Falling off less often


Anyone reading what follows who was present at Millstone recently, or
heard about certain exploits through the club grapevine, will realise
that it was written earlier in the summer. However, I’ve decided to
leave it basically unchanged, and add a short postscript. (I should
also add that the first paragraph is not a reference to Martin S’s
fine efforts on Agony Crack – it too was written beforehand and wasn’t
a reference to any particular events).

Do you recognise the following scenario? You’ve anchored yourself at
the top of a pitch and are bringing up your (often, in my case,
slightly heavier) second. The top section is vertical, your partner
tires, and (expletive deleted) he or she is off. It’s at this point
you realise that (i) a dead weight on the end of the rope is a heavy
weight, (ii) you weren’t tied quite as tightly to the anchors as you
thought, (iii) belaying with the rope over your thigh wasn’t such a
bright idea, (iv) perhaps you should have backed up the belay with
another anchor point or three, and (v) “Just hold me there while I
take a rest” are not the words you most want to hear at that moment.

Somebody suggested recently that I might be persuaded to write a
newsletter article or two on safety points in climbing. My main
qualification, I guess, apart from professional interest, is that I’ve
built up rather more climbing experience than most, though it could be
that I’ve just been making the same mistakes as everybody else for
rather longer. This offering is entitled “Energy absorption in nylon
fibres, stress fractures in sedimentary and igneous rock formations,
and Gaussian probability theory”. No, just kidding. As you can see
above, it’s actually called “Falling off less often”.

If you’ve been in the situation I described above you’ll know how it
feels, particularly the nagging thought in the back of your mind:
“Just how good are those anchors?”. If you’ve not been there, you may
wonder what the fuss is about. The fact is that most of the time we’re
insulated from the full forces generated if our partner falls. When
belaying a leader, or a climber top-roping on the climbing wall, for
example, there’s normally a lot of friction in the system, through
karabiners, over rock edges etc, and there’s also our own weight to
act as a counterbalance should the climber fall. Unlike in the
situation above, the belayer doesn’t experience anything like the full
force of a fall, but the anchor or protection point which actually
arrests the fall certainly does. In fact, the force exerted on the
anchors when holding a second from above is just about the minimum
that the anchors can experience in a fall. It’s twice as great if
you’re belaying from the bottom, and potentially many times as great
in a leader fall.

Of course the gear we use these days is always strong enough for the
job (as long as we’re not relying on micro wires, rusty in-situ pegs
or 20 year old ropes). But is the rock itself strong enough? Have we
placed that Friend correctly (and is it still where we put it)? Have
we tied on properly? Is the rope running clear of sharp edges? Most of
the time it is, and we have. Occasionally it isn’t or we haven’t.

Not that this will necessarily result in disaster. Normally two things
have to happen together to cause an accident. There has to be a
serious fault in the system (anchor points or equipment) and the
climber has to fall. If the system is sound and the climber falls
then, distance above gear and/or deck permitting, the team should
emerge unscathed. If the system is poor but the climber doesn’t fall,
then the team will live happily on, probably none the wiser.

This is where the probability theory bit comes in, with apologies to
any science and computer buffs, racing tipsters and insurance types
who know more than I do about this already. If the chance of the
system failing is, say, once in a thousand climbs and the chance of a
climber falling is, say, once in a hundred climbs, then the chance of
both happening together is only once in a hundred-thousand climbs.
These figures are just hypothetical, of course, but I still reckon
this makes climbing safer than driving to the crag.

The problem with the above, however, is the assumption about the
chance of the climber falling. If we practice sound belaying
techniques, place lots of protection, always back up our anchors and
look after our gear, the odds are quite strongly against setting up a
system which will fail catastrophically on any given climb. Falling
off, however, is a different matter. Any weighting of the gear
(including abseiling, lowering off or ‘resting’, as leader or second)
technically counts as ‘falling off’ in this context, though obviously
full frontal ‘lobbing’ loads the system more heavily. The IMC has a
rather romantic attachment to lobbing (Lob of the Year Awards etc),
and the frequency of ‘falling off’ on an average club weekend is
certainly higher than the once per hundred climbs assumed above.

The message is becoming clear, I suspect. The more often we fall, the
greater the risks. If we fall off every time we climb, the chance of a
serious mishap is equal to the chance that the system will fail to
hold us. Once in a thousand climbs is probably not a bad estimate for
this but I, for one, was hoping to do rather more than a thousand
climbs in my climbing career. (I’m sure I’ve already done so by some
margin). I accept this is a little simplistic. Some types of anchor
(the lower-offs on the climbing wall for example) are a lot more
reliable than others. We normally give some thought to how good our
anchors are before deciding whether it’s ‘safe’ to risk falling off.
However, there’s little doubt that the easiest way stack the odds in
our favour and make our climbing safer (discounting giving up
completely of course) is to fall off less often. I’m not suggesting we
abandon ‘falling off’ completely. Pushing our standard occasionally,
whether as leader or second, is fairly essential if we wish to improve
our grade. A little practice in holding falls is also good for all of
us, particularly beginners, as is learning to trust the equipment. The
odd ‘lob’ is certainly part of the game (I can vouch for the fact that
one decent lob is sufficient to win the LOTY Award). It’s all a
question of degree, and in particular, perhaps, not spending too great
a proportion of our climbing time attempting routes that are likely to
prove too difficult and result in higher than average rates of
‘falling off’.

Well, now I’ve put pen to paper, I ought to hold up the mirror and see
how I measure up myself. Have I ever pushed my standards by attempting
a lead that’s likely to prove too hard??? Have I ever persuaded
someone else to follow (or lead) a route that’s probably a little
beyond them??? Perish the thought !. Perhaps, on reflection, I
might do it a little less often in future.

In fact, if I can avoid lobbing for the next few months, I might just
consider putting myself up for the 2003 inaugural IMC ‘Falling of Less
Often’ or ‘FOLO’ Award.


As hinted at in the preamble above, since writing this I’ve been
forced to admit, not for the first time, that I hit my climbing
ceiling at around E2. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I nearly
managed to hit the floor as well. I now seem to have become (rather
undeservedly perhaps) a candidate for my second ‘Lob of The Year’
award – any hopes of a ‘FOLO’ award have definitely evaporated.
Phrases such as “Humble pie” and “Hostage to fortune” spring readily
to mind…

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