Abseil slings: when ants attack!

Posted by Dan Middleton, BMC Technical Officer on 05/11/2007
Visible chemical burns caused by formic acid

Bizarre but true, attack by ants was recently found to be the cause of an equipment failure in the French Alps. The BMC Technical Committee investigate...

An incident was recently reported in the French Alps, where the authorities had investigated a fatal fall which had occurred whilst abseiling. The investigators found that the abseil anchor sling had failed. The cause was found to be damage to the sling from formic acid. The most likely source of this formic acid was thought to be from ants, which were found to be present in the area during the summer.
 
How do we prevent future occurrences of such incidents? Evidence of ant activity might be a good thing to look out for, but this incident occurred in winter when this wouldn’t be visible.
 
The BMC Technical Committee decided to confirm the findings by checking the effect of formic acid on the strength of a nylon sling. We found a 50% reduction in strength after exposure to concentrated formic acid.
 
 
It was found that obvious chemical burns were present on the weakened section. These should be visible when inspecting any contaminated sling.
 
In conclusion, this incident does not require any extra precautions to be taken when using abseil slings, other than those already taken. Always treat in-situ equipment with suspicion, and inspect it carefully for any damage before use. If in any doubt, either back it up or replace it.


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