This “inaugural” article marks the return of the popular Unbelayvable column, which ran in print and online in Climbing for many years before we retired it. However, climbers continue to do “unbelayvable” things at the crags—be they dangerous, humorous, or some combination thereof—putting their own and others’ lives at risk. And so, we’ve decided to bring the column back, with a new installment every month as part of our Summit membership. Submit your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The impact was close enough that it triggered my fight-or-flight response. I’d heard a climber yell “Fuck!” and then he hit the gym floor behind me. It was 9:30 on a Tuesday night. Recovering from an injury, I’d come by to test my shoulder with a few easy laps on the auto-belay before bed. It had been quiet at the gym, with only a handful of people in the back room where I was climbing. I didn’t turn around. I knew it was bad, and I was afraid to look. Flight won. I ran across the gym screaming “Help!” until I reached the manager at the front desk. He went to the injured climber, and I called 9-1-1.
“Is he conscious?” they asked.
And: “Approximately how old is he?”
I couldn’t answer any of the dispatcher’s questions. I only knew that he was male and needed medical attention. I returned to the back room of the gym, afraid of what gore I might see. It’s strange to say that I was relieved to see the climber merely writhing in pain and holding his lower back. He was alive. There was no blood. No protruding bones. He was conscious. The gym manager was tending to him, so the dispatcher instructed me to wait outside to flag down the ambulance.
After the professionals arrived, I went back inside to retrieve my belongings. It felt surreal to see climbers carrying on as usual in the front room and arriving gym members checking in at the front desk. I still felt nauseous from the adrenaline when I got home.
I think it’s a common instinct. After you’re present for a climbing accident, you feel an urge to do something about it. You can’t help the person who’s been hurt—it’s too late for that—so you turn to warning others.
Earlier this summer, we received an email from a former Climbing intern imploring us to reshare our article about cleaning sport anchors. He’d been climbing in Clear Creek Canyon above Golden, Colorado, when an 18-year-old girl had died nearby due to a misunderstanding about whether she would rappel or lower. On his urging, we updated the article to emphasize communication and re-published the piece.
I don’t know what caused the gym accident—it happened behind me, out of my view. All I heard was the impact, and all I saw was the aftermath. It would be irresponsible to speculate about what went down, and so I can’t tell you what to do or not to do.
What I do know is that most climbing accidents are preventable.
In the excellent snow-safety book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, the author Bruce Tremper, the now-former director of Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, presents a hypothetical actuarial table showing your odds of dying in an avalanche assuming the following:
- You travel in avalanche terrain 100 days per year
- You cross 10 avalanche slopes per day
- The snow is stable enough to cross on 95 percent of the slopes
- You are killed in the tenth avalanche you trigger
The table concludes that an ignorant person with no avalanche skills will be dead in two months. With better judgement, avoiding avalanches on 99 percent of the slopes extends your lifespan to one year. At 99.9 percent, you’ve got 10 years. And only at 99.99 percent do you get a comfortable 100 years.
To simplify things, let me translate these numbers into climbing terms. How many pitches do you climb in a year, including gym routes? I imagine for many of our readers it’s over 100, and probably closer to 1,000-plus. If you make a critical error one out of a thousand times, the outlook is bleak.
Tremper goes on to write: “Because humans regularly make mistakes, we can’t rely on our individual knowledge or prowess to keep us alive. Instead, avalanche professionals operate in a SYSTEM, which I capitalize here because it’s so important. The pros travel a well-trodden path of proper training, mentorship, procedures, rituals, and step-by-step decision-making. And to further push the arrow toward the top of the actuarial chart, they know that they will inevitably make mistakes: so they always follow safe travel ritual and practice rescue techniques.”
There’s not much in there that couldn’t apply to climbing. Our sport is easily as dangerous as backcountry snow travel in terms of the consequences of a mistake—and perhaps even more so, given the constant, and very predictable, force of gravity.
So have a process for checking critical safety components in your climbing system and do it the same way every single time you climb.
I certainly know people who skip the safety check before climbing, who approach it all with a cavalier attitude. I bet you do too. I’ve even had a friend get scolded by a crusty partner for asking to check his knot. It’s often the most experienced climbers who feel like they’re above basic safety protocol, never mind that there are plenty of examples of elite climbers getting hurt due to simple mistakes.
So again: Have a process.
However you do it, the point is that having a step-by-step process will force you to be conscious of your own and your partner’s safety. When you ask your partner to check your knot, the point is just to check it—to get both of you to inspect the knot. I bet in most cases, when you grab your figure eight and present it to your belayer, you’ll catch a problem before they do. But you won’t catch the error if you don’t ask your partner to check the knot in the first place. So always:
- Check your knot and show it to your partner
- Show your partner that your belay device is loaded properly, and that your belay biner is locked and clipped to your belay loop in the proper orientation
- Discuss whether you’ll lowering or rappel before leaving the ground
- Confirm that you’re on belay before climbing
- Tug on your autobelay biner on your belay loop and check that the gate is locked before pulling on to the starting holds
- Use names with commands, but be aware that there could be another climber nearby with the same name as you or your partner
- Know how you’ll go in direct to an anchor before you get there, whether you’ll be bringing your partner up or cleaning and descending
- Tie knots in the end of your rappel/lowering rope
- If you see another climber doing something unsafe, help them
- Never assume anything when someone’s life depends on it
I hope the climber who fell behind me is OK. I hope I see him back in the gym in a few days with some bruises but no worse for the wear. I may never find out what happened to him or how he’s faring in the aftermath. All I can do is try to warn others—and remind myself—to be eternally cautious.