On Safety

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I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about climbing performance, movement analysis, and program design for climbing, etc; but none of it means a dam thing if we don’t tie in properly; or if the pads aren’t placed correctly.

I’ve been thinking about safety because a friend had a terrible accident in a gym two weeks ago. It appears that the cause of the accident is that he did not tie in.

As a climber of over 30 years, accidents are not new to me, and I have lost a few friends along the way. When I was 16 an older friend and mentor died soloing Ice on Mt. Washington. A few years later Kevin Bein the great Gunkie climbing died when a rappel anchor pulled on him. When I was about 21 in a short period of time I saw or heard about a number of accidents that occurred due to tie-in errors. I counted ten people I knew, all with more than 10 years climbing experience that did not tie in at all, or who did not tie in properly. In response, a friend suggested that everyone check their knot three times prior to climbing, in this order:

1- Tie in, then check your knot.
2- Put on climbing shoes, then check your knot.
3- Step up to the route, then check your knot.
(being a bit of a chicken I also tend to check my knot before taking, or lowering off.)

When discussing these accidents and near accidents it became clear that in many cases the climber was distracted by something while tying in. Someone asked them a question, or handed them something. So its important to not hand a climber anything, or do anything that can drawn their attention away from tying their knot.

Also, we are all in it together, it is the belayer’s job to check the climber’s knot and the climber’s job to check the device. No matter how much experience we have, no matter how many climbs we do per year, we need to always do this one simple and mundane thing that can prevent life changing horrors from occurring. The closest I ever came to a horrible accident was when I took a lead fall, and my belayer’s beiner was not locked. The gate opened, the device slipped out, but was caught on the notch in the nose of the beiner. I missed a 40 foot ground fall onto talus by millimeters. It was just dumb luck that I didn’t die that day.

In the gym sprains, dislocations and broken bones happen on a regular basis. The main factor? Missing or hitting the very edge of a bouldering pad. It only takes a few second to check the pads and make adjustments. Yet it’s so easy to just climb and not deal with it.

Whatever it takes find a way to remind yourself to do a proper safety check. Among a certain set of climbers I used to hear the phrase “Smoke pot? Check your knot!”

Talking to my friend Drew on the phone the other day he mentioned that he and his daughter Mason came up with this new one:

“Check your knot twice, then the device.” (TM Mason Bedford)

Drew had another more colorful one:

“Check yer F***’n knot or I’ll kick your A**!”

What ever works, please, please, please just do it.

What would be a good phrase to use to remind boulderers to check pad placement prior to climbing?

5 Responses to “On Safety”

  1. ToddNo Gravatar says:


    I am hesitant to raise this question as it seems to invoke religious wars sometimes. However, I will throw it out there. In Redpoint you and Dan instruct climbers to lower off of the rings as opposed to rappelling. I quote:
    “Rappelling involves unnecessary risks…”

    I agree with you. But, I do see some people who say that lowering off the rings is bad form as it wears them prematurely. In light of this I would make the following points and pose some questions:

    1) I would assume you almost never want lower off anchor bolts without rings.
    2) Lowering seems safer especially using the system that you put forth on the DVD in Redpoint. Is there any research proving this point?
    3) I understand that when lowering there is technically more friction as the climber is weighting the rope while it is moving through the rings. However, when rapping the rope still gets pulled through the rings and causes friction although not weighted. I would be interested to see some real data on the actual difference in the wear comparing the two frictions. It would seem that the difference in wear is not worth the extra risks imposed (and time) by rappelling.
    4) Whether rapping or lowering, ALWAYS inspect those rings/anchors for wear!

    Hoping this leads to an open and intelligent discussion and not a flame war.

  2. DouglasNo Gravatar says:


    As Dan and I worked through the issue we discussed a number of accidents that we were aware of that occurred when climbers chose to rap rather than just lowering off. We noted that communication was often at issue as was the climber’s ability to go through all the necessary steps and do a self safety check. We also considered the issue of heavier wear on the anchors. It is our feeling that the argument concerning wear on the rings is not much of an argument. Rings need to be replaced periodically no matter how people lower off, and we don’t think attempts to extend ring life should be a higher priority than climber safety. Granted some climbers would have some choice words on that issue, but the only reason to rap is to save wear on the rings, while there are multiple reasons to lower off, including that it makes it easier to clean a route. It’s my sense that we tend to think of rings and chains as permanent rather than as having a limited life span, that is why I often carry hardware with me, so I can replace bad rings.

    I am not sure I understand what point #1 means, but if you are thinking about threading the rope through the hangers, indeed that is something that should never be done, unless a route is equipped with the Metolius rap hangar.

    Concerning research, I am not sure what is out there. Usually what the climbing community does is to review the nature of past accidents and make adjustments to procedures that seem like they would bring better results. The fatal fall that occurred in the NRG a year or two ago was a good example, as it brought to light poor equipment use / design.

    Regarding friction I think that those calculations could be done on paper by someone who knows the math.

    I don’t think your comments would invoke a flame war, that is usually reserved for comments that discuss the relative safety of the figure eight vs. the bowline.

  3. NikkiNo Gravatar says:

    I know this is a little irreverent–or more, but I’ve taken to calling my double-bowline (and now even the figure eight) a “John Long”–as in, “Hey, did you tie your John Long?” Or, “Check out my finished John Long.” I’m glad he turned out okay, and calling it that reminds us that it’s not a newbie mistake; it’s something that can happen to–that any of us is capable of.

  4. Dan HagueNo Gravatar says:

    Doug, you are spot on in your recollection of our discussions concerning rapping vs. lowering, and I completely agree with your points. Its seems rapping to clean has become fashionable of late, perhaps in keeping with the “greening” of many aspects of our culture. I, too, caution climbers to be extremely careful with rapping since a partner double check is impossible to perform.

    As for bouldering, it’s now commonly known among gym owners that this branch of climbing causes the bulk of injuries to indoor climbers (no idea about outdoors, but I would guess the same to be true) since every fall is a ground fall. No matter how careful you are or how talented your spotter you are still much more likely to be injured bouldering than roped climbing, and a large part of those injuries are a result of throw pads. Many gyms have gone to continuous padding, as have I, but there are still many that have not. Watch those edges and seams, they have a habit of moving themselves to the point you want to land.

    Thanks to Drew B for his input. As always, the Salt Lake climbing icon has acquitted himself well.

  5. ToddNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Dan,

    Recently got a copy of your book, The Self-coached climber. I’m loving the book, but the DVD does not work either in my DVD player or my Mac. I get a “NOT PERMITTED” error message when I hit PLAY,.

    Any ideas?


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