For the purpose of these stories various facts about the incidents have been changed, their are no names, no location, no mention of the victims sex and even the cause and details of incidents have been altered to protect the anonymity of the victims and highlight other possible causes of similar accidents. The tales are based on real events from across the globe some of which ended in death, serious injury or just embarrassment. What each incident highlights is thin line we all walk as climbers and the choices that we make can have effect on the outcome of an incident.
The first incident starts at the end of a route, the climber is satisfied and content with what they have achieved, sitting at the top of the cliff the climber removes his helmet, loosens his rock boots and brings up the second. Ropes coiled, the pair set off towards the descent, a misjudgement leads them down the wrong gully and one simple slip on damp grass results in a long tumble. He comes to rest and is rescued his helmet clipped neatly to his harness, the question is; would he have fractured his skull if he’d been wearing it?
This climber made a full recovery over time, and still climbs to this day. Its just nowdays he wears a helmet until he is all the way down. I go further and recommend that at busy crags, especially in the mountains and at sea cliffs that the helmet should be worn until you’re out of the fall zone of debris. I have seen some very near misses at Gogarth and Cloggy with large falling rocks narrowly missing those sat waiting at the bottom of routes. On the international meet in May this year I witnessed a TV size block narrowly missed a climber scrambling to the base of a route, not that a helmet would have made much difference if it hit them, but it might make a difference with the accompanying debris.
The second story starts at the top of a crag before an abseil to gain the start of a route leads to tragedy. What happen to the climber between the top of the cliff and their final rest place could all be conjecture, and most of what follows is. However importantly any of these could have resulted in the same serious or even fatal consequences.
The abseil was retrievable, the incident was a catastrophic failure of the belay or simply abseiling off the end of the rope. Unfortunately all could have been prevented, and whilst you might think you know whom this incident refers to, there are several incidents across the years that this could have been based upon. What I want to concentrate on here is the ways in which a repeat of this can be prevented.
The climber was abseiling to get to the base of the next route and was about to climb back up to the belay. Even if you aren’t returning to the same belay then consider backing up exsisting abseil tat. I have on more than one occasion thought, no I won’t leave a sling, a nut, a cam its too expensive. I have used this argument when abseilling off a big wall on a trip where DMM gave us a rack. On reflection I equated my life being worth less than a cam, wire or sling that had been given to me. We are all worth that extra wire in an improvised retreat in bad weather, a sling to back up that rotten sun bleached mess round a tree.
An alternative hypothesis to the belay failure is abseilling off the end of one or both ropes. Either would have led to the same end; a simple over hand in the end of of both ropes would have prevented the climber abseiling off the end of the rope.
Even if they had done that they could still have caused a failure if the ropes were unequal lengths and the had fed one rope through the belay device whilst locking off the other, to make either side of the retrievable abseil equal. This would have resulted in the tensioned rope working like a saw against the belay, if it was rope on rope or rope on sling it could have quickly sawn through the tat, much better is to feed the rope through a mallion or carabiner
I did this when I was much younger, when trying to lower off a bolt using a prussic, the prussic lasted 5 metres of lowering before it cut through. Fortunately a handy tree cushioned the climbers fall on that occasion. I now keep all my old krab’s for ‘Bail out biners’ on sports routes.
I guess the take home message is be cautious when abseiling in any situation, and be extremely careful when making a retrievable abseil. Use a deadmans handle as a rule rather than an exception.
Another type of incident I have encounter, heard about and witness the pain of is the result of lowering someone off the end of the rope or nearly doing it. One of the most serious was when I was belaying a friend on Colossus wall, a 45m+ cliff. The climber lead up the route but a water streak high up made them take a large fall. A slight lapse in my concentration, meant that some rope slipped through the belay device before I arrested their fall. The climber was 40 metres up the route, the rope that I had let slip through meant that there was only 5 metres of rope left before it would have disappeared through my hands and up the cliff, and the climber taken a 20 metre ground fall. I have heard of similar things happening on long single pitch routes with only inches of rope left before disaster.
The solution is simple, if I had tied into the end of the rope it would have been impossible to let the rope run through the belay device. If you are on a route where you think the length of a pitch is near to or greater than half the length of the rope, tie into the ends. I have seen people be lowered off the ends of a rope on sports route and walk away as the rope was only 3 metres short. I have also see people with broken bones where the rope was 10 metres short, this is getting more common with 35 metre sports routes in Europe where you need a 70 metre rope. All preventable by tying into the ends of the rope.
The final story is one of particular significances, and one where luck if you want to consider this person ‘lucky’ played a valuable role. The climber was leading a route, and like many of us took a tumble. Now a hold could have broken on them, a foot could have slipped, they might of been off route or even simply been out of their depth, either way the leader fell from pitch two of a route.
As they careered downwards protection exploded from the rock as they passed the belayer the ground approaching fast. Other than the belayer the one thing that potentially saved both the climber and possibly the belayer was a good first runner. As well as keeping the climber off the deck it also prevented all the force of a factor two fall impacting the belayer and of course the belay.
Picture yourself out climbing with friends, I am sure that at one point or another one of them has weight the rope, fallen or needed to be lowered off after you have lead a pitch or you top roped them up a short route. How much harder is it to hold someone when belaying from above then when bottom belaying at a climbing wall? Now imagine a climber taking a lead fall in that manner. I doubt any of us could effectively hold a fall that way.
It is also the only possible way that the belay can fail by having a factor two fall impact upon it. So get some gear in early when on pitch 2 or above on multipitched climbs, it totally changes the dynamics of the systems.
The now imagine that the belayer in this incident is a novice second, left holding onto the ropes, unable tie a belay plate off let alone escape the system. This is not uncommon, I often see the more experience climbers leading all the pitches, with the second just along for the ride. Now stuck at the belay the second could have become reliant on passers by to come to his assistance. Would you have been able to sort this situation out if alone, would your second? As a Mountaineering Instructor I have taught many people the basics of self rescue, however it is far from easy, it requires practice in a safe environment and better still proper instruction from someone qualified.
More importantly, does the ‘passer-by’ have a level of knowledge with regards to first aid. Those first 5 minutes are often the most important for anyone who has had a serious accident, and getting some first aid training is vital for anyone walking the line like we do as climbers. Even assuming the best response of a mountain rescue team you should expect a 30 minute minimum response time, perhaps even considerably longer! Would you be able to take the simple actions requires to save a life?
I am an instructor now, many of the incidents mentioned that I was specifically involved with occurred when I first started climbing. I was oblivious to the dangers, in my case I got away with a few near misses, all of which have made me a better climber and instructor. However several of them could have been much, much worse. An old instructor adage is ‘it’s the risks you don’t know your taking that are going to kill you’.
WEAR A HELMET -ALWAYS
ABSEIL WITH CAUTION
YOUR LIFE IS WORTH AN EXTRA SLING OR WIRE OR BOTH!
GET A FIRST RUNNER IN
KNOW HOW TO HELP YOURSELF – Get yourself on a self rescue course
KNOW HOW TO HELP OTHERS – Get yourself on a first aid course