Saturday, January 5, 2013

Security Risk: What Does Safety Really Mean?

I have been reading more and more reports recently of experienced climbers winding up seriously hurt or killed because of basic mistakes they made while sport or gym climbing. First up was the Scottish tradmaster extraordinaire Dave MacLeod who was lowered off the end of his rope on a 5.11 slab that he had bolted earlier. His injuries were serious enough to warrant surgery and a lengthy rehab process. Then there was climbing legend John Long who decked from 30 feet up at a local gym on account of an unfinished knot. Both are not only serious experienced climbers, but they are authors of classic instructional texts on the sport. Saddest of the most recent reports was the death of a Swiss climber whose rope was cut due to an abraded/sharpened carabiner edge. Again the victim was a experienced and safe climber and also an author, that of the guide to the Ratikon, a place known for its heads-up serious climbing.

Now what all three of this incidents had in common was a failure of the one item in climbing that cannot fail, namely the rope. MacLeod's accident was caused by a short and under-attended rope on a long lower-off. A similar serious accident occurred a while back in Boulder Canyon to a friend of mine. Long's knot should have been completed but apparently wasn't. I have actually witnessed someone's knot come undone about 50 feet at Shelf Road (he clipped into a bolt, but it was close) and the aftermath of an accident on Primeval when a climber fell at the crux around 20 feet up and the knot didn't hold. In the case of the Swiss climber, it would have been better had the bolt or carabiner failed and broken.

What lessons can be drawn from this recent collection of incidents? First, we should remember that sport climbing is a lot closer to rappelling in that climbers must rely on their gear to work correctly at all times. Trad climbing is much less gear dependent in that falling is not seen as inevitable and lowering off is not necessarily part of the climb. One can trad climb all day and never test anything while even the easiest of sport climbs involves trusting the belayer and protection chain implicitly.

In other words, sport climbing exhibits what I might describe as binary safety. It's either all the way on or it's all the way off. Typically, if you have done something wrong, you will not get a chance to correct it, especially if the system is tested by a fall or lower-off. Trad climbing is more fuzzy and indeterminate with a reasonably protected route offering multiple redundancies and a constant feedback loop regarding exposure to danger. That feedback loop is getting more and more attenuated in sport and gym climbing, especially with auto-belays in rock gyms, which a remarkable number of climbers apparently forget to clip into and wind up stranded on top of a route. Fixed draws also enhance this sense of disengagement with climbing reality as climbers outsource personal responsibility onto someone else they probably don't even know.

What can be done to prevent these kinds of situations? While I tend to agree that a bowline as a tie-in is not the best practice, using figure-8s will not fix the problem alone. Technology cannot be relied on here. There is barely any technology involved in sport climbing to begin with. The solution instead begins with reactivating the feedback loop mentioned above in trad climbing, especially in physically verifiable ways. So every time you tie in, you pull hard on your knot in all directions while inspecting it. Eye contact with the belayer, maybe even a tug on the Gri-gri to confirm it's loaded correctly. Discussion about clipping strategies reawakens a sense of mutual responsibility. Clear communication about taking and lowering is a must. On longer pitches, tie a big knot in the end of the rope. Basically climbers should do things that interrupt the convenience-oriented cruise control "sport" mentality that too easily leads to disaster. A visceral awareness of the risk of the sport needs to be maintained if we want to remain safe climbers.

Andrew Bisharat wrote an excellent analysis of the safety issues linked with fixed draws in the most recent issue of Rock and Ice, making points that I entirely agree with. Laissez-faire crag maintenance is a relic of the past when climbers were few and perhaps more aware of the risks involved in trusting fixed gear. If the decision is made to fully equip a crag, then that comes with real responsibility for the lives of those who follow. Personally I am against fixed draws precisely because they distance climbers from looking after themselves. Bolts are relatively redundant but, as the Swiss incident makes plain, clipping-in points have lethal potential if they fail the wrong way, the way that we don't expect them to.

One of the things that I find so interesting and compelling about climbing is this relationship between mind and technology. There is no question that gear can enable incredible athletic achievements on the rock. And very few enjoy entirely relying on their mental strength in potentially lethal situations. There is, or should be, a balance between the two extremes. When we let technology drive our actions too much, the chances are good that we will soon wind up in the ditch, or worse.

PS: I saw this note about a sport climbing crag in Japan.
"Rules and regulations: Climbers are not allowed to leave quick-draws hanging from the routes overnight. According to the priests in charge of the many shrines on Mount Horai, this would greatly upset the numerous spirits that visits the forest; therefore, all QDs have to be taken down before nightfall. For the same reason, stashing of ropes is frowned upon."

I think the forest spirits have the right idea


Lloyd Family said...

Good post! I'd also agree that climbers should take down their draws between days on their projects. Not because it offends the spirits when they're left up, but because it annoys other climbers. Many of the draws climbers leave hanging are worn, faded, and have sticky gates. Climbers that don't trust fixed draws, and want to use their own, shouldn't have to take down the fixed draws, or hang them back up again when their done. I'm often tempted to just drop fixed draws to the base as I climb, but generally just walk to another route instead. It's annoying when all the best lines have questionable draws hanging on them though. And the situation is unnecessary. Hanging up draws bolt to bolt is a good way to refresh your beta and warm up to the moves anyway. Have some courtesy, don't leave your gear at the crags, and keep yourself safe.

don mcgrath said...

Scary stuff. Accidents are not solely for the inexperienced. I had one back in 1998. Still flinch at the thought.