Monday, November 18, 2013

Toproping Sport Climbs - Part I

Pulling through the last few moves on “Lude Crude and Misconstrued,” a popular 5.9 located in the Black Corridor of Red Rock Canyon, is not a particularly difficult thing to do. The moves at the top are easy. No instead, the scariest part of the climb is not the climb itself, but the anchors. So many people have put their rope through the chains at the top of the route and then proceeded to toprope or lower off the anchors that the sawing action of hundreds of ropes has nearly eaten them clean through.

This is a chronic problem at sport climbing areas across America. Chain and quicklink anchors are severely damaged due to ignorance or laziness. The problem is most visible however, in places where it is sandy. Once a rope gets sand in the sheath it literally becomes like sandpaper. The repeated sawing action of a moving tensioned rope -- especially one with sand in the sheath -- may severely damage anchor chains in as little as a matter of hours.

The question then must be asked, who is responsible for a newly damaged anchor? Is it the first ascent party's responsibility to replace the anchor? Is it the responsibility of a local guide service? Does it become the problem of local climbing conservation groups? Or are the people who damaged the anchor responsible?

There is no right answer to the preceeding question. I have personally replaced innumerable anchors out of my own pocket. I know a number of others that have the same. We do this because we don't want to see anybody get hurt. But it's not something that we want to do.

Most of us who put up new routes or repair existing climbs simply avoid toproping directly through the chains. Instead, we use a cordelette or a double shoulder-length sling in conjunction with locking carabiners.

Above is an example of a rope threaded directly through the anchor.Do not do this for anything but a rappel.

On the left-hand side, the anchor is composed of quick links. These are easier to change-out when they are damaged. On the right, the anchor is made up of chain purchased from a hardware store. This is more difficult to replace when damaged.

The photo above provides an example of a properly set-up toprope. The anchor is composed of a double shoulder-length sling, tied into a pre-equalized eight. At the bottom, clipped into the power-point (sometimes called the master-point) are two opposite and opposed locking carabiners. This is the best possible system as it meets the requirements for a SRENE or ERNEST anchor and protects the anchor chains from damage.

There are two organizations that are currently replacing bolts and anchors throughout the country. The first is the nonprofit American Safe Climbing Association (ASCA) and the second is the Anchor Replacement Inititive(ARI) sponsored by Climbing magazine, the North Face and Petzl . It is possible to support the ASCA with donations and to support the ARI by purchasing items from their corporate sponsors.

Checking anchors to make sure that they are not damaged, replacing those that are or providing financial support to those who will replace them, and reporting damaged anchors to individuals who will fix them is the responsibility of every climber. But perhaps the greater responsibility is to simply avoid damaging an anchor to begin with.

--Jason D. Martin


AlanL said...

> The problem is most visible however, in places where it is sandy.

Thank you. Finally I understand why Americans get worked up about this issue, whereas in Europe it is completely the norm that the last climber lowers directly off the anchor. Sandstone sport climibng is far less common over here.

ChrisOnTheRoad said...

I've often seen people build a toprope anchor with the chains, running the rope through 2 carabiners, one clipped to each of the chains. Due to the association with running the rope through the last link of the chains, I've generally followed the rule that the chains are there to make setting up the rappel easier, and given my partners heck if they set up an anchor using the chains in any way.

I'm wondering if perhaps I've been overly sticky about this.

Anonymous said...

@AlanL: It's also quite common in most of the United States for the last climber to lower directly off of the anchor (after previous climbers in the group have used quickdraws attached to the anchor).

The wear problem is really only an issue arises when groups toprope directly through the anchors time after time.

Jason Martin said...

@ChrisOnTheRoad I would tend to agree. I'm less of a stickler on this than on running the rope directly through the chains, but I still think the best practice is to consider the chains to be there primarily for rappelling.

@AlanL I think lowering one climber, the final climber, is fine. The problem comes from repeated toproping on the same set of chains. I certainly wouldn't lecture someone who did this...but I do still think it is a better practice to have the last person lower.


David Cassidy said...

The photo of what to do is umm better than running a rope through the chains for sure but isn't exactly what I would call 'safe', nor do I think that an organization like the American Alpine Institute should condone. Ideally the top rope anchor should be a self equalizing sliding-x to ensure that the weight of the top roper is being equally distributed between both bolts. Both or at least one of the carabiners attached to the bolt hangers should be locking carabiners with the gates pointed in a downward position to avoid any potential to unscrew itself. The carabiners the rope runs through should also be opposite and opposed. It's kind of upsetting to see people practicing such poor top rope anchor set ups.

Jason Martin said...


Thank-you for your comments, but what you have pitched is outside of the industry standard. Please see the following resources for more current information and standards of practice:

Toproping by Bob Gaines

Rock Climbing: Mastering the Basic Skills by Craig Luebben

Climbing Anchors by Bob Gaines and John Long


David Cassidy said...

I'm not arguing the safety of the anchor, it is for all intensive purposes fine, but it could be safer.

I was taught by a full ACMG Mountain Guide and ACMG Examiner in Canada that an anchor system should be S.R.E.N.E. (Strong, Redundant, Equalized and No Extension).

The system picture will not equalize the load if the climber moves either left or right while climbing.

The system is redundant but could be safer if lockers are used.

I'm merely advocating for the safest possible set up. In extremely rare situations the difference between a good and a great set up can be the balance between life and death, regardless of what is considered to be the industry standard.

The sliding-X is also a standard top rope set up featured in Climbing Anchors by Bob Gaines and John Long. I own a copy of the latest (2nd) edition.

Jason Martin said...

@David Cassidy

You're right. In the most recent Climbing Anchors book this was the standard. This was then refuted in Craig Luebben's anchor book with his chapter entitled "Cordellete Shit."

I don't know John Long, but I just co-authored a book with Bob Gaines and he is more indifferent these days on this. Pre-equalized anchors are acceptable in most toprope settings.

Now if we really want to get down to the nitty gritty and talk about what is the absolute best of the best. I would argue that guides are moving away from using the sliding x with load limiting knots and toward the quad.

The reason they are moving away from the sliding x is because it doesn't actually meet the standards of a SRENE, ERNEST, RENE (whatever acronym you like) anchor. There will be a shock load and extension even if there are load limiters. However, the shock is minor.

Now I should note that I'm okay with all three iterations. I believe that the shock isn't great enough in a magic x for it to matter. I believe the quad is a great alternative to a magic x. And I believe a pre-equalized anchor is fine in most iterations.

Our goal is not to dictate how you should do something, but instead for you to have a solid set of tools and to be able to look at a system conceptually with an educated eye to determine if the system is "safe." Personal preferences are fine. But I worry when an individual's personal preferences lead them down the road toward prescription and finger shaking.

Since I brought it up, I suppose I should plug it. Our new book, "Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual" will be out in April.

You're concerns about lockers on the bolts are outside the industry standard. This doesn't mean that you're wrong, but instead that they are not required.

And lastly, I should point out that I've done a lot of blogs on these issues over the years. The focus of this blog really is to educate people not to toprope directly off the chains.

Thanks for the thoughts.