Keep safe: how to avoid fatal mistakes while climbing

By Doug Williams
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Keep safe: how to avoid fatal mistakes while climbing

Doug Williams
 
 
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While climbing is a sport that’s continually growing in popularity, it can also be very dangerous. You take your life in your hands every time you head for the rock. However, climbing accidents are avoidable and in the vast majority of cases are due to human error. Deaths are often caused by ignorance and inexperience.

Never assume anything when it comes to the sport of climbing. Learn from those climbers who have experience. Always double and even triple check the climbing systems you’re about to use, concentrate and be aware of the dangers. Your safety is your responsibility.

Check your kit properly before every climb
Check your kit properly before every climb

If you are experienced at climbing, then you know to never be complacent about the dangers involved. Nonchalance and a lack of focus can easily cause an accident. You may be a climber who is very familiar with all the moves like setting anchors, rappelling, and belaying, but absolute vigilance is imperative at all times.

If you are not focused, a simple slip could be fatal. Be warned.

Protection gear

Learning to climb is a lot of fun
Learning to climb is a lot of fun

Never take the protection you use, such as cams, bolts, nuts and fixed pitons, for granted – they can and do sometimes come out, and when they do, you are going to fall. Route finding is not always easy and straightforward either. Climbers can lose their lives by attempting a route with insufficient protection or from the failure of the gear they’ve placed.

The fall

Climbers fall for many reasons. Some fall through broken holds or hard moves. Most fatalities happen through falling head first or sideways which fatally injures internal organs or results in a broken neck.

Skills and experience

Picks climbs suitable for your experience and skills progression
Picks climbs suitable for your experience and skills progression

Placing safe protection and knowing the relevant climbing moves are two different skills that need to be learned. They work independently, but both are needed in order to stay safe. All skills can be learned, but experience is needed too. Be completely aware of your abilities and do not overestimate them.

Equipment

Be knowledgeable of the gear that you carry – these items can fail and sometimes do. Carry backup equipment with you. Do not just assume that the gear is okay. Do not just trust fixed bolts and pitons, but use lots of slings. The guidebook will give you some idea of the route; consult it before climbing, especially where the terrain is loose and easy.

Be cautious

One of the worst safety hazards when climbing is finding loose blocks wedged in cracks. Also, try to avoid knocking rocks down and possibly injuring a climber below. Cliffs are naturally full of loose rock and loose handholds. Even the most careful climbers often cannot avoid dislodging some rock off. Many climbing deaths are directly caused by falling rock, and most of these do not come from spontaneous rock falls but are caused by climbers.

Communicate with the group to keep everyone alert of potential dangers
Communicate with the group to keep everyone alert of potential dangers

Such rock falls can sometimes be caused by the victim’s own rope. As there is potentially loose rock anywhere on a cliff, you need to be constantly on the lookout. Sometimes, these are big blocks, sometimes thin flakes, or boulders balancing on edges or rock that is simply “rotten”. Handholds become loose and these can all fail at any time. Try to avoid climbing directly below other climbers. It is always wise to wear a helmet while climbing.

Free Solo

If you decide to do some Free Solo climbing, that is, climbing without a rope, falling, in this case, is almost always bad news. To live to climb another day means you should perhaps think twice and opt to use a rope and climbing gear instead. If you do, survival is a lot more likely. This style of climbing, however, can be lots of fun but do not ever forget, though, how dangerous it in fact is. The vast majority of fatal accidents could have been prevented if proper safety measures had been taken. If proper ropes and gear have been put in place, you are good to go. A fall from a climb higher than about 30 feet without ropes is generally fatal.

Free-soloing requires some serious skill and a realistic assessment of your own ability
Free-soloing requires some serious skill and a realistic assessment of your own ability

You could find yourself climbing unroped in the case of climbing 3rd class terrain. For example, on the approach to the cliff or perhaps when descending from the summit. You could be scrambling over the easy rock where there are some short hard sections. Here it is generally a good idea to take the rope from your pack and tie it, just in case! Bouldering on these slopes is all very well, but a fall here could end badly too. If at any time you feel you ought to be safely on belay then listen to your gut feeling – better to get out the rope and keep safe.

Rappels

Your rappels will be safe if you make use of robust rappel redundant anchors. Be sure to check your rigging and your knots. Always use backup safety knots, even after checking the rigging and knots you are using. Rappelling is probably the most dangerous part of climbing. This is because the climbers have to fully rely on the equipment and the integrity of the anchors as they slide down the rope. A fall from this activity generally ends badly. This can happen if the climber becomes detached from the safety rope or if the anchors in the rock fail. The falls are often from very high up.

Causes

The causes of rappelling accidents are mostly human error, and these accidents are almost wholly preventable. If a climber double checks every single knot, rope, and piece of equipment thoroughly, these accidents are unlikely to occur. Experienced climbers are often the ones who meet accidents through adopting a casual attitude. Rappelling fatalities are almost exclusively caused by anchor failure. Every part of the anchor and rigging set-up needs to be thoroughly checked before a climber begins the rappel.

Never skimp on checking your kit is safe and correctly set up
Never skimp on checking your kit is safe and correctly set up

Ensure that all the knots are correct and that the rope is through a robust anchor, rapid link or through a locking carabiner. There should be more than just one rappel anchor. The anchors must be firm, equalized and redundant. If you are about to do some rappelling in places that are unfamiliar or in situations that could be unpredictable, such as in bad weather, a backup knot such as an autoblock knot or prusik knot will keep you attached to the rope. Stopper knots need to be tied at the rope ends. Ensure that both ropes are securely in your rappel device. Always back up for the worst case.

Weather

Weather and other aspects of the environment can also be a cause of death for climbers. Lightning has been known to strike climbers who are on cliff faces. Heavy and continuous rain can be a cause of hypothermia and can lead to some bad calls with regard to judgement and decisions, which can often lead to serious injury or death. Never take unpleasant weather lightly. Threatening storms can occur suddenly even when you least expect them. Often storms near rock faces are accompanied by severe lightning, hail, heavy rainfall, and gale-force wind.

Sometimes, if snow falls, the runoff is freezing cold. This runoff also causes waterfalls to form on cliffs, leaving climbers very wet and cold. This severe discomfort will often cause incorrect choices to be made. Things get dropped, and careless mistakes can be made due to general discomfort.

Hypothermia

Check the weather. Then be prepared for the unexpected, just in case.
Check the weather. Then be prepared for the unexpected, just in case.

Hypothermia is when the temperature of the body is lowered drastically. It is imperative to check the weather forecast beforehand. All climbers should retreat before a storm arrives if at all possible. It’s best to be prepared with the correct clothing if this kind of weather regularly happens in the place where you are going.

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