Author: Sebastian   Date Posted:27 September 2022 

After a moment taking in the view and savouring the elation of having reached the top of the cliff, a climber must build an anchor to make themselves secure and safely bring up (belay) their climbing partner. 

No two climbs are the same and the situation at the top and options for “protection” can be vastly different. How to construct the anchor is one of the skills a climber must learn. The consequences for getting it wrong are potenially fatal or could result in serious injury to yourself or your partner. Decisions made at the top of a crag are literally life and death. 

There are many ways to build an anchor and no one way is right all of the time. There are a number of key considerations ‘cliff-top physics’ which are not always complementary. In any situation the climber must plan and execute and evaluate their anchor balancing the competing priorities.  

When constructing climbing anchors there are a number of guiding principles. I use the acronym SERENE: Solid/Strong, Efficient, Redundant, Equalised, No Extension. 

Solid relates to the subjective assessment of any piece of protection that is placed—for example a nut in a tapering crack, or a sling around a boulder—and the environment in which it is placed—how solid is the rock, how big is the boulder. 

Strong refers to the gear used which is rated in kN, giving the climber an objective reference to the force it could be expected to withstand before breaking.  

Efficiency relates to complexity, amount of gear required and time required to complete. 

Redundancy in climbing generally refers to having a backup should any part of the system fail. 

An equalised anchor spreads the load evenly between the points of protection with respect to the direction of pull. 

If there is a failure of one point will the remaining anchor points be shock loaded? No extension. Noting force is a measure of both mass and acceleration. 

On my journey to become a better climber and surgeon I see a number crossovers.  A surgeon approaching a complex fracture must also balance the sometimes competing priorities. The skills needed must be learnt and there are consequences for getting it wrong.

The surgeon must construct a repair, capable of withstanding the likely forces (both maximum and cyclic). However, understanding how those same forces affect healing is imperative. Our realatively recent improved understanding of the importance of minimising further trauma, preserving the soft tissue envelope and fragment blood supply has dramatically changed surgical approach. 

As a veterinarian we should have a firm understanding of the biology, how fractures heal. The material properties—strength and stiffness, how it behaves under cyclic loading—of the implants used are known and should also be firmly understood. The overall biomechanical assessment  is more subjective. The energy of the trauma, the age of the patient, metaphyseal or diaphyseal bone for instance, the relative position, angle and purchase of any screw (fixation anchor point) are just some of the considerations. 

The surgeon must plan, execute and appraise their construct aimed at optimising their patient’s own inherent ability to heal.  

So coming back to the original idea how to best balance the competing priorities. For the climber placing an extra piece of gear may well add redundancy. But incorporating that in the system adds complexity and comes at the expense of Efficiency. Which is safer? 

It depends on the situation, your own skills and experience and those of your partner. There may be limited options for protection, the anchor be in or out of reach to adjust from the belay position if necessry, the direction of load might be expected to change if the second climber falls....  

As with everything it gets easier with repetition and experience. Control the things within your control. Having a thorough understanding of the gear you are using, its strengths and weaknesses and forces it might be expected to withstand is imperative. Attention to detail, knots dressed, carabiners locked, every anchor point the absolutely best possible. Honest critical self assessment and accepting and learning from the direction of others is key to improving.

Does this hold for surgery too? Certainly aspects do. Should there be an acronym?

Sharing the view from the top of the cliff with your climbing partner is certainly a joy. It is up there with sharing the view of a beautiful post-op radiograph. 

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