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Stayin’ Alive: 10 Tips to Keep You Safe

A lifelong climber lays out her advice for avoiding accidents.

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Annie Laurie, 23, is just getting into trad climbing. Like many emergent climbers today, she has about two years of gym climbing under her belt and is newly venturing outside. While sport climbing would be a more common choice, Annie Laurie is interested in trad climbing—especially on long routes and alpine rock.

“You are at the single most dangerous stage,” I said, though not wanting to embarrass her, “of climbing.” She agreed so quickly, was so curious and respectful about the sport and its consequences, that I found myself bursting with cautionary advice. The two of us were on a short hike, and the time felt like a precious window. Maybe I could tell her something that would help, maybe prevent … anything.

Lucky He Didn’t Die: Lowered From A Toy Carabiner

While Annie Laurie has gotten good advice from a caring gym manager, she and her friends are mostly learning together, on site, without mentors. Though anyone today has a surfeit of resources for education, I value how several mentors, in particular Rebecca Upham and Charlie Bates, guided me in both safety and attitude (including having a sense of humor about ourselves). In hopes of mentoring you other learners out there, here are the big points I would want to put in your brains if I had the chance.

Leading can seem overwhelming. You have so much information to deal with that you can be overloaded and unsure. It can help a great deal to have a concept delineated clearly and succinctly.

Here are some lines you should hear at least once.

1. The second should always come up in safety. This may be the most important point of all (though belaying attentively is right up there), because it embodies your responsibility to another person.

Never ever belay off just one anchor point (the exception is a really big, living tree). Climb all around a ledge area, if necessary, seeking more than one and more than two bomber placements. If you lack bomber placements, turn around and downclimb to better ones. Make every anchor great.

2. Always aim to have more than one piece of pro between you and the ground. If you fall with only one piece in, and it blows, you hit the ground. Your first piece is critically important, but you should put another piece in, even if the terrain is cruiser (holds can break), before climbing any higher. I know of two new leaders breaking their legs (thankfully they didn’t do worse) because they simply had not thought in terms of this simple concept.

On a multipitch climb, place a piece close to your anchor to protect the anchor and prevent a Factor 2 fall (when a leader has placed no gear and falls past the belay/belayer).

3. Go for easy or moderate routes you can sew up. Ignore any pressure to do harder grades, even when you see others doing them, even if you could probably do them in the gym. Enjoy those great 5.4 to 5.7 routes, and put in lots of pro. Place it even on easy terrain. Holds can break, or options may diminish above. If you don’t like one piece, put another right beside it. If you don’t have enough, you can always back down. Assess risks at every stance to be sure you can retreat.

Do not think, in the excitement of the moment, that a certain risk—like of a big fall—must just be part of the game. You can control so much in rock climbing.

The second should always come up in safety. Build great belays. Photo: Irene Yee.

4. Stay low. Don’t worry about long routes when you start leading. Haste, usually due to impending darkness or weather, is a major contributor to accidents. If you want to do multipitch routes, stick with two to several pitches for a while.

5. Tie knots in the ends of your ropes. We in these offices see so many accidents that could have been prevented by simple knots.

Tie a knot in the end of your rope when lowering and belaying. I have known someone who sustained a brain injury when dropped, someone else who broke his back, someone who dropped a friend onto a ledge, and someone who dropped her husband to the ground. It can happen to anyone. Always check that there is a knot in the end of your rope, even when sport climbing. Simply tying your rope into a rope bag serves that purpose. Keep checking, because people switch ends around.

Tie knots in rope ends when rappelling. Knots can feel like an extra step, can potentially get hung up in a bush or even a crack. But those things are manageable. They are a far lesser threat than the big one.

Stay tied in until you begin the rappel, or tie a figure 8 on a bight and clip in to it.

6. Complete your knot. Be vigilant, every single time. It only takes one miss for disaster. Anyone can forget; even the great climber Lynn Hill did, and hit the ground from 70 feet.

Make it a lifelong habit not to let anyone or anything distract you mid-tie. Keep your head down until you finish the knot. If someone asks you a question, finish tying before replying. Steph Davis was recently tying her knot when an old friend rushed up to hug her, and Steph is so clear on never interrupting a knot that she pulled the half-tied rope out of her harness and laid it on the floor.

Visually check your partner’s knot every pitch, asking, “How’s your knot?”

7. Be skeptical of old fixed stuff (old pitons, etc.) you find on routes. Clip it anyway, after checking that it does not wiggle, but back it up with your own pro.

8. Use long slings. A common early error is accruing so much rope drag you can barely move. In that situation you can have trouble making it to the intended belay, a lesson I learned the hard way once, hundreds of feet up on Cannon Cliff. On any multipitch or even single long pitch, carry four or five long slings or more, and use them around corners or roofs or in places where the protection might “walk.”

9. Take that last look. Before you ever rap or are lowered, stop, breathe, and double check. Is the rope going through both or all anchors correctly and then back down to you? Have you completed your knot and tightened it? If you are rappelling, is your device threaded correctly? Is the locking carabiner locked, and is it clipped into your harness—and in the correct place (not into a tiny gear loop)? Back up your rappel with a prusik or autoblock (or ask for a fireman’s belay).

10. Tie knots in the ends of your ropes. Worth saying twice. We could run this precept every single issue of the magazine.

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