Prevent Cratering: Close the System

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Here’s one of the best things you can do to prevent lowering accidents while single-pitch climbing

Of all the safety steps you take while sport climbing—tying in, belaying, clipping, cleaning an anchor—lowering from the anchor may be the most dangerous. Accidents in North American Climbing previously did not break out lowering accidents in its statistics—these incidents were lumped under “inadequate belay” until 2016. But each year the editors have noticed more and more accidents related to lowering.

In the 2016 edition, six separate incidents recorded lowering as their primary cause. Three of these resulted in broken bones. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.

The belayer closes the system with a barrel knot. | Photo courtesy of REI

An analysis of a decade of lowering accidents (from 2003 to 2012 ) found a majority of the incidents (56%) were attributed to “rope too short.” In many of these cases, tying one simple knot could have prevented a ground fall, reducing or eliminating, the possibility of injury.

A bulky knot in the belayer's end of the rope, even tying the belayer’s end to a rope bag, or tying in at the belayer’s harness as well as the leader’s harness—any of these would prevent the belayer’s rope from accidentally slipping through the belay device when a pitch is longer than expected or the rope is shorter than expected. .

Notice the end of the rope tied in to the rope bag. | Photo courtesy of REI.

Just ask Alex Honnold, who suffered compression fractures of two vertebrae earlier this year when he was lowered off the end of his rope after climbing a 5.9 called "Godzilla" at Index in Washington state. “Lots of things should have been done better,” Honnold wrote in his report. “We should have thought about how long the rope was, we should have been paying more attention, we should have had a knot in the end of the rope. Basically, things were all just a bit too lax.”

Remember that as a climber, you are as responsible as the belayer for ensuring the system is closed and you can’t be lowered off the end of the rope.

Bottom line: Make this part of your "Belay on?" routine, and don’t leave the ground unless you know the belayer’s end of the rope is knotted.

Three more lowering incidents from recent editions of Accidents in North American Climbing:

Pleasant Dreams (5.9+), The Pit, Arizona (ANAC 2016)

“At the second bolt from the bottom of the climb, Person 2 tried to stop the climber so he could clean a quickdraw from the bolt. At that time the belayer suddenly realized the rope was too short. The rope pulled through the belayer’s device, and Person 1 fell approximately 20 feet to the ground, suffering abrasions and lacerations.”

Uncle Fanny (5.7), Yosemite Valley, California (ANAC 2013)

“Another party had just climbed and lowered from the route, so this party figured that only one of their 60-meter ropes would be sufficient, and there was no discussion of tying a stopper knot. Then they forgot to verify their assumption when it counted.”

Madness (5.13c), Red River Gorge, Kentucky (ANAC 2015)

“Although my partner and I had over 52 years of combined climbing experience, experience isn’t always enough. The importance of following safety procedures cannot be overemphasized.”

The climber in this incident was interviewed earlier this year for the Sharp End, a podcast hosted by Ashley Saupe, based on the stories in Accidents in North American Climbing.

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