Ultimately, gear placements are either good enough or not good enough - when the only thing between you and the floor is the gear that you have placed, every other consideration goes out the window!
We use a system to codify how good a piece of gear is, which helps to teach the fundamental principles of what makes gear good or not.
Consciously running through this process in all of your placements will help you move toward consistently good gear placement.
If the rock quality is fundamentally poor, the placement will be too.
Is your gear going into part of the cliff, or just a rock/boulder/flake attached to the cliff?
Is the rock crumbly or solid?
Does it move?
Does it sound hollow?
Does it vibrate?
All of these are key warning signs that the rock quality is poor, so find something better if you can.
A good piece of gear will stay where you've placed it if you've properly accounted for all other factors, forcing or wiggling the gear out to 'test' it proves only that you can get it out when you're actively trying to (which one would hope is the case for the sake of your second).
Consider the type of loading a piece of gear will undergo, and if the movement of the rope will move the gear in the placement.
Is the gear going to move in the placement?
Can you extend it enough to prevent this?
If the placement crumbles, will the gear drop into a worse position?
Direction of Load
Gear is designed to be loaded in a certain way - a nut will pull into a constriction and wedge in place - it will not work if the crack you've placed it in widens towards the direction of load.
Similarly, a cam loads along its stem, they are not designed to be placed perpendicular to the direction of load (although they are often easier to place this way!)
There is some tolerance in gear for its use out of line with the direction of load, but the further away from true it is, the less reliable the placement.
Is the wire, sling, or cam-stem pointing in the direction of load?
Does it bend the gear over an edge?
Will the direction of load change if the second falls as opposed to the leader?
With nuts & hexes the amount of the gear’s surface area in contact with the rock dictates the pressure applied [to the rock] - the smaller the surface area (the less gear touching), the greater the pressure, and the more likely the placement is to fail.
Look at the front and back of the nut, would it work better the other way around?
Look at each corner (there are 8 - top, bottom, front, back, left and right)
Cams don’t have the same kind of contact as a nut because the lobes are curved.
Is each cam lobe touching the rock?
Is each cam lobe using the middle third of its range?
Are the cam lobes balanced (both front and back pairs equally opened)?
Application and What ifs
Is there anything that will change in certain circumstances?
Will the direction of load be different for a leader fall or a seconder fall?
Could anything cause a carabiner to be loaded over an edge?
Is the carabiner gate at risk of scraping open?
Will the rope be pulled into a position where it could jam or cause drag?
Rating Your Gear
It's important to run through this process in order.
1. Rock quality – if the rock quality is poor then there's not much point continuing with the rating process - consider using an alternative placement if you can.
2. Movement - if you cannot prevent it, rate it in the position it will move into.
Now that you've ascertained the rock quality is good enough to place gear in and identified any potential movement you can:
3. For each placement, select a initial rating:
10 – A large and secure tree, a thread or a spike if the direction of load is appropriate.
9 – Hex or nut in the top third of normal size range.
8 – Cam or nut in the middle third of normal size range.
7 – Nut in the bottom third of normal size range.
6 – Micro cam or micro nut.
4. Direction - consider the direction of the placement compared to the direction force will be applied if it’s loaded.
In line - no deduction
Within 15 degrees - minus 1 point
Within 30 degrees - minus 2 points
Within 45 degrees - minus 3 points
Will the stem, wire or sling will bend over the rock when loaded?
If it will - minus 1 point
5. Rock contact - deduct a point (or more) if it’s not 'perfect'.
For nuts and hexes:
Look at the FRONT left, right, top and bottom corners - minus 1 point for each that is not in contact.
Look at the BACK left, right, top and bottom corners -minus 1 point for each that is not in contact.
Are the lobes in the middle third of their range? - Minus 1 point for each lobe that is not .
Is the cam balanced (each lobe should be opened the same amount on each side, back and front)? - Minus 1 point for each lobe that is out of line.
Use of Equipment
This rating system is intended to help you break down how good a piece of gear is and to support the development of good judgement skills. It is not a set of hard and fast rules, but rather a framework to help guide your decision making.
Many factors will impact on the loading and success/failure of traditional gear, these include (but are not limited to):
Usage (leading, abseiling, as part of an anchor).
Impact force (fall length, amount of rope available, dynamic belaying).
Direction of load (belayer/runner position, rope drag, swinging load).
Rock type (friction of surface, irregularities in strength, component parts of rock).
This system was designed to take into account that gear is rarely “perfect” but can still be “good enough”.
A less than perfect hex placement, without total rock contact and with a slight deviation in the direction of load may be good enough, similarly a micro wire with one corner not in contact may also be good enough - but the tolerance for “not good” points is lower with the micro than it is with the hex.
As a rule of thumb…
A 5/10 placement should catch a low impact leader fall (a micro wire in a non-perfect placement may still work, but once you start finding multiple issues with marginal small gear, you really are into the realms of wanting to cluster pieces rather than being reliant on just one).
Multiple pieces of gear can be linked so load is shared on them - this system can be used to rate linked gear by adding the scores together.
HOWEVER - the total should be limited to a “maximum theoretical score” of the weakest piece
For example, three 4/10 micro wires should not score 12/10, but if equalised correctly they could be considered 6/10 – the highest score possible for micro wires.
When building an anchor – aiming for a minimum of 10 points per person (so for 2 climbers a multi-pitch anchor should include gear that all adds up to 20 or more) gives a good framework for how much gear to use.
Of course, you need to understand the fundamental principles of anchors as well, so you can link this gear together correctly.