climbing hit its stride, modern materials and equipment were not yet imagined. Rigging techniques were simplistic, sometimes sketchy by modern standards. So how did climbers safely scale the biggest walls in the land with such primitive gear? Because the holding power of chromoly steel pitons (the only man-made protection then available), driven into
solid granite, was so robust that it hardly mattered how you clipped or tied them off. If that piton was bomber, so were you. Safe and simple.

So goes the Golden Rule for the entire roped safety system: Security begins with bombproof primary anchors, from the protection we place to the anchors we build. If those anchors are solid, so are we—provided we follow a few basic steps. If our anchors are bad, no matter the rigging, we’re climbing on borrowed time.

Catastrophic anchor failures have occurred, not because the gear placements were bad or the rigging was flawed but because the rock was grainy, loose, or soft; and when violently loaded, the gear broke the surrounding rock away and the anchors ripped out. Edge case failures have also occurred (very rare); that is, weak components, well placed in good rock, subjected to fall factor 2 loads and failing in series.

When placing gear, the ideal crack is what guides call “a crack in the planet,” a deep, straight-in fissure that runs perpendicular (at a right angle) to the plane of the rock face. In an ideal world, the crack cleaves a massive, solid face of granite.

In general, avoid detached blocks and flakes. A detached block is a chunk of rock unattached to the main rock structure, either sitting on top of the cliff, like a boulder, or part of the main rock face but completely fractured, with cracks on all sides.

This block is not as big as a fridge but is incorporated into a larger anchor system because its position is low and it’s locked in by surrounding blocks. Photo: Bob Gaines.

To assess a block, first consider its size. Is it as big as your refrigerator, your car, your house? Placing gear in the crack beneath a smaller block is asking for trouble. When the piece is weighted, it exerts an outward prying effect on the block. Even large blocks can shift easily, as we’ve all experience when slogging over moraine fields or boulder-hopping around massive blocks, only to have one shift under body weight.

Examine how the block is situated. Is it keyed into a hollow or slot where it cannot slide out? Does it rest on a flat surface, or is it perched on an inclined slab? Exercise caution whenever using detached blocks as part of your anchor system, especially smaller blocks.

Flakes should also be avoided. Flakes—formed by a crack in the rock that runs parallel to the main face—run from wafer thin to several yards thick. Flakes are inherently unstable, and any gear placement, when loaded, will exert that outward prying effect that can fracture and sometimes dislodge the flake from the wall. In naturally weak rock, like sandstone, a thin rock flake is a hazard to avoid. Many flakes take only a few pounds of direct force to send them, and you, sailing. There’s a reason the base of many cliffs are strewn with rock debris. Next time, notice that most of that debris is flakes.

When setting anchors, look at any flake with skepticism. How thick is it? How well is it attached to the main rock structure or cliff face? Test its soundness by cautious thumps with the palm of your hand. Does it vibrate? Sound hollow? Play the geologist and scrutinize the rock and its various features, looking for trouble areas.

The Golden Rule

A “rappel anchor” at Tahquitz Rock in Southern California. This flake is clearly ready to exfoliate. Only a lunatic would rappel off this time bomb. Again, almost every case of catastrophic anchor failure is due to poor rock structure. Photo: Bob Gaines.

The Golden Rule is to always strive after bomb-proof primary anchors, from the protection we place to the anchors we build. Security in roped climbing hinges on solid anchors, without which climbing is Russian roulette.

The S.I.E.T. (School for International Expedition Training) puts it this way: “The foundation of any anchor is a well-placed piece of pro. Strong, bomber pieces are really, really important.

Nothing else matters if your pieces are junk.” Nothing else matters. Not the strength of our cams, carabiners, and webbing; the capacities of our belay device; or the genius of our rigging. It all boils down to the holding power of our primary placements, which starts with one basic issue: rock quality.

In trad climbing, where the roped safety system is hand-built on the spot, if the rock you’re building on is unsound, you have no chance. You might climb the rock, but if you’re counting on the protection or the belay anchor to save the day should you fall, the rock must be good enough to withstand the potential dynamic forces, which occasionally can approach 2,000 pounds.


Excerpted from Rock Climbing: The Art of Safe Ascent, by John Long and Bob Gaines, with permission from Globe Pequot, a division of Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright © 2021. Available May 1, 2021.