Unbelayvable: Phantom Belayers and Rappel Close Calls

Scary (and true) tales from a crag near you

Two strands good, no strands bad.
Photo: iwona_kellie/Flickr. http://ow.ly/wuYFY

Every Monday we publish the most unbelievable stories of climbing stupidity submitted by our readers. See something unbelayvable? Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print.

>>A climber warned us about a sketchy dude in Smith Rock, Oregon. Mr. Sketch had offered him a belay, and when he was three-quarters up a route, he looked down and noticed something chilling. The belayer was gone. The rope hung loosely from his harness to the ground. He rapped down and found the sketchy dude flirting with some girls a ways down the crag. Sketch said, “What? You looked like you were doing fine!”
—Submitted by Jason D. Martin, via Climbing.com 

LESSON: When you allow someone to belay you, you’re literally placing your life in his hands. Only climb with people you know you can trust.

>>“Only one end of the rope is on the ground!”
“That’s OK. I’ll rappel on both strands until I get to that point, then I’ll finish the rappel on one strand.”
A chorus of “No! Stop!” saved the climber.
—Submitted by Richard Bothwell, via Climbing.com

LESSON: Every time you rappel, pull your rope through the anchors and center it. If your rope doesn’t have a middle mark, put it through the anchor, match the ends, and coil until you find the center. Next, tie stopper knots on each strand so you can’t rap off the end. Toss the rope and make sure both strands reach the ground before you rap.

>>I saw a guy build a toprope anchor by putting a harness around a tree and clipping a single oval biner to it. Then he put another harness on a dead tree at the bottom of the cliff and belayed his daughter from it—with a pulley. At least he put a helmet on her.
—Submitted by Ben, via Climbing.com 

LESSON: So many. Foremost, always seek expert instruction. Take a class from a gym, guide company, or climbing school, and practice building anchors in a low- risk environment (like your backyard). Always read the instructions that come with your gear. Climbing gear is very specialized and should only be used as intended.

See something unbelayvable?
Tell us in the comments and your story could be featured in a future edition online or in print.


Previous Comments

While catching up to a couple (romantically) climbing one pitch ahead of myself and my partner (non-romantic) on an alpine rock climb last summer I had an overpowering "sense" that something wasn't "cricket" with their belay set-up. Instead of stopping to figure it out I had to remain focussed on my own precarious situation before I could figure out theirs. Once on easier ground, but a long way out from a piece, I was able to take in their belay set-up. The station they were at was a nice 10" ledge with to perfectly placed new stainless bolts looking very out of place in this alpine setting.

Dan - 05/16/2014 2:07:30

While climbing in the Black Hills a few years back, we watched while the leader of a party of 3 made his way up a bolted route. He reached his high point (not the anchors), and cleaned all the draws except the one he lowered from. They then proceeded to tr the route off the single draw and bolt. We tactfully explained that this might not be the safest approach and the guys appreciated our input.

roadkillphil - 05/11/2014 9:37:00

I heard a story recently from an eye witness friend, of a party climbing Black Magic, in Wadi Rum, Jordan. They either misread the topo, lost count of which pitch they were on or were just out of focus. They thought they had reached the last pitch, an easy angled slab, when in fact were below the next-to-last pitch, a prominent corner, rated French 5+. That didn't faze them and leaving their ropes at the belay/rappel station, they soloed the pitch. Upon reaching the top, they realized there was no way of back tracking and so found themselves stranded, 250 meters above the ground. Lucky for them, my friend, a guide, was coming up the route with two clients. It would have been a cold and long night out, in the best case scenario.

Hanina Kali - 05/09/2014 7:49:19

I heard a story recently of a party climbing Black Magic in Wadi Rum, Jordan. They misread the topo or lost count of which pitch they were on and thought they were at the start of the top pitch, an easy angle slab.What in fact was above them was the next- to- last pitch, a prominent open book, rated French 5+. That didn't faze them and they decided to solo it. They left their ropes at the belay/rappel station and found themselves stranded at the top of the pitch, realizing they could not or should not down climb. Lucky for them, my friend, a climbing guide, was coming up the route with 2 clients They would have had a cold night out, in the best case scenario.

Hanina Kali - 05/09/2014 7:27:09

I almost left my now wife several hundred feet up at dusk by hurrying through a rappel off a climb with established anchors (incoming weather helped create a sense of urgency). We had always intended to rap off, and since she wasn't confident in her abilities, I had planned to rig her, rig me below her device, rappel, maintain a safety on her while she rappelled, and repeat for four pitches. Instead, since I was hurrying and not used to rigging two people, I rigged her for rappel, cleaned myself from the anchor, and rope in hand, started to step off the ledge. Luckily for both of us, I looked down and realized I had skipped a step. I quickly secured myself, rigged my own rappel device below hers, and resumed, seemingly unphased. Four double rope rap pitches later, we walked out unscathed. I didn't tell her how close she came to having to get down by herself for a couple of years. Moral of the story, 2 years wasn't long enough, she'll still be pissed (and be extra careful when changing your routine especially when operating under a sense of urgency).

Dumb A$$ - 05/07/2014 9:01:21

A buddy and I were climbing in at the Manure Pile Buttress in Yosemite, when we saw a team that could make this list. Some very cocky, but clearly inexperienced, climbers were about to head up After Seven as we showed up. The leader was tied into the rope, but the belayer was still talking with the girls that were watching these two climb. Suddenly, the leader just starts climbing--and when I say climbing I mean attacking the rock, lots of muscle, little technique. As he gets about 15 feet up, the belayer saunters over and casually puts the rope around his back--he was attempting to hip belay, but was not braced against anything. The rope would have been pulled straight out of his hands in a fall, especially since he was standing about 20 feet back from the wall. The kicker is that he had an ATC hanging from his belay loop through the whole thing! My friend and I stood flabbergasted for a second and then asked, "Why are you hip belaying?" He quickly shot back, "Because we are old!" (Note: they were no more than 35) We wanted to say, "Why are you hip belaying wrong?" But he was getting upset with us being there and we didn't want to freak out his leader, who was about 50 feet up by this point, by arguing with him. He was for all intents and purposes off belay. We let them be and he finished the lead safely, thankfully. Not fun to watch.

Billy SLC - 05/07/2014 8:19:44

About 4 years ago I was climbing at Reimers Ranch in Austin, TX, and I saw a climber about to rap off of a pretty easy climb. The problem was that he had only pulled about 10 feet of rope through the anchor and the climb was about 50 feet high (no knots clearly). He was about 5 feet from the end of his rope when I saw him and screamed for him to stop. Once he stopped I told him what the problem was, but he "explained" to me that since he had backed up his rappel with a prussik on his leg loop he was fine (the backup was below his ATC). He didn't seem to realize that once the end of the rope went through the prussik, he might still be attached to the other end of the rope, but that it wouldn't do him any good. I convinced him to clip in direct to a bolt he was near to and to get both ends of the rope on the ground. He did as I requested, but he still had no clue what was going on. I guess his friends explained it to him once he was down save, and he came and thanked me about an hour later.

Adam - 05/06/2014 8:16:34

I was at Mickey beach, north if San Francisco. It was windy and hard to hear. From where we were we could see the leader and belayer, but they couldn't see each other. The leader was trippin with sewing machine leg for a while at the crux. The belayer thought he was at the top and took him off belay! We all yelled down and they both freaked out, but lived to climb another day. Never take you leader of belay until you feel steady rhythmic triple tugs, or whatever system you develop.

joe gorm - 05/05/2014 8:20:52

I was climbing with a group of friends in New Jack City about 10 years ago and the guy next to us was belaying a leader off of his gear loop. I ran over yelling "whoa whoa whoa" and the belayer turned to me with a lot of attitude and yelled "what". I told him to check his belay and he looked down, checked the gate, and replied that everything was fine in a very mind your own business way. The climber clipped in direct to a bolt and started yelling at the belayer and an argument ensued. We finished up our climb and moved.

Randall Chapman - 05/05/2014 6:39:58

While climbing with a friend of mine in the Gunks on a popular moderate we decided to trail a second rope up on his harness. Being that it was so late in the day we were going to rap off the climb in one rappel. Anyway while I was leading the second pitch a large party decided they were going to set up a toprope on the first pitch by sending the one guys girlfriend who was making it very clear she did not want to lead it and wasn't capable of leading it. Well they berated her into doing so anyway she climbs, falls and instead of taking the lead fall grabs the rope trailing from my partner and hangs on for dear life. Want to see a show? sit in the Uberfall in the trapps on a Saturday.

Joe - 05/05/2014 5:20:01

I was climbing in New Jack City about 10 years ago with a group of friends. I was sitting around waiting my turn and I look over at the party next to us and the guy has the belay device hooked into his gear loop and the leader is at the third or forth bolt. I go running over to the belayer yelling "whoa, whoa, whoa" and the belayer looks at me and yells "what?" with attitude. I tell him to check his belay and he looks down checks the gate and says it's fine. The leader clips in direct to a bolt and starts yelling at his partner about what an idiot he is and how could do that and blah blah blah. I walked back over to my group and we moved to a different rock.

Randall Chapman - 05/05/2014 4:24:06

Maybe not as crazy as some others, but one evening in J tree when we had wrapped up our day out in the real hidden valley I believe and walking through the intersection rock parking lot definitely might have saved someones life. Saw this guy rapping down from the top of intersection and as usual I didn't think much of the fact that the rope wasn't "on the ground" because it was long enough for the big ledge that you rap to and walk off of. He looked like he was going pretty fast and pretty committed though, so I stopped for a second to see what he was doing, he was on his way to passing the ledge entirely and about 5-10 feet from the end of his rope, when I yelled out, STOP! HEY YOUR ROPES NOT ON THE GROUND. My buddies quickly chimed in and he ended up stopping...Just in time to swing to the ledge, and not rap of his rope without knots in the end. He thought nothing of it and went off rappel and pulled rope, maybe embarrassed. Know your rap and tie knots!!

Reese Butler - 05/05/2014 3:23:32

I was was climbing with some people and as one man was climbing he got his package cought in his harness in mid air , it was a shoking moment for the most of us as we see a man in pain coming down his rope .

jonny - 05/05/2014 11:53:16

I went to Miguels in RRG to meet a friend to go climbing, the friend had an emergency come up and couldn't make it. Being at Miguels, I found some other guy who's partner had bailed and went climbing with them. I'm halfway up the first climb and look down to see my new found belayer fumbling with a lighter and he shouts "Hey man, mind if I smoke up." Never climbed with a random person again.

Jordan Colburn - 05/05/2014 11:37:09

I was taking some new climbers out at Boulderado, which is on a ledge directly above the road in Boulder Canyon. I saw an obviously new trad leader starting up an easy route nearby. He didn't have an anchor for belayer, which is maybe not the best idea, but forgiveable since it's a fairly large ledge that you belay from. However, when he got up and placed his first piece, a nut (mistake #1, not multi-directional), he decided he wasn't sure whether it was trustworthy, so he started bounce testing his ONLY piece, on lead! I yelled at him to stop, and asked, "What do you think is going to happen to you and your belayer if that piece you're bounce testing for no reason *isn't* good, considering you're climbing above a road with no belay anchor!?" Unbelievable.

Abram Herman - 05/05/2014 11:34:28

Never mind. I'm obviously blind!

Matt - 05/05/2014 11:34:22

In last week's and this week's write up. No one has ever mentioned knot in the ends of your rope? Come on!

Matt - 05/05/2014 11:33:46