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

Part 2: The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

Part 2 of this three part Cascade climbing series will cover The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak.

Part 2: The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak with Moraine Lake far below

Part 1: Fisher Chimney’s, Mount Shuksan

Part 2: The West Ridge, Forbidden Peak

Part 3: Disappointment Cleaver, Mount Rainier

After our successful summit of Mount Shuksan via the Fisher Chimney’s we took a rest day and camped at Douglas Fir Campground. The next day we drove to the ranger station in Marblemount to collect our back-country permit and then took the scenic Cascade River Road to the trail-head.


The Route

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak is one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America” and is considered Grade II, YDS 5.6. After a half day approach into Boston Basin the route climbs a perennial snow field before ascending a moderate gully to one of the most spectacular ridge climbs you can imagine. Massive exposure with relatively good rock quality and a stunning summit make it easy to see why this route made the aforementioned list!


Registration Details (from NPS.gov)

WILDERNESS INFORMATION CENTER

Wilderness Information Center
Click here for current hours

Phone: 360-854-7245
Location:
 7280 Ranger Station Rd., Marblemount, WA 98267. Drive SR 20 toward Marblemount. Turn onto Ranger Station Road, which leaves SR 20 at milepost 105.3, just west of Marblemount, and drive 0.7 miles to the end of the road and the ranger station.
Exhibits: Exhibits about wilderness and backcountry travel. Relief map. Sales of books, maps, and other items related to wilderness, hiking, and climbing.


Available Facilities:
 This center is the main backcountry permit office for North Cascades National Park and the adjacent Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. Information desk. Sales area with books, maps, videos, and other items related to the national park and adjacent national forests. Backcountry permits are required year-round and are available at an outdoor self-issue station when the station is closed during the winter season.


Getting There

Marblemount, WA is just under two hours from Seattle. After obtaining your permit from the ranger station it’s about a twenty five minute drive to the unmarked trail-head.

Forbidden Peak Map
I’ve highlighted the ranger station and the objective

Weather

We went for the second half of July and were lucky to nail a 12 day stretch of excellent weather. June, July, and August can all offer great summer alpine climbing conditions with June being a bit colder and wetter and August opening up a bit more crevasses on the glaciers. For mountain specific weather forecasts on Forbidden Peak go here:

Mountain Weather Forecast- Forbidden Peak


Day 1 GPS Details

Approach to Boston Basin
You can download this GPS track here!

The approach trail climbs about 3,300 feet in 3.75 miles and took us exactly three hours. We found some level tent sites at the “upper bivy” right at the toe of the snowfield that provided plenty of running water. A few brief showers came through and we were treated to some excellent “god rays” as the sun set and we turned in for an alpine start.

The Upper Bivy in Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak
The Upper Bivy in Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak

The next day we started out at about 4 AM.

Alpine start, Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak
Alpine start, Boston Basin, Forbidden Peak

Day 2 GPS Details

West Ridge Forbidden Peak Ascent
Download this GPX file here
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Heading to “the Heartstone”, a good landmark feature, the steeper snow climbing begins on the left side of this feature a couple hundred feet above us. Photo from @mattbaldeli

Easy climbing up through the snowfield brought us to the start of the gully that would allow access to the ridge. The “Heartstone” is a rock buttress directly above us in the photo that serves as a good landmark for finding the snow gully that is hidden from view. The route climbed up thinning snow just to the left of this feature. In the gully proper the snow climbing was straight forward until we hit a glide crack that required a big balance step to surmount. The snow ended about 200 feet from the ridge so we pitched out a few short 3rd-4th class pitches. This stretch was the only place on the ascent that had a decent amount of loose rock so care was needed.

We stashed our mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes and switched into approach shoes for the rest of the climb in the small col on the ridge. The exposure begins almost immediately with a airy step over a gap in the ridge with a chock-stone that perfectly frames the lower snow gully you just climbed up. You can see this spot clearly in the video I will link further below.

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Working our way along this classic alpine ridge

The climbing was enjoyable, the rock felt solid, the views were un-believe-able… For speed we mixed up our techniques between simul-climbing and short-pitching with only about 20 meters of rope between us. This made for easy communication and simplified rope management.

The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The author at the 5.6 crux
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Two parties behind us on the ridge, photo by Matty Bowman
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Close to summit selfies?
The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Summit! The West Ridge of Forbidden Peak

We made the summit in 7.5 hours after leaving our camp in Boston Basin having climbed 3.9 miles and over 2,500 feet in elevation. The small pointed summit of Forbidden is one of the most amazing places I have ever stood in the mountains. The terrain is so dramatic as you look back along the ridge you just traversed and see the thousand feet of air on each side.

West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
Looking back along the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak from the summit with Moraine Lake far below
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak- photo by Matt Baldelli Photography
West Ridge of Forbidden Peak
The author descending from summit- photo by Matt Baldelli Photography

Descent

After refueling we reversed direction and returned to the col to collect our snow gear. We then scrambled down to skiers right of the snow gully we had ascended and located the first rappel anchor in “Cat Scratch Gully”, an alternate 4th class ascent route to the snow gully. Five 30m rappels brought us to back to the snowfield where we enjoyed some decent boot glissading in the warming snow all the way back down to our camp.

We packed up camp and hiked back out to the trailhead in just under 2 hours.

Summary

I’ve had some time to reflect on this climb and I can say with certainty it will be one of the most memorable climbs of my life. I feel so fortunate to have not only had the opportunity to climb it but to do so with such great partners and friends and perfect weather and route conditions. I hope this trip report and guide might help you plan a trip to this incredible place someday!

Gear List

If you are interested in the gear I used on this trip you can find a complete and comprehensive gear list here!

Videos

Here’s a four minute video I made of our climb, enjoy!

 

My friend and professional video producer created this amazing short film of our climb! Check it out!

Forbidden Peak from Jon Mercer on Vimeo.


Information on Guided Trips: www.nemmountaineering.com. Click on “Mountaineering” to see all Cascade Climbing Trips.

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Whitehorse and Cathedral Ledge Rock Climbing

Yesterday I had the pleasure of introducing David and his daughter Nicole to rock climbing in Echo Lake State Park. We started our morning over at the sweeping granite slabs of Whitehorse Ledge. After some ground school we climbed 4 pitches to Lunch Ledge then rappelled back to the deck. After a scenic lunch a top Cathedral we rappelled the Barber Wall and climbed Upper Refuse to round out our day.

It was great meeting you both and I hope to see you back this winter for that Washington climb!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Tech Tip- Flipping A Plaquette (And Giveaway!)

Climb long enough and eventually you will rappel past the next anchor and need to climb back up to it. Or you will rappel past a tangle in your ropes assuming it will untangle itself from those bushes when you are below (it didn’t). You might also end up needing to ascend the belay side of a top-rope to assist a nervous (or stuck) climber or rescue an injured lead climber. For these occasions you’ll be glad you know how to “flip a plaquette” from belay/rappel mode into “guide” mode. In this configuration your belay device functions as a reliable improvised ascender.


 


The first thing you’ll obviously need is a plaquette style belay device. There are many out there to chose from but these are my current favorites:

Petzl Reverso 4 Belay Device

Black Diamond ATC Guide Belay Device

DMM Pivot Belay Device

These and quite a few other suitable models can be found on Backcountry.com HERE.

The above short demonstration video shows the steps of flipping a plaquette while rappelling on an extension which happens to be the simplest situation. Let’s go over the more complex method first.


Flipping a plaquette when it is directly off your belay loop

There are a few scenarios where this might be a good solution. First, you are rappelling directly off your belay loop and realize you’ve passed your anchor. Second, you are belaying a climber on a top-rope system and they need assistance. Third, you’ve caught a leader fall but the leader is injured and needs assistance. So let’s break down the steps.

  1. While maintaining a brake-hand tie an over-hand bight a couple of feet below the device and clip this to your belay loop. This step is important because step 3 carries with it some risk if one is not careful.
  2. Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” or “anchor point” of your plaquette and attach that to your belay loop.
  3. Carefully open the belay carabiner in a manner that traps the rope in the narrow side of the belay carabiner while removing the belay carabiner from the belay loop. This is best accomplished by rotating the belay carabiner so the narrower side is pointing away from you.
  4. On moderate low angle terrain you may be able to start walking/climbing back up while pulling the slack through your device which is essentially in “guide” mode now directly off your belay loop. If the terrain is steep you can add a friction hitch above your device and extend it to a foot loop.

Flipping a plaquette when it is extended off your belay loop

Since extending your rappel device away from you has lots of advantages more and more climbers are defaulting to this option. Yet one more advantage to extended rappel systems is the fact there is literally just one step to flipping the plaquette and you do not need to open the rappel carabiner at all!

  1. Clip a locking carabiner to the “ear” or “anchor point” of your plaquette and attach that to your belay loop.
  2. Ascend as in step 3 above.

So that’s it! You now know how to flip a plaquette and get yourself out of quite a few possible situations that undoubtedly will pop up over your long adventurous climbing career! Thanks for reading!

 

Contest: Win a Free DMM Pivot Belay Device!

pivot-red

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References/More Info

The Mountain Guide Manual– pages 11-12

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Tying an Auto-Locking Munter Hitch

Continuing my almost weekly Tuesday (not always Tuesday) Tech Tip series this week I’m sharing how to build the Auto-Locking Munter (ALM) hitch. In last weeks post I shared how to tie a Munter Hitch (MH) directly onto a carabiner, a skill useful for any climber. This skill is a little more specialized and its usefulness can certainly be debated. I’m of the camp that believes more tools and options can be a good thing, if one is cautious as to when and why to apply such a skill. Let’s watch the video and then take a look at some scenarios where this skill can be useful and also address some of its limitations.

Now let’s take a closer look at this skill and where it might be helpful (or make matters worse). The first thing I’ll get out of the way is my mispronunciation of the hitch. “Munter” is correctly pronounced “Moon-Ter”. I apologize for my error and hope you’ll forgive me.

Another point that might seem important to some and minutiae to others is the lack of emphasis I place on tying the hitch with the load strand along the spine of the carabiner, which would essentially make the overall carabiner/hitch system able to withstand a larger amount of force. This author, along with some others whose comments can be found at the various referenced links I’ll include below, believe that the carabiner/hitch system will be able to withstand any potential load without carabiner failure. In fact I would argue if the system saw the amount of force that would make this load strand orientation important it would likely exceed the holding strength of a MH anyways, so I have decided to leave this out (except for this lengthy explanation as to “why”). By all means, if you strive for perfection you can spend some time mastering getting the load strand along the spine.

Carabiner Choice

We should mention that the MH, and therefore the ALM, work best with large pear shaped carabiners. My favorite two carabiners for this hitch are the Petzl William Screw Lock Carabiner and the Petzl Attache. I prefer screw gate lockers when building MH/ALM’s because various auto-locking carabiners’s can slightly slow down the process and I’ve always liked Petzl’s “red unlocked indicator”.

Usefulness

Next we should discuss the usefulness of the ALM, a skill some have claimed is more a “guiding” tool then something a recreational climber should employ. To that I argue if you’ve already been using the MH (because it’s a great tool) then I think it is not a far stretch to add this adaptation of a hitch you are already using to your tool belt… with some understanding of the problems it might create. Let’s start with the “good” first.

There are many situations where I’ll choose a MH over my plaquette belay device (Black Diamond Guide ATC, Petzl Reverso, GiGi, etc). Moving quickly in alpine terrain, converting a basic “biner” belay on low angle slab to a more secure option, iced up winter ropes; all can be good situations to use the MH. Generally speaking these are situations where I am not expecting a second to even take a fall. From here there are a few things that can occur that can make converting the MH into an ALM a handy skill to have.

The Un-Expected

Your new partner who said he could easily follow 5.x struggles hard at the crux and calls to you that he can’t get through the moves. You start regretting not using your plaquette so that you can quickly build a 3:1 raise and give him a little “help” through the crux moves. Luckily you know the ALM and have a 3:1 built in a few seconds giving him the tension he needs to get through the tougher moves and carry on with the climb. It should be noted you will lose some efficacy in the haul system as the ALM does create more friction then most plaquettes.

The Expected

Perhaps the pitch is 5.5 slab running up to a 5.9 thin bulge crux right at the end… you go with a quick moving MH and right before your parter starts moving through the crux you slip the 2nd locker into place and have just created a more secure belay… or maybe you just wanted to get a great shot of her stemming up the final corner and the ALM offers a bit more piece of mind while you lean out over the belay ledge to get the angle right…

The Improvised

You can use an ALM directly off your belay loop as part of a rope ascension system. A flipped plaquette, Petzl GriGri, Petzl Micro Traxion Pulley, or actual ascender will make rope ascension MUCH easier but this is a potential solution if you find yourself without any other tools. If you practice this at all IRL you’ll probably quickly decide to always carry a more efficient means of “progress capture” for rope ascension.

Concerns

The biggest issue with the ALM is the complications that arise if you find yourself in need of lowering your partner after they have loaded the ALM. The worst case scenario would look something like this… You’re climbing an overhanging route and decide to use the ALM while your partner follows the last pitch. He botches a sequence under the roof and ends up hanging on the rope 5 feet from the wall due to the nature of the climb. The ALM has done its job and is easily holding the climber, but now what? There is a great ledge just 20 feet below the climber and if you had been using a classic MH you would simply lower him back to the ledge (or ground) to try the climb again. You could haul, but a 3:1 even with better efficiency than an ALM would be near impossible to hoist a 180 pound climber who is free hanging… a 5:1 might work but lowering seems so much quicker and less complicated. In this situation a quick block and tackle may take enough stress off the load strand to allow you to remove the 2nd carabiner that makes the MH an ALM allowing you to lower them back to the ledge. Even without a simple load transfer a small locking carabiner without a notched gate can likely be removed from a loaded ALM with some aggressive wiggling but an understanding of load-transfers (or the fore-sight to perhaps use a different option in overhanging terrain) would be prudent. A tested friction-hitch back up would be a wise addition here before removing the 2nd carabiner.

Summary

Like most climbing skills the Auto-Locking Munter is an option and not a solution for every situation. I find it useful a few times a season and think it’s a good tool to add to your kit. You should practice it quite a few times in non-life threatening situations before using it 600 feet up your next route.

Comment below! Was this Tech Tip new to you? Old news? Want to see more? Thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

More Info/References/Reading:

https://www.climbing.com/skills/auto-blocking-munter/

https://www.climbing.com/skills/munter-magic/

https://www.mountainproject.com/forum/topic/107449883/tech-tip-auto-locking-munter-alm-dos-and-donts

http://www.karstendelap.com/2012/05/09/lockingmunterhitch/

https://www.mountainproject.com/forum/topic/108253899/garda-knot#a_108254353

 

 

Cliff Rappelling

Yesterday I took Dianna and Annie on their first outdoor rappelling adventure in scenic Pinkham Notch for Northeast Mountaineering. The weather was stellar and both of these thrill seekers took multiple rides down the 140 foot west face and the shorter overhanging south side, each time becoming more comfortable with the process and exposure. Here’s a quick clip of their adventure!


 


The Waterfall and Cliff Rappelling adventures Northeast Mountaineering offers can be an excellent way to have a little adrenaline rush while learning a little bit about a fundamental skill of the broader sport of climbing. I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t see Dianna and Annie back here for a rock climbing adventure in the near future!

Book any lesson on http://www.nemountaineering.com and use promo code “DavidNEM” to be entered in a monthly raffle to win a free guided day of your choice!

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start



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Waterfall Rappelling, right before Flash Floods and Tornadoes!

Following Antonio’s 16 pitches of climbing on Cathedral I re-scheduled his alpine climbing day to Monday based on the weather forecasts indicating some severe afternoon weather. It was with a little irony that by freeing up that day my boss asked if I could cover a Waterfall Rappelling adventure so he could attend Marc’s Guide Manual Clinic yesterday.

Avoiding getting caught above tree-line in a thunderstorm was therefore traded with standing in a river at the top of a waterfall. A closer look at the updated weather models though indicated the disturbances would not start until about 1 PM and I felt we could run our 6 guests through the course and be back at the cars before it got to hairy.

Everyone in the group got to rappel at least twice while I closely monitored the sky. It’s difficult to hear thunderstorms approaching over the roar of a waterfall but around 12 PM I felt the air change, the temperature drop, and an updraft develop. We had one pair returning to the top to conduct their third and final rappel when I heard the first boom, followed by a few big fat cold raindrops that lasted only a few seconds, then a second boom. I radioed my co-guide Peter that we were shutting it down and we packed up and casually hiked out reaching the parking lot in a light rain. 2 minutes later driving on Route 302 through torrential downpours I knew we pulled the plug at the right moment.

These storms would intensify over the next 8 hours and actually trigger at least three tornadoes in western Maine, just 15 miles west of North Conway! Thankfully no one was hurt through there was some property damage. I confess I am fascinated by extreme weather and to me this whole weather event was great to witness. Maine averages 2 tornadoes a year so three in one day is quite historic!

Tomorrow’s weather looks a lot nicer for an alpine objective so Antonio and I will likely be heading up high somewhere!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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