Part one of two. In the second part we'll take a look at subjective dangers and climbing & belaying techniques.
A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY...
Sport climbing, was born in the early 80s and its philosophy was very clear: to reach a higher level of difficulty on rock, by reducing the dangers that climbing involves. Reducing the dangers partly lightens the emotional load on the climber, so that he is able to forget about the fears, focus on performance and reach a higher level through this new experience; this is a totally different approach to trad. climbing.
But the risks can never totally be controlled. There is an inherent level of danger in sport climbing that is, for example, higher, than in boulder climbing, but lower than trad. and alpine climbing. Dangerous situations in sport climbing are certainly numerous and some unfortunately lead to accidents. Most are not serious, but they can be, and can even be fatal. This article aims, on the one hand, to raise awareness among climbers of these dangers and on the other, to analyse these dangers and see how they can be prevented. We'll also take a look at the safety of climbing gear.
Whatever equipment you choose, it should always be UIAA or CE certified and labelled. A visual inspection of your new gear goes without saying, to detect possible (although improbable) manufacturing defects. Over time, you should check the expiry date and look for signs of wear.
This is perhaps the most crucial safety item and is purely for your protection. It protects against falling rocks and possible impact in the event of a fall. The greater the danger of a climb, the more reason to wear it. It is clearly worth getting into the habit of wearing a helmet, be it for climbing or standing at the bottom of the route and it's very important that your helmet offers a good fit and comfort: this will also make you less reluctant to wear it.
There are basically two types: expanded polyethylene helmets are lightweight and safe. In the event of a fall this construction deforms to absorb energy. This is the kind I personally prefer and I've been saved from a nasty head injury more than once. Polycarbonate helmets are made from just one hard layer of this material. They are robust and economical, but they weigh more and don't absorb as much energy upon impact.
This is the basic element of your safety chain and the kind used for sport climbing are dynamic, single ropes, made of polyamide. They are constructed with a durable, braided core, which is protected by an outer sheath. Single ropes are marked '1' on the end label and their diameter varies from 9 to 11mm, depending on the brand or model. As far as safety is concerned, a small diameter doesn't necessarily mean less safe, providing you use an adequate self-locking belay device. On the contrary, a smaller diameter usually means greater elasticity, which in turn, favours safety. Thinner ropes are, however, less durable.
- A rope's impact force gives the most reliable idea of its elasticity. Ropes with a low impact force offer greater elasticity and therefore a softer fall, so for greater safety, you should choose a rope with a lower impact force. The best single ropes on the market in this sense, offer a maximum impact force of around 7.5kN in a standard test.
- The length of a single, dynamic rope varies from between 50 to 80m. Bearing in mind, that one of the most typical accidents is when the climber runs out of rope during a rappel, you should always try to choose a longer length. In many areas, 70m has now become a standard for sport climbing.
- A half-way mark on the rope is a simple and very effective strategy, which inexplicably is still not used by certain manufacturers. This dark mark gives you an instant idea of whether you'll have enough rope to lower your partner to the ground. This mark wears off over time, but it can be replaced with a special pen.
- A new rope is nice and stretchy, but it runs like hell through your belay device. So you need to pay particular attention when using it at the beginning.
- How long a rope lasts is relative. The intensity of use is what really dictates its deterioration and when it should be replaced. The sheath shows clear signs of deterioration as it becomes more and more frayed from abrasion and the diameter is swollen. This is even more apparent about 3m from the end, as this is the typical zone that suffers most in the event of a fall. When this area shows evident signs of wear, it can be cut off and used again for climbing, which is another good reason for purchasing 70 or 80m lengths. When you detect a worn segment at the the end of the rope and can see a bit of the white core, you should either change the rope or cut it off at that point.
- Corrosive acidic agents can also seriously deteriorate the rope so contact should be avoided. In 2006 a mysterious accident occurred, luckily without serious injuries, in an indoor climbing gym in Sacramento, California. A climber was using a rope with a very low fall factor and in a totally normal situation, when he fell and the rope broke. After analysing the situation in detail, and ruling out breakage from mechanical means, an analysis of the fibres in the broken area revealed that it had been in contact with sulphuric acid. It has yet to be discovered how this could have happened.
THE HARNESS Your harness is what connects the rope to your body, distributing energy in the event of a fall. When choosing a harness, comfort and a good fit are key. For reasons of safety, it is important to choose the right size and it should never be too loose. All certified harnesses offer the same level of safety as far as strength is concerned.
- The harness buckle does change, however: if a harness has a classic buckle closure you need to make sure you do it properly. Harnesses with double automatic buckles just need to be adjusted to the right size, which gives you something less to worry about.
- The belay loop is maybe the most critical point of a harness, as this part works the hardest and if it fails, it would certainly lead to a serious accident. Some brands include a double or specially reinforced belay loop in bright colours to avoid confusion.
- Ageing of a harness is mainly caused by the rope passes through the legs and at the belay loop, so these are the parts that need to be checked periodically. A sad well-known fatal accident was the one suffered by Todd Skinner, when his belay loop broke simply by hanging from it during a rappel. His harness was very old.
- The gearloop is not a very resistant part of the harness, but accidents have been known to happen where the climber has treated it as such. Some brands, such as Metolius, make harness which allow you to hang from any point, which can guarantee your life in certain situations.