Essential Skills: Safe Lowering
Prevent accidents with best practices for clear communication
Lowering a climbing partner is one of the most common situations that leads to injuries and rescues in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, the American Alpine Club’s annual analysis of climbing accidents. During the past few years alone, dozens of people, including well-known climbers such as Dave MacLeod, Shingo Ohkawa, and Phil Powers, have suffered serious injuries when they plummeted to the ground while being lowered off short climbs. The “Know the Ropes” section of the 2013 edition of Accidents looks at common causes of lowering accidents and provides some best practices for preventing them. Miscommunication between climber and belayer was the direct cause of nearly a quarter of all lowering accidents reported over the past 10 years—and likely contributed to others—so here are a few factors to evaluate for maximum safety.
The three key problems with communication between climber and belayer are 1) environmental (weather, distance between climbers, traffic, etc.), 2) unclear understanding of command language (what do “take,” “in direct,” and “I’m off!” mean to each person?), and 3) unclear understanding of the intentions of the belayer and climber (will the climber lower or rappel?).
Problems that stem from the specific circumstances include the climber and belayer being unable to see each other because of the route’s path and/or the distance between the two; weather conditions like wind, snow, or rain; and extraneous noises, such as a river, traffic, or other climbers shouting commands or chatting nearby.
At noisy or crowded climbing areas, climbers sometimes mistake a command from a nearby party as coming from their partner. It’s always a good practice to use each other’s names with key commands: “Off belay, Fred!” or “Take, Jane!” When one climber is at the top of a single-pitch climb and rigging the anchor to lower off, toprope, or rappel, it may be helpful for the belayer to step back temporarily so he can see his partner at the anchor and improve communication. When the climber is ready to lower, the belayer should move back to the base of the climb to be in the ideal position for lowering.
It’s essential to agree on the terms you’ll be using to communicate when one climber reaches the anchor, especially with a new or unfamiliar partner. What do you mean by “take” or “off” or “in direct?” Avoid vague language like “I’m good” or “OK.” Agree on simple, clear terms and use them consistently. One common misunderstanding seems to be the result of the similar sounds of “slack” and “take.” When toproping, consider using the traditional term “up rope” instead of “take” for more tension in the rope, as the former won’t be confused with “slack.”
Before starting up any single-pitch climb, it’s critical that belayer and climber both understand what the other person will do when the climber reaches the anchor: Will the climber lower off, and if so, what language will she use to communicate with the belayer? Or will she clip directly to the anchor, go completely off belay, and rappel down the route? Many accidents have resulted when the belayer assumed the climber was going to rappel instead of lower, the belayer forgot that the climber planned to lower, or he misunderstood a command (like “off” or “safe” or “I’m in direct”) as an intention to rappel. Before taking the climber off belay, the belayer must be certain what the climber’s intention is. If you have agreed that the climber will rappel, wait for the climber to yell “off belay,” and then respond “belay off”—only then should you remove the rope from your belay device.
When you reach the anchor at the top of a climb, don’t just clip the rope into the draws, shout “take,” and lean back. Make sure to hear a response from the belayer indicating that he has you on belay and is ready to lower. If you can’t see the belayer, sometimes it is possible to lower yourself a little while holding onto the “up” rope, until you can get into position to make visual contact with the belayer and assure you’re good to go.
Mike Poborsky, an internationally certified rock, alpine, and ski guide, is vice president of Exum Mountain Guides. His complete “Know the Ropes” chapter on lowering is available in the 2013 edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, or it can be viewed online at publications.americanalpineclub.org.