Safety Alert: Avoiding common, preventable climbing accidents

Wednesday 1 March 2017, 7:19am -- Anonymous (not verified)

abseil with rope coils - Copy.JPG

Daniel Joll abseiling with coiled ropes to prevent the knotted ends from being stuck on a windy abseil

Karl Merry Schimanksi

We are propagating accidents, injuries and deaths. In almost all commercial industries, when multiple near misses or similar accidents occur, they are analysed and methods are instigated to eliminate the causal factors. Even rats in a maze learn not to make the same mistakes multiple times. But it seems the climbing community hasn’t yet learned. All too often I hear of people either dying, being seriously injured, or narrowly avoiding catastrophe due to the same preventable errors. The problem is, we are not only repeating mistakes, but also continuing to teach the same factors that lead to accidents from those errors. The two major preventable accidents I’m speaking of are being dropped or falling due to miscommunication, and abseiling off the ends of the ropes.


Clear communication in any partnership is vital, especially in climbing. Most commonly, accidents due to miscommunication occur when a lead climber is at the top of a single-pitch climb at a crag. However, they are not limited to cragging. These situations rear their ugly heads in multi-pitch scenarios too, where poor communication techniques too often cause unnecessary consternation and confusion. A few simple changes in communication techniques between a climber and their belayer can solve many issues.


While shouting from a distance, with wind or background noise, the word ‘take’ sounds very similar to ‘safe’. I have heard many people switch to using the call ‘secure’. That’s a great start in evading the confusion between ‘safe’ and ‘take’. However, even then, used stand-alone, what do the terms ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ mean for a belayer? Simply calling ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ does not provide clear instructions. The terms are ambiguous and can lead a belayer to do different things depending on their experience, and assumptions about what the leader is doing. A common scenario is when a leader tops out a climb, calls “safe” and the belayer thinks their leader will abseil, so takes them off belay. Some leaders may want this, others may want to remain on belay and be lowered after threading an anchor. Calling ‘safe’ or ‘secure’ is fine 99 per cent of the time, if you are climbing with a partner with whom you have an established routine. However, all it takes is a change in belayer, noisy conditions or an unexpected situation to arise, requiring a change in protocol, before confusion and accidents occur.


Eradicate the term ‘safe’ from your climbing terminology. It is best that the term ‘safe’ is simply not used. Only use terms that provide clear instructions to a belayer. For example, ‘take’, and ‘give me rope’ are appropriate terms to use while climbing. At an anchor, a leader should use ‘off belay’, but only if they are safely connected to an anchor, and want their belayer to take them off belay (in order to bring up a second, or abseil). If a leader wishes to be lowered off, they should say nothing when they arrive at an anchor. Only when the leader has threaded their rope, and is ready to be lowered, should they call ‘take up’, and then ‘lower’. Using this system, a belayer always receives specific, clear instructions from the leader to take them off belay, keep them on belay, give rope or take in. As a belayer, you should never take a leader off belay until you’re 100 per cent certain you have been instructed to do so. If in doubt, always keep your leader on belay.

As an extra security measure, when preparing to lower, a leader should never unclip from an anchor until they have weighted the belayer’s rope. However if communication is strained and the belayer cannot clearly hear the leader to “take up”, (for those with more experience & strength) it is an easy safety measure for the leader to take their own weight and lower themselves hand over hand until they can see their belayer and are certain their belayer has them on belay. I have personally witnessed a situation where this simple technique has saved a friend from certain death. When multi-pitching, and the leader is out of earshot at an anchor, a poor communication method I learned, experimented with, and still see occasionally, is the ‘three tugs of the rope’ (or similar) system. If you haven’t already discovered the failures of this system then I can assure you, you will. When a leader has set an anchor and is ready to belay, a much better system is for the leader to take in all the remaining rope until it pulls tight to their partner, then drop two metres of rope, put their partner on belay and pull the rope up again until tight. When the belayer below feels the rope come tight to them for the second time, they can take the leader off belay, wait a minute and begin climbing, knowing that the leader will have them on belay. This system should still be used in conjunction with clear instruction words in case either person can still hear the other.

When learning to climb I informally learnt to say ‘safe’. It was only through experiencing confusion, narrow escapes, and hearing about and witnessing accidents that I learnt to change this. Many other experienced climbers I know, who have also analysed their communication problems, simply don’t use the term ‘safe’ anymore. However, it may take them many years before realising this and making the change. Also, making the change individually is simply not enough. We need to make the change as a community. We need to question the status quo. Simple changes in the way we communicate can save lives, including yours and others who are knowingly or unknowingly observing and learning from you at the crag. I advocate for the term ‘safe’ to be discontinued in climbing communication.


The second major, easily preventable accident I hear about often is abseiling off the ends of the ropes.


Not tying knots in the ends of your ropes when abseiling. This accident occurs most often to those with a fair amount of experience. It usually happens to climbers who have become complacent, or to those who have reasoned that tying knots in the ends of their ropes is dangerous as the ropes might get blown and caught (in a crack or similar), which could potentially leave them stranded. This danger is very real, and I have heard of people stuck in predicaments due to rope entanglement. But there is a simple solution.


Tie knots in the ends of the ropes! It is that simple. As for the rope entanglement problem, if the wind is likely to blow your ropes and you’re worried they could get stuck, then abseil with the ropes. Coil them into a few separate bundles and secure the bundles to your harness. You can then progressively drop sections at a time as you abseil to prevent entanglement. The small amount of time required to do this is worth it when you consider the potential for wasted time spent freeing stuck ropes.


 Climbing is inherently a risky activity. If there were no risks involved, to many people, climbing would lose some of its appeal. However, the risks can be minimised by using good safety techniques. Let’s minimise the unwanted dangers in our climbing experiences. Let’s work on changing our communication and spreading the message throughout our climbing community. Start with yourself at the crag and at the gym. Smarten up. Spread the word and lets stop killing or injuring each other.

by Karl Merry Schimanski