Climbing Safely: Things To Consider

Josh Great Barringtob

Climbing is a dangerous sport. It might be weird to hear considering how many times we can climb things and feel like there is not an element of danger. Part of this is that we learn to trust our gear and our ability and we build up confidence. Another part of it is that actual climbing does not seem comparable in danger to how non-climbers view it. We always seem to feel better about it.

Let’s take Alex Honnold for example. For most people without a familiarity with free soloing, it seems crazy dangerous how high he climbs. However, from his point of view, he is climbing things he feels solid on, has worked out to some degree, and would consider easy. His climbs are in the higher grades, but from his view point it would be like an intermediate climber soloing a 5.5. It doesn’t feel as dangerous. Similarly, most sport climbers have probably had at least one experience where someone thought what they were doing was ridiculous and crazy regardless of level because people are scared of heights, they don’t understand the gear, and they have a much higher expectancy for something to go wrong. We get comfortable in climbing because we get strong, we get used to things not going wrong, and we feel capable. We also get used to having thoughts of “oh its not that bad.”

When I was younger, I was really into skateboarding. At the beginning, I could understand the danger. All beginners end up with some knee scraps at the least, often greater injuries are possible. Technically, there is a plethora of possible accidents and injuries that are possible. I started off cautious. However, I got better, I felt more confident, and I had been in a few situations where I could have gotten hurt but didn’t. I started to feel a bit invincible. This showed in the fact that I rode my skateboard down a decently busy street with my dog pulling me behind her with the lease, a soda in my hand, and headphones blasting music so loud I most certainly could not hear anything never mind the cars that whizzed by me.

from amazinganimalstories.com

from amazinganimalstories.com

To those cars I was a complete maniac. They slowed down, gave me the distance they should give cyclist but never do, and seemed scared to be anywhere near me. They couldn’t believe what I was doing. In fact, most people in general thought I was nuts. From my perspective, I trusted my dog. I knew she was the kind that would run well and wouldn’t alter her course from the road. I probably wouldn’t do that with any other dog. I trusted my ability to stop, jump off, or swerve out of the road. I was fantastic at doing really sharp turns when I needed to. I was comfortable with the fact that I could lose my drink. It was in a safe plastic cup. The music didn’t matter because I planned to stay on my part of the road and it helped keep me calm. Hearing the cars would have been more unnerving and the confidence is helpful to have.

The point is, while it is necessary and good to feel capable and confident, and it is natural to feel strong and able to accomplish more, there are always things that could go wrong. Sure I knew what I was doing on that skateboard and I couldn’t understand the fear others had, but really no one doubted my ability, they doubted that every car would respect me. They knew some people would fly by me without a care in the world because they NEED to be somewhere on time. They knew people might be drunk driving or messing with the radio. They knew that I could hit a patch of sand that could cause the wheels to stop. They knew I could run over glass that could possible cause an accident. They knew that animals are mostly predictable when raised right but there is always a chance. There could have been that one thing that spooked her or caught her eye. Things can happen and at some point they might.

josh 3

I never ran into a bad incident on my skateboard luckily. As much as what I did might have seemed crazy, there were safety precautions that I always followed. I always got right off the board if I saw another dog, squirrel, or anything that might make my dog stray. I stopped and slowed her down if she was going too fast as well. I stayed on my portion of the road, or at least what I feel is fair for not having sidewalks anywhere. I would never use a breakable cup for any drinks I had. You can be confident, fearless, and a little on the risky side, but why risk not following basic precautions? It is good we have some things to keep us in check and keep us safe, and we really should make sure to honor them.

Let’s start with belayers. I have belayed a good amount of people who had never met or talked to me before, and it amazes me how many assume I know what I’m doing and never check with me. I learned better. One time I was climbing with a new belayer. He seemed to have it down from the initial check and I climbed to the top. I prepared myself to be lowered and then…nothing. I looked down to see what was going on. He said he didn’t know how to lower me. What? I was trying to give him instructions from the top which is hard because it is hard to hear people at the top and it was terrifying not seeing exactly how he was interpreting what I said. Luckily it was at a gym and one of the staff came running over to help and correct the problem. What if this was outside? And it could be. Random people outside have asked me for a belay because they were in a group with uneven numbers or some other various reason.

For the most part it works out fine. It is great to meet new belayers and I encourage people to. However, you can at least chat a bit and see what they know and don’t know. Someone asked me the other day to belay him for a sport route. I was certified, I had belayed many times before, and I have this blog so I always read about what to do. However, for like over a year I’ve really done nothing but boulder and sometimes things get foggy for people. I was a safe belayer and did a great job, at least I think so, however, I was surprised that person never really asked me about it or checked in that I knew. They never made sure I had the rope right or that I had locked the belay device in.

Now when you check with a belayer I’m sure like 90 percent of the time it will all be fine and seem silly to bother. However, you might just catch that one little error. Maybe they accidentally didn’t get the rope and belay device in the carabiner. Maybe they didn’t lock it. Maybe they aren’t sure what to do at a certain point. I always like to check in with people first to at least know they will give me the type of catches I want because I’m scared of falling and when I do fall, I want it to be as reassuring as possible to not increase my fear.

It’s always good to check in with a climber as well or to remember to double check yourself. Sometimes people get distracted and make errors with their knot. I can’t remember ever making a knot error on the ground, but I have made ones tying back in after cleaning an anchor. Luckily I do double check a few times in those cases. So far I have caught and fixed each one I made. However, imagine if I didn’t check? What a place to have messed up, right? It is always important to check your work and help each other remember to check what we’ve done. Little mistakes can happen, especially when you think they never will.

top roping

I have seen countless little errors committed by climbers at various levels in all forms of climbing. Most of them turn out okay, but what if it happens to be that one time it won’t. A lot of climbers are especially careless on easy routes. They think they can climb an easy boulder without pads, they can free solo a climb at an easy grade because it is that easy, they can skip clips when they are too close to the ground, etc. Careless behavior like that often goes on without consequence because most of the time it is that easy. This encourages people to not worry. However, what about when a hold breaks off, what about when a spider crawls onto your hand, or you reach into a pocket to find a poisonous snake. These things I’ve experienced, though I had all my safety in order so falling would have been fine. What if you didn’t? You either have to know mentally how to respond or you have to know you are safe to fall. Either one involves safety precautions.

Climbing.com wrote an excellent article on climbing mistakes and what to do to avoid them. I recommend checking it out: http://www.climbing.com/skill/50-ways-to-flail/

Climbing is risky and it always will be. For some of us that risk is what draws us in. However, there are some basic risks we can eliminate and should.

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