By Ethan Kurteff, Senior, Mechanical Engineering

Ethan is a ME student from Carmel, California who has interests in both space travel and oceanography. In his free time, he enjoys climbing, backpacking, mountain biking, SCUBA, and any other ways to explore the natural world.

Why did you choose to be an engineer?

Growing up, I always wanted to be an inventor, and I’d spend my time tinkering around. I soon realized there’s a real job that involves creatively solving problems, and it’s called engineering. I haven’t looked back since.

60 feet up the crag, the wind is blowing pretty hard. It’s cold and I’m feeling a touch unsettled. In front of me, two slings, four locking carabiners, and a single climbing rope keep gravity from getting too friendly with me. It’s a little bit of a sickening feeling to lock the rappel device and lean back off the cliff. My life depends completely on the system I just installed.

Engineering involves a great deal of trust. Everyday, we trust our lives to the engineers that design our infrastructure and our products. All around us, there are systems that simply cannot fail. If the lower ball joint blows out on your Corolla while you’re speeding down the highway, you could be toast. If your balcony collapses during your housewarming party, you could and your friends could perish spectacularly. Studying mechanical engineering has made me painfully aware of the faith I place in engineers I will never meet. Luckily, the products we trust with our lives tend to function pretty well. It’s rare for mechanical failures to cause tragedy, but it’s never excusable when it happens.

Taking engineering classes has made me aware of the diligence needed to ensure safety, but it has also given me the confidence to trust myself with my life. My classes inform my decisions when building a climbing anchor to protect myself from falls. If an anchor fails, the rope will be detached from the rock and do nothing to stop a fall. Let’s consider the engineering concepts that keep my safe at height.

Statics informs me that there is no replacement for a solid connection to the rock. Several weaker anchor points could fail in a cascade failure, and it can be tricky to distribute the load equally among multiple points. Good bolts into the rock should hold well above 22kN (~5,000lbs). Statistics informs me that anchor must be redundant. There shouldn’t be any single point of failure, and each redundant component compounds the reduction of risk. Dynamics informs me that an anchor should not extend if a single point fails. This can be hard to visualize, but it’s possible to build an anchor that gets shock-loaded upon failure of a single component. This increased dynamic load could cause the backup anchor point to fail. Dynamics further teaches that the climbing rope itself must be able to absorb energy and keep forces low by stretching. This is why climbing with a rope that isn’t designed for climbing is a terrible idea!

By no means do you need to be an engineer to stay safe when climbing. The concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, and there are plenty of resources for learning. But when my life is on the line—quite literally—I find great comfort in having the analytical tools needed to understand how the system works and trust that it will keep me safe.

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