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Basic Climbing Safety Principles

Big Al Is All About Safety

So if Safety Is An Illusion, how do we employ good risk management in our climbing and outdoor life. The climbing life requires a good understanding of forces and knowledge of systems and at the least, conscious competence of some basic climbing skills. 

Sometimes progress comes in the form of improvement, and sometimes in the form of lessons learnt. When it comes to safety in climbing, it’s good to be aware of the most common causes of death or injury and to practice regularly so that your skill and confidence are up to the adventure you’re on. There are three main areas of safety in climbing. Being connected to the system, catching a fall in a safe way and being aware of and prepared for the environment you’re in. 

Connecting To The System

When it comes to connecting to the system, user error is high on the list of things that can go wrong. Not tying in properly, being lowered off the end of the rope and belayer error account for the majority of these accidents. They can be monitored through a simple check. Follow the flow of equipment from your end of the safety chain all the way through to your partner’s end.

  • Your own harness: is it on correctly (no twists etc) and tight enough
  • Your connection to the system: either your knot (through the tie in points, correct, dressed, long enough tail) or your belay device (loaded correctly, carabiner is locked)
  • The rope (and anchor if you’re top roping): flaked out with a stopper knot at the end
  • Your partners connection to the system (knot or belay device)
  • Your partners harness
Tim Climbing With Safety At Boven
Tim in Boven, being confident in our rigging abilities allowed us to abseil down to the start of this route (about 20m off the ground) and enjoy a rarely climbed beauty of a route.

Falling Is Part Of Climbing

It’s good to have a basic understanding of forces and the limits of your equipment. Most climbing gear is significantly over engineered and more than strong enough to handle most climbing scenarios.

There are a few times when gear can be misused in a way that leads to higher risk. Carabiners can be loaded along the weaker axis and fail, ropes can run over each other and melt, belay devices can be used with ropes too thin or thick for the rated diameters and create too much or too little friction.

Falling generates forces that are absorbed by the rope and the ratio between how far you’ve fallen and how much energy absorbing rope there is in the system is called the fall factor. Basically, a big fall high up on a route with lots of rope in the system can have lower forces compared to a small fall with little rope in the system. If your fall is big enough with little enough rope it’s possible to exceed the forces your gear can hold. This is especially easy when falling as you start a pitch on a multipitch. 

 

The most basic thing to understand when falling is that falling itself isn’t really an issue, it’s how you come to be no longer falling that gets people into trouble. Just like anything in climbing it is about exposing yourself to the experience that makes you better at it.  Falling off an overhanging sport climb is fine (even fun) as long as the rope catches you. We need lots of gear and knowledge to stop falling as pleasantly as possible. Sometimes falling off and being caught isn’t fun, you can get hard catches and the landing isn’t always gentle.

Every now and then while climbing, you’ll find yourself above a ledge with lots of slack and realise you actually can’t fall here because you’ll hit the ledge before the rope goes tight and stops your fall. This is called a no fall zone and people manage to get through them pretty often, sometimes without even realising they were in one. 

Big Al Whipping While Safely Climbing
Me falling off Two Dogs and Freedom in Magaliesberg. Having a belayer you trust allows you to push till your limit while climbing (thanks Kieran).

Practice Makes Safety Perfect

Practicing and learning all these things in a sustainable manner is especially important if you want to be able to do them on the highest level  (unconscious competence). Practice as many skills on the ground as possible before practicing or trying them at height.

Good things to practice are tying and untying knots like the figure of eight with some variations, clove hitches with one and two hands, bowlines. Getting a separate top rope belay for your first time trying something gives you the confidence to make mistakes which is when you’ll really be learning what does and doesn’t work. Having done something a few times on the ground and then doing it a few times at height with someone watching you helps you feel confident doing it as the sun sets and rain starts falling. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast when doing technical things.

I can really recommend getting some sort of formal or semi-formal guidance, I’m often amazed at the gaps I see in peoples safety habits in the gym and at the crag. Experienced climbers doing things in a sketchy manner, unaware they’re making the mistake they’re making. Practice together with friends so you all learn together.

Practiced Safety Makes for Safe Climbing
Tim belaying at Bronkies. He’s experienced enough that he can belay without looking at his hands, the belay specs keep his gaze on his climber while his neck stays neutral and comfortable.

Key Safety Takeaways for Climbers Of All Levels

There are so many rabbit holes to go down and different versions of things that are all good enough that it can be confusing.

Remember that falling is fine if you’ve got good gear and a good belayer.

User error is the most common cause of climbing accidents and deaths among new and experienced climbers alike.

Warming up and caring for your body is important for performance and a long climbing career.

Practice paying attention and having that situational awareness while climbing.

Get into good habits regarding safety checks, warming up and wearing a helmet.

Having a mentor and, mentoring others who are in a different place in their climbing journey is gonna be worth far more than just the climbs you do and the places you see. 

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