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…
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…
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.
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.
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?
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
“I’m planning to go in direct, call off belay, and rig to rappel” – climber
“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
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:
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!
Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 2013, pages 9-12
Accidents in North American Climbing, 2016, page 125
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