Top 5 Takeaways from Accidents in North American Climbing 2017

What we can learn by looking at climbing accident trends

I’ve worked as an editor of Accidents in North American Climbing, the annual publication of the American Alpine Club, for the past five years. Reading through each year’s reports is sobering—we documented 38 technical climbing fatalities and more than 150 injuries in the 2017 edition—but it also shows that you’re never too old or too experienced to learn something new.

Many of the same mistakes cause climbing accidents year after year, including failure to self-arrest on snow, failure to tie stopper knots in the ends of ropes before rappelling or lowering, and inadequate preparation or experience for a given route. By highlighting some other causes below, I don’t mean to minimize these core problems—simple steps like backing up rappels with a friction hitch and tying stopper knots in ropes would save many climbers’ lives every year.

But several less familiar themes also struck me in this year’s reports. As a result, I’m changing—or paying more attention to—certain practices of my own. Many climbers may benefit from these same lessons.

Here are five of my personal takeaways from the brand-new edition of Accidents in North American Climbing.

1. Micro-Cams Have Micro Margins of Error

In April 2016, a climber started up a 5.10b finger crack at Pie Shop, a granite crag near South Lake Tahoe, California. His first four pieces were all small cams, and when he fell about 25 feet up, the first, third and fourth cams ripped out, resulting in a ground fall. This was just one of several instances in Accidents of micro-cams pulling out in falls, suggesting many climbers are putting too much faith in these tiny units or they don’t place them carefully enough.

Micro-cams—units whose effective range maxes out at about ½ inch (fingertip size)—are wonderful tools, but they have limitations. They have significantly lower strength ratings than their larger cousins, and the cams’ small surface area and limited expansion range makes it trickier to find (and maintain) bomber placements. Whenever possible, tiny cams should be placed near the bottom of constrictions in a crack (like a nut), and the lobes should be cammed in the narrower half of their range. Make sure the cam’s stem is oriented in the direction of the anticipated load, so the unit doesn’t rotate violently in a fall. Avoid dirty, wet or icy rock. Practice placing nuts as alternatives to micro-cams, and double up on small pro when you can.

The potential weaknesses of micro-cams and other tiny pieces become even more critical when they are incorporated into belay anchors. The AAC’s Education Director, Ron Funderburke, wrote a very informative article for this year’s Accidents in North American Climbing addressing the problems with attempting to equalize several weak placements in hopes of creating a bomber anchor. It opened my eyes, and I recommend reading it.

2. Beware of Swinging Falls

In two separate incidents in Yosemite’s high country last summer, climbers took swinging falls that caused serious injuries: One was a leader fall on Cathedral Peak, and the other was an out-of-control pendulum during a rappel retreat from Matthes Crest. And this year’s Accidents book describes several other instances of damaging pendulum falls.

Many climbers believe they are safer when traversing away from protection than when leading directly above pro. It certainly feels safer. But the forces in pendulum falls are severe, and accident after accident has shown that swinging falls may expose climbers to a greater chance of serious injury, because of the increased likelihood of impacting an obstacle—ledges, corners, arêtes—and because vulnerable parts of the body are more exposed to impact.

Swinging falls can happen during a lead, seconding or rappelling. When leading, place adequate protection to guard both you and the second climber against a dangerous swing. (Half ropes—ropes designed to be used in pairs, clipping alternate pieces of protection—are often useful for arranging good pro in traversing or zigzagging terrain.) When rappelling, the first climber down a diagonal rappel line can anchor the ropes or give a “fireman’s belay” to ensure the second rappeller doesn’t swing. And use a backup! In both Yosemite cases mentioned above, the climbers’ lives likely were saved by the friction-hitch backups they had tied.

3. Weight-Test a Rappel or Lower Before Unclipping From the Anchor

At least three serious rappelling accidents in 2016 could have been prevented if the climbers had tested their rappel setup before committing to the rappel—they should have weighted the system while still clipped into the anchor, only unclipping after confirming everything was A-OK. This may seem like Climbing 101, but after hundreds of rappels or lowers, it’s all too easy for climbers to become complacent. The number of highly experienced climbers who suffer such rappelling or lowering accidents each year is ample testimony that no one is immune to mistakes.

I can think of two specific cases in four decades of climbing when I nearly started a rappel without loading or clipping the device correctly. I caught these potentially fatal errors more or less by chance. Now I’m making a much more conscientious effort to test-weight my rappel setup before I unclip from the anchor. Ditto for lowering from single-pitch anchors: I call “take,” wait to hear my belayer yell that he is holding my weight, look down and visually verify that he’s got me (if possible), fully weight my end of the rope, and only then unclip from the anchor.

This year’s edition of Accidents offers some other great tips on making clear weight transitions from guide and climbing ranger Molly Loomis.

4. Consider Roping Up on Fourth-Class Terrain

The “Kiwi coil” shortens the rope while maintaining a strong connection to the harness. There are several variations, but all of them tie off the coils to the belay loop. | Photo: Dougald MacDonald

“Speed is safety” in the mountains, they always say, and in many cases that’s true—moving under seracs, rockfall zones, or other hazards, for example, or racing an incoming storm. But unroped falls on third- and fourth-class terrain contributed to at least 10 of the fatalities in 2016 that Accidents documented (and that’s not counting fifth-class free soloists). Unroped climbers took fatal falls from relatively easy terrain on Bear Creek Spire in the Sierra, Crestone Needle in Colorado, Mt. Olympus in Utah, and Mt. Tupper in British Columbia, among other places. Climbing unroped is also going to be a big factor in next year’s edition of Accidents: Consider that five climbers died this past summer on Capitol Peak in Colorado—a fourth-class route.

Light and fast may be everyone’s favorite motto, but I believe more climbers should carry a lightweight rope (and the harnesses and protection needed to use a rope effectively) or they should use their rope more often on such climbs. To maintain efficiency on long, easy routes, mountaineers should practice transitioning quickly between moving together and belaying short pitches, shortening the rope (the Kiwi coil, for example, at right), improvising quick anchors and belay stances, and using natural rock features as gear-free protection points. Consider hiring a mountain guide to demonstrate these skills and others during a field seminar—there may be no greater return on investment for a guide’s fee.

5. Lube Your Sticky Cams

In May 2016, a climber attempting Layback (5.9+) at the Bridge Buttress area of the New River Gorge took a short fall. Her top cam pulled out, leading to an open fracture of a lower leg when she hit a ledge. During a post-accident investigation, the cam was found to be undamaged, but the movement of the lobes around the axle was slow and balky—it was a sticky cam.

I always thought sticky cams were more of a pain in the butt than a safety concern, but I asked several cam manufacturers about the New River Gorge incident, and they unanimously agreed: Cams with unresponsive springs and lobes are more likely to pull out of a placement, especially if the rock is slippery or polished. That’s because the cam’s springs and the friction of the lobes are what hold the cam in place during the instant before the downward force of a fall transfers into outward force on the cam lobes.

For optimal holding power, a cam’s trigger wires and other moving parts must not be bent, broken, or out of alignment. The cam should be cleaned regularly and lubricated with a wax- or graphite-based lubricant. If you can’t get the cam lobes to snap to attention when the trigger is released, don’t use the cam.