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For Safety’s Sake Don’t Do This: Let Go Of the Belay and Drop The Leader To the Ground

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I’m from upstate New York and was climbing at Starbuck Cliff with a new partner. I’d just started leading trad in the spring, but was excited to try one of Starbuck’s crack climbs, which looked to be about 5.8

I started up. By the time I was 60-feet up, I had five solid pieces below me. My left hand was on a bomber jug, and I was deciding on gear for the crack in front of me. Then the jug unexpectedly broke off. Without thinking, I chucked it down in the direction of my belayer, yelling “rock!” I don’t remember anything after this point.

My belayer took a step backwards and raised his hands in the air. (He was wearing a helmet.) The step back tugged at the rope against my harness. His instinct took over, and he let go of the rope to allow himself to take another step back. I was trying to recover my balance, but the tug didn’t help. I fell about 60 feet and hit the ground. My belayer, in his surprise, had let go of the rope. I landed flat on my back, on a small strip of soft dirt between two boulders.

The fall knocked me out, luckily erasing all memory of the fall. When I woke, for a few seconds, I felt like I had been buried alive. I couldn’t see or breathe. Slowly everything returned, and then I was very confused. I was on the ground, my gear was solidly in the wall, and the rope attached to my harness was still in my belayer’s ATC. He was standing over me, concerned. My first “Holy cow!” moment was realizing that my belayer didn’t catch me. My second was reaching out and touching boulders that may have killed me had I fallen just a little bit off to the side. Then it was time to figure out if I was OK. My adrenaline was pumping, so that helped. I moved around and stood up. My brain hadn’t grasped the size of the fall yet. I could barely even look at my belayer or the rock. I was incredibly sore, but nothing felt broken so I packed up my stuff, walked to my car, and drove to the ER. (I know I shouldn’t have.) To the amazement of myself, my friends, and the doctors, I was fine. All I suffered was some minorly cracked ribs and a mild traumatic brain injury—not even a concussion. My helmet may have saved my life.

After two weeks I was climbing indoors again, and I have since only heard of one other person being so incredibly lucky to survive such a fall. My accident taught me valuable lessons and left a huge impact on my life. I was so frightened getting back on the wall that I considered giving up climbing all together. Instead it’s fueled my motivation to pursue climbing even harder.
–Annie Nelson

LESSON: Cripes. I’m glad you’re OK Annie! That’s a terrifying experience. There are a few things we can all do to prevent such incidents:

  1. Assess the holds. Some seemingly solid rock does come off by surprise, but in most cases you can evaluate holds. Knock on the rock, does it sound hollow? Does it shift at all when you grab it? These are warning signs. Learn more about assessing holds and rock fall danger at Rock! Prevent Rockfall and Calmly Handle Emergencies.
  2. Assess new partners. It’s important to know the experience level of your climbing partner and plan accordingly. Even if a newer climber knows Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills front to back and has his belay escape skills dialed from practicing in the garage, he still may not react appropriately to a surprise situation like rock fall because he hasn’t dealt with much rock fall. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t climb with new climbers, but you should be proactive about making sure new climbers understand their responsibilities. Talk through these scenarios before climbing.
  3. Assess the belay area. Every route has it’s own unique topography. Some slab or dihedral routes may funnel rock fall into one specific area. Some routes with roofs may have protected zones close to the wall. Before climbing, you can evaluate these features with your belayer and identify which spots will be the safest to belay from (or flee to) should rock fall occur. This can be particularly useful when climbing with a less experienced partner (see point two).
  4. Use an assisted braking belay device. Even if you follow all the previous points, something could happen to your belayer. The outdoors are unpredictable. Things can go wrong. Assisted braking belay devices, such as the Grigri, add an extra measure of security in those scenarios. If your belayer is knocked out by rock fall while using a tube-style belay device, you are off belay. If they’re using an assisted-braking device, though they are not designed to be used hands-free, it may still lock up and hold the rope. Insist that your partner use an assisted-braking device to stack the deck in your favor.

This article is free. Get a $2 a month Climbing membership and you can access all of, and receive a print subscription to Climbing, which includes our annual edition of Ascent, the leading climbing journal published since 1967.

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