Sport Safe - The Lesser thought of Problems of Sport Climbing
At least on paper, sport climbing should be a pretty safe activity. Protection consists of bolts drilled into the rock that are usually quite strong and often placed with reasonable spacing to prevent the possibility for long falls. Climbs are relatively short and usually top-out at redundant fixed anchors set for an easy transition to get climbers back to the ground. What could go wrong?
Most sport climbers learn pretty early on the basics of leader safety. Ideas such as avoiding back-clipping, paying attention to leg position relative to the rope and giving a forgiving belay can occupy a large amount of headspace while a climber is cruxing up a route. Many folks do a great job leading and belaying but occasionally a mistake is made that results in a rope burn, a torqued ankle or the occasional head-whack after getting flipped upside-down after falling with their rope behind a leg. Fortunately, the majority of these accidents usually aren’t catastrophic by themselves. Most major sport climbing accidents occur due to other circumstances, ones often not as initially apparent and ones certainly often not on the forefront of many climbers’ minds. Fortunately, there are some notable trends that we can learn from, hopefully allowing us as climbers to make better decisions moving forward.
The following is a list of potential problems beyond normal leader safety issues; problems that sport climbers must solve to avoid a major accident:
In sport climbing the terrain is usually steep and consequently falls generate a lot of force, which quickly is translated to the belayer. If the belayer is not prepared with proper belay knowledge or proper body weight and position the belayer may get tossed around enough to lose control of the rope. The belayer may also pull the leader off of a climb if they lose their belay position, such as by stumbling in areas with poor footing.
•Assure the belayer is the appropriate weight and has the appropriate skills to catch a fall and lower appropriately before trusting them with your life. A dynamic fall and soft catch can be great for the leader as long as the belayer isn’t tossed around so much that they risk losing control. Anchor the belayer down if necessary or, alternatively, choose a more like weighted individual to belay.
•Be sure the belayer has good footing, ideally on flat ground, and is positioned close to the wall to avoid getting tossed into it if the leader falls. The belayer should be appropriately ready for the direction of pull associated with a fall but also secure in their stance themselves as to not pull the leader off if they stumble on the ground.
•Using an ABD such as a Gri Gri will add security tremendously, but understand that these devices should not be relied upon hands-free and that accidents can still happen with their use, particularly while lowering. The use of belay gloves will also add security, as well as a second person positioned behind the belayer to help babysit the brake strand if control of it were to be lost.
•If the ability of the belayer to lower appropriately is worrisome, the leader could also consider rappelling as an alternative means of descent, or at the very least, attach themselves to and slide down a backup friction hitch on the opposite side of the rope (side travelling from the belayer uphill to the anchor).
•While belaying the use of a helmet is advisable, as the leader could pull rocks off which could affect them and their ability to preform their task at hand.
Underestimation of Risk while Low on a Route
When a leader is low on a route they are nearer to the ground, which they are more likely to come into contact with in the event of a fall than they would be higher up with more protection clipped. This is particularly true both before any gear on route is clipped, as well as, and with greater consequence, when the climber is attempting to clip the second bolt on a climb. The impact force on the leader, and consequently the belayer, is also very high with falls close to the ground. Impact force, or the degree of shock on the climber/jolt on the belayer is highest when the rope system has little stretch; a product of rope length relative to the distance of a fall. In short, if you take a big fall without a lot of rope out, there’s a lot of force at play and it’s probably going to hurt, regardless of whether the belayer can even hold the fall and keep you from hitting the ground.
•Buy a stick-clip and use it. This will help tremendously is protecting moves low on a climb.
•For the second bolt on a climb, be really cognizant of the potential danger at hand. If you don’t like your prospects of clipping successfully, perhaps it’s not the best climb to be on. If you choose to proceed, do your best to avoid clipping really high as the increased slack created from the rope being doubled over will bring you closer to hitting earth if you fall.
•For your belayer, try to add additional security (above) and anchor them down if it will prevent keeping the leader off the ground.
Misjudgment of Route Length/Inadequate Gear
One of the most common and preventable accidents in sport climbing is related to being insufficiently prepared with the appropriate gear for the climb they are on and specifically, being lowered off the end of a rope that is not long enough for the climb. In a single pitch context, when being belayed from the ground, the leader will need at least twice as much rope as it takes to lead the climb in order to get down.
•Be sure you are on the route you think you are and know what gear you need to safely execute a climb. Err on the side of caution by bringing more draws than you think you might need and tie a knot in the opposite end of the rope so that it jams in the belayer’s device if they don’t notice that there is insufficient rope to get the climber to the ground while lowering. This sounds like a no-brainer, but being lowered off is an all too common scenario, as it is easy for a belayer to not recognize a dwindling stack of rope on the ground, as they are looking up and possibly communicating with the climber above. It is of great help to avoid this situation to have a middle mark on the rope and have the belayer pay attention to where it is when the climber is approaching the anchor; this will help indicate whether the climber has enough rope to get all the way back down safely. One caveat to this is if the climber will end up at a lower elevation than the belayer, such as on an overhanging climb on a hillside.
Communication Breakdown/Poor Cleaning Technique
Another somewhat common mistake, which unfortunately has the potential to be quite tragic, is related to improperly executing the cleaning of an anchor. It is certainly possible for one to expose themselves to danger in the anchor cleaning process by not building and being attached to a sound, redundant anchor if the leader chooses to fully come off belay at any point, but historically it seems more common to run into issues related to lapses in communication with the belayer than fixed hardware failing with any actual frequency.
•As the climber, be very clear with your belayer about what your plan is to clean the anchor before you ever leave the ground. Try to keep communication with your belayer to a minimum to avoid confusion.
•While cleaning the anchors, if the plan is to lower off, use a technique to stay on belay throughout the whole process. If you just need slack, ask for slack but stay on belay. Never ask to go off belay if the plan is to be lowered, as a communication error may lead to catastrophic consequence. A bight of slack rope passed trough the anchor chains and attached to the climbers belay loop with a bight knot and locking carabiner is the most simple, fastest and arguably safest transition method possible.
•If the climber goes off belay for any reason they needed to build and get on a legitimate anchor during the transition. Think equalized, minimal angle between points, redundant, non-extendable and timely. Hanging off a single bolt with a quickdraw is not in anyone’s best interest.
•During the anchor cleaning process if any slack rope is pulled up and clipped off on the leaders harness (in an attempt to avoid dropping the rope) the rope should be clipped off with a bight knot and locking carabiner to the belay loop (never to a non-rated portion of the harness such as a gear loop). As long as the climber is still on belay this allows for a viable connection to the rope throughout the transition.
•Historically, several climbers over the years (in the US alone) have made the grave mistake of thinking they’ve end up back on belay after being taken off. If you ever ask to go off belay as a climber, count on getting down under your own devices, whether it be by rappelling or walking off.
(Climber preforming a Bight of Rope Transition method while on on lead and still on belay with a tether only for balance)
Improper Rappel Technique
Mistakes related to rappelling are all too common in rock climbing and mountaineering as a whole. As climbers we should take steps to add security while rappelling, if we choose to use this technique at all. Some common mistakes include improper attachment to an anchor or to rope, loosing control of the rope, rappel lines getting stuck and/or dislodging rocks which then affect the party, and rappelling off the ends of the rope.
•Avoid rappelling when possible; statistically, being lowered in a sport climbing setting is safer. That said, you must have a solid belayer who is trustworthy with their skills. Some will argue that climbers lowering off fixed anchors will wear them out at a faster rate than if everyone rappelled. And there is some truth to that. The question is whether your or your friends’ lives are as important as the anchor’s, which could be replaced. Certainly, I wouldn’t condone running laps on a top-rope straight through the chains but personally I have zero qualms lowering off an anchor I’ve just cleaned.
•If you are rappelling in the sport climbing setting you need to build and put yourself on a legitimate anchor during the transition. Think equalized, minimal angle between points, redundant, non-extendable and timely. Hanging off a single bolt with a quickdraw is not in anyone’s best interest.
•Tie knots in the end of the rope. A shocking number of accidents have occurred with climbers rappelling off the end of the rope accidentally. In the sport climbing environment, if you are choosing to rappel you really have no way of telling yourself if the pitch you just climbed was less than half the rope length, so be careful.
•Use a rappel backup/third hand (auto-block cord) and a rappel extension so that the backup can be attached to a rated part of your harness such as your belay loop and still maintain enough separation from your belay device.
•Make sure when you go on rappel to double (and triple) check your work to make sure the rope is through your belay device properly you are on rappel correctly before committing to your weight to the rappel exclusively.
(Climber rigging to rappel with an extension and back-up after leading the pitch. Climber tethers himself to a full anchor)
Incorrect Risk Assessment
Many climbers assume that sport climbing is an easy and straightforward endeavor with negligible risk; at least compared to other variations of the sport such as trad. Climbing. The sport appears like the surrounding wildness of the rock has been somewhat sterilized by the ‘road-map’ of bolts basically telling climbers whether to go and at first glance I may appear not all that different to the climbing gym. Outdoor climbing, however, requires a personal assessment of the risks at hand for every single route a climber considers getting on. There is no governance ensuring a route is safe, whether it be the rock composition, the integrity of the fixed hardware that was placed, or how the route was built relative to the terrain. There is no guarantee if you clip all the bolts as you are ‘told to’ that you will not get hurt in a fall.
•Take the time to do your homework on every route you climb. Think about how reliable you think the rock is and whether the fixed gear is any good. Try to imagine what the result of a fall would be on every portion of the route; there may be places where falling is simply not an option.
•Wear a helmet. Really, there is no reason that the majority of sport climbers (climbers and belayers) shouldn’t wear helmets. Really, a lot of the burden of the phenomena falls on professional climbers who have historically set a poor example. Rocks break. Gear fails. People make mistakes. A helmet will help your cause dramatically in many situations and it they aren’t burdensome to wear, at all.
Many of the techniques describe in this article will require climbers to seem hands on instruction to acquire a reasonable level of proficiency. We here at The Backcountry Pros offer a wide range of educational climbing opportunities from AMGA Certified instructors, including private and group courses for outdoor sport climbing.
(A climber follows a sport climb, on the ready to clean the anchor)