A couple of years ago, I sold my business in NZ and more or less became a full time climbing bum. This coincided with becoming a father, and the two combined led me to examine some of my climbing choices and the statistical risks associated with them. I was keen to make sure that I had good habits in place to avoid those once in a lifetime accidents that over a long climbing career might happen.
I wasn’t interested in doing less mountaineering or rock climbing. That would be the most simple way to reduce my risk. I wanted to do much more. However, I recognised that by doubling the number of days per year I spent climbing and in the mountains, in general my risk profile was going to be much higher. So I thought about the basic things within my control that I could change to improve my odds in the long run. I have been mountaineering for 20 years and if I hope to continue for another 20, managing risk will be one of the key factors.
Here are 6 basic safety tips that I have worked into my routine over the years to help me manage some of the risks associated with climbing. Any climber who thinks climbing is a safe sport is probably someone to stay away from. There are plenty of risks involved even in the most basic aspects of the sport such as gym climbing and sport climbing. Anyone who wishes to climb over a long period of time should learn to identify what they are and how to minimise them where possible.
1. Wear a helmet
These days I'm trying to make this a rule every day I go out sport climbing. It's hard to explain to my four year old why he has to wear one, so figured I better show some kind of example.
That aside, the real reason is from a long term risk management point of view. I would guess that once every two years or so I take an unexpected fall, i.e a hold breaks off. Of those maybe one in five falls is a real screamer where you fall badly and have a chance of hitting your head. That equates to once every ten years or so based on my non-scientific 20 years of climbing experience so far. As I write this today I actually broke a hold sport climbing and took a pretty big fall. Luckily it was overhanging and all was well. I have strong memories of one of my earliest climbing friends in a similar situation flipping over hitting his head dying on a very easy climb. He was a strong rock climber, climbing above 8a (29-30 Ewbank) and died on a pitch of 5a (grade 15). A helmet would have saved his life.
2. Check your knot
While I see nothing wrong with having your partner check your knot, as a mountaineer I figure that if I can’t be trusted to get that most basic job right I have no business in the mountains. The key is building your own set of safety checks to ensure your knot is correctly tied into the right place on your harness.
This sounds simple but its surprising how many experienced & professional climbers have made this mistake. Lynn Hill is one of the more famous examples. Luckily for her, she hit the ground and lived to tell the tale. Just down the road from us at a local climbing gym a 70 year old climber forgot to tie his knot and fell from the top to his death. He had been climbing his whole life. This is the statistical risk that I try to avoid by having a system for each of these basic climbing steps.
Firstly I changed my bowline knot back to a figure eight. The reason was it was slower to tie and gave me a bit more time to think about what I was doing. I also have a plan of double checks. This process I do exactly the same every time I tie in. Firstly I try not to talk to anyone while im tying in so I don’t get distracted. I tie in, complete the knot and give it a firm test pull making sure I look that its in the correct position on my harness. After this I put my shoes on. I then have another visual check and a final test pull before starting up the route. The key is establishing your own routine and never deviating from it. That way when you're distracted or tired, the odds of you making a mistake are greatly reduced.
Aside from building your own routine many people also add in a simple question for their climbing partner. “Are you happy with your knot?”
Tying a knot at the end of your rope when being lowered off rock climbs is also essential. I can’t think of how many people I know that have been lowered off the end of their rope while out cragging. I realise in NZ this might not often occur if you're only doing 15m pitches at sunny side in Wanaka...
3. Use good condition ropes and equipment
As a mountaineer, rock climber, big wall climber I know that one day I will take a really big fall. A hold will break, or gear will rip, and I'm going to need my harness and rope to be in good condition to hold the forces involved.
I remember sitting at a bar in Thailand listening to a climber tell the story of falling off a sport route and his rope snapping. He was luckily just at the second draw and the bank below the climb was soft and sloping. He simply went for a good tumble. Imagine dying just because you were too tight to buy a new rope and instead pushed your current rope past it's use-by-date. Earlier that same day he had taken several falls on a multi pitch route. Imagine if his rope had broken on one of those!
For summer multipitch and trad climbing I also swapped to two skinny single ropes (8.5-8.9mm) instead of regular half ropes. Nowadays with single ropes as thin as 8.5mm there is not a lot of reason to use half ropes unless you're really trying save weight on an ice route and wanting a cord thinner than 8mm.
4. Protect the belay
This is a basic courtesy to your climbing partner and yourself. I have no issues with running it out or having someone else run it out once they have placed some protection close to the belay and protected it from a factor two fall. Over a long climbing career I know that one day I might fall off close to my belayer and if I haven’t adequately protected the belay I will risk a factor two fall onto the anchor, which could potentially rip us both off the wall.
Another aspect of this I thought about is trying to manage when I'm run out above ledges. For example, when doing Nose in a Day on El Capitan. There are plenty of easy pitches where its super tempting to move fast on a 5.8 or 5.9 pitch forgetting to look below you and see if there is a ledge that you would hit if you fell off. When I have the choice, I try to do my run outs above a nice clean face where even if I do take that big unexpected whipper I won’t hit anything on the way down.
5. Choose your partner wisely
This tip is a hard one, especially for younger climbers who don’t have a big pool of available partners. I personally only go mountaineering with people I would be happy to spend my last day on earth with. Don’t waste time heading into the mountains with people who are unsafe, not your mates or don’t know what they are doing. When I transitioned to full time climbing, I realised one of the biggest risks I was exposed to in the mountains was my climbing partner. When I was younger I would have tied in with just about anyone just to get out climbing. These days I would rather go and rope solo or go for a hike or ski if I can’t find a safe experienced person to partner with in the mountains. I figured that I was safer climbing alone than exposing myself to someone else’s random behaviour. I also try to avoid accident prone climbers, as history has a habit of repeating itself. It can be a hard rule to apply as climbing is dangerous and we all have accidents.
6. Clip the last draw to the belay side of the rope when cleaning a top rope
This tip is for anyone who is cleaning a route on top rope and also needs to clean the anchor. When you reach the last draw, unclip your end of the rope from the draw, leave it in place and clip the belayers end of the rope through the draw. This will save you from a ground fall if you happen to have a momentary lapse in concentration and mis-thread the anchor before descending. I have heard about multiple accidents from this kind of mistake over the years.
How will you build these six tips to safer climbing into your own climbing routine?