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 from running through the device if the route is excessively long for the length of the rope. This kind of accident, which is easily avoidable by getting into this habit, has occurred time and time again and is perhaps the most common climbing accident. I've actually seen it happen three times, luckily with relatively slight consequences. Doing this, however, also means you have to adopt the parallel habit of untying the end rope knot before you remove the rope, as I have naively found out more than once.

Tying a knot to the end of the rope or to your rope tarp is a good habit.

Have you ever wondered what use the rope has before the lead climber reaches the first anchor? The answer is nothing. There are many ways the lead climber can fall before clipping onto the first anchor: a broken hold, a slipping foot, a technical error, running out of strength during a move...

  • The habit of spotting your partner is essential as your partner climbs the first few metres and before he has clipped to any anchors. This is simply the protective technique used for bouldering and consists of raising and slightly bending your arms behind your partner to be able to cushion a possible fall and most importantly to prevent him from falling onto his back. If you use this simple technique you should also take measures so that the lead climber doesn't hurt you as he falls.

Photo on the left - Spotting your partner before clipping the first anchor / Photo on the right - Stick-clipping an out of reach bolt
  • Using a stick or rod spotting your partner with the rope clipped to the quickdraw on the end and then clipping it to the first anchor is another strategy that can be used. Make sure you always carry some adhesive tape, so that you can make your own contraption with a stick, if need be.
  • Unclip the rope spotting your partner from the second and third quickdraws when you lower yourself, in case someone wants to re-try the route. This way, when you pull the rope, it will automatically stay clipped to the first quickdraw.

Apart from following situations, the belayer's constant attention is obviously a good safety habit as well as good communication between the belayer and climber. Here are some of the situations that can magnify the consequences of a fall, and should therefore be avoided:

  • The belay device is in the wrong position. This occurrs frequently, so unless you're using a special carabiner that prevents this from happening, you should pay attention and correct it immediately.

When climbing, the carabiner can turn round and work less efficiently
  • Desperate clipping. Rotpunkt climbing a difficult route is great, but if it means risking a fall because the anchor is out of reach and involves a dubious landing, it's not worth it. In other words, if you feel you're pushing the limit too far, you shouldn't be afraid of grabbing the quickdraw, especially if you think the fall could be nasty.
  • Another dangerous situation is if your climbing rope is behind your leg. If you fall at this point, the rope tenses and pushes your torso backwards so that you fall upside down, with the evident risk this involves. Preventing this situation means paying a great deal of attention. It's important that both the climber and the belayer observe this problem and in fact, it is often the belayer who observes the error before the climber. Wearing a helmet can, of course, help save you if this situation produces a fall. I remember that this exact situation caused the death of a climber from Mallorca, on a sport climbing route at Sa Gubia, some 20 years ago.

Photo on the left - The rope is behind the climber's leg: a very dangerous situation in the event of a fall. / Photo on the right - The quickdraw could unclip itself from the hanger due to the movement of the rope; difficult but not impossible
  • Back clipping the rope. If you pass the rope through your quickdraw from the front, rather than from the back, your rope could unclip itself from the carabiner in the event of a fall.
  • Inward or outward facing gate of the lower carabiner. If you climb sideways from the carabiner, always make sure the gate is facing the opposite way you are climbing. The rope could otherwise come unclipped in the event of fall if you don't bear this in mind.
  • Clipping the upper carabiner to the bolt the wrong way round. The gate should always face towards the hanger nut. Otherwise the carabiner could come unclipped when the movement of the rope pushes it upwards. Many years ago, during a world competition, a quickdraw unclipped itself from the hanger, just like that. As the competition had been video-recorded, they were able to check and see that what had happened was just as we have mentioned. As a result of this incident, in climbing competitions all the karabiners connected to the hangers were substituted for screw-links. This rubber 'keeper' that is so useful for the lower carabiner, can be dangerous if used on the upper carabiner, as it makes the whole quickdraw too rigid. So it's important that it is only placed on the lower carabiner.
  • Allowing the rope to run over rough and sharp surfaces or projecting holds can be a risk that is avoidable by paying attention. Sometimes all you need to do is simply move the rope with your hand.

Good belaying is essential when it comes to preventing most sport climbing accidents. The key to good belaying is to give a soft enough catch. The same fall, caught dynamically or statically can result in radically different consequences. A static catch means the belayer locks down the rope fast and hard, resulting in greater impact force that slams the climber violently into the wall. This situation has caused a great many accidents, especially to the lower limbs. There are uncountable examples. A well-known Catalan climber who was slammed into the wall after a short fall on Totxo de Macana, Montserrat, sprained ligaments in both his ankles, due to a catch that was too static.

The belayer should catch a fall dynamically. This means that in the event of a fall, the belayer needs to accompany the movement of the fall with his own body, letting the rope pull him upwards and giving a jump if necessary. The impact force generated on the harness and anchor is lower and over all, the force is low enough so as not to throwclimber is not thrown against the wall. So the key for dynamic belaying is to synchronise the moment the climber reaches the lowest point during a fall with the moment you begin to move your body upwards and accompany the movement. This is another reason why you should choose your belayer carefully.

However, on the first two or three anchors, it is important not to catch the climber too dynamically as this could mean reaching the ground. So you need to moderate how softly to catch the climber and place yourself nearer to the vertical line of the first anchor.

Some other factors that intervene in the dynamism of a fall:
  • The elasticity of the rope. We have already mentioned this in the section about material. Ropes with a lower impact force are more stretchy and therefore offer a softer fall. But they tend to lose their elasticity over time, so the newer the rope the better it performs.
  • The length of the rope. The further up a route, the softer the fall. The reason for this is that there is more length of rope for a more dynamic catch.
  • Rope drag. Using long draws and preventing the rope from passing over pronounced angles will achieve less drag, and ensure the rope works as a whole in the event of a fall. This effect, however, is clearer on longer routes and not so important on falls relatively close to the ground.

A route with short quickdraws. There will be more rope drag and the fall will be more static
  • A difference in weight between the climber and the belayer. If the climber is slightly heavier than the belayer, this makes for a softer fall as the belayer will naturally be lifted slightly in the event of a fall. If the climber is lighter than the belayer, it is important that the belayer gives enough dynamism to the fall. However, too much difference in weight can be dangerous on the first quickdraws, as the counterewight of the heavier climber could cause him to fall to the ground and the belayer could be flung upwards and injured against the wall.
    Apart from softening a fall, the belayer should adopt the habit of always keeping his lower hand on the rope. It is easy to get used to doing this and it will prevent you from accidently releasing the braking mechanism on your belay device in the event of a fall.

Abandoning a climb is relatively simple. Simply clip a carabiner or screw-link to the anchor you've reached and ask your partner to lower you while you clean the quickdraws below. The carabiner you've left behind should be placed between the rock and the quickdraw you are hanging from. As you're lowered from just one point, it would mean a nasty accident if this anchor were to fail. There are various ways of preventing this: sacrifice a second carabiner by leaving it on the anchor below, carefully climb your way back down to the ground or descend on an easier route nearby so that you can clean the material from the wall.

Once you reach the belay point, the way to proceed will depend on whether your partner wants to climb top rope, lead a climb or doesn't want to climb, in which case you'd need to clean the protection from the route.

  • Redundant safety anchors are fundamental in all three cases: that means never relying on one single thing. Whether setting up top rope or tying onto the belay point so that you can run the rope through the belay ring or carabiner. When setting up the belay point, it is essential to place two quickdraws and make sure that the gates are opposed before clipping them to the rope. The quickdraws should be clipped directly to the belay point hangers. Make sure you choose convenient lengths and that the carabiners clipped to the rope are at the same height and touching, so that the whole unit works properly. If the carabiners are slightly separate and at a similar height you'll cause the rope to twist, which can be very irritating and can even make it impossible to carry on climbing. You can prevent this situation by using a sling with 2 locking carabiners at a higher position, to take the weight of the rope at that point, and add a normal sling at a lower point. In this way you can prevent it from twisting and maintain the level of safety.
  • Never install a top rope directly on the belay carabiner: this bad habit causes excessive and accelerated wear on the carabiner.
  • When cleaning the route once you reach the belay, you should proceed as follows:
    • 1. Anchor from two points.
    • 2. Coil about 2m of rope and tie a simple loop knot to your harness, so you don't lose it.
    • 3. Untie
    • 4. Put the rope through the belay ring or carabiner
    • 5. Ask your partner to take up the slack and get ready to descend
  • At this moment, communication between the climber and belayer is essential to avoid an accident. Establishing a set of simple climbing signals can help make communication more fluid and safe. Needless to say, remember to ask your climbing partner what he wants to do, once you reach the top, so that you can act accordingly at the belay point.

Lowering should be as smooth and constant as the irregularities of the wall permits. Special attention should be paid to ledges, where too much speed or braking suddenly can cause an injury. Again, good communication is important.
Reaching the ground is the most delicate part of lowering:
  • It's extremely important to check your rope is long enough. Tying a knot in the end or tying it to your rope tarp will prevent an accident if the rope is too short, so this is also a good habit.
  • Reaching the ground is very critical, so lowering at this point should be especially smooth and controlled. Branches or rocks are an obvious danger can easily be avoided if lowered slowly. Communication is also particularly important at this stage.
  • When lowering a climber from an overhang, when the climber removes the last quickdraw, this can cause a violent pendulum effect that could slam him against objects such as trees or high rocks. To prevent this problem, leave the quickdraw and pass your rope through it. This means you'll have to climb and remove it once you reach the ground, with your partner spotting you from behind.

The first few metres of the climb are critical. If the climber falls, he could easily reach the ground if the belayer isn't paying attention or if there's too much slack on the rope. The longer the route, the more the rope will stretch in the event of a fall and the more dangerous it will be. Therefore, when belaying the first few meters and especially if it's a difficult and long route, the rope should be kept tight, even if the climber doesn't like it.

  • First, make sure you untie the safety knot
  • Warn anyone nearby and give them time to get out of the way. If someone's climbing on the next route, wait until he finishes. Then pull the rope and get out of the vertical fall line. Apart from the whiplash effect of the rope, you could also be struck by falling rocks caused by the rope drag. Pay attention to neighbouring climbers removing their ropes, as they don't always give warning.

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