Lessons Learned: “Hey, you know you’re not connected to anything, right?”

This article originally appeared on Climbing

I woke up early to blast up a nearby multipitch before work. I was pretty tired, but we cruised the route and then walked to the rappel anchors. I’d been using the rope to go direct to the anchors during the climb, but I hadn’t thought about how I’d go direct for the rappels. While my partner and I chatted, I decided to girth hitch a sling through my tie-in points and clip it to the anchor with a locker. She moved onto the anchor and started threading the rope through the rings, while I sat on the ledge above with my feet dangling into space. “Hey, you know you’re not connected to anything, right?” she said. I looked down and saw my sling not girth hitched to my harness. The end was just sitting on my lap. I must not have been paying enough attention while we were talking and missed my tie-in points or forgotten that step completely. If I’d hopped off the ledge or tried to weight the sling, I would’ve fallen a few hundred feet to the ground. I felt sick to my stomach for a couple weeks after that one.

--Tom Z. Utah


It’s scary how easily these careless errors can happen--even, or perhaps especially, to experienced climbers. It sounds like Tom here generally knows what he’s doing if he’s climbing multipitch routes before work. His error was the result of a perfect-storm of minor lapses that could have converged to make for one less Tom in the world. These individual mistakes happen all the time, usually without incident. But combined, they certainly raise the likelihood that something will go wrong.

Here are some things Tom should consider:

  1. Tom mentions that he was pretty tired. I’m not about to say that people shouldn’t climb if they’re tired. That would eliminate all alpine starts and possibly alpine climbing. Hell, I’m pretty tired every time I climb early in the summer to beat crowds and heat. But, it is important to be in tune with your mental state. If you’re sleepy, distracted, or in a bad mood, you’re more likely to make an error. When that’s the case, acknowledge it and decide what steps you’ll take to mitigate it. It could be as simple as triple checking all of your systems and making a point not to skip partner checks.

  2. Tom did not have a plan for going direct into the anchor before rappelling. This is something he should have thought about before he started up the wall, or ideally before he even packed his gear. He should have a process he follows every single time he climbs routes with bolted rappel anchors. I talked about this at length in a previous edition of this column, so I won’t get too into it here. It’s great that Tom was able to figure out an anchoring situation on the fly--the ability to improvise is a critical climbing skill--but the fact that he had to figure it out in the moment left him open to making a mistake.

  3. Tom was chatting while setting up his anchor tether. He did not have his full attention on what he was doing, and as a result, did not notice that he missed or forgot his girth hitch. He was more likely to make an error because he was tired, had not planned ahead, and was chatting. He was also more likely to miss the error because he was chatting.

  4. Tom didn’t perform a safety check with his partner. He’s lucky that his partner caught his error anyway, but if he’d asked his partner to double check his setup as soon as he finished it, then he wouldn’t have had to rely on luck. Another benefit of partner checks is that they can also cause us to catch our own mistakes. If Tom tried to show his partner his sling, he likely would have seen that it was not attached.

As I said, above, I’m sure most climbers would admit to climbing tired, or forgetting to plan, or talking while working on a critical safety system (tying in, anchoring, setting up a belay device), or forgetting to perform a partner check. These things aren’t ideal--any one of them can cause an accident. Most of the time they don’t, but once you start adding these issues together, the odds start stacking against you.

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