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My buddy and I were climbing at the local gym climbing last week. We were doing doubles, so basically lowering each other as quickly as possible so the climber could get back on the ground, pull the rope through, and start up another route without wasting time. But when the gym staff saw us doing this, they came over and said “No speed lowering, please.”
I’ve never really heard that before, which left my partner and I wondering how fast is too fast to lower, and why should the gym even care. It seems to me like if we feel like we’re in control of the rope, then it’s no one else’s business what speed we’re lowering each other at. Gyms have way too many rules as it is; it doesn’t seem like we need another.
—Trevor Y., California
It’s true that gyms sometimes have irritating policies, or inconsistently enforced, “situational” policies, that might on the surface seem confounding: no using your own belay device, just pre-threaded Grigris on the topropes; no hip-belaying your kids even though they barely weigh enough to move the rope through the device; no screaming F-bombs at the top of your lungs when you fall; no shirts allowed in the bouldering cave, especially if you have a beanie on (OK, we made this one up…). But this isn’t one of them. In this case, the gym staff were correct to put an end to your bad belay-havior, not only for your own protection but also for that of other climbers.
Here’s one example of how things can go very and suddenly wrong with “speed-lowering”: In 2012, a Boulder, Colorado, climber we’ll call “C” was packing up to leave the gym after a session. She was in the middle of the room at a cubby area chatting with some folks when a “sudden, alarmed expression” came over their faces. Recalls C, “Before I knew it, I felt something come down on me hard from above. I fell to the ground. When I looked up, a climber I knew was hanging just above me, silently. He had been speed-lowered onto me.” The belayer, it turns out, was facing the wall and not looking at the climber—and was lowering too quickly. C went home that day with considerable head and neck pain, and still feeling out of it the next day went to the emergency room, where a CT scan revealed brain swelling. She had sustained a severe concussion and neck trauma, and had to spend the next week in a dark room, unable to work, read, look at a computer screen, or help care for her then five-year-old daughter. Eight years later, she still has neck issues, even with chiropractic and PT appointments following the accident.
It’s basic physics—thanks to gravity, an object falling from above and impacting an object on the ground will damage the lower object, if not itself. Whether that falling object is a rock, dropped carabiner, or climber doesn’t matter: It’s the person on the ground who usually suffers the most. This holds true outdoors as well, where a busy crag or one with a small staging area more or less replicates the crowded gym floor. Recently at Indian Creek, there was a serious accident at The Wall in which a climber rapped 20 feet off the end of his (unequalized) ropes and landed on another climber below, causing brain bleeding, a skull fracture, and trauma to ligaments in her neck. After hospitalization, she now faces a long, expensive recovery thanks to someone else’s mistake.
So that’s the thing about speed-lowering: You may feel like you’re in control while lowering your climber quickly, but—especially in the gym—you are not in control of the landing area. Most climbers rarely look up, and in gyms where there’s lots of foot traffic back and forth, someone could walk into the path of the lowering climber at just the wrong time. And if that climber is coming in hot, injuries will result. Instead, you want to lower slowly enough that you can stop your climber on a dime, if you need to keep her suspended until the landing is clear. If the rope is whipping through your device at near-freefall speed, you won’t be able to arrest her in time—you’re going way too quickly, not to mention the risk to your climber’s ankles when she impacts the floor. It’s like trying to stop a speeding train; thanks to inertia, the physics are not in your favor.
Basically, speed-lowering is dumb, unsafe, unnecessary, and should be avoided at all costs. If you’re jonesing hard for that power-endurance mega-pump, then do triples at the gym—lowering each other slowly and in control between each climb.