In the three years that Unbelayvable has run, a mom has tied off her kid in a 20-foot-high timeout in the gym, climbers have used bed sheets instead of ropes in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, and three climbers from Georgia belayed off a car door. After 99 editions of people finding new and exciting ways to incorrectly climb and use gear, Unbelayvable is ending. It’s not because climbers have run out of stupid ways to endanger themselves, but because I’m running out of advice.
Frankly, I’ve come to question the value of writing about shenanigans like belaying off a car-door latch. Instances like these, while easily mined for humor, are outliers: The people in that story may have been the first and last to do it in the history of our sport.
So, in the interest of teaching you to fish, here are some ways to mitigate risk in your future adventures, based on what I’ve learned writing this column and from my own time in the hills:
1. Accept that climbing is dangerous
The first chapter of the AMGA’s Single Pitch Instructor Manual states: “Climbing is not safe, don’t say it is.” While this specific passage was about how to avoid legal liability, it remains a good philosophical stance. If you consider climbing to be dangerous, you’ll make careful decisions. As every climbing-gear pamphlet, guidebook, and magazine states, “Climbing is inherently dangerous.” Approach it as such. Always.
2. Understand how to apply skills
Consider the guide-mode belay. One flaw of this convenient top-belay method is the inability to lower safely. When tilted, the device goes from locked to open without much of a controlled lower in between. Ideally, you would have practiced your lowering system on the ground before you ever belayed in guide mode up on a route. But let’s say you haven’t, yet still need to lower your climber. If you’re familiar with friction hitches, you could quickly figure out a backup that works, even if you’re not following the exact, by-the-books method. While it’s important to understand systems for specific scenarios, it’s even more important to master your tools so that you can improvise in any situation.
3. Think through everything you do
Most climbing accidents are just dumb mistakes, made in a moment of carelessness or exhaustion. Someone didn’t finish tying their knot, wasn’t paying attention while rappelling, or loaded their belay device backward. The percentage of unpreventable climbing accidents—rockfall, weather, equipment failure—is small. Double-check everything that can be double-checked, but also be mindful and present at all times. Think through all the plausible scenarios for any situation.
You can know every skill in the book, but if you’re mindlessly going through the motions or filling your days with “It’ll probably be fines,” then you’re leaving yourself open to the chance that it might not be fine. Climbing responsibly is a choice, one you must make every step along the way. Stay safe out there, and thanks for joining me on this ride.
While the column has ended, you can still find all of the old editions in the Unbelayvable Archives.