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

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!

 

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References/More Info

The Mountain Guide Manual– pages 11-12

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