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Planning a tropical climbing vacation this winter? Beware of those anchors!

Winter is basically here and it's the time of year when people start heading off on climbing trips to warmer climes…particularly popular are those dreamy, tropical oceanside crags in Thailand, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, etc. But before you go trusting those bolts and anchors, BEWARE! Following recent accidents, the UIAA (International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) released a warning about the risks of (stainless steel) anchor failure on bolted routes in tropical, marine environments.

In fact, according to the UIAA, first samplings from some climbing areas in tropical, marine environments showed that 10 to 20% of anchors could have a breaking strength as low as 1 kN to 5 kN! Just so you know, nominal climbing falls load anchors with forces of 1 kN to 5 kN. UIAA standards require fixed anchor strength to be a minimum of 22 kN.

From the UIAA website: "Overall, some fixed anchors broke bearing only the weight of a climber. And all examined were stainless steel, which meets the UIAA safety standard and has a reputation of holding up well against corrosion. The corrosion in this particular locale appears to be accelerated by the proximity of the sea and year-round warm, wet weather."

Some of the anchors found had visible - yet sometimes hard to see - cracks. But check out these scary photos of anchors that showed no visible cracks but broke between 1 and 5 kN:

Warning anchors

Warning anchors

Warning anchors

Here are the UIAA's recommendations when climbing in tropical, marine environments:

  • Before any climbing, we strongly recommend that you enquire with the local climbers and/or with the local people who equipped the routes about the quality of the anchors in place.
  • Some areas are regularly re-equipped. If the bolts are less than 3 years old, experience to date suggests that the probability of finding a weakened anchor is low, even though bolt failure has been known to occur within 9 months of installation.
  • On the other hand, if you detect signs of rust on the anchors, this can indicate a badly weakened anchor. In that case, do not load the anchor, and retreat from the climb (experience from the field shows that some anchors would break when loaded with only the weight of the climber). Alert the local climbers/local people who maintain the climbing area, so that they can inspect and replace the weakened anchor. You could also replace the weakened anchor yourself—please replace the anchor with one of similar or superior corrosion resistance.
  • As a precautionary principle, we strongly advise you NOT to climb on routes in tropical, marine environments that show signs of rust on anchors and/or where you do not know either the person responsible for maintenance of the climbing area, or when the equipment was installed.
  • In the absence of reliable information about the integrity of anchors from the locals who maintain the bolts at a tropical, marine cliff, climbers must consider coastal, bolted routes as adventure terrain where all fixed anchors are questionable, as is the case in alpine climbing.
  • Ultimately, it is the climber him/herself who is responsible for his/her decisions and actions regarding the integrity of the anchors.

The UIAA has launched a full study of this problem and once it's complete they will post the results on their website. For more information, read the UIAA's full warning and the Safety Commission's report (includes more photos of scary anchors).