Importance of Climbing Safety Education in College Outing Clubs

In Climbing, Featured by Tal ShutkinLeave a Comment

Header photo credit: Colby Yee, @colby_yee

I was halfway up the first pitch on Looking Glass Rock in southeast Utah when I heard a thud. To my left, I watched as a climber rolled downslope away from the rock face and came to rest in a sandpit below. Dropped by his belayer while descending, the nineteen year old fell about twenty feet before hitting the steep rocky ground and bouncing another fifteen feet down into the sand. Due to my position on the wall, I didn’t see his fall, but the bleeding on his arms and face told me that it had been quite bad.

Looking Glass Rock is an easy climb. Going at three short pitches of 5.4 sport climbing, its allure is not in the ascent. Rather, hordes of climbers flock to the rock just south of Moab to enjoy the ~35 meter free rappel descent off the other side. Just a two minute walk from highway 191, Looking Glass Rock seems more like a ride at the San Juan County Fair than a multi-pitch climb. With thrilling objectives that are attainable after minimal technical training, climbs like Looking Glass might explain why more accidents tend to happen on easier climbs.

The accident I witnessed testifies to the ride-like nature of the crag. A group of new climbers enjoying some time off from school in Colorado had set up a swing on the rappel chains–a common practice at Looking Glass Rock. Like many who climb there, they were having a good time taking turns tying in and swinging, while a belayer slowly lowered them down. The mood reversed, however, when at the top of his swing, one climber launched off the end of his rope and plummeted to the ground.

There was panic, crying, shock. At the time, no one knew exactly what happened, only that there was a kid bleeding in the sand. Thankfully, my belayer was a Wilderness First Responder and after safely lowering me to the ground, was composed enough to tend to the boy’s injuries until the paramedics arrived. Taken away in an ambulance with a collapsed lung, cracked pelvis, and other injuries, the climber was badly hurt, but he survived.

Paramedics arriving at the scene.

What Went Wrong

The group had rigged their swing by running a rope through the rappel chains at the top of the hollow half dome at the far side of Looking Glass Rock. The person swinging tied into the end of the rope and stood at the top of a steep slope. After a belayer on the other end took in all of the slack in the rope, the swinger would jump off, penduluming in and out of the dome, reaching heights of about fifty feet above the ground on the downslope side. The belayer would then slowly lower the swinger until they landed delicately on the rocks below the chains.

While no one can say for certain what caused this accident, a few things are clear. The anchor, rope, and belay device were intact, and the injured climber was still fastened to his rope. The point of failure must have been the belay. In other words, the belayer lost control, and the rope pulled through his device. This, however, could have been insured against by a proper stopper knot at the end of the belay strand to close the system.

But why was there no knot, and why did the belayer lose control?

A guide I was privileged enough to follow on a climb in the North Cascades taught me that we often hear only the conclusions of accidents: “She fell into a crevasse, he got lowered off his rope.” What we don’t usually hear in accident reports is the chain of events that led to that final mistake. This chain may begin days or weeks earlier when a climber decides, for example, to ignore the persistent numbness in her toes, develops frostbite, walks with a slight limp for days, then finally, takes one clumsy step. It is imperative, the guide insisted, to break the chain of events early on.

Why it Went Wrong

I can’t help but think that the accident at Looking Glass Rock began months, maybe years prior, as misconceptions and bad habits were tolerated and adopted as acceptable practice. Today, climbing is skyrocketing in popularity. Particularly on college campuses like the one where this group of climbers came from, more and more young people are exposed to the joy, beauty, and danger of rock climbing. Two major avenues seem to bring college students to rock climbing and both must do their part in propagating safe practices.

First are rock gyms.

I am no purist out to bash gyms. Like many others who were introduced to climbing during college, I have spent far more time pulling on plastic than actual rock. However, while gyms have supported the athletic and creative evolution of climbing, they have also created a sterile environment where the unwary may forget the simple fact that climbing is dangerous. Many gyms recognize this and take strides to correct the unintended consequence of their service. Vertical Adventures, a gym in Columbus, Ohio, for example, has even adopted the motto “Climbing is Dangerous,” as if to remind us all that there are no padded floors in the outdoors.  

Related: Ranked: The Swankiest (and Jankiest) College Climbing Gyms

Second are campus outdoors clubs.

My school’s club was certainly my gateway to the world of climbing. With more and more students joining outdoors clubs, peer-to-peer education is likely the most common way climbers learn new skills. In my opinion, this is a good thing. Climbing should stay true to its unregimented and free-spirited roots. However, free-spirited does not mean care-free. Leaders of campus outdoors clubs have the ethical responsibility to educate newer climbers and to pass down safe and sound technique to the next generation of leaders. Bad advice given today can potentially injure people years into the future.

While we can’t know for sure, it seems that the climbers I saw at Looking Glass Rock were victims of bad advice, or at least lack of advice. There are two pieces of evidence: 1) Improper use of a Grigri belay device, 2) Failure to tie a proper stopper knot.

The Petzl Grigri belay device is an amazing piece of technology that has saved many lives by introducing assisted braking as a second line of defense for climbers. If something, say a falling rock, incapacitates a belayer, the Grigri can potentially hold a fall on its own. It is important to know, however, that a Grigri provides an assisted brake, not an auto-brake. A belayer should absolutely never let go of their brake hand while using a Grigri. Similarly, a stopper knot offers defense against belaying (and lowering) mistakes by preventing the rope from moving all the way through the belay device.

Based on my own anecdotal observations, most people never tie stopper knots while lead climbing. In the case at Looking Glass Rock, the group tied what they thought was a stopper knot. But when it came time for the knot to prove its worth, it rolled all the way out, allowing the end of the rope to pass through the belay device. Poor practices passed from peer to peer put a life in danger.

What We Can Do About it

Each year, college outdoors clubs empower hundreds of students to experience the joys of rock climbing. Whether on club endorsed trips, or independent adventures with friends like the group I met at Looking Glass, students take skills learned from their club leaders and apply them at crags all across the country. To avoid accidents like the one at Looking Glass Rock, outdoors clubs should incorporate education into their missions. Here are a few things campus organizations can do to promote safe practice among their members:

  1. Host clinics. Make time to educate new and old members about climbing safety. For example, how to rappel safely, or how to lead belay correctly. Experienced climbers and educators should teach these clinics.
  2. Reserve some trips to focus on education. Partner new and experienced climbers so that skills don’t disappear from the club when leaders graduate.
  3. Get certified. Mentoring is ineffective if the habits being passed down are wrong, outdated, or unsafe. Make sure that teachers actually know their shit. This may mean encouraging club leaders to take classes through the American Alpine Club, participating in the American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor program, or similar courses. Having certified Wilderness First Responders within your organization is also vital in case an accident does occur.

The purpose of this article is not to discourage people from climbing, but rather to encourage climbers to commit to educating ourselves about the safest practices available. For me, developing technical skills, striving to become as fluent in manipulating my gear as I am in maneuvering my body, adds a solicited layer of complexity and joy to rock climbing. It also makes my mom a little cooler with it.

Stay tuned for my next article on how to minimize risk while rappelling!

Check out this climbing gear to help you and your friends safe while you’re out there crushing it:
  1. A solid harness, not one your great-great uncle gave you that’s been sitting in the attic covered in moths for 100 years. Check out the Metolius Safe Tech All-Around Harness for maximum safety ratings.
  2. Carabiners. For real levels of safety in belaying your partner, get an auto-locking biner like the Freino Carabiner.
  3. A good rope. It’s imperative to make sure your rope is still strong enough to take falls on. Keep it safe and clean with a rope bag and tarp.
  4. Make sure your cams and other rock climbing protection gear are in good shape. Same goes for quickdraws.
  5. Look into bringing safety and rescue gear with you. Always prepare yourself.

There are so many great programs out there helping educate climbers so we can all safely do what we love. Read about College Outside’s experience with one of these clubs here:

College Outside Takes the American Alpine Club Benefit Dinner

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