Safety, Systems, and Thoughts on Thinking

When it comes to safety and systems, shouldn’t we think as objectively as possible? I think so, and I try. I suppose there’s “that one time when…” fear that can affect our thinking, or a “that looks sketchy!” impulse that can override rational thought. But exceptions and extreme examples shouldn’t cloud our thinking with climbing systems. Consider the sedentary dude, shoveling down cheeseburgers, going “I heard about this runner guy who ran every day and keeled-over with a heart attack – that’s why I don’t exercise.” Or: “My cousin knew this guy who one time was in a car wreck and they said if he’d been wearing his seatbelt he would have died, so I never wear my seatbelt.” Yeeeish.

Anyway, in May I posted some tips on multi-pitch efficiency, specifically using an auto-blocking belay plate. A couple of comments, here and on my Facebook page, echoed random things I’ve heard elsewhere (paraphrased below), and it got me thinking about how we think.

CF Scariot on Spear Me the Details, RMNP.

1. “I never let someone use an auto-blocker, because they might not know how to lower me.”

Whew. Where to start? Indeed, should you find yourself following a pitch and you fall, causing the auto-blocker to lock-up, and need to be lowered, and the person belaying you up doesn’t know how to do it, yes, that sucks. As Malcolm noted from his personal experience (in the comments), indeed it sucks, and he correctly noted that it’s essential to know how to use the device properly, which includes knowing how to slowly release it to lower. Here’s a great video, and it’s important to practice.

How heavily should that factor into someone’s belay device selection? While I hope it’s not one or the other, if it were, what sucks worse, getting stuck or getting dropped? And, which is more common, or more likely?

Here’s how I think of these things: what’s the likelihood of the situation, and what are the consequences?

An auto-blocker prevents getting dropped while seconding. Accident reports are full of dropped climbers. They rarely escape injury or death. And so, compared to the frequency and severity of getting stuck for awhile on the rare pitch that you can’t follow and can’t yard-up on, while your belayer takes awhile to lower you…

For me it’s a no-brainer: I still love the auto-blocker, not only because it’s more efficient (the original topic of my post), but it’s also safer.

2. “Never use the rope in the anchor – I mean, what if you have to escape the belay?”

This had nothing to do with the original topic of my post, but my photo (reposted to the right–>) of using the rope prompted some replies. That’s cool, it’s a good topic, let’s address it. To answer:

Well, then you escape the belay like you would otherwise – after you mule-off the climber to free your hands, you transfer the load to either a bomber piece or, if you need to, first equalize a couple pieces with a sling and then transfer the load. The basics of escaping the belay still apply, and having the rope incorporated in your anchor prevents you from escaping the belay, then you probably don’t know how to escape the belay in the first place. Personally, I know how to do it. But in 18 years of devoted climbing, I’ve never had to. Perhaps some of the folks who worry about this have had bad experiences in the past, but I asked a handful of similarly experienced climber friends, and all answered the same: nope, never had it happen.

Not to say it’s something to ignore. Escaping the belay is an essential skill – but one you’ll likely never use. And if you have to, then encountering a situation where you’re prevented from escaping for the sole reason of being anchored-in with the climbing rope is so infinitesimal, if even possible, that you should probably just say at home (“What if the entire mountain collapses?” “What if my harness breaks?” “What if a hundred-year flood unleashes on the approach?”).

Furthermore, using the rope to anchor yourself – whether to connect the individual pieces, or to connect yourself to a single equalized power point (depending on the situation, like swinging leads versus block leads, you choose accordingly) – is safer. Off of every belay on a multi-pitch climb, the potential exists for a serious shock-loading leader fall. I’ve caught some and taken some, and it concerns me far more than the likelihood of the above-addressed rare-to-non-issue of being somehow “stuck” in the anchor. The rope is the safest part of your system due to its dynamic properties, and it makes a whole lot of sense to include it in your anchor. All kinds of data (easily found) show the energy-absorbing abilities of a rope versus more static pieces like slings and daisy chains. Related post here.

To be sure I wasn’t missing something, I asked several IFMGA-certified mountain guides (this is the highest standardization worldwide for mountain guides, the equivalent of a doctorate degree in mountain guiding, requiring intimate knowledge of systems, safety, and climbing risk assessment). Unanimous: nothing wrong with using the rope. In fact, all said that they prefer it for the reasons described above: it’s the safest piece of equipment you have for absorbing impact.

I also asked Kolin Powick, who runs Black Diamond’s quality control and testing program, and to whom we owe gratitude for the ton of useful testing and education info, posted here. He summed it up perfectly: “I use the rope all the time in the belay. I mean you have it with you – why the hell not. Plus it provides a bit of dynamics to the system given that it’ll stretch a bit. And IF I needed to escape the belay, I’d figure it out – because I’m not an idiot. I’ve also never needed to escape the belay in 15 years of climbing.”

Overall, yes, learn your gear. Learn your systems. Know how to lower from an auto-blocked belay device. Know how to escape a belay and transfer the load. And, I’d say, develop your systems and make your decisions based not on emotion or old-school dogma or far-fetched exceptions, but on likely scenarios and their consequences. It’s the best way, I think, to strike that balance between speed and safety. And far better than staying on the couch.