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).
In the early days of rock-climbing, the equalization of belay anchors wasn’t really a priority as in most cases there was only one anchor. Luckily for climbers, advances in protection, along with the number of pieces carried, now allow us to lace up most belays - with the majority of climbers only feeling safe if they can lash themselves to at least three bomber pieces.
In order to maximize the strength and security of this matrix, the belayer must spread any potential load overall pieces in the belay so that the whole force isn’t applied to a single placement. In most circumstances this is not all that necessary, being more for good practice, redundancy and peace of mind, as often a single bomber piece would provide enough stopping power.
The importance of good equalization comes when forced to set up an anchor that comprises of either a mixture of good and bad anchors (you may not know which is which) or when everyone is a time bomb. Routes with poor rock (soft, loose or both) can often leave the belayer forced to set up an anchor with placements that they doubt may even take their weight, let alone that of a plummeting leader.
Good examples of this kind of anchor can be found on places like Red Wall and Mousetrap Zawn on Gogarth, where you are often forced to construct multiple anchors from rusted, eyeless pegs, gargoyles of rock and dubious wires in even more dubious rock. The rule in these situations is to build an anchor with as many pieces as you can, then lash the whole disaster together in order to construct one good piece - then pray your partner doesn’t fall off.
For years difficult equalization was done via 120cm (double length) slings using various methods (some good, some not so good) or via the climber’s ropes. This system was good enough for most belays but could be slow, complicated and difficult to arrange and use up all the team’s slings. Very often you can be forced to compromise building the best belay possible for the above reasons. Then, a decade ago, someone came up with the cordelette system, which although incredibly simple, being nothing but a very large loop of medium thickness cord, would soon revolutionize climbing belays.
HOW TO MAKE A CORDELETTE
A cordelette can be made from an inexpensive 7mm perlon cord or more expensive 5.5mm Dyneema/Spectra. Personally, I would opt for the perlon as this is softer and can be more cheaply replaced, with the Spectra being stiffer and harder to untie. The length is up to you but most people go for five to six metres (or 16/18ft). This is then tied with a double fisherman’s knot, leaving plenty of tail (or triple fisherman’s with Dyneema/Spectra).
Once tied, double it up until you form a multi-stranded 60cm loop and tie an overhand knot in the middle, clipping both sides of the knot into a large locking krab. This can now be clipped on to the back of your harness, with the locking karabiner being used as the main equalizing point when needed.
Many people opt for Dyneema as they are unsure of the strength using just 7 mm cord, but 7mm is more than strong enough. A single strand is rated at around 9kN, a force that you are very unlikely to generate when all belay factors are taken into account (rope stretch, belay device slippage etc). When you add the fact that the cord is doubled (giving it a minimum of 12kN when you take into account the knot) and that the force will be divided between at least two pieces, then you can be assured that a 7mm cordelette in good condition is more than up for the job.
In the early days, the cordelette was a guide trick, an important tool when your job depended on constructing simple, bomber belays quickly. Due to the obvious usefulness of the technique, it wasn’t long until non-guides started using the cords and so slowly this piece of equipment became a cult item by those in the know.
Manufacturers soon cottoned on to the idea and began producing 240cm slings to replace the cord. These slings are highly useful and great for many climbing uses, but unfortunately have a few drawbacks over the cord original and so is not necessarily a replacement. The problem with slings is that they are far bulkier and are not as disposable (i.e. cordelettes are good abseil anchor fodder). They can also be untied, a very useful ability sometimes when you need to thread the cord around a giant chockstone or around a tree. They are much larger when clipped to a harness and a pain to carry across the shoulder and so I would recommend a homemade cordelette over a manufacturer’s sling for most climbing situations, with slings being best employed in instructional roles due to their increased strength.
HOW TO EMPLOY A CORDELLETE
Clip the cord into each anchor then just drag down the cord between each anchor until you have several loops heading out to the anchor. Tie an overhand knot and clip your locking karabiner into this loop. This is now your main belay point, or ‘power point’ (image 1).
If you find your anchor points are too spread out to employ the cordelette properly you have two options. Firstly, you can extend any out of the way pieces with long runners (image 2), which is fast but uses up slings. Another option is to make a double-headed ‘snake-cord. To do this firstly untie the cordelette’s knot and retie a figure of eight in both ends. Clip one loop into the two furthest anchors and then clip the rest of the cord in as you would if it was a loop, pull and tie. This system works well when you have several poor pieces but if your furthest pieces are your best then use the first system in order to maximize the cord strength leading to that anchor.
The cordelette can also be employed for several other techniques including abseiling, self-rescue and washing line duty and should be replaced when worn or after heavy use.
There are often times when a cordelette is needed but one is not to hand. This could be due to the cordelette being used mid-pitch to equalize a complicated series of runners or to sling a large object. In these cases, if you have enough rope left you can improvise a cordelette with your remaining rope.
With most climbers using 60m ropes these days there is always plenty of rope left over, with at least 10 to 15m on most established routes. All you need to do is tie a figure of eight with a giant eye the necessary size to use it like a cordelette. Once tied use it in the same way, making sure you’ve left enough slack so your own tie-in point is far enough away from the figure of eight to allow you enough freedom to equalize the anchor. Once set, tie another figure of eight knot to equalize the anchor and clip into it via a large locking karabiner (or two clipped into different loops if you can’t get all the loops into one karabiner). One bonus with this system is that the large knot has good shock-absorbent properties and the whole matrix is dynamic. The drawbacks are that you’re using up a lot of rope that may be needed higher, but if things are that bad you’ll just have to cross that bridge when you come to it. It can also make self-rescue more difficult. This system is best employed when you have no other option and does not replace standard belay sets ups using just standard slings and the rope.