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Climbing Anchors to Avoid

Anchors are extremely important.

Whether you’re going up or down, at some point your anchor will be the only thing connecting you and your partner to whatever you’re climbing. Pulling a piece of gear in a lead fall usually just leads to a bigger fall. Anchor failures, on the other hand, always result in death (with the exception of some super lucky people). Because of this, sketchy anchors scare me more than just about anything else in the world of climbing. Here are some common sketchy anchors you should look out for.

The Death Flake

Coming across a big flake with tat wrapped around it isn’t all that uncommon. Some of them are just fine, and some should absolutely not be used under any circumstances. When you find a flake you’re thinking of using, push, pull, and kick the thing. If it doesn’t move or make a sound then you’re probably fine, but people have taken the big ride from flakes that seemed OK.

Old Bolts

Some climbing areas are just littered with super-sketchy bolts. Depending on where you’re climbing, you can expect anything from button heads to ¼-inch bolts to Star Dryvins. It’s sadly common to see anchors with three, four, five, or even more old bolts scattered around. No matter how many there are, old bolts are far from ideal. Even a single new bolt in the mix will drastically increase the strength of an anchor.


Drilled Angles

If you do a lot of climbing in sandstone areas, then eventually you’re going to come across an anchor made up entirely of drilled angles. If you can move the angles at all, then you should be pretty concerned, but most drilled angles are actually bomber. Just remember, they don’t have the same pull-out strength as bolts, so use these anchors the same way you climb loose rock. Pull down, not out.


Photo Credit: Adam Riser

Leftover Gear

We’ve all been there. You finish a 175-foot pitch, and when you pull up onto the belay ledge you have three pieces of gear hanging from your harness. Because the chances of these three leftover pieces happening to fit the available cracks are slim, too many people tend to build sub-par anchors when they find themselves in this situation. Take whatever time is necessary to build something trucker.


Photo Credit: Adam Riser

The Mystery Sling

Tat is always suspect, but the mystery sling is by far the worst. We’ve all seen those pieces of ratty webbing that just disappear into a deep, dark crack. Clearly someone used it to rappel, but you have no idea what it’s actually attached to. I once brushed snow out of a crack to expose the origins of a mystery sling and found that it was girth-hitched around a water bottle. And I’m not talking about a Nalgene. This thing was sketchy. Never, ever blindly trust a sling. Always verify that it’s attached to or wrapped around something bomber and that the sling itself is good.


Photo Credit: Adam Riser

How to Stay Safe

So, you find yourself at a terrible anchor. Now what? The most common solution to dealing with sketchy anchors is to simply back them up by placing gear in nearby cracks. If you’re rappelling, then this means leaving gear behind, but nothing on your rack is worth your life. However, if there aren’t any cracks nearby, then you need to go elsewhere to set up your belay. Climb further, down climb, tension traverse, do whatever you have to do to find a place where you can build something bomber.


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