The climbing world has only begun to react to the tragic news of the death of 12-year old Tito Traversa following a groundfall at Orpierre in the south of France. While the exact details remain unclear as of this writing, it appears that most of his quickdraws were improperly set up and failed upon being weighted when he lowered off a warmup climb. Regardless of the emotional impact of the accident, there seems no doubt that a re-examination of the use of carabiner-securing devices like the Petzl String will be undertaken. (For what it's worth, my suggestion is only to sell them permanently sewn into dogbone-style draws so that they cannot be installed improperly or put on open slings where they can be flipped and fail completely.)
The deeper issue is that of how much responsibility young climbers can or should assume upon themselves when climbing. Given that many climbers believe in self-reliance and personal decision making, free of outside authority or supervision, it seems natural to blame the accident on "operator error" and similar to dozens of similar incidents that happen every year, some fatal, most not. However given the age of the victim and the preventable nature of the accident, I am not comfortable with that view.
I think that there is a different audience for this sad event and that is the parents of young climbers. I am not going to presume to speculate on the private grief and sorrow of Tito's parents and I would never call into question their judgment with their son's pursuit of climbing. Tito had just completed his fourth 5.14 and you don't get there without safe climbing practices and careful supervision. But his death puts us in very new territory for the sport where parents especially have to ask what they can do to respect their children's desire to climb while being careful to acknowledge that they are not responsible independent adults and should not be treated as such. This is a place that young childless climbers simply cannot comprehend until they have children of their own and have dedicated their lives to the all-consuming task of rearing healthy happy children themselves. To lose one's child at any age must be unbearable and there is no consolation or easing of that grief that I can think would be adequate to the task.
In the current celebration of young climbers' recent athletic feats is often lost any discussion of a less obvious kind of skill, one that was long ago described by Pat Ament as being "rockwise." This phrase describes a state of mind that is wary, cautious and deeply aware of the constantly changing environment of climbing, be it indoors or outdoors. If there is one problem with the attitude toward modern sport climbing and bouldering, it is the dismissal of risk as merely perception, that we can handle dangerous situations simply by rationalizing our fears and developing our mental and physical strengths. There is some merit in this approach but I wonder if it would be wise also to emphasize an outlook that recognizes hazard not merely in regard to procedures or technical skills but also in appraising routes, partner behavior, belaying strategies, and so on.
Young climbers are very adept at mastering closed systems, quickly learning the rules for success in defined games such as sport climbing, games set up by teachers, parents, or mentors. But when things are open-ended or suddenly the rules change, children are still ill-equipped to handle them, especially when they really do not understand in a meaningful sense the real and permanent consequences of mistakes in climbing. Even grownups have a hard time mastering this kind of awareness as the steady stream of climbing accident reports makes clear. Climbing is simply not a safe sport in the sense that tennis or running or swimming are. In climbing, we are much more vulnerable than we realize, finding ourselves, even on sport routes, in lethal situations in a matter of seconds where we thought ourselves secure. Climbers typically deal with this through a combination of denial, black humor, and bad analogies (such as "climbing is safer than driving") and other coping mechanisms, mechanisms that, if we have any sense of propriety, have no place in the minds of young people.
So this is new territory for everyone. As someone who started climbing independently around Tito's age, who had numerous close calls as developing as a climber, and who, even now, has to acknowledge failure at this (I'll discuss my recent head injury while bouldering very soon) I can speak to the difficulty of this situation. As an educator and youth coach I am aware how difficult the process of education and awareness really is. The difficulty however is only matched by the serious implications of failure if the message doesn't get through. If there is a positive outcome from this extraordinary loss it is through inspiring all of us to look clearly realistically and soberly at the risks of climbing and how our children are taught to understand and handle them.