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Sport Climbing Safety; Part II

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 climbing naturally involves. But risks can never be totally removed and a certain level of danger is always present in sport climbing.
This article intends, on one hand, to raise awareness about this fact among climbers in general, and on the other, to look at the specific dangers that sport climbing entails and see how they can be prevented.
2nd and final part of a guide to sport climbing safety, by Pep Soldevila. Click here to read part 1.

Dangerous situations that depend directly on the climber are maybe the most frequent and I would even say make up around 80 to 90% of dangerous sport climbing scenarios. So although this means it is possible to totally control these situations, it also means we must accept the fact that everyone makes mistakes. And in the life of a dedicated sport climber mistakes therefore become highly probable and can lead to very serious consequences.

All this leads me to conclude that the critical factor for controlling subjective dangers is awareness; our capacity to remain constantly alert, to keep a fixed antenna and observe everything that's going on around and be aware of any dangers that could lead to an accident. This state of permanent alert doesn't mean you have to be stressed or anxious. On the contrary, I think too much stress can lead to miss detecting a possible danger, in the same way as being too laid back can do the same. This attitude, our technical knowledge and common sense together make a fundamental set of tools for climbing correctly. It is also a good idea to adopt a string of good habits, so that if you fail to pay attention at a certain point, a dangerous problem is avoided thanks to the preventative measures previously taken. We will now see which subjective situations are potentially dangerous, how they should be managed to avoid an accident and what good habits, in each case, can be adopted to minimise risk.

Choosing a partner should not be taken lightly. The person belaying clearly has your life in his hands, and we should act accordingly. There's usually a relaxed atmosphere in popular climbing areas and it's not unusual for someone you've never met to offer to belay or ask to be belayed. Some serious accidents have been caused directly by the belayer. Knowing your belayer won't guarantee preventing an accident but it will certainly help you decide whether you want him/her to belay you. Some years ago a climber had an accident in Rodellar, because the belayer decided not to watch as she climbed because he wanted to try it himself later on sight!. Half way up the route, the climber fell and the belayer, who wasn't looking, didn't react in time. The consequence was multiple fractures and over a year on crutches.

Choosing a route which is too hard for your level can also be dangerous, because if you constantly push yourself to the limit you could suffer a fall at any point, even on those sections that require particular care. You'll also feel unsafe in compromising situations such as clipping in and this can be particularly dangerous when clipping to the first anchors. A well-known Catalonian climber had an accident at the Foixarda climbing gym, in Barcelona, when he was trying a route that was way too difficult for his level, after taking a bet with a friend.

The belayer shouldn't stand too far back or too near the wall. About two metres is a good distance, although it should be nearer for the first few anchors and can be further away towards the end of the route. Standing too far from the wall means the belayer could be pulled off balance in the event of a fall, especially on the first few metres. If he stands too near, he won't be able to see the lead climber's progress and may not react in time, in the event of a fall. We'll see what this means and the consequences it can have further on, when we take a look at belaying. As we've already mentioned, it's important that the belayer gets into the habit of not standing under the vertical line of the climber to avoid being hit by rocks. A helmet should also be worn.

Tying in
  • The figure-of-eight knot should always be used for tying in. This is an easy knot and above all, is easy to check visually. It doesn't come loose easily either. When tying this knot, it's important to dress the ropes and avoid them from crossing. This way energy is distributed evenly in the event of a fall and it is easier to untie at the end.

A dressed, double figure-of-eight knot. It is easy to check visually and won't easily come loose.
  • Silence is a good habit you should adopt, while you're tying a knot. There's no doubt that not speaking and not being spoken to means you pay more attention at the crucial moment of tying in.
  • Frequently checking your partner's knot is also a good habit and it doesn't take much to have a quick look at the knot before he/she begins a climb.
    Some climbers tie a “safety knot” with the left over end of the rope. This is totally useless as it comes undone easily. Instead of this, learn to tie the knot using the right length of rope, so that you just have 10 to 15cm left over.
    Many serious & some fatal accidents have occurred from tying this knot incorrectly. And in many cases, concerning highly experienced climbers who have tied the knot uncountable times, so this is obviously due to a lack of attention. Lynn Hill, for example, suffered a fall from the belay point to the ground on a route at Buoux, with serious consequences. Pedro Pons, a high-grade sport climber, suffered a very similar accident and seriously fractured his spine. Kike Ortuño, also well-known but for trad. climbing, died for the same reason at an indoor climbing gym.

Checking each other's knots

  • Your belay device should be attached to the belay loop on your harness. It mustn't be attached by linking the waist and leg loops with a locking carabiner. Many harnesses have a brightly coloured belay loop to avoid confusion.

The WRONG way of clipping the 'biner of your belay device to your harness.

The right way to clip the biner to your harness.
  • It's important that the belay device is the right way round.If you give a tug to the outgoing rope, you can check it locks correctly.
  • Asking your partner to check that the belay device is placed correctly will also make you feel safer and it's a good habit to adopt. This means that the climber checks the correct position of the belay device on the belayer. I must confess that on one ocassion, I stopped my partner on quite a long fall, but noted that I had to use more strength in my right hand than normal. I then realised that I'd put the self-locking device on the wrong way round. Luckily the habit of always keeping my right hand on the rope, prevented an accident.
  • Another good habit consists of tying a simple knot to the end of the rope or even better, to your rope tarp before climbing. When lowering your partner, this will impede the end of the rope

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