High peaks, great responsibility

TÜV SÜD ensures the safety of climbers and mountaineers

Tested ropes and carabiners ensure a safe climbing experience.
Video: Getty Images

With climbing equipment, even small defects can have fatal consequences. Therefore, manufacturers need to recognize weak points so they can be eliminated in the future. TÜV SÜD helps them in these efforts – the company tests all types of climbing equipment at its facility in Garching near Munich.

Volker Kron is the alpine sports specialist at TÜV SÜD. The Franconian has been working for the company´s in the Sports Equipment department for 27 years. In addition to his job, the passionate alpinist loves the mountains in the Berchtesgadener Land and the Wilder Kaiser region in Tyrol.

In your career, you focus on testing climbing equipment. Are you a climber, too?

Yes, I’ve been an enthusiastic alpinist since my university days in Munich. So it’s no coincidence that I ended up in this job at TÜV SÜD.

Which climbing equipment parts does TÜV SÜD test?

Our department is responsible for sports equipment and personal safety equipment. But we only test items that are relevant to safety. Accordingly, I test all equipment items that should protect people from falling while climbing. These include ropes, pitons, chocks, carabiners and harnesses – everything climbers need to ensure their safety.

Does that mean you spend your workdays in the mountains?

Unfortunately, no. The majority of the tests take place under standardized conditions in our lab. But certain items, such as avalanche airbags, are also tested in real-world conditions directly in the mountains.

How should we picture that? Do you boldly dive into an avalanche for the test?

No, of course not. The fact that avalanche airbags fundamentally work through inverse segregation was proven more than 20 years ago, so we don’t need to test that over and over again. But there are a few required tests that can only be performed in the appropriate terrain. For example, the airbag should also trigger when a person falls in steep terrain and lands on their back or upside down. In addition, we test whether the equipment works in different types of snow, from fresh powder to heavy wet snow. We bury the airbag and then trigger it.

Who defines the criteria used for testing?

The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) in Bern, Switzerland has taken on many responsibilities, including defining strict safety norms for mountaineering equipment and other equipment items. As a rule, we perform the testing for the UIAA, and then they award their safety label.

The important thing with climbing is having a realistic grasp on your skill level, because aside from material defects, overestimating your skill is the biggest danger.

In your experience, are there defects in climbing equipment that occur particularly often?

Broken springs on carabiners are currently common, even with well-known manufacturers. This causes the catch on the carabiner to no longer close properly, which represents a significant safety risk. When this happens, the carabiner can only hold as much weight as with an open catch and the rope can slip right out of it. So defective quality on such a small part can have fatal consequences.

TÜV SÜD certified the Hausbachfall fixed-rope climbing route in Reith im Winkl, Germany, as its first certified via ferrata three years ago. How should we imagine the inspection?

There is a draft standard for fixed-rope climbing routes. Our inspection is performed based on this draft. It starts with inspecting the documentation and checking that the underlying calculations are correct. We also check which materials were used. Then we personally climb the via ferrata and measure whether the tolerances are correct, and for example, whether an anchor is located at the required distance – and whether the steel cable is securely anchored to the cliff. But TÜV SÜD does not test for the level of difficulty; we aren’t responsible for that.

We have to ask: What level of difficulty can you handle on a via ferrata?

I would say that I can make it up any of them. The important thing with climbing is having a realistic grasp on your skill level, because aside from material defects, overestimating your skill is the biggest danger.

Volker Kron is TÜV SÜD’s expert on mountain-climbing equipment.
Photo: Birgit Gelder