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Belay Device Unclipped Itself … And Leader Fell

It's a fantastical, unbelievable story, but the unbelievable really happened.

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Rock Climbing Equipment Quickdraws Gear
As far as inanimate objects go, quickdraws are not ideal belayers.  In the case of this accident, the belayer’s device unclipped from his harness just as the leader fell. Odds of that happening? Nearly impossible odds, but in climbing we need to account for the unexpected and use stringent safety measures including double checking that our belay device is locked on. Photo: masT3rOD/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

We were climbing at Chuckwalla in southern Utah when we witnessed a belay accident. My partner had just reached the top of his route. As I started to lower him, I heard a rope zipping freely. I looked to my left, and a climber was in a free fall about 60 feet up. Then he stopped suddenly. His belayer looked astonished. His belay device had somehow come off his harness and was now jammed into the first quickdraw. It was the only thing holding the climber. We quickly had someone put the climber back on belay and removed the jammed device from the rope. The worst part is that the belayer had no idea how it happened.
—Eric Freiberg, via email

LESSON: This one does sound a bit fantastic—how did the quickdraw lock the rope?—but crazy stuff happens all the time, so on that note… Unless the belayer’s harness broke, there’s really only one way this can happen. The belay carabiner had to unclip itself from the harness. That’s only possible if it wasn’t locked. Always check that your belay carabiner is locked, and then have your partner double-check before she starts climbing. For added assurance, use an auto-locking carabiner so it can’t unscrew itself during the climb, and choose an anti-cross-loading design that keeps the harness and carabiner in the proper orientation  such as the Metolius Gatekeeper.

Want more? Check out more installments in our ever-growing hall of dangerous behavior: 

Lowered Off Gear Loop

They Used Parachute Cord For Slings

No belay Anchor on Multi Pitch, and Leader Falls

Lucky He Didn’t Die. Lowered From a Toy Carabiner

Unfortunate Groundfall, Fortunate Landing

Leader Decks When Experienced Climber Bungles the Belay

Saw Through Someone Else’s Rope

Belayed With Hands Only—No Device!

Smoke Brick Weed and Go Climbing

Belay With a Knife In Your Hand

Don’t Let a Clueless Dad Take a Kid Climbing

She Got Frustrated and Untied—On Lead