Checklist: How to Shake Off Complacency to Avoid Accidents

By Majka Burhardt ,

Andrew Burr

It’s 2 p.m., and you’ve granted yourself a quick afternoon cragging sesh. What could go wrong? Lots, it turns out. Casual cragging is anything but—the law of gravity still applies, just like it would with more “serious” all-day objectives. As a climber for 26 years and guide for 20 years, I’ve seen too many people breeze past solid first placements only to sketch and face a groundfall, belay in a stack of (familiar) loose blocks or with an unlocked carabiner while they chat up a neighbor, or fail to test suspect holds. Complacency kills! Here, a four-part checklist to help you beat it.

Reframe Your Day

Create a habit of collecting yourself before you launch—either in the car or on the approach. The key is to let go of what you were doing and focus on what’s about to happen. I survey the cliff—this overview lets me evaluate hazards and ground myself in this new vertical reality. I’ll also pay particular attention to third- and fourth-class approach terrain, keying into “climbing” mode before traveling in this sometimes-lethal territory. 

To avoid surprises:

  • Look for fresh scars indicating new rockfall.
  • Note weather conditions. Is a storm building just behind the crag? Is it hot, cold, or windy, and how will that affect your experience or the gear you bring? Is the cliff seeping or iced up?
  • Mentally map out your destination(s), pick out possible belays if multi-pitch climbing, make a plan B just in case, and suss all descents.

Focus on Your Systems

The cliffs are busy these days, with an atmosphere that can be as social as the gym—with much higher consequences for inattentiveness. So, amidst the chaos, remind yourself and your partner that your systems are your systems and don’t get distracted. Never be afraid to tell fellow climbers you need to focus. Try saying, “It’s great to see you/your dog/your four-year-old terror—I’ll catch up later. Right now, I need to focus on climbing (or belaying).”

Pre-flight checklist:

  • Rope flaked (both for ease of belaying, and core and sheath inspection)
  • Harness doubled-back and on snugly
  • Knot threaded through both leg and waist tie-in loops, and finished tightly
  • Belayer’s rope threaded correctly and carabiner locked
  • Helmet on (yes, even “just at the crags”—or, especially at the crags, where dropped items like lockers, water bottles, and rocks are common)

Bow to Your Partner

Climbing might not be square dancing, but we could all benefit from its routines of formality. If you’re climbing with a familiar partner, you still need to communicate, especially on multi-pitch routes—things like how far you’re going, if you’re going to get lowered or rap, and how you’ll communicate off the deck. Are you going to yell, use rope tugs, use each other’s names, have a visual? Taking two minutes to plan now can save hours later. Remember, even if it’s a familiar crag, there’s no reason to be lax. Also, once climbing, speak up if your buddy hasn’t placed an early first piece or is facing a groundfall because she hasn’t placed a second. Your job is to keep each other safe.

Meet the Rock for the First Time, Every Time

Once, during an afternoon social toprope session in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, eight of us were alternating TRs, beta, and belays when I stemmed onto a dime edge that cantilevered off an oven-sized chunk of choss that almost took out the whole scene. The six climbers who’d been on that route before me felt no movement—it happened that suddenly.

The only thing you can count on in climbing is that rock quality changes, at every crag, always. So, each time you climb—at any area—take stock. Check your urge to move quickly over terrain you know and instead move smartly, place pro thoughtfully, and knock on suspect holds like it’s your first time grabbing them. Even old, familiar routes change with time.

Majka Burhardt is an AMGA Certified Rock Guide and has been guiding rock, ice, and alpine terrain for over 20 years. She currently lives and guides out of New Hampshire where she’s also the mother of twins, and champion of mountain ecosystems through her work at Legado (legadoinitiative.org).

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