Improved Belay Check

A tragic rock climber fatality this past weekend at a crag in Vermont has motivated this post. The exact events leading up to the accident are still not public but what is clear is the young woman fell 90 feet while trying to descend, presumably while being lowered.

UPDATE 9/22/2017: An official summary of the accident has been posted from the VT Search & Rescue Coordinator, Vermont Dept. of Public Safety. I now include it here before my original post below:


Following is a summary of the incident.

Three climbers (#1, #2, #3) were finishing up their day top roping on Harvest Moon. Climber #1 was making the final ascent of the day. Both #2 and #3 believed that the plan was for #1 to ascend, clean the anchor, and rappel down. The actual wording of this conversation is not entirely clear. #2 remembers #1 saying she would “probably” rappel, but “might” be lowered. #3 only remembers the use of the term “rappel”.

Climber #1 finished the climb, called “off belay” and #2 removed  the belay and took their harness off believing that #1 would clean the anchor then rappel down.  About 5 minutes later #1 called “are you ready to lower?”. Both #2 and #3 shouted “no” back, and #2 rushed to put their harness back on. Less than a minute later Climber #1 was observed in an uncontrolled fall down the face which she did not survive. She was tied into her harness and the rope was threaded through the bolts at the top anchor, with the free end ending up just a few inches above the ground.

Further investigation discovered that climber #1 did not have a rappel device on her harness. It was later found to have been in a pile of gear at the base of the climb.

The most likely scenario is the climber #1 had intended to rappel after cleaning the anchor, but discovered that she had left her ATC behind.  The communication of this change to a different plan was not clear.  While it seems most likely that #1 did not clearly hear the “no” and “no- wait” shouts from #2 and #3 and leaned back expecting to be lowered, it cannot be ruled out that she slipped or tripped while waiting for the lower or perhaps tried to move closer to the edge to improve communication. There is simply no way to know for certain whether #1 was expecting to be lowered at the time of the accident, or unintentionally tripped or fell while waiting to be lowered.


It seems lowering/rappelling accidents are on the rise. The 2013 Accidents in North American Mountaineering publication looked at lowering accidents from the previous 10 years and determined 34% where due to belayer error and/or miscommunication. During 2016 we had 24 accidents caused by rappelling and lowering errors. Twice this past week I witnessed miscommunication between belayers and climbers at Rumney Rocks, NH that almost resulted in a climber being taken off belay when they were still climbing.

I believe our standard “belay check” that we perform before climbing could be improved in an effort to reduce a large amount of similar accidents.

Let’s start by taking a look at the standard belay check most climbers perform before climbing. The rope is stacked and the climber is ready to leave the ground, whether it be on lead or top-rope. The climber looks at the belayer and asks…

“On Belay?”

The belayer, before responding, checks to make sure the climber’s harness is on properly, looks closely at the climber’s tie-in knot to make sure it is tied correctly and in the proper place on the harness, then checks that the belay device is installed on the rope correctly, and that the belay system is closed (knot or tied-in to the other end of the rope). At this point the belayer signals with…

“Belay on!”

From this point on the climber is free to ascend whether leading or top-roping with the belayer providing critical security should the climber fall.

The American Alpine Club has produced a quality video demonstrating these steps as part of the “Universal Belay Standard”. I’ve embedded their video below to start at this belay check.


 

But every year climbers die or get seriously injured when the belay gets dis-mantled when the climber is at the top of the route.

Let’s look at how this has can occur and how we can might best mitigate the risk.


Misinterpretation

Likely the most common factor is misinterpretation of what is happening when the climber gets to the top of the climb and needs to break down the team’s personal gear before being lowered or rappelling off of fixed gear. Essentially the climber arrives at the anchor and signals to the belayer. The belayer interprets this signal to mean the climber no longer needs a belay, and dismantles the system. The climber, expecting to be lowered, leans back on the rope and soon finds themselves falling.


Miscommunication

When the climber arrives at the anchor they signal with a non-standard signal that could have multiple interpretations. I often teach students that “OK” is a dangerous word in climbing. It can mean so many things and undoubtedly has lead to belayers believing one thing while the climber meant something else. Does OK mean you are in-direct to the anchor? Does it mean you are hiking down? Setting up a rappel?


Solutions

First we need to add a final step to our belay check when climbing in a single-pitch environment. Essentially our belay check should look like this.

“On Belay?” – climber

“Belay on.” – belayer

“What are you going to do at the top?” – belayer

“I’m planning to have you lower me through the fixed gear”- climber

or

“I’m planning to go in direct, call off belay, and rig to rappel” – climber

or

“I’m going to come off belay toss the rope down and hike back down” – climber

This communication, referred to as an “action plan” by the AAC, prior to leaving the ground would certainly help prevent many of the close calls and likely some of the serious accidents that occur. It is much easier to communicate with your partner during the belay check then when you are 90 feet above them at the anchor.

Stick to standard commands. “On belay, take, tension, slack, lower, off belay”. At busy crags use names and space out the sylables to be clearly understood by your belayer.

“John….  Off……  Belay” -climber

As a belayer make sure the command you heard was from your partner.

“Jane… Was… That… You?”- belayer

“John…. Yes…. Off….. Belay” – climber

Rock Climbing Belay Check
A busy day at the crag requires solid communication between belayer and climber- photo by @alexandraroberts

When the option exists chose to be lowered over rappelling. Lowering is often faster than setting up a rappel and argue-ably safer as the climber never needs to come off belay. The belayer knows the belay must stay intact until the climber is back on the ground. The AAC does a great job of explaining this skill here and in this video:


Summary

Climbing IS dangerous. Even with all the high quality safety gear and available training and knowledge we will continue to see tragic loss of life to seemingly easily preventable accidents. But…

We can see a reduction in accidents if we continually challenge ourselves and the climbing community at large to make small improvements in our methodology. Make sharing your “action plan” part of every belay check!

References

Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2013, pages 9-12

Accidents in North American Climbing, 2016, page 125

Mountain Project Accident Forum

Book Review Coming Soon!

Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers

Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers
Vertical Aid: Essential Wilderness Medicine for Climbers, Trekkers, and Mountaineers

15 thoughts on “Improved Belay Check

  1. Hey there,

    As a board member of CRAG VT and a part of the Vermont climbing community still processing this, I think this is a well-explained and important reminder. Even not knowing all the details, it still addresses many of the most common lowering/rappelling mistakes.

    The only thing I’d add would be measures for making sure the ends of the rope are even and/or on the ground. But really that’s a different flavor of the same general topic.

    Thanks for posting,
    -Kris

    • Hello Kris,

      First my sincere condolences to you and the Vermont climbing community’s loss and the friends and family of the victim. The decision to write about a topic and connect it to such a recent tragedy is a tough personal one for me but I feel that messages like this can have the greatest impact when they come at a relevant time.

      As for the rope end suggestions they are spot on, and I wrote about that topic last year. I will link it here: https://northeastalpinestart.com/2016/10/04/this-knot-can-save-your-life/.

      Best,

      David

  2. It is often very difficult to hear what a climber at the top is saying to the belayer at the bottom. This is why these accidents occur. I recommend that the climber and belayer do all this communication BEFORE the climber begins. That way they both know what they have planned.

    • Thanks for commenting Marilyn… that sharing of the “action plan” during the belay check is pretty much the main point I was trying to make in the post.

  3. Been doing these things for years.
    On belay is default.
    All verbal commands are confirmed.
    Tell the belayer what you plan to do at the top.
    If you can’t hear, 3 steady pulls indicate a change of status – if you are in doubt, give a few feet of slack and clove off to the bottom anchor.

    • Good habits for sure! Although the “3 pulls indicate something” has always made me nervous. I could imagine a belayer thinking they felt three steady pulls when I was just trying to get more slack to make a clip.

      • Yep, not the best, but as long as it continues to make you nervous. And you back it up when in doubt.
        The context matters, and I can’t think of a situation where I was communicating by rope pulls with the intention of being lowered.
        Some people carry those wee walkie-talkies, but they are time-consuming and an extra item in the pack.
        You put a radio in the pack, and then another liter of water, some ascenders, then a belay seat, then a tent…pretty soon you are just hiking.

  4. Great article. Agreeing on the descent plan beforehand is always a good idea. However, the plan should consider that the plan might change due to unexpected circumstances. For example, the anchor gear might be different than it was expected and the climber has to change the plan (for example, he decides to be lowered instead of rappel). This change of the plan might occur when the climber and belayer cannot easily communicate (wind, noise, etc.). The belayer must keep the climber on belay until there is 100% certainty that the belay is not needed. If any doubt, keep the belay on.

    • Agreed! The “action plan” must be flexible. Mine usually sounds like “I think I’m going to rig to lower but I’ll let you know if something changes once I see what the anchor is.” Thanks for commenting!

  5. Don’t know that I agree that it is safer to lower than rappel as lowering involves another human in the system and humans are ALWAYS the weak link in the system. But having been doing this for 35 odd years I remember that it is always better to walk down if you can and remove gravity from the system. One of the many tragic parts of this incident is that it is about a 3 min. walk down from the top of Harvest Moon to the base.

    • Thanks for the comment Jim! When it comes down to it lowering and rappelling are equally dangerous (or safe) because both can be done incorrectly (or correctly) and gravity is not forgiving. The “walking down” option is definitely a nice choice! It allows one to relax a little on the risk management after a climb but is often not feasible in places like Rumney/Echo Crag where cliff top vegetation is being protected.

  6. Hi David,

    as always, a very nice, informative and well presented post!

    Thanks for posting such interesting topics. Your blog is one of the most interesting on this field and your readers can learn a lot from all the info you provide.

    Thanks again for all the effort.

Leave a Reply