A Look at belay anchors - Part 1

For climbers, a good belay anchor is a sign of safety, control and experience. They are like a magic trick allowing access to walls exceeding the length of a rope! But sometimes, it’s just an indecipherable bag of knots ... In the past, the topic was simple. But now with various gear, complex routefinding, and geographic and cultural nuances, things have gotten complicated.

For example, in the UK and US, many climbers use the rope to make an anchor, belaying their partner directly from the harness. But it's different in the Eastern Dolomites, where the belay anchor is made with fixed point and the belaying system is placed directly on it with the aid of a self-blocking device. In France, climbers often adopt a mixed position with a triangulation of the belay anchor and the belaying system sometimes on this one, sometimes on the harness.

So who is right ?

This is the question we should not try to answer ... for now.


In the age of the internet, feedback and exchanges between specialists, the interests of different techniques are highlighted. Recently the ENSA (French national guiding school) published a study and a
video presenting other modes of practice than those originally taught in western countries.

This raises many questions:

Triangulation or not? Rope or dyneema slings? Belaying on harness or directly on the belay anchor? Half capstan or belaying device?

These questions do not always find clear answers. The information is lost in jargon, with bias towards our own cultures and our own inconsistencies. We maintain a certain vagueness ...

Before making knots into our brains, let's try to see more clearly, by taking up these questions and ask others.


In preamble

An ideal mindset must be "above all suspicion". It must be non-breakable, protected from possible objective dangers and comfortable, if possible. But, this is easier said than done. Belay stations are often about working with what you “have”, not what you “want”. Particularly when what you “have” is old slings, rusty fixed gear, ice screws or nuts.  14mm bolts and stainless-steel chains are cushy.

What state of the art?

A belay station consists of a single point or several interconnected. They may be removable like sling or nuts or fixed like a piton or a bolt. Or even sling around a branch is the simplest expression. But we don’t often ask is this shrub big enough? This flake solid enough? Is this sling not doubtful with its discoloration and its motives seeming to date from another century? Most times, we don’t have a lot of options.  As Livanos, Desmaison said, “The mountaineer climber has three friends: his knife, his hammer and his rope.” Suspicion of preexisting anchor components is never superfluous.

 

What will my belay anchor be used for?

Additionally, not all belay anchors have the same use. Some anchors are for rappelling. Some anchors are for ascending.  Of course they can have both functions, they need to belay the second climber one moment, and then protect the leader shortly thereafter. The applied forces change from one moment to the next, on the same placements. In the case of a descent the weight applied will be unidirectional and rarely exceed a few hundred kilos.

In the case of a leader fall, forces can be much greater and in multiple directions.

 

Here is a link on fall factors and the force of shock ...

 

How do the points work?

Remember that nuts, cams or pitons are very often placed to work down.

What if they are pulled up? It may be wise to anticipate the direction in which forces act and learn to place them in all directions with that in mind.

 


Triangulation or not?

The limits of the triangulated belay anchor

The ENSA study confirms that triangulated anchors offer effective distribution of the load between several points. And as it is also a fast system to set up, is widely used in alpine terrain ...

On the other hand, if it is directional and the rupture of one point may have unfortunate consequences on the second. If it is not totally directional or semi-directional, a lateral force may weaken successive points. And if the force causes movement of the points may not work at all in the expected direction ...

That's a lot of "ifs" ...

For all these reasons, this belay anchor seems better to lend itself to a unidirectional load and a limited displacement: this is the case of rappels, belaying a second or the belay of a remote leader of the relay.

 

What other types of belays are possible? What are their advantages and limits? Which method of belay and what equipment to use depending on the situation?

This is what we will discuss next episode ...

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