Malcolm Daly, Trango founder, trying to figure out why he would ever use a cordalette.

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

2 replies
  1. Kai Ewert
    Kai Ewert says:

    Wouldn’t that be four such accidents? I would include the rapelling accident in Yosemite (three climbers and their bags braking the chain connecting the bolts on the rap anchor if you include the rapelling accident (recent one in … River Gorge, I’m guessing?) with the broken tat webbing…
    The other two (guessing would be)
    total anchor failure on the DNB in Yosemite
    total anchor failure (likely) at Tahquitz

    I think it’s a big and vaguely treated question what a multipitch anchor is supposed to do for a leader fall. In so many cases, the anchor is/would never be weighted because the belayer absorbs it all. That’s why it seems so theoretical (and I’ve not really seen anyone practicing it) when books suggest to make the anchor multidirectional. One possible take on it:
    If the top pieces hold, you don’t need the anchor to be able to hold anything. THat’s true for the scenario you described, where the anchor didn’t really do anything and didn’t have to. Main issue: similar to what you described, but worse: top pieces blow, but only after they’ve compromised the main anchor enough where it won’t hold anymore after the top pieces fail.
    If the top pieces blow without much resistance, you’d actually want the anchor to be oriented for downward pull. Since this is the worst case scenario with respect to forces, it makes sense to have the anchor be strong for downward pulll, which thankfully is what it also needs to do for belaying the follower. Worst case scenario: see above.
    So the key would be to avoid the above scenario as best as possible, by e.g. having enough room for the belayer to be pulled up and giving a dynamic belay (in this case, letting a bit of rope through the belay device as the fall is absorbed – beware of ledges etc. though)
    In the end, each situation will have different demands.
    I’m not trying to defend the cordelette, btw., just saying the issue goes beyond it.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kira Riedel, Chicks Climbing. Chicks Climbing said: Are your SERENE anchors multi-directional? The danger you face (in an example) when they aren't via @maldaly #climb […]

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