This article about preventing climbing accidents is part of the e-book - The Trad Climber's Guide To Problem Solving.
The First Bad Decision
The vast majority of climbing accidents are preventable. They typically happen due to a series of bad choices. One bad decision leads onto another, and another. When combined, these decisions can result in disaster.
In the summer of 2010, I decided to aid solo El Capitan – a 3,000 foot vertical granite desert. I used a method of self-belaying which I’d practised before, but I didn’t have time to become competent at it before the climb (first bad decision).
In Yosemite, the temperature was a blistering 100°F and forecast to stay that way for the duration of my climb. My chosen route was in direct sunlight all day, but I decided to climb it anyway (second bad decision).
Despite knowing how much water I should bring, I decided to save weight and bring less (third bad decision), thinking that I would somehow just be able to climb faster.
I eventually ran out of water, of course, still with a full day of climbing above. Because of my previous three bad decisions, I was exhausted, dehydrated and not thinking clearly. I also hadn’t practised any retreat strategies, such as descending a traverse with a haulbag (fourth bad decision), so I chose to continue up as fast as I could.
I had to cut corners on safety to reach water before I completely dried up in the baking sun. I placed minimal gear and took massive risks.
And that’s when it all went wrong.
My haulbag was stuck, 30 meters below. I had to abseil down to dislodge it.
I chose to descend on the other side of the haul rope.
I didn’t back myself up with the lead rope (fifth bad decision).
I reached the almost-empty haulbag with just enough rope and pulled it from the crack.
I realized my error the moment it slid away from my fingertips.
The fall started slow. I tried to keep pace by running down the rock but I immediately tripped over my aiders and forward-rolled down the wall in a tangle of slings, screams and fear.
The haulbag picked up speed quickly and was soon rocketing up towards the belay, while I tumbled out of control. It felt like I was falling forever.
Luck was on my side. Instead of hitting ledges and spiky blocks, I fell in between them. I survived the 30 meter fall with just a few scrapes and a bruised ego.
I continued up, teetering on the brink of a peculiar kind of madness. My mouth was so dry it felt like I was constantly inhaling boiling sand.
I entered into a new and unfamiliar state of delirium that only occurs when you’ve spent four days alone learning how to solo a big-wall the hard way.
A few pitches higher, I found an ancient gallon of water on a small ledge. I sat there and drank the whole thing. Life became good again and I made it to the summit.
It’s a good skill to be able to catch yourself making that first bad decision. Think about how this decision narrows your choices further on in the climb and the problems it may create.
If you can master that, you are well on your way to having a safe climbing career.
Climbing Accidents - Risk
Risks are part of the climbing game. Falling is an obvious risk, but others are more subtle.
For example, if you don’t know how to escape the belay with your chosen setup, you risk being unable to help your partner in an emergency.
The more problems you can solve, the more ‘risks’ you can take.
This doesn’t mean you can climb more dangerous routes. It means you can climb bigger routes in more remote places while being competent enough to solve any problems that you may encounter.
Before making a decision, ask yourself this: If you take the risk and it doesn’t go in your favour, can you solve the problem that it creates?
Climbing Accidents - Exhaustion
Climbers often make decisions differently when tired, hungry, cold or in a rush for whatever reason.
Shortcuts are made. Safety is compromised. Accidents become more likely to happen.
In some situations (such as finishing that final pitch when a huge storm is just starting), it can be safer to cut corners and speed things up. However, in most situations the safer option takes longer.
It is important to understand why you are making a potentially dangerous decision. Have you ever abseiled off a poor anchor because you were cold or tired and wanted to get down faster?
Having the ability to make good decisions when exhausted is a great skill to have.
Climbing Accidents - Confidence Vs Competence
Most accidents involving leader falls happen because the leader did not protect the route as well as they could.
Protection was available, but the leader either placed gear poorly or chose not to place any when they had the option.
There are three types of climber who do not protect routes well:
- Beginners (because they haven’t yet learnt how to place gear properly)
- Competent climbers on easy routes (because the chance of falling is near zero)
- Over confident climbers (because they are trying to appear competent to their belayer or impress whoever is watching)
Climbers often mistake confidence for competence, or to put it more simply – how good you think you are with how good you actually are.
Being overconfident is fine in a safe environment, such as the indoor gym. Confidence will cause you to try hard moves and improve your physical technique.
However, it will not cause good gear placements to appear when you need them, or that loose flake to hold your weight when you stand on it.
Being humble about your ability and immortality will help you make better decisions and prevent problems in the first place.
It is often seen as more heroic to climb a route in a more dangerous style, with the ultimate heroes being those who can free-solo everything.
The climbing media only reinforces this message. Photos of helmet-less climbers and videos of Alex Honnold free-soloing El Cap may be impressive to watch, but it encourages everyday climbers to adopt poor safety standards.
It’s important to understand why you are choosing a particular style of ascent. Are you doing something dangerous because you are competent?
Or are you just trying to be a hero?
How To Practise
To get the most out of this website, you should:
1) Read the theories carefully
2) Practise the techniques safely
3) Review your knowledge
Climbing gyms or short single pitch crags are great venues for practising techniques. Practise with a partner and use the added safety of a top rope in case it all goes wrong. Challenge yourself to improvise different solutions for each problem.
The more times you solve similar problems with similar variables, the easier they are to solve again. Over time, these common problems will be solved subconsciously.
When you combine the theories in the VDiff e-books with real-life practise, your decisions will, hopefully, start to get better and become more subconscious. That is the aim of VDiff.
See you out there,