5 hot tips for avoiding death while climbing

“If I die here,” said Nick as he tried to free the stuck rope, “you can’t let anyone know it was on a sport climb. You’ll have to throw my body off Mt Wellington or something.”

We laughed and laughed. Death on a sport climb? Oh, what mirth. Good one, old chap!

But the fact is that people do die, or are seriously injured, in the most seemingly benign of terrain or during the simplest of activities. Statistically, most climbing accidents occur for very similar reasons, and most are preventable.

Here are few tips and techniques I’ve adopted over the years and which I recommend to everyone. Most of them are so well-known that they cross over into the realm of common sense, which we all know is the least common of the senses.

  1. Use a prussic as a backup on rappel

Le French Prussic (Source as above)

This particular technique is so uncommon that I’m often left wondering whether folks are even aware that it exists. Sure, there are many times when I’ll choose not to use a backup, but there is a gulf of difference between judgment and ignorance. Anything can happen on rappel, which is statistically the most dangerous activity we undertake at height.

PACI (Professional Association of Climbing Instructors) recommends using a classic prussic for best friction. In many cases, I find this to be too much friction and opt for a French Prussic (or autoblock) instead. I find that it can be easily modified to increase or decrease friction, depending on your needs at the time. It also doesn’t get stuck as easily and is movable under load.

Classic, French, or nothing at all… It’s your call.

  1. The Jesus Clip

Here’s another wee gem to prevent catastrophic, albeit uncommon climbing accidents. To understand the reasons behind this one, we’ll need to conduct a brief but illuminating journey into the wonderful world of physics.

Fall factor comparisons (Source: Ropebook.com)

You’ll often hear the term “Fall Factor” bandied about in climbing circles, a term used to give a numerical value to the (theoretical) amount of force imparted on both climber and anchor as a result of a fall. It can be calculated by dividing the length of the fall by the amount of rope in service. This is only a problem in multipitch applications or if the earth suddenly opens to reveal a gaping chasm at the exact moment of a leader fall.

Redirecting the climber’s rope on a bolted anchor. To be fair, should have clipped the left bolt if moving left, but still better than a fall directly on the anchor. (Source: American Alpine Institute)

Say the leader climbs 2m above the anchor without placing any protection… If they fall, they fall 2m to the anchor, then a further 2m past the anchor – a 4m fall divided by 2m rope = Factor 2. This is the greatest theoretical factor, resulting in huge forces imparted on both climber and anchor. The climber can usually take it, but a trad anchor in sketchy circumstances may not.

The solution to all this bother is the Jesus Clip – either clip a quickdraw into one of the anchor bolts and redirect the belay through that quickdraw, or place a piece of protection as soon as possible, right beside the anchor if need be. This seemingly insignificant action can drastically reduce the force of potential falls.

  1. Avoid being roped up without protection

Lionel Terray, the Conquistador of the Useless, died on easy terrain on a well-known route in the French Alps. He was roped up without protection, attached to a less experienced climber who slipped, fell, and dragged one of last century’s greatest alpinists into the abyss.

It happens more often than you’d think – climbers moving over unprotectable, scary terrain without any hope of arresting. It’s a psychological thing. We see the rope as a safety mechanism, not as potential for harm. This mental connection causes us to inadequately assess risk when the alternative is moving unroped through massively exposed terrain. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes you have to appreciate that, if the very worst happens, one death is better than two.

  1. Wear a fucking helmet

Yes, a lot has been said about this subject, including a lengthy debate conducted between yours truly and a mythical creature named Chris Ward (often spoken of, rarely observed.) You can find it here: https://zenandtheartofclimbing.com/2015/04/23/to-helmet-or-not-to-helmet-a-genial-debate-amongst-gentlemen/

I’m not going to harp on this topic much longer. Helmets are not a cure-all, but they are sure as hell better than your useless scone. Your call.

  1. Establish rappelling SOP’s

Even experienced mountaineers and rock climbers have been known to fall to their doom whilst rappelling. It bears mentioning again that rappelling is statistically one of the most dangerous activities we perform at height.

That said, it’s also one of the easiest to make safe. Statistically, more deaths occur from slips, trips and falls in gnarly terrain… not much you can do about that except encourage good judgment, which is kind of like advising everyone to drive better or only invest in stocks that go up.

For rappelling, however, there are a few simple techniques that go a long way in order to make the practice safer.

  • Use the same joining knot every time and ensure it is pre-tensioned and well-dressed. I use the EDK but the Double Fisherman’s and Flemish Bend are good choices as well (more info here: http://www.climbing.com/skills/in-defense-of-the-european-death-knot/)
  • Don’t rap off single points of contact unless they form absolute anchors, which is to say trees, boulders etc. which are able to withstand 15kN of force alone. A piton is not an absolute anchor, nor is a single nut.
  • Tie knots in the end of your ropes. Any knot will do. Make it a habit and you’ll hopefully remember when you’re tanked.

Remember folks, there are three rules – climb hard, look good and be safe.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
February 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?