Is it time to say goodbye to the cordlette?
09 December 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
Over the last 6 months, there has been a growing groundswell of opinion and interest in belay setups in the US, namely how to create a belay that best full fills the criteria set out by the SARENE standard for a perfect belay (Solid Anchors, Redundancy, Equalization, No Extension). This has come about primarily as a result of grumblings about the cordelette (or webbolette) by John Long, one of the main promoters of the technique, and one which many climbers had adopted as the best method of achieving high strength, equalized and easily constructed belays. Long had the guts to come out and say that maybe he’d been wrong, and question just how effective the cordelette system was, pointing out that the cordelette gave a false sense of security, as in most cases there was very little equalization (with the load coming onto a single piece, rather than divided between the pieces). It was also pointed out that a cordelette only worked in one direction, meaning if the belayer was to be pulled sideways all the force would be applied to a single piece. Long asked if anyone could come up with a better system, one that would allow equalization and complies more strictly with SARENE. So far no one has.
This may come as a bit of a shock to some, after all the humble cordelette seemed to answer all our prayers. So the question is, is the concern justifiable, and if so what are the alternatives? This months Climb looks at the technique in-depth, and belay setups in general, with the aim to come up with the ideal belay solution.
The cordelette was never really intended to be used by normal everyday climbers, and it could be argued that before its arrival UK, climbers were practising far better techniques anyway. The system was primarily created by guides, as they needed to ability to quickly set and equalize a solid anchor into which they could clip one or two clients. By creating an anchor that was separate from the guides ropes allowed them to then carry on climbing easily (setting a belay with climbing ropes, as most climbers did, required swapping ends). It also made it much easier to lower clients or deal with emergencies. Alpinists soon began to use this system, as it made it easier to climb in blocks (2 or 3 pitches), rather than swing leads, plus it had the added advantage of giving them a long length of abseil cord that was multi-functional. Eventually the cordelette, and then their commercial webbolette, began to filter through into mainstream climbing, with books like John Long’s Climbing Anchors bringing it to the attention of climbers everywhere. It could also be said that the cordelette was a showy guide trick (like the magic plate), that although ideally suited for guiding, was quickly adopted by climbing geeks looking for something that would show how up to date they were. Never the less the technique was perfect because it was simple and did the job, and was especially helpful to novices. Today it’s probably the main belay set up technique, especially among climbers who have come into the sport over the last 5 years.
Using a cordelette is a cinch. Simply clip one strand of the cord or tape into every piece in your anchor, draw them all together, tie an overhand knot and there you have it. The problem is that testing has shown that that the actual equalization can be quite poor, due to the sloppiness in the way the anchor is built, the effect of low stretch materials, and the difference in leg lengths (the strands that come off the central masterpoint). This means that in many tests the load was primarily held by a single leg unless all legs were the same length (unlikely). If this piece happens to be a weak one, then there is the chance it could fail in a high load situation.
It’s also been pointed out that cordelettes are constructed for a pull directly downwards, not sideways. This means that on a multi-pitch climb the belay is set up to equalize for the weight of the belayer, and not for the direction of fall, especially if that fall comes from the side. If this is the case it’s probably that all the force may come onto the furthest side piece. It may make matters worse if the piece in question is not designed for a sideways pull.
Before we can look at the viability of the cordelette, and the alternatives, we must first ask what did we do before.
Before we had cordelettes most climbers would equalize their belay anchors using their ropes, generally clove hitching one rope to each piece, then tying back secondary pieces to the anchor. As UK climbers we had an advantage over American climbers as most UK climbers used double ropes, which allowed for more flexibility when it came to connecting to multiple anchors. More importantly, it was easier to fine-tune a belay in order to achieve good equalization, something that’s impossible once a cordelette is set up. Another advantage was that there was a vast decrease in impact forces on the individual anchors, with the 9mm or 8.5mm ropes and their knots stretching and tightening considerably, and so absorbing energy.
The drawbacks were, like the cordelette, these anchors were primarily set for one direction of pull. The big difference was that the belayer had far more control, and by adjusting clove hitches they could tighten or slacken the legs of the belay so as to make adjustments.
There was also the problem of leading in blocks when not climbing through, and doing so necessitated untying and swapping ends. To be honest, this is what climbers did, and it was quicker and simpler than it sounds (as long as you tied back in properly and remembered to stay attached when untied!).
This technique also made it harder to carry out a self-rescue, but most climbers would agree that the chances of this are so rare, that the greater belay strength and flexibility is worth the extra work if such an event occurred (again this is more guide territory).
Some people found the fine adjustment of ropes difficult to manage or fathom, especially beginners, and so easier versions were developed. The most common was to use 120cm slings to equalize the anchors (either 1 or 2 slings depending on the distance of runners) and attaching the climber to them via their ropes. The slings would either be equalized as in the case of the cordelette (the sling drew down between each piece and tied in an overhand) or by using the sliding-X technique. The downside was there were now far more components and complexity in the system, and far more gear had to be carried. There was also the tendency for inexperienced climbers to panic if they found they’d used up all their slings. The advantage of having such a belay using the sliding-X technique was that there was great equalization, and the belay was now able to cope much better with changes in expected pull.
In the end, the birth of the cordelette reduces the numbers of people using this technique.
Before we begin to question our beliefs when it comes to current belay techniques, we must first understand a few things. Firstly there is an infinite number of belay types, what rock you’re climbing on, the gear you have at your disposal, and the location of your anchors, plus possible loading, and rope characteristics. Secondly, we have to be careful here, as it’s very easy to leave real-world problems and get bogged down with number crunching and foggy over-analytical forum thinking. My response would be that almost all belays, well equalized or not, are more than up to the job. More often than not the protection we place is far stronger than we realise, even a badly constructed set up is still good enough. If this wasn’t the case then climbing lore would be full of ripping belays. It isn’t. In fact, I know of only a few cases where this may have happened (those involved tend to die as a result), but I do know of many where most of the belay ripped out – but not all of it. It bears repeating but the number one rule of climbing protection, and the first part of SARENE, is to place solid gear. That means understanding the gear you put in, the rock you’re putting it in, and knowing how to judge the integrity of both. NO matter how you sling it together, if you place poor gear you’ll have poor belays.
But what about those times when things are marginal when all you have is a bunch of crumbling pegs and microwires, where a good belay set up may mean life or death? What are the alternatives?
No matter how you look at it, an old school rope belay is by far the best, offering flexibility, strength, limited components and a much greater ability to absorb impact forces. Throwing in a sliding-X (with over hands knots) is good if you have multiple poor anchors, as no other technique will allow such a high degree of equalisation, plus the effects of a ripped piece should be minimal if it’s part of a larger belay set up. The sliding-X has been much derided over the years, but it’s a valuable one to learn when used as part of a bigger belay set up.
This traditional technique is one that all climbers who swing leads should learn for bread and butter belay setups. If you want to lead in blocks just swap ends.
One of the techniques that have come out of all this is the equalette, which is basically a new way of using your cordelette, with the aim to create a self equalising anchor that will work with three or four anchor points. The overall effect is to create a cordelette version of a sliding-X, but like the sliding-X, it still doesn’t adhere to the SARENE principle, and only applies a limited extra degree of adaptability if the direction of force changes. Personally, although this seems to be coming out top, I think it’s too fiddly and causes more problems than it solves.
One of my favourite techniques has been the ropelette, using your climbing ropes to form a kind of cordelette set-up. I find this is quick, simple, high strength and best of all has a great impact absorbing properties. You can also easily make fine adjustments if you find that the direction of pull might change (by lengthening or shortening each strand). Another advantage is that you’re tied into the belay.
It’s fair to say that the cordelette has more than proved itself, being used by rock and ice climbers, alpinists and mountaineers for the last 10 years with total safety and no recorded fatalities. Perhaps there is a valid argument that we should stick with 7mm perlon slings over skinny Dyneema ones, due to the increased dynamic properties (which in turn improve equalisation), but whatever way you look at it it’s hard to see a real problem.
I presume that much of this debate stems from what people imagine to be potential problems, and on paper they are real enough, but perhaps come from people who do too much thinking and not enough climbing. The problem is these people seem unable to come up with a solution, damning a tried and trusted method, yet not coming up with an alternative, save for abortions of tape and slings that would only work in your living room or garage. Of course, the reason that no answer can be found…there is non.
You see as I said there are a million possibilities when it comes to belaying, so many factors that no one way will – on paper- be perfect. As every climbing is about having as many tools at your disposal, and deciding when and where they should be applied. Personally, if I judge just sticking a sling on a flake sticking out of the ice is appropriate then that’s what I’ll do, or tying together 7 pieces of junk using a cordelette, sliding-X’s and rope then that’s fine also. Setting belays is not about knots and impact forces, it’s about feeling confident that what you have will hold. 99 times out of a hundred it’s easy, but when you find yourself wondering if that’s all there is, well it’s time to start digging for techniques.