Flogging a dead horse?

We need to talk.

We need to talk about anchor points.

Agaaaaaiiiiin?! C’moooon, you’re flogging a dead horse here… I hear you groan. Yes, again.

After all, what can be more important than being able to assess suitable anchor points correctly – this ability is a make or break it issue. If you are able to apply it consistently and diligently it will indeed protect you from a fall – and if you cannot, the likelihood of having an anchor point related incident increases significantly.

To put it differently: End of next week vertical connect will be taking place in Meiningen.

During this event one of the demos in the program will be showcasing arborist techniques for the other work at height folks. We will be explaining to them that, yes, indeed, we climb on non-rated anchor points, as rated anchor points in trees are obviously a matter of impossibility, but that we are able, through training and experience, to assess our anchor points and do so thoroughly and consistently.

But do we? I am not convinced.

What got me thinking about this was a post I came across on a arborist forum this morning. I spent the day wondering whether to write about it, not wanting to seem to be pointing fingers, but decided to do so regardless as I found the implications really troubling. So, for the record, I am not pointing fingers or trying to single out any one person and make fun of them. But this is serious…

The thread was discussing anchor points. Someone posted this pic:

The caption was: Basal anchor on this ascent, little bouncy

Wow. What can I say? So, let’s take this one step by step:

  • The species, not 100% sure from the pic, but if I had to guess I would say it is Liriodendron tulipifera – Tuliptree, Tulip Poplar – depending what region you are from. This is a species with a notoriously brittle wood. Although, when you get down to this kind of diameter, the exact species  is not even super-relevant in the end, the following points would hold true even for the strongest of woods…

Ok, it is Norway Maple. I got it wrong, so sue me…

  • Basal anchor: This configuration entails a higher load on the anchor point, in theory doubled, in practice certainly increased substantially – even if it is not exactly by a factor of two.
  • The diameter of the limb: comparing it to the diameter of the climbing line, I would hazard a guess that the limb is not more than 1.5cm, maybe 2cm tops.
  • The anchor, although the image does not show this clearly, is installed on a side limb that is not upright, probably over the middle of the tree allowing for a clutter-free ascent, but also meaning that there are no limbs that could prevent a fall should this limb fail. What the pic does show is that in the meter visible there are no substantial limbs, meaning that even if there are larger limbs lower down, the peak forces a fall would generated would be considerable.

A little bouncy? I bet!

Close to failure might be a better description. Again, please do not get me wrong. Far from making fun or attempting to expose someone here, I am very glad that nothing happened in this case. But the thought of someone ascending on limbs like this on a daily basis makes me very, very uneasy. It would seem to me like rolling dice loaded against yourself – every day. The probability of a limb popping out one day is high.

This is by no means a stand-alone incident. Whilst setting up ETCC in Monza I had a discussion with a climber who is obviously bright and competent, yet the limb he had ascended on during set up was… well, very small, put it that way.

But it is upright, he said.

Right, I said, but the margin for error you are leaving yourself with whilst installing an anchor point remotely 23 meters up a tree is very, very slim!

With margins like this, a small defect to the limb, invisible from the ground, may be sufficient to tip the scales against you.

In the week before ETCC, a young climber in our region took a horrific plunge upon reaching the top of his ascent. Without going into details, this incident was anchor point-related. The price the climber is paying is very high and will affect him and his family for a long while to come yet. The severity of the injuries he has sustained makes you realize that probably he is lucky to have survived the fall, for which I am extremely grateful.

What I am trying to say is that anchor points are not a private matter. If I make a bad call, my whole team will be paying the price for that moment of flawed judgement (believe me, I have been there).

Consequently I would strongly suggest the following:

  • Discuss anchor point diameters on site and within your team
  • Develop a protocol for anchor point selection
  • Agree on a system for calling each other in case you disagree on someone else’s choice of anchor point

When it comes to minimum diameter there is not rule of thumb.

Decisions whether a point is suitable to anchor to or not will always be situational and depend upon many factors. Should I not be in possession of the relevant competencies to assess my anchor point, I have no business climbing in trees but should rather be climbing… some other structure, where an engineer, or some other person, does the job in my stead.

I do believe we are in possession of the knowledge and experience necessary to be able to assess our anchor points correctly – we simply need to put that knowledge to work! This ain’t rocket science, kids!

Low diameter anchor points do not make you a better climber, this is not a good place to go thrill seeking or to be macho about. A true professional will choose tools suited to the job. Anchor points are no exception, in fact: au contraire! I can imagine little that is more important to get right.