Whether its building an anchor or placing it while on lead, how can you tell if your trad gear is safe or not?
Luckily there are 5 golden rules for deciding if your gear is bomber without having to take a nervy fall to find out!
Direction Of Pull
If the piece of gear you placed is only good when pulled up and you are going to fall down, then its not very likely to hold. Now this might seem simplistic but it gets a little more complicated when you add in horizontal cracks on traversing routes.
If you place a piece in a horizontal crack that pulls right, but you are about traverse left, then a fall or even the rope could easily dislodge your piece.
And remember, when placing a cam in a vertical crack, make sure the stem is angled at a 45 degree angle to the cliff (towards the ground) and not at a 90 degree angle to the cliff, otherwise under load it could move or pop quite easily.
Quality Of Rock
If the quality of the rock you are placing the gear in isn’t good, then it may not matter how well you place you gear.
We should investigate thoroughly the quality of the rock, both in the crack itself and the overall quality of the rock in the local area of the crack.
If the rock has hairline cracks around it could it be friable and have potential to move or crumble under a heavy load? Remember a piece of rock only has to move a millimetre in order for your gear to pop.
Flakes: I have seen gear placed behind suspect/loose flakes as a pyschological piece to get through a move. While this might be helpful to you on lead, if you fall its not just you in danger but your belayer too. Risking a bigger fall might actually be the safer thing here.
Surface Area Contact
This one should be simple but so often I see climbers not fully understand it. The aim is to get maximum surface area contact between the side of the nut/hex/cam-lobes and the side of the crack its placed in.
We can achieve this best by looking for a constriction on a crack, placing a piece in where the crack is wider and sliding it towards where its constricted or narrowing.
Constriction alone isnt good enough though, as maximum surface area contact between the piece and the rock ensures better hold and less movement of the piece by the rope.
Yes bigger is better, but not at the expense of surface area contact.
If you have the option of placing a number 3 nut with 100% perfect surface area contact or a number 11 nut with 70% surface, then size doesn’t matter and go with the size 3 nut. Its more than strong enough to hold and should be trusted.
If you have the option of a size 3 nut or a size 11 nut and they both have similar surface area contact in a good quality crack, then yes, choose the bigger piece.
Deeper is better
The deeper we can place the piece inside the crack the better, however, again only if it doesn’t compromise the surface area contact.
Often we dont have muliple depth choices with a nut as they rely more on an element of constriction. Cams however can work better in uniform/parallel crack.
So if you have the option of placing a cam 1 inch inside a uniform crack or 3 inches inside a uniform crack then obviously the latter is the better option. Just make sure you dont put the cam so deep your second cant release trigger.
I have seen people use scoring systems for deciding whether a piece of gear is good or not. I dont use these systems for a few reasons, but mainly its because it can be totally redundant if not fully understood.
A piece of gear scoring badly on point number one (direction of pull) but brilliantly on all the other points is still likely to pull out under fall.
I hope the above post is useful. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any aspect of this post.