Can you imagine having been one of the pioneers of climbing? Back in a day when hemp or cotton ropes were as good as it got, your pro was pitons that you had forged yourself, harnesses weren’t even an idea yet. Talk about not wanting to fall, back then a fall was almost certainly a one way ticket to meet the river boat captain. Today, gear has improved significantly, we have uber stretchy nylon ropes, all sorts of tested and proven clean pro, and *gasp* bolts…. The gear has improved so much that many climbers don’t even think twice about taking a big whip on it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 10a climber eyeing that 12d sport route, with a stick clip to get the first bolt you might be able to send it after a plethora of falls and if you can’t….. just leave a bail biner on the highest bolt you get to and call it a day, after all hero or zero right? Hell, there are even climbers that’ll preach “you need to take practice lead falls to learn to trust your gear”. But, to what end does this become acceptable practice?
As for myself, I don’t believe in falling, THE LEADER MUST NOT FALL. And no matter how many times I fall on lead cleanly, I will always maintain the ideal. Yes many a climber has fallen and come home safe, yes the gear is designed to make falling “safer” than it was back in the day, but no matter how good gear becomes there will NEVER be a guarantee that a fall won’t get somebody hurt. Notice my use of somebody, not the leader or falling climber. When you fall you’re not the only one tied into the rope and therefor you’re not the only one at risk.
When I began my return to the vertical world one of the biggest challenges was finding people to tie in with, after all when you tie in a climber’s life is in the hands of the belayer, and the belayer is trusting the lead to not screw the pooch and get everyone hurt or killed. As many a climber has done before me I resorted to making a http://mountainproject.com/ account and tearing through the forums. Interesting enough is the accidents and injury forum, where at the time had a post from a local Ogden climber that shattered her knee cap on a whip, and she stated she had just convinced herself that falling was safe…. Ooooops….. Wouldn’t want to be that knee. ( http://mountainproject.com/v/broke-kneecap-in-lead-fall/107577768 ) Now mind you it’s somewhat of a petty example of things but it’s also one of the original posts that started my chewing on this very write up. The first mistake was getting this modern idea that falling is safe.
As a pilot I have an insane amount of class room time studying Human Factors, and being a Coast Guard Coxswain prior to becoming a pilot I had already immersed in studying such before accruing all that classroom time. In studying such one gets to know the idea of an accident chain very well, this is the string of events leading up to an accident, and if any one event had been different the entire accident more than likely would never have happened. Some of these events are uncontrollable like weather, some are controllable like situational awareness, and many are avoidable with an attitude change. I bring this up because the accident chain applies to every accident of any type in any setting, including climbing accidents. In every single climbing accident from a leader falling one link that could have been pulled and prevented the accident is the leader falling…. Hate to say it so plainly but if you don’t fall then you can’t get hurt by a fall; enter mindset THE LEADER MUST NOT FALL. Unfortunately though falls do happen, sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Sometimes when it happens you’re going to get away with it, but take enough falls over the years and eventually you will get hurt in a lead fall. as for myself I have been injured from lead falls more than once, and every time the gear did everything it could to save me based off of how well I used it, the first injury stemming from lack of using gear…..
So some food for thought, climbing gear isn’t the only arena that’s been improving in safety over the years. The Auto industry is a great example of another arena that’s been improving safety wise over the year. Old cars were death traps in the event of an accident, but now we have safety glass, seat belts, crush zones, side impact airbags, and on and on. But no matter how safe any car gets it still offers no guarantee that in the event of an accident you won’t get hurt. Let’s face it safety equipment is just that, features to try to prevent injury in the event that you as the user screw up and put yourself in a situation that will hurt you without it. Ropes, harnesses, and pro are also just that, safety equipment. The only way to guarantee not getting hurt is to not end up in the situation of requiring the safety equipment to bail you out. Do you drive around thinking its ok to just crash your car because you have all that safety equipment? I don’t…. Does having a certain amount of safety in my Taco make me feel better about it? Yes it does, but it still doesn’t inspire me to go out and drive into a tree for the sole purpose of being prepared to hit a tree unintentionally. This puts me in the instinctual mindset that when driving around, if I end up in a situation where I might get in a crash I’m going to do everything and anything I can to avoid getting in a crash to begin with. If I don’t get in the crash then I don’t rely on my safety equipment to hopefully minimize any injury I might get from getting in a crash. Can you imagine if all the driver out there started pushing an idea that you should go out and practice crashing your car so when you get in a real life crash your prepared, and on top of that its ok to just give up and crash, your airbag will save you…. If other driver thought that way the last place I would want to be is anywhere near a road, yet there are many climber who think that way. This brings us back to that whole accident chain.
I stated earlier that buy not falling you removed the link in the accident chain that would guarantee not getting hurt in a fall. But, I also stated that falls do happen, sometimes they are just unavoidable, just like car crashes. This brings up the method to prevent avoidable vs. unavoidable falls and hopefully increase one’s own safety on a climb. Before the fall appears in an accident chain, how many climbers are taking that fall under the pretense that falling is safe? If instead you approach the climb from a standpoint of my gear is here for me if a screw up but I don’t want to prove or disprove its safety ratings then your whole attitude towards the climb is different. This attitude chain for me induces the never give up approach to a climb, honestly I take on a climb to send it, to conquer it so to speak, not to flail on it. I don’t want to rely on secondary safety equipment to keep me unscathed; I want to rely on my primary, which is myself. If I don’t give up, if I fight it till the end and pull the climb I go home uninjured and climb again, but as soon as I go into a its ok to fall mindset I induce resonation, and that not only puts myself at risk, it’s a quick way to cost myself the climb.
So far I’ve been writing about lead falls and never assuming it’s safe to fall, yet I’m not going to claim that there is never a time and a place to fall. Personally if I expect a fall to be above my level, I’ll find a way to top rope it. This not only minimizes the risk but also allows me to push my abilities further. I consider myself to be a 5.10 climber, but with a top I can work things pushing well into the 12’s. things to consider here though, even though TRing minimizes the risk, climbers have still gotten hurt and killed doing it. From my own experiences comes a lil story of 3 days sport climbing with Chris Bellizzi in October. I met Chris through a MP post where he was looking to hit up some of Utahs sport climbing. Naturally being the guy I am who’ll climb with anyone and being recently unemployed I jumped at the offer to climb with him. Now mind you I’ve never been into sport climbing but it does serve its purpose and well that’s what he wanted to do. Also I was about 2-3 weeks after a severe sprained ankle from decking on a trad lead….. day one we climbed Ogden and it was an ok day, day two Logan, blacksmith wall. Now mind you we screwed up the beta in logan and ended up on 12’s where we thought we’d have 11’s and I also saw the sport climbers mentality of fall all you need in doing so. Some climbs Chris absolutely schooled and others not so much. One of the not so much’s being Sans Nom where every time Chris fell he launched me into the roof damn near taking me out as the belayer (remember that ditty at the beginning of putting someone else at risk?). Regardless from there we headed to Maple to celebrate Chris’s b-day in prime climb fashion. He worked a few through the day then wanted a break so I ended up trying a 5.11c on a TR so he could rest. Everything was going ok right up until I peeled off from a little above the 3rd bolt, mind you it’s a TR and he has me on a gri, so all should be well… Should I just say the climb was about 100’ to the chains so all that rope leads to a lot of stretch and damn that ground was coming up fast… Knowing it was coming I tuck my knees up and my feet tap the ground as the stretch finally comes to an end. From the 3rd friggin bolt! So something to keep in mind, long top ropes have a lot of stretch when you’re starting the route, fight till the end!
Other things to consider whether you embrace my ideas or not. Falling beats the hell out of your gear. Ropes take the hardest beating and are very expensive, how often can you afford to replace them? I have a very limited budget and feel sick to my stomach when I let someone lead on my rope and they start falling on it. Ironically the climbers who have worked my rope showed up without a rope of their own, maybe it’d be different if it was their wallet feeling the pinch of every fall. Calling for a take on lead and hang dogging while TRing are a different matter but repeatedly falling on it on lead wears it out quickly. Ever hear of a bolt scared biner? Or think small light weight biners are ok for projecting? A common mistake of new sport climbers is to build draws with no way to tell apart the bolt end vs the rope end, this leads to bolt scaring both biners. A bolt scared biner is still strong enough to be in service but if you run a rope though it and take a lead fall it will trash your rope, this creates a potential safety issue about trusting gear even when its bolts! Light weight biners like BD’s neutrino’s are great to keep weight down but deform very quickly, to the point that 3 good lead falls using one on gear OR bolts can deform it to the point you’ll have to cut the gate to unclip the rope. Every piece of gear you buy has a limited life and repeatedly falling on it reduces that life span, I work hard for my gear and can’t afford to replace it at will thus an added benefit to my mentality is longer life for all my gear.