Last summer when I was belaying my partner on the Bastille, another climber came in from the side a began to set up a belay about 15′ away. I was at the big ramp on the top of the long first pitch of the Bastille Crack and he came in from Wide Country/XM and was headed up and right to finish with Outer Space. The belay there is a splitter crack in great rock with plenty of cam and nut placements available. He quickly sank in two cams and a nut, whipped out his cordalette and, in 60 seconds, knotted up a perfect SERENE Anchor, clipped in and yelled “off belay”!
Not too bad, I though, he didn’t even waste much time. But things went down from there. His partner arrived, they re-racked the gear and then led off right to the hanging dihedral that is the first pitch of Outer Space. The problem instantly became obvious. Like EVERY cordalette anchor I’ve ever witnessed, this one was perfectly oriented to equalize the load of the hanging (or standing and leaning back) belayer. As soon as the leader put in her first piece it was clear to me that if she fell, the anchor would get loaded, not in the 6 o’clock direction in which it was oriented to equalize, but at 2 o’clock. Sure enough, when she boomed off at the top of the pitch, the belayer was first yanked to the right (2 o’clock) then, when the directional nut (where the leader changed from traversing to climbing up) blew, yanked further up and right. The lowest piece in the cordalette troika popped out and, fortunately, the other two held and that was where the epic ended. I asked the dude if he was okay and he responded with, “Yeah, I sure am glad I had a SERENE anchor set up.”
So, not only was this dude clueless as to what had happened, he was glad that he had done the wrong thing.
My bottom line is that I think climbers are over-thinking anchor
systems with all this talk. Blown belay anchors are extremely rare yet
we lose sleep over them like they were killing people right and left.
They’re not. Maiming and death come from bad belaying, not wearing
helmets, having running protection pull out, rappelling accidents and
getting lost or benighted. I’m aware of 3 anchor failures in the US in the last 30
years: one was from clipping into an
American triangle that had decomposed webbing. The other 2 were both
from the total failure of perfectly set up SERENE anchors that weren’t
Again, I urge you consider where you are spending your energy. The
single most important skill you need to have in your tool box is to be
able place and recognize bomber protection, whether on lead or while
setting up an anchor. If you get to the end of a pitch and you don’t
have the right size piece, or if the rock is all choss, your first
instinct must be to move to a more suitable location. Only if that is
completely out of the question should you worry about equalization or
load distribution. Choss is choss and a SERENE anchor will only go so