Part of the fun of a day at the top-roping crag is getting to see the menagerie of anchor styles at the top of the cliff line; some better than others. We have all seen climbers using a sketchy anchor all day without incident. In fact, the number of accidents from blown anchors is surprisingly less than expected. That is because modern climbing gear is so effective that, in most cases, one well slung boulder could be enough to hold the force of a typical top rope fall. Even so, this is no excuse for setting non-redundant and poorly equalized anchors. If crappy anchors are not failing, how do people know the difference between a well set anchor and poorly set one? My point here is that our anchors don't give us feedback until they completely fail...or do they? Actually, there are several small signs that may indicate your anchors are poorly equalized.
1. Pieces Popping or Walking
Repeated use unpredicted movement lead to expansion and contraction of your anchor system. Hence, force vectors have shifted leaving your poor piece to adjust to changing conditions. When this happens, pieces can pop out or walk back into an ineffective position. Whatever the case, if your pieces have shacked up at a new address, your anchor was not well set and equalized.
2. Fused Nuts and Hexes
Poor equalization means that one strand of your anchor takes on a disproportionately high force relative to the other pieces. In the case of nuts and hexes(and tri-cams, for that matter), when most of your anchor force relies on one of them, it has a tendency to fuse into the crack and can be a real pain to get out. If I have a tree and a nut in the same system, I give the tree strand a little extra tension to give the nut a fighting chance. Well set nuts and hexes should come out as intuitively and smoothly as they were put in.
3. Webbing Wear Marks
Webbing is stretchy by nature. When weighted it will move, and if placed over a rough edge it may start to wear. Padding the edge can help in this situation but those wear marks could tell you something about the forces demanded of each piece. If one of the pieces has a wear mark from the edge and the others do not, that piece took more force and was the primary contributor to your anchor. Try for equal wear or no wear at all.
4. Stubborn Knots
Clearly the master knot in your system is typically a bear to untie. But what about the other knots in your system? Have you noticed that one of your knots is more difficult to untie than the others? That might inform you of an uneven distribution of force throughout your anchor. The greater the force on that strand, the more difficult that knot wil be to untie. This is a clear sign of poor equalization.
Shouldn't we all take time for reflection on how well our anchors performed? Shouldn't we seek advice and critique from a trained professional? Are your anchors quietly screaming for help? Are you listening?
Climb Smart MN is a grassroots approach to climbing education based on community and charitable giving. For information on donation based climbing lessons visit ClimbSmartMN and follow us on Facebook. With over ten years of climbing instruction, coaching, and guiding experience, Chris Hesselbein strives to better the climbing community through personalized technique and safety education.