Fixe PLX and Petzl HCR – Worth the hype?

For a number of years, decades even, the choice of material for fixed rock anchors (bolts) was pretty much limited to stainless steel grades 304 or 316.

With the development of climbing areas within highly corrosive environments, so to has been the development in both anchor technology and climber knowledge concerning corrosion and its various mechanisms as they apply to rock climbing anchors.

Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC) and the alarming rapidity with which anchors are rendered dangerous has gripped the community on a global scale and driven the development of titanium resin bonded anchors as a direct result. The investigation of SCC in Southern Thailand has had an impact within the materials engineering world by raising awareness that SCC can occur outside of the conditions traditionally believed to be the required norms.

The well known efforts of the Thaitanium Project (http://thaitaniumproject.com) and Titan Climbing (http://titanclimbing.com) have led to a full range of titanium products that compliment the high quality stainless steel products from Bolt Products (http://bolt-products.com).

Climbers equipping new routes have the choice of an excellent range of stainless steel products for normal use and equally titanium where SCC / harsh corrosion is affecting hardware. With Fixe introducing their PLX range and Petzl with an ‘HCR’ product line, what are the benefits and are those products anything better?

Fixe PLX

  • The Fixe PLX range is based on duplex stainless steel grade 2304, although may contain a blend of other duplex stainless steels.
  • Duplex stainless steels have good resistance to SCC however remain affected by pitting and crevice corrosion, both types of corrosion that can act as initiator mechanisms whereby SCC develops at a later stage.

Petzl ‘HCR’

  • Stainless steel grade 926 expansion bolt and a 904L grade stainless steel hanger
  • 926 grade stainless steel should contain a minimum of 6% Molybdenum and generically is described as a high corrosion resistant steel.

UIAA studies underway intend to determine a range of materials as matched to a set of environmental conditions since simply stating something is corrosion resistant is meaningless without equally specifying the corrosion it is supposed to resist. The use of the term HCR is misleading in that regard.

Duplex steel has high resistance to SCC and high quality steels in the 6% Molybdenum range resist SCC so where does that leave climbers trying to ascertain the relevance of these new products against what already exists on the market? Two considerations foremost in mind is the cost of the fixing and known performance in real world climbing applications. Looking at pricing online with no discounts applied:

  • 304 Grade Stainless Steel glue-in bolt (Bolt Products) – $5.00 (inc $1 for adhesive)
  • 316 Grade Stainless Steel glue-in bolt (Bolt Products) – $5.21 (inc $1 for adhesive)
  • Fixe PLX (MEC Online)                                                     – $11.60
  • Titanium glue-in bolt (Titan Climbing)                         – $13.12 (inc $1.28 for adhesive)
  • Petzl ‘HCR’  (Petzl Online)                                                – $36.00

Pricing

316 grade stainless steel is a cost effective option in areas not affected by SCC.

Fixe’s PLX hardware is roughly around the same price band of Titan Climbing’s titanium hardware but the Petzl ‘HCR’ is quoted at an astronomical US$ 36 (pack of 20 list price).

Performance

316 and Titanium already has proven use in a variety of regions with varying degrees of corrosion. Where SCC is occurring, a titanium bolt glued in with pure epoxy is currently considered the best form of fixed protection.

Fixe have just initiated a batch recall for their PLX bolts in response to severe corrosion affecting hangers. The reasons for this are not currently in the public domain but this does highlight the issue facing developers when new products are launched to either build in company liability where the product line was only 316 based or perhaps to counter titanium based products. Without a ‘track record’ developers take the risk in installing hardware only to find it won’t last some 5, 10 years or longer, later.

Technical materials knowledge within the oil and gas industry says 6% Moly’ steels will resists SCC however the UIAA is yet to issue a guideline to climbers to this effect. The fundamental issue facing the use of Petzl’s ‘HCR’ range however is cost and it is simply too expensive unless the unit price is reduced to become competitive with titanium glue-ins. The drawbacks associated with using bolt ins however are not eliminated.

Ultimately when the track record of certified titanium glue-in bolts is considered, the advantages this type of fixing offers, and the pricing for a known SCC resistant material, why switch to duplex 2304.

 

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Thailand Bolting Trip – Nam Pha Pa Yai Camp

A successful visit to the Nam Pha Pa Yai camp a couple of hours North of Bangkok to bolt new routes and enjoy the riverside climbing featuring unique zipline access.

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As always, lots of hardware…but a balanced load

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The zip line access across the river.

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Great quality rock and plenty of new lines to equip. Gluing in Bolt Products 8mm * 80mm marine grade stainless steel bolts with Hilti RE500 pure epoxy adhesive.

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Glue-in bolts are great for traverse anchors; no loose hangers or need for linking hardware either, just tie direct!

Bangkok Bolting Seminar

On 22nd April I travelled to Bangkok and delivered a presentation on bolting as a guest of the Bolting and Re-bolting in Central Thailand Group.

https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=bolting%20and%20rebolting%20in%20central%20thailand

The seminar covered a range of topics covering risk, bolt types, standards, corrosion and  the materials from which certified bolts are manufactured. Key objectives of the seminar were to assist climbers in recognising suspect bolts and the need to be aware of whether bolts have failed before climbing in unfamiliar climbing areas.

This well attended event also provided the opportunity to discuss Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC) via a question and answer session.

Systematic Failure Analysis of failed Anchors from Hong Kong

The current practice of both the UIAA 123 and EN 959 standards has been to leave anchor corrosion/SCC resistance as the responsibility of the manufacturers. However, numerous incidents of fixed rock climbing anchors failures mostly in seaside locations show that this approach is not optimal.

The Safety Commission of Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA) is preparing a new standard, which will classify anchors into classes according to their resistance to SCC and / or corrosion. The UIAA SafeCom working group consists of technical experts supported by regional volunteers around the globe  who are providing failed bolt samples and also installing test cells of different bolts which are being monitored over time for corrosion behaviour.

Hong Kong is located within a region that has an elevated corrosivity potential and failed samples recovered during re-bolting work / catastrophic failures have been provided to the working group in recent years.slamova-fig-5

All samples of failed / corroded hardware were sent to the University of Chemical Technology in Prague where Tomas Prosek and his team conducted visual analyses at cross-sections using metallographic techniques and by scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Material chemical composition was verified by x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyser, chemical composition of deposits and corrosion products determined by energy dispersive spectroscopy (EDX).

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Example of a submitted sample recovered from Hour Glass Crack, Technical Wall, Tung Lung Chau.

Samples submitted included hangers, bolts and the cracked anchor set from Green Slab in Sea Gully.

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Crevice corrosion occurred on all four analysed hangers, either under a washer or between a hanger and rock. There were branched cracks on two analysed hangers, one of them was completely torn after failure under 5 kN force (Hour Glass Crack). Cracking was observed also on both sleeves in a longitudinal direction of the bolts. Cross-section and SEM analysis after removal of corrosion products showed branched transgranular crack morphology.

The Green Slab anchor set featured a crack located 1–2 mm from the weld on the chain-link attached to one of the hangers that showed intergranular morphology, which suggests sensitization of heat affected zone during welding leading to intergranular corrosion or intergranular SCC.

SEM

SEM micrograph of transgranular fracture of cracked surface after corrosion product removal.

The conclusion from the preliminary report confirms that chloride presence was principal for the classical low-temperature chloride-induced SCC to occur and it is probable that concentration of chlorides in confined zones (e.g. behind hangers, washers and nuts) helped to initiate the SCC, at least in some cases. Crevice corrosion in this case occurs where salt solution (sea water) remains stagnant behind hangers.

Corrosion type sketch

Hong Kong geology can be very broadly defined as either volcanic tuff, or coarse grained granite, and neither rock type features magnesium in the concentrations required to form aggressive magnesium chloride based solutions that are found in limestone climbing areas like Tonsai. Super accelerated SCC is unlikely to be a problem for Hong Kong sport crags however the change in anchor type from multi component expansion bolt to a single piece glue-in bolt or adopting certified titanium glue-in bolts on sea side sport cliffs will reduce the rate of corrosion or in the case of titanium; eliminate it altogether.

Acknowledgement and thanks is extended to Alan Jarvis of the UIAA and Tomas Prosek and his team in Prague.

The School Yard – A New Hong Kong Crag

Several days of bush clearing and bolting have resulted in an easily accessible beginner level climbing area located adjacent to the well established Monkey Buttress on Hong Kong Island.

8 Routes up to 15m high were equipped using Bolt Products A4 glue-in bolts and Hilti RE500 epoxy.

Excellent rock quality, a sub 5 minute approach and appropriately geared routes make this an ideal venue for teaching new comers to the sport. A topo can be downloaded under the Guide Downloads page.

Thanks to Koh Ting Yi for partnering up on the first ascents.

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Koh Ting Yi on the first ascent of ‘School Rule one’