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On July 4, climbing coach Bryan Caldwell died after his anchor failed and he fell approximately 100ft to the ground. He was pronounced dead when search and rescue arrived. He was reportedly attached to a cam and nut that appeared to have dislodged from the wall. How or why his anchor failed remains unknown.

Failure of climbing anchors leads to multiple deaths a year. Just earlier this year, climber Tina Fiori fell 80 ft and died after attaching herself to weathered webbing that gave way when she put her weight on it. The webbing was left behind by previous climbers and was of unknown age. Old and improperly installed bolts can break without warning, but deaths are rare. Bolted anchors typically have two bolts in place as a measure of redundancy in case one fails.

One may think the obvious solution would be to place permanent brand-new bolts everywhere people climb, but that’s practically impossible. Some climbing areas place restrictions on bolting practices whereas others are so infrequently climbed that the gear cannot be maintained against normal weathering. Therefore, climbers should inspect all permanent anchors before using them. Some signs that a bolt anchor may be compromised include rust, hangars or bolts that spin, sun fading and fraying on webbing, or if another anchor has been installed in close proximity (take that as a hint to use the new one). Oftentimes it is difficult to tell if newer looking bolts or webbing are strong enough, so you should test them before putting your weight on them. This can be done by securing yourself to another anchor that you trust (i.e. a temporary one that you have built) and then giving yourself enough slack to put your weight on the anchor in question with your static body weight and bouncing your weight on it to test its ability to hold dynamic weight changes. When in doubt, look for alternative anchor options.

Multiple pieces of faded webbing at a climbing anchor. Source: mountainproject.com

Rusty bolt with stainless steel hanger. Source: mountainproject.com

The simplest alternative is to build a new anchor. Natural anchors are anchors built from features in the natural environment, usually by tying webbing, cordelette, or rope around them. The most common anchors used are trees and rocks. Gear anchors are anchors built from climbing gear such as nuts, cams, or hexes placed in fissures or cracks in the rock. They are arranged in a manner so that an anchor can be built by connecting the pieces together. All of your personal gear that you use to build an anchor should also be inspected so you know you can trust it to hold your and your climbing partner’s weight. Climbers should make sure to get proper training in anchor building before attempting to create one themselves. Building anchors is an art as well as a skill and takes practice to do well. There are several websites you can review and learn from examples of bad anchors.

Three-piece gear anchor. Source: theclimbingguy.com



Some general concepts related to anchors are listed below. (Of note, these are concepts used by recreational climbers and differ from rescue standards which tend to require more redundancy and higher weight-bearing capacity.):

Trees

- Should be alive

- Should be big (when you wrap your hands around it, your fingers don’t touch)

- Should be well-rooted (does it shake or sway when you push it?)

Rocks

- Should not move or shift

- Should be of good quality (won't break, don’t sound hollow when you tap on it)

- Should be shaped in a way that won’t allow your gear to slip off it

Gear Anchors

- Use the 6 Point Rule or 12 Point Rule to help guide your placements.

- Use separate cracks or placement areas

Anchor Concepts (ASERENE or EARNEST)

- Angles: Unless you are a mathematician who climbs with a protractor and can calculate forces on the spot, you are most likely going to eyeball your angles. Generally, all angles in the anchor should be less than 90 degrees. RopeBook gives a detailed description for those who are interested.

- Strength: Again, you may not be able to calculate the exact amount of force placed on your anchor. However, you should make sure to use enough pieces that can withstand a factor two fall. VDiff gives a good description of falls and kilonewton ratings.

- Equalization: Make sure the force is equal on all parts of the anchor.

- Redundancy: Ensure there is enough backup built into the anchor system in case certain parts of the anchor break or become dislodged.

- Efficient/Timely: Make sure the anchor can be built and taken down cleanly and efficiently.

- No Extension: Make sure that if one piece of gear fails the anchor will not move. One exception is the Sliding X which leads to minimal extension.

The American Death Triangle. An anchor that, if used, could lead to bad outcomes if part of it fails due to its lack of redundancy. Source: climbing.com

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