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Sport Climbing Safety; Part I of 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 among climbers in general, about this fact and on the other, to look at the specific dangers that sport climbing entails and learn how to prevent and avoid them.

Part one of two. In the second part we'll take a look at subjective dangers and climbing & belaying techniques.

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.

Before and after impact... better to wear it!!

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.

A good, safe harness: Automatic closure, belay loop in another colour.
  • 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.

Quickdraws also make up part of your safety chain, as their mission is to connect the rope to the wall anchors. There are two basic parts to a quickdraw; the sling or dogbone and the carabiners. You should always use a stitched sling.

  • The length of the sling should be medium or long. The reason for using these lengths is that you help prevent the rope from rubbing against the rock, which in turn helps the whole length of rope work more efficiently, reducing impact force and increasing the dynamic capacity in the event of a fall. Short quickdraws are made by a large number of brands and these can be useful for passing difficult sections on the first and second anchors of the route, where you could otherwise touch the ground in the event of a fall.

Use medium of long quickdraws and make sure the lower carabiner has an anti-twist system.
  • The open gate strength of your carabiner is maybe the most critical part as far as safety is concerned, because when working correctly with a closed gate, it is almost impossible for the carabiner to fail under a load. You should therefore choose more robust models with a fairly high open gate strength, of about 9kN or over. Vibration transmitted by the rope during a fall can cause the carabiner to accidentally open and provoke a drastic descent of the carabiner's strength. Carabiners with a wire gate tend to open less with vibration, but it is also possible.

Robust carabiners with an open gate strength of 9kN or more are safer.
  • Lubrication of your carabiner gate should be done periodically. At least once a year, remove the sling, place the carabiners in a line and drip oil over the gates. Then dry well and check each gate individually. You'll notice the difference and they'll perform well for some time.

    In 2002, the Swedish climber, Goran Kroop, who had become well-known for having climbed Mt Everest after cycling there and back, died when climbing in the Vantage area, in Washington. Even though it was a traditional route, the cause of death was a broken carabiner. An investigation established that the wire gate carabiner had opened during the fall.
  • Signs of wear on the inner edge is something that should also be checked regularly. This also goes for permanent slings on the wall and these should be retired before the edge becomes sharp from wear caused by the rope. If a carabiner is excessively worn, the sharp edges can easily cut the rope in the event of a fall, just like a knife. Recently, Black Diamond used their control tower to carry out a test that makes your hair stand on end: they took a very worn carabiner, and a new single rope. Then they provoked a fall with a weight of 80kg and a static belay, but with a very limited impact force. The 10.2mm rope was cut clean during the very first test!

A very worn carabiner. See the sharp edge in the rope contact area.

The string or anti-turn device placed on the lower carabiner of your quickdraw is an essential safety element. Without this, your carabiner can easily rotate into a horizontal position and this reduces its mechanical capacity. These elements are normally made of rubber and the best ones are placed on the outer part of the sling, gripping its end and protecting it from abrasion. It's not advisable to place it on the upper end of the sling as this section would become too rigid and possibly unclip the carabiner from the hanger while moving the rope.

This also forms part of your lifeline, as it connects the rope to the harness and the belayer. Its function is to detain a fall and also allows the belayer to control how fast the rope runs through the device. There are basically two kinds of device; manual and automatic.

  • Manual devices are much lighter and versatile, and you can block the second climber when belaying or use it for abseiling and they are also very good for multi-pitch routes. However, these kinds of devices don't lock automatically, and only the direct intervention of the belayer can guarantee it blocks in the event of a fall. They are often publicised as dynamic breaking devices, which sounds great, but I certainly don't agree. The dynamic capacity, in the event of a fall, is only provided by the belayer and although these devices can behave dynamically, the belayer's attitude and instinct can also make it block statically. Therefore, if the device can block statically, when sport climbing I would certainly prefer to belay and be belayed with a self-locking device.
  • Automatic belay devices block the rope quickly in the event of a fall, even if the belayer isn't paying attention, which is without doubt and added bonus. They are also ideal for belaying top rope and for lowering your partner, thanks to their automatic locking capacity when the rope tightens. They should, however, be used with a rope that has the right diameter for the device and you need to pay special attention when the rope is new, as it tends to run through the device much more quickly. It is certain that many accidents have occurred due to these devices not detaining in the event of a fall, but as far as I know, it has always been due to the incorrect use of the device. Either the belayer has kept his hand tight on the braking lever or has used a narrower rope with the device and was therefore unable to retain the climber. To prevent these typical accidents it's important to get into the habit of always keeping your lower hand on the rope and off the device. I should mention however, that Edelrid now make an automatic belay device that has been designed to minimize this risk, as the braking cam is constantly placed in a rigid box, impeding it from being pressed by mistake.

A manual belay device with screwlock carabiner (left) and 2 auto-blocking devices.

The carabiner you use to connect your belay device to your harness should have a locking mechanism – preferably an automatic one. An automatic locking carabiner will always close correctly, which gives you something less to worry about. This connection should always be clipped to your belay loop, and shouldn't trap the leg loop buckles or waist of the harness. This incorrect way of placing a carabiner tends to cause triaxial loading, which means its strength is reduced considerably. When climbing, the carabiner could turn into a horizontal position on your belay loop, which is dangerous as this position greatly reduces the strength of the carabiner. It is important to pay attention and correct this situation by checking it regularly. Some carabiners have been specifically designed for belaying and include very effective preventions systems.

Unless you're belaying on Tonsai beach, Thailand, then you can forget about wearing flip-flops or open sandals. Always make sure you wear at least half-closed shoes for belaying. Sandals that are totally open are comfortable and cool in summer, but won't protect your feet when you're thrown off balance by your partner during a fall.

Belaying with flip-flops – not a good idea

Its a good idea to wear gloves. Old ones with cut off fingers or cheap gloves with a rubber palm, sold in most hardware stores, will give much better grip and control of the rope than bare hands. Gloves make it much more pleasant and safer to detain a fall, lower your partner from the belay point or recover the top rope, especially if the rope has a narrow diameter. If you belay with a manual device, using gloves will definitely give extra safety.

We can establish two main kinds of danger when climbing. Objective and subjective. All dangers belong to one of these two groups, although it should be said that the limit between the two is not always clear, as we'll see in some examples.

Objective dangers are those that don't depend directly on the climber, and which you can't do much to avoid, although experience can help and is therefore important.

Subjective dangers are those that depend directly on the climber and can therefore be controlled with the right attitude and by doing things correctly.

Dangerous situations that don't depend directly on the climber are the least frequent, and I would even say consist of just 10 to 20% of all sport climbing dangers. In general, these kinds of situations are more frequent in trad. climbing and even more so in ice and snow, but even so, sport climbing dangers never reach as low as 0%. We should always remember that prevention is the key for controlling these dangers. But remember that this prevention, however thorough, never means your safety is guaranteed.

We will now look into these situations in more detail along with their possible consequences and how to prevent them.

This situation can be caused by the weather, animals or people. People can be considered as a subjective danger, depending on the situation. The wind can cause small rock falls on a slope above a wall, which can then set off larger rocks falling to the foot of the climb. A windy day after several days of rain can be particularly problematic.

  • The morphology of the terrain that dominates the wall, can, without doubt, result in rock fall. Sport climbing sectors that have scree slopes or gulleys above them are more problematical. Some years ago, on a windy autumn day out with the family in Sinsat, a sport climbing area in the French Pyrenees, some rocks the size of apples fell to the base of the climbing wall twice. We didn't hang around to see a third.
  • Animals can also set off falling rocks. In 2007, we heard of an unfortunate death of a girl in the climbing sector of Cova de l'Arcada, south Montserrat. She had been hit by a rock at the base of the climbing wall and it had almost certainly been set off by wild goats on the slope above the wall.
  • Your own climbing partner or other climbers can also accidentally cause rock fall while you're at the foot of the wall. This very common situation can be caused by holds breaking under pressure during a climb or the rope rubbing against unstable rocks and setting them loose.

    This is especially common on new routes, but can also our on unstable rock walls that are never totally clean however many climbers use it. At the end of 2011, a climber died in the sport climbing area of Fatanga, in Gran Canaria, due to large rocks falling from the actual route he was climbing. The rock cut right through the rope.
  • The climber can also accidentally pull out unstable holds and suffer a consequent unexpected fall. Sometimes the holds show clear signs of being loose, but not always. More than once I've fallen off, out of control, when the hold broke, even though it was covered in chalk and looked solid.
    We should take the following preventative measures:

    • Wear a helmet, when climbing as well as at the foot of the wall. In spite of this prevention, safety is never 100%, but it certainly helps. Always stand away from the vertical line of the climber when belaying as this is the natural fall line of a rock.
    • Pay attention to perceiving danger at any moment and place: observe the quality of the rock, carefully put your weight on a hold and if you think it is suspicious, observe the morphology of the terrain dominating the sector and avoid routes under a gulley or scree slope. Don't underestimate the force of wind and consider if wild animals could pass above the route. You should also pay attention to neighbouring climbers. So it's necessary to be critical with all these factors and react accordingly to the first symptoms that appear and that could lead to falling rocks.
    • Communicationwith your climbing partner can be fundamental as preventative action when you suspect rock fall.
    • Spottingyour partner consists of covering your partner's back with raised arms during the first few moves on the route, before he reaches the first anchor, as a preventative action in case a hold breaks.

This is another factor that we can do little about and that can be really dangerous

The anchors on some routes can also be problematical, either because they are too far apart or because of the anchor's position in relation to the hold, which makes clipping precarious. Some areas are known for the excessive distance between their anchors.

Placing the first anchor extremely high up is an absurd tendency, but this happens in certain sectors, although the contrary would be more logical.

The position of the anchor on the rock can be dangerous if, as is often the case, it is placed over an edge, making the carabiner work like a lever.

The wrong kind of anchors found on some routes are also a danger. Old anchors, home-made ones, the incorrect kind for the sort of rock or ones with mixed metals are a few examples.

Hand drilled bolts were used massively in the 80's and they still exist on many routes. Over time, they are much less reliable than modern anchors. You can recognize them because they don't have a screwed-on nut, but have a flat hexagonal head.

On sandstone or very soft limestone or on all kinds of rock in marine environments, the only anchor that is safe reliable is a glue-in bolt.

A hand-drilled bolt on soft rock is not reliable
We should take the following preventative measures:
  • Your observation of each individual situation, and consequential action is again, essential
  • Abandon climbing a route if it shows evident signs of danger. This decision is usually made after an initial visual inspection from the ground, but it can also happen half way up the route. Your common sense will tell you if the distance between the anchors is excessive and if the line of fall would be long or involve small ledges or lumps. In this case you should have no doubts about leaving a carabiner behind on the anchor so that you can abandon the route.
  • Carry an extendible stick with sticky tape on the end for attaching a quickdraw or any other commercialized contraption. This system allows you to clip onto the next anchor from the one before, progressing bit by bit in top rope. Some climbers say that using this system is cowardly. Let them say what they like and decide for yourself if you value your ankles. You can also easily improvise by using a long dry stick, some sticky tape and a quickdraw.
  • Lengthen your quickdraws conveniently, once you've equipped the route, if you think they are too far apart or if clipping is precarious and you want to try again. This should always be done by linking the sling to the carabiner and never by linking two carabiners together.

The right way to lengthen a quickdraw.

Stick clipping an out of reach bolt.

This is another factor that can be dangerous and doesn't depend on the climber. We've already mentioned that you should abandon a sport climbing route with obsolete, home-made or inadequate bolts. Apart from this, the condition of the bolts can be dangerous if they're badly placed, if they're too old, or have become worn from multiple falls. Nowadays we can consider that there are two main groups of anchors; mechanical expansion anchors and bolts glued in with epoxy resin. The latter are presumed to be stronger and more reliable, but they are not infallible.

Placing a bolt incorrectly is obvious when the threaded part sticks out too far, which means the bolt hasn't expanded properly or that it has expanded superficially. On the contrary, if you find a loose bolt you can just tighten it with your hand and the bolt will remain safe if it has expanded correctly.
More than once I have pulled out a bolt with my hand because it hadn't expanded correctly. In September 2010, at the Amphiteatre de Gorges du Tarn crag sector, a French climber fell directly to the ground and suffered numerous fractures when the first bolt he was hanging from on a new route came out. The bolt hadn't expanded correctly.

The threaded part of this bolt sticks out too far and indicates that it hasn't been placed correctly

The age of a bolt is directly related to its corrosion. When outer symptoms are visible, it is probably corrodedon the inside and the anchor could therefore break under a load. Anchors tend to age more quickly if placed where water flows down the rock or in particularly humid places, such as overhangs. Anchors placed in marine environments corrode very quickly and only stainless steel ones should be used.

Deterioration is obvious in some anchors after multiple falls. In this case it is the hanger that suffers the most. This is obvious at the crux of a hard route. The good thing is that before breaking, you'll see warning signs on the hanger of visible deformation.

The installation of the belay point is another especially critical point, which requires particular attention. Most belays are equipped with a lowering carabiner. This carabiner should close correctly and not show excessive signs of wear where the angle of the rope runs on the carabiner surface. We should also pay attention to the condition of the anchors that make up the belay point. Even though two carabiners give a huge safety margin, it isn't total.

A very worn carabiner. The groove edges are dangerous and could cut through the rope.
We should take the following preventative measures:

  • Careful observation and care and don't blindly believe in the solidity of everything that shines on a wall.
  • Abandon a route if you come across a suspicious anchor, either by climbing back down to the anchor below and lowering yourself down from there or, if climbing down is a real problem, use the stick-clip to go on up. When you reach the belay, if it's in good condition, you can always take comfort and use it for top rope.
  • Leave a carabiner on the belay if the the one there isn't reliable. This is very common practice and belay points often get covered in carabiners, so it's good practice to remove the ones that look really worn.
  • Change a bolt if it shows clear signs of deformation. This is a good habit and it doesn't take much to carry a spare hanger and spanner in your pack, just in case.

In most sport climbing sectors there are routes with a fixed quickdraw. The reason for this is that the quickdraw facilitates placing and removing material on the route but it is not for protecting the climber from a fall. These quickdraws usually spend months or years hanging in the same place and in all kinds of weather.

The deterioration of a fixed quickdraw considerably reduces its strength. Some months ago, a fixed quickdraw failed when a Basque was climbing in a cave in Baltzola. The quickdraw just snapped under his own weight. Luckily his fall was broken by the lower anchor, but it gave him a broken elbow and it was unexpected and violent. In some areas in the U.S, they use a chain instead of a quickdraw. This is an almost perfect solution, but is much uglier to look at.

The deterioration of the carabiners on these permanent quickdraw can also be dangerous. Exposure to all kinds of weather often stops them from closing properly, reducing their strength drastically. If, they are placed to offer protection at the crux, repetitive falls can cause excessive wear on the carabiner. This wear means that where the rope is in contact with the carabiner a groove is gradually worn, resulting in sharp edges that are a real danger and can cut the rope clean. Two years ago in Red River Gorge, a climbing area full of fixed quickdraws, a climber fell from the second bolt to a permanent quickdraw. The carabiner had worn edges which totally cut through the rope and the climber fell to the ground, luckily without serious injuries. Last September the same thing happened at a Swiss climbing area with more unfortunate results. A very worn carabiner on a permanent quickdraw cut the rope on a fairly gentle fall. The climber fell to his death.

The preventative action that can be taken in this case is very clear: don't ever rely on these quickdraws. Place your own quickdraws as you climb and if you use the existing quickdraws to set up or remove material, be very careful.

This factor, when not caused by inadequate use, is not very common but not impossible. We are not talking about situations where the climber uses the material incorrectly, but of cases where, under correct use, the material doesn't function as it should due to a manufacturing error. Although the certified climbing material on the market has passed rigorous safety tests and quality controls, it is inevitable that a small percentage of the material has faults which are not detected and end up in a store. For example, I once bought a brand new rope and as I unrolled it from its package, found that over half a meter of the sheath had separated from the core. I have also come across a new carabiner with a small crack.

The only preventative action we can take in these cases is to check new items very carefully. A visual inspection is important to detect possible defects, although this attention is obviously insufficient in the case of more hidden or less evident faults. The good news however, is that these cases are very infrequent.

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