One way of thinking about safety in adventure sports, and possibly in any endeavour, is to look at the details of accidents, try and discover the why that lies behind them and then create a plan to avoid them in the future. This approach can be contrasted with approaches that rely more on logic or bottom-up rules.
Some Real World Lessons or 65 Things to do to Stay Alive and Remain Happy on the Rock – Part 1
In the following article I approach this topic by looking at the mistakes I and others have made. I have tried to demonstrate that these lessons are not theoretical by presenting real-world examples, or links to videos. At several points I give the details of fatal accidents. My heart goes out to the families involved. I strongly believe that we can learn something as a community from such incidents, and owe a debt to those involved to do so. The evidence shows that experience doesn’t mean you can’t make a mistake.
In climbing it is clear that many accidents are not of the–belay-could-not-hold-the-fall or the-rope-got-cut-by-an-edge type (although both have occurred), but more often might be best described as simple human error. One recent example being the death of an experienced climber who attempted to abseil from high on the Nose of El Cap to retrieve a dropped piece of gear, but had not placed his belay device on the rope.
This list is in very rough order of likelihood of serious consequence based on personal experience, looking at the accident reports from various national climbing bodies, tales from friends, spending too much time on the internet and gut feeling – not scientifically gathered data.
1. Understand why accidents happen
Climbing accidents can happen because people don’t know what they are doing, but this seems rare. More commonly people knew what they should have done, but didn’t do it. Often this is because something unexpected happened. This means that not only do you need to protect yourself from the norm, you need to protect yourself from the unexpected. We can all abseil down a rope without incident most of the time. So it is tempting to conclude that most of the time a third hand (i.e. a French prusik backup) isn’t needed. However there will be that time when: part of the anchor fails, or a rock is dropped on you by a mountain goat, or a snake bites you. Conditions don’t have to be extreme, or the situation unusual, to have an accident—plenty of people have hit the deck at indoor walls, and some of them very experienced.
From reading the reports in the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Mountaineering it is also clear that other, secondary, factors often play a role, for example bad weather, tiredness or a failure to communicate. At such times, triple, rather than just double, checks will be needed.
2. Understand the purpose of good practice
One reason to train at the wall, or climb lots of easy routes, is to build a memory of movement so your body does the move that is needed almost without thought. To stay safe, similar automatic processes need to occur when it comes to anchor building, placing a third hand on the rope, or telling your second they are safe to climb. Just like near-unconscious movement this only occurs through repeated practice, so it needs to be the norm. If you never, ever, rap without a third hand then there is much more chance that your body will remember to place one even if your mind is racing because your partner is screaming for help. If you always pack a head torch, even when climbing single pitch, you will remember to pack it for multi-pitch. So don’t let your friends put you down for double checking and being paranoid even if the route is only 5m high.
I’ve had several near misses where my body has frozen because it seemed to know something was wrong. Each time this was because I had forgotten to do something that I normally did, and had done a thousand times before. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I felt it.
3. Understand that double checking only works if the second check takes a fundamentally different form
On the whole we see what we expect to see. If you think you’ve clipped your abseil device to your belay loop, then that is what you will see. But you might have just clipped it to a gear loop. You need to pull, lift, separate and examine with your eyes and hands.
One example is checking that a Grigri is threaded correctly. There is a tendency to glance at the device – this will pick up if you have remembered to put the rope into the device, but little more. The next test is to tug the leader’s rope and check the thing locks. The mistake many climbers make is to rely on tugging the rope coming out of the top of the device as their only check. This will always lock the device. The check you need to be performing is to find out if the leader is tied into the strand that exits the top of the Grigri, rather than the strand that exits the bottom. So after tugging, and without removing your hand from the rope, you need to run your hand up the rope until it meets the leader’s harness. Or simply start at their harness and run your hand down to the Grigri, then tug.
The key to checking a Grigri is to find out whether the rope from the leader locks the device, not whether the rope from the top of the Grigri locks the device.
In 2010 Japhy Dhungana and Brian Ellis were rapping down Serenity Crack / Sons of Yesterday in Yosemite using the Reepschnur rappel method. The method relies on the knot joining the ropes jamming against the rappel rings and allows the climber to abseil on a single strand. A backup knot is placed joining the two ropes just incase the joining knot pulls through the rings. Brian tested the set-up to make sure that the knot would not pull through. After abseiling a short way the knot pulled through and he fell 300 feet to his death.
Brian had used this system many times in the past, and according to Japhy he always used a backup in case the knot pulled through. Japhy wrote online, “When Brian set up this system and tied the knots (I was coiling the ropes in the meantime preparing for tossing), he forgot to tie the backup knot. When I checked the system for him, I, too, committed the same mistake and only observed the main knot.” Brian checked the system three times, Japhy wrote, without noticing the missing backup.
We can all make such mistakes. On a pitch on El Cap I found I had threaded the Grigri the wrong way – my partner had already started up the pitch.
4. Put a knot in the ends of the rap rope
Many climbers have died in abseil accidents and one of the most common causes is the lack of a knot in the ends of the rope. Yes, you do have to be careful not to leave the knots in when you pull the ropes – but there are several well-known ways to help solve this issue. Not knotting the rope might work fine if you don’t get distracted, surprised, confused, or lost. At some point you will suffer all of these, and will be in real danger of rapping off the ends of the ropes.
Lara Kellog abseiled off the end of her rope to her death in 2007 while retreating from the Northeast Buttress of Mt. Wake in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge.
5. Always rap with a third hand, and make sure it will work
A common cause of climbing fatalities is the lack of a backup while abseiling. Always use a backup such as a French prusik and check that it grabs before you descend. If you do need to hang on the rope partway down, wrap a few coils around your thigh as well, just in case the third hand slips.
The third hand provides a good example of why it is important to understand what you are trying to do with a backup. If you don’t extend the belay device away from the harness, the third hand can only work if you keep your thigh low (if the French prusik touches the abseil device it won’t lock off), which is easy to do—as long as you aren’t distracted or knocked unconscious by a falling rock. i.e. A third hand will only really work with an unextended belay device under normal, not abnormal circumstances. Making it not a true backup.
Few of us would be happy abseiling from a single piece unless it was an emergency. Hence we tend to build abseil stations from two or more pieces. Doing so and then not using a third hand is a contradiction, because if one piece fails, the abseil line will unexpectedly drop you a short distance and you might well let go of the line when so jolted. Using a third hand that is too loose or that could reach the belay device if you were knocked unconscious is equally contradictory.
Here’s what happens when a third hand fails to grab, just when needed.
6. Good belaying
People get dropped. Make sure you pay attention. Consider using an assisted device, particularly if the leader is going to take a long time on the pitch, but most of all make sure you know exactly how to use the device you choose. Don’t let slack build up. Don’t stand back from the crag without good reason, and understand the consequences if you do (either unzipping – see below – or you being catapulted forward into the rock). Consider bringing the second up in guide mode, or via a re-direct. Tie a back up knot when taking photos.
It is worth considering how many times someone might need to have practiced something to be considered competent. Belayers get a lot of practice feeding out the rope, and after a few hundred actions get good at it. So how many unexpected falls would you like your belayer to have held to be equally competent at that? Trusting your life to someone who has only twice done the most important task in climbing—holding an unexpected fall—might not be best. It is well worth learning how to give a dynamic belay on steep routes, as this will reduce the chances of a falling leader slamming into the rock.
Adrian Berry was belaying me at Stanage one day when I fell with the only runner nearer to the ground than to me. He stopped me from hitting the deck because of his super-fast reactions and having held a very large number of serious falls. If I had been belaying him, he would have cratered. (Mind you, he wouldn’t have fallen off if he had been climbing the route).
Belaying the second correctly is as important as belaying the leader. Daniel Bush fell off whilst seconding a route called Sweet Dreams (in the Blue Mountains of Australia), and the result was not good when his belayer lost control.
For a comic take on belaying, but with a serious message.
7. Wear a helmet
You can hit the deck, slam into the wall, or flip upside down in trad or sport climbing, and loose rock can be pulled off by the leader or kicked off by goats. Helmets now weigh almost nothing, so there is little reason not to wear one. The Gods of the sport might not wear helmets in their videos, but they are often on very overhanging sports routes, and seem to have a cat-like sense of falling. Your head is a very fragile object, so protect it.
Here’s what a helmet looks after it has saved someone’s life (I guess a head with similar damage makes for game over).
8. Double-check everything for both yourself and your partner, including: the belay device, all knots and what you are clipped into
The rope will only save your life if you are tied into it, the rope is through the belay device (and in the case of an assisted device, threaded in the correct direction), your harness buckle is doubled back if needed, and the belay device is clipped to something structural.
John Long, who is about as experienced as it is possible to be, fell from a climbing wall (gym) and was seriously injured. He hadn’t tied in correctly. One of Petzl’s manager’s did much the same thing.
9. Put a knot in the end of the climbing rope, or just tie-in together
Being lowered off the end of the rope is common. So always knot the rope or tie in. That’s always, as in ALWAYS. Even if the crag is only 10m high, if you don’t always do it, you won’t do it the one time you wish you had.
I was dropped whilst being lowered due to the lack of a knot; it wasn’t nice! (read this article for details).
10. Don’t trust in poor bolts
Bolts fail. This might be because they are old rusted aid bolts, they were poorly placed, the glue was used incorrectly, the environment had rotted them out, the rock they are in was poor or they weren’t climbing bolts. If you don’t trust what you see, climb elsewhere. Poor bolts can crop up anywhere, but they are very common in the USA, in the mountains and in locations new to climbing.
One way to check is to give the bolt a tap with a carabiner or something metal. You’re looking for a good, shop ping sound and not a dull thunk. This won’t guarantee anything, but will at least give you an idea.
When a climber hung from a bolt on Calling Wolfgang at Index, Washington, USA, the bolt broke, as did the next one. The third bolt saved his life.
At Tonsai Beach in Thailand a two-bolt anchor with two climbers hanging from it failed. They only survived because the leader had clipped the first bolt on the next pitch as a redirect.
11. Don’t walk around unroped or stand around not clipped into the belay
You don’t have to be roped up and climbing to have an accident. In the mountains, and even at your local crag, there are plenty of places to slip on wet grass, grab something that isn’t securely attached, stumble over rocks or get pushed off by your partner when they trip. So tie into the anchors, or keep well away from danger.
One climber died whilst unsecured and setting up ropes to rescue others from the Lost Valley, Glencoe, Scotland in 2009.
12. Avoid falling off an easy route
Falling off that overhanging 8b (5.13) project might be safe, falling off a V-diff or 4 (5.6) in the mountains can be close to suicide. You may not have gear near you and the fall will be more of a lacerating tumble followed by a car crash onto a ledge, than a graceful arc followed by a bounce on the rope.
The last pitch of Nutcracker 5.8 (HVS) in Yosemite is a classic example of an easy route that regularly leads to injury. The problem is a mantle above a slab. Anvil Chorus 5.8 (VS) at Bosigran, England, is another example; this time the problem is a long lay back above a ledge.
You might know what you are doing, but does your second? You need to be very clear about what is expected of both second and leader once you are 20m apart, as wind and overhangs can get in the way of communication. People have been killed lowering off single pitch sports routes – or long multi-pitch routes in the dark, communication is key to staying safe. This goes beyond just climbing-related stuff, you need to understand who is getting tired, starting to lose drive, or becoming dangerous.
A frequent problem is the second not knowing when it is safe to start climbing. Tugs on the rope, or just agreeing to climb once the rope runs out are common solutions. The important thing is to have agreed the solution in advance.
Phil Powers, a director of the American Alpine Club, fell from the top of a climb near Denver: communication was hampered by noise from a nearby road and a river.
I stepped off the top of Chudleigh Rocks in Devon, expecting to be lowered 25m to the ground by my belayer who was standing at the base. Unfortunately she thought my shout of “take” was one of “safe” and had removed the rope from her belay device. Luckily I’m such a poor climber that I had not only laced the route, but added in so much friction by poor rope-work, that I didn’t fall very fast!
14. Know how to safely lower off a sport route
Communication is a great part of this, and is best discussed on the ground, not when you reach the top, but so is knowing how to lower off safely from all the types of anchors you’re likely to find. This is a common problem for beginners climbing at a new location. Make sure you are confident at making yourself safe and threading your rope, correctly through an anchor (remembering to double check everything before you trust your weight to the lower).
A Swiss climber fell to his death from Fred (a 30m 6b) on Kalymnos, most probably because he made an error over how to lower off due to not knowing how to deal with the particular anchors he found at the top of the climb.
15. Don’t distract someone or allow yourself to be distracted part way through putting a harness on or tying in
Also don’t talk to or distract someone else who is tying in or is putting their harness on. And always carry out checks.
Lynn Hill, one of the world’s best climbers, weighted the rope at the top of a warm-up climb and fell 75 feet to the ground. Lynn says she was distracted by a conversation and forgot to finish her knot. ALWAYS check your knot!
16. Check abseil stations
Check fixed abseil points: check any slings – cut and replace if needed; check pegs; check trees; check it really is the station you were looking for and that descending from it will take you where you need to go. On multi-pitch it makes sense to carry a knife and some spare cord or webbing for replacing or strengthening rap stations. Bear in mind that textile products, like rope, cord and slings will degrade enormously when exposed to UV rays, and this isn’t always obvious to the eye.
A sling-based rap anchor failed at the Red River Gorge in 2009, killing two climbers.
On a descent down a gully in Red Rocks, Nevada, I started to rap off a fixed length of cord placed around a large chockstone. The anchor failed, and I just stopped myself plummeting. I then discovered the cord had not been placed around the boulder, but jammed down the crease where the boulder met the gully wall. It wasn’t a rap station, but just a sling someone had probably dropped and that had been swept down the gully. I didn’t spot this because the cord was half buried in dead leaves. My mistake was not to have dug it out to check it before I used it.
17. Don’t place a carabiner over an edge or cross load it
Make sure carabiners clear edges and ledges. They can snap more easily than you think if the gate is forced open or loaded on the wrong axis. If the problem is the rope’s carabiner, use a longer extender, if it’s the piece’s carabiner, consider adding a basket hitched sling, or use a locking carabiner.
These guys had one carabiner come unclipped due to back clipping and then two carabiners snap – all in one fall
Goran Kropp died when a piece pulled and the carabiner on the next piece snapped when he fell from Air Guitar (5.10a), Frenchman Coulee, Washington.
18. Occasionally use screwgates on critical pieces
Carabiners can fail to do their job for a bunch of reasons, including:
- unclipping themselves from bolts
- snapping over edges
- becoming cross-loaded
- opening due to inertial effects (when a carabiner strikes the rock and comes to a sudden halt the gate can keep on moving and open).
- gate flutter (where a loaded moving rope can/might cause a gate to repeatedly open and close)
- opening from the gate hitting a protrusion
- being back-clipped
- twisting on a sling:
So consider carrying one draw made from a lightweight screw gate at the rope end and a twist-lock at the other for that must-not-fail piece. (If a bolt, wire or a sling gets hooked on the nose of a carabiner, the carabiner will fail at 2-3kN. This means it will snap in most falls.)
Wayne Crill got seriously hurt in a fall from a route on Lower Peanuts Wall in Eldorado Canyon when he ripped his top pieces: an RP and a Ballnut. The next two pieces (cams extended with shoulder-length slings and wire gate carabiners) stayed in, but somehow both rope-end carabiners unclipped from the slings.
This climber got a shock when a carabiner failed, possibly due to snagging on a bolt head: http://www.redriverclimbing.com/viewtopic.php?t=15594
19. Check fixed gear for signs of wear
Check fixed carabiners, Maillons and anchor rings for deep groves or sharp edges as you clip them. If you fall, such grooves can cut the rope. If you don’t like what you see, retreat/replace – using your own gear.
Mario Luginbühl died at Magletsch, Switzerland when a worn fixed draw cut his rope.
20. Don’t lower directly off slings or cord
Always lower off a carabiner or Maillon. A weighted rope can cut a sling after only a few metres of travel. (abseiling rather than lowering off a sling without a carabiner is generally fine.)
21. Rope up on crevassed terrain and carry the right kit
Even if you are just trying to cross a small glacier to get to a rock route and travelling a well-worn trail through the snow, rope up. If you haven’t practiced how to rescue your partner from a crevasse, in a realistic setting, don’t try and cross a glacier. Stopping a fall into a crevasse and then extracting the victim isn’t going to be possible without ice axes and crampons, etc (even then it’s not easy): if in doubt, keep away.
When David Bennett and Jeff Hanson were climbing on Mount Andromeda, Canada, Jeff slipped into a crevasse when unroped. He managed to arrest his fall and climb out. The two decided to rope up, but before they had David fell through a snow bridge and plummeted 20 meters. He became jammed in a bottleneck. Jeff rappelled down, but was unable to free him and David died before the rescue services could extract him the next day.
On my first trip to the French Alps as a teenager I was descending unroped off the back of the Jungfrau in Switzerland along a well worn path in the snow. An experienced climber approached us and told us we would look stupid down a crevasse with the ropes stowed in our sacks. Begrudgingly, we roped up. I took ten paces and fell through the snow.
22. Consider soloing on steep snow or ice
If you are heading off to rock climb in the mountains you will probably try to minimise the amount of snow and ice climbing kit you carry. If you don’t have ice screws or pickets you might be better soloing unroped with ice axes and crampons if the terrain is too steep, or the surface too hard, for reliable self-arrests. If you do have screws or pickets, place them.
A team of seven Japanese climbers, all roped together, died when descending Gongga Shan in China. When one member slipped, all were dragged to their deaths.
23. Avoid hanging out in the fall zone
Rocks naturally fall from cliff tops and leaders pull them off. So belay in a safe place when you can on route, don’t have your lunch in the fall zone at the base and wear you helmet at the base, not just when climbing.
On popular routes, an early start will help ensure that you are not climbing below lots of other parties – any of whom could knock off loose rock or drop stuff. If there are already several parties on a route with loose rock, it is worth considering a less busy route.
Whilst at the base of El Cap in 2014 I was splattered by falling rocks. One rock broke my glasses, another my watch, another cut my ear. Thanks to my helmet, and a lot of luck, I was fine. I’ve also been narrowly missed by a falling nut tool in the same place.
24. Be careful if clipped into belay anchors with just a daisy chain or sling
Standing up at the belay then losing your footing can place large forces on you and the anchors, so make sure the rope is part of the belay whenever possible as this will add a dynamic element – and don’t move above the anchors when tied in. This is another example of the need to understand why accidents happen. Most experienced climbers know if they attach themselves with a sling they need to keep the sling taut and not climb up above the belay, yet I bet that if the unexpected happened (a snagged rope, a dropped sack) most of us would just scramble up above the belay if we needed to, and if we slipped….. Remember, guard against the unexpected, not just the expected.
This short video from Cold Mountain Kit demonstrates what can happen to a shock loaded sling in a factor one fall.
25. Know how to shorten a daisy or sling
A traditional daisy has the pockets linked by stitching only designed to hold body weight. If you clip into more than one pocket and drop onto the daisy the stitching can fail, leaving you unattached. So, learn how to clip into and shorten a daisy. Something similar can happen with sling (alpine) draws if one end has an elastic band to secure the carabiner.
This video discusses the problem of sling draws and elastic bands.
26. Place lots of gear above a ledge or the ground and think about those rope stretching pitches
The base of the crag isn’t the only hard surface you can hit on the way down. If you have a lot of rope out and you fall you will go a long way. So lace it up when climbing above a ledge, and understand just how much ropes stretch when you fall (download the rope model from multipitchclimbing.com for a spreadsheet that tries to estimate this). Although long pitches often mean faster climbing and lower fall factors, be very aware of just how far you will travel if you fall when 60m out from the belay, and what you will hit. Even a very gentle fall onto the rope will make it stretch by 10%, and 10% of 60m is 6m. So you might end up falling a lot further than you thought from just looking at how far above your last runner you are.
I once broke a leg hitting a small ledge when I slipped and fell 40 feet from Cemetery Gates, North Wales. If I had placed more gear I would have been fine, and not wasted a summer in rehab.
This shows that you can travel a long way even when the gear is quite close.
27. Protect yourself and your second on a traverse
If you swing into a corner you can hit it with the same speed as falling the same distance onto a ledge. You will also probably hit the corner with an elbow, your ribs or your back, rather than landing on your feet. Make sure you place lots of pieces to protect both you and your second on a traverse – including pieces after hard moves to protect the second. Consider using double ropes to reduce the speed your second might slam into any corner. (See Topic 5 of multipitchclimbing.com to show you how to do the latter).
When climbing at Berry Head Quarry, Devon, England, Carl Hubbard fell a few metres out from a corner whilst seconding and broke an arm. The leader had belayed at the same height as Carl, rather than higher up the pitch, hence Carl hit the corner at high speed.
28. Keep everything simple, clean and easy to read
If you can’t see what is going on you might end up confused and unclip or untie something critical. At best, you will end up travelling more slowly, which on a long route might bring its own dangers.
29. Never stand with your back to the danger.
If you aren’t tied in, for example when coiling the ropes, stand facing the drop or water’s edge, not with you back to it. You might forget it is there, or jump backwards out of the way of that killer snake or puking sea bird.
30. Backup your jumars
Ascenders do pop off. So tie a backup knot below them and clip it to your belay loop. On traverses and roofs tie backups more often as this is when jumars most often detach. A backup knot is also needed when ascending a rope with prusik knots, or doing anything strange, weird or for the first time, for example lowering or rescuing someone.
The Austrian climber Walter Bertsch died on Magic Mushroom on El Cap most probably because he didn’t have a backup knot and got confused over which rope to jug.
There have been numerous documented accidents on El Cap that involved jumars unattaching from the rope whilst traversing.
I’ve had a jumar unclip itself on The Great Roof of The Nose on El Cap, so I know it happens. My backup saved me.
Part II to follow.
Thanks go to Ellie Woods for her comments and corrections.
Please remember, as with all the articles, tips and videos on this website, none of the systems, suggestions or practices should be used without proper training and experience. Climbing can be a dangerous sport and all climbers must take responsibility for themselves.