TNB: Climbing’s Big Mistake

If climbing isn’t there already, it is fast approaching a perfect storm where there are more climbers than ever who know less than ever about climbing safety.

By Duane Raleigh | July 18th, 2017

Colette McInerney demonstrates the lost art of anchoring at a station on a multi-pitch route. But can you spot the flaws in her belay set-up?

The death of the child prodigy 12-year-old Tito Traversa rocked the global climbing community. People described the accident as “horrible” and “tragic.”

It was also inevitable.

By inevitable I don’t mean that Traversa in particular was destined to have such an accident, rather that accidents with the same root cause—inexperience—will happen. I am actually surprised that climbers aren’t killed with greater frequency.

Traversa died because he clipped quickdraws that were rigged by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. The rope-end carabiner on the draws was only clipped through the rubberband keeper and not through the sling itself. Whether Traversa or someone else rigged the draws is as yet undisclosed, but the error was fundamentally obvious.

I see a trend. In just the past two weeks I have watched climbers young and not so young but all reared in gyms or at sport crags such as Rifle who didn’t know how to hang a quickdraw, didn’t know how to tie-in at an anchor, who had absolute faith in a single bolt, didn’t know how to rappel. If climbing isn’t there already, it is fast approaching a perfect storm where there are more climbers than ever who know less than ever about climbing safety.

When I started climbing in early 1970s, instruction hardly existed and fixed pro was rare and often suspect. Learning to climb meant starting at the beginning with knots and ropework, placing gear and building anchors. You mostly taught yourself and the learning process was years long and you necessarily had to start on easy climbs. But you became self-reliant, learned about gear, and the complexities and technical jiggery helped keep you from getting in over your head. If tying in and clipping were all you knew, you’d never have gotten off the ground.

Today, you don’t have to know much to go up and up—there are thousands of routes primed for you with fixed quickdraws and lowering stations equipped with carabiners. Clipping up these lines is like eating without learning how to cook. All is well until the meal isn’t prepared for you.

A lot has been written and said about the dangers of fixed draws and carabiners getting worn, weak and sharp, but what hasn’t been mentioned is that all this fixed gear helps to dumb down the climbing population and paint a false picture of safety. When draws are fixed you don’t need to learn how to face the gates away from your direction of travel. When stations have lowering carabiners, you don’t need to learn how to anchor, untie and thread the rope. You also don’t need to learn how to rappel. When bolts are always placed for you, you believe that they can’t fail. When you learn in a gym where the floor is padded, everything is rigged and are “certified” to lead, you can get away with a lot without knowing that much, yet believe you are qualified to experience the real thing. Then you are confronted with a new situation, such as connecting yourself to an anchor or rigging your draws.

Crags used to be where you learned climbing’s technical aspects, and that separated them from the gyms, but now even that is vanishing as crags are becoming fully equipped and there are fewer knowledgeable climbers at the crags. Safety is becoming a dead language while the dangers remain.

Many schools now have climbing programs. I am a big fan of these even if my daughters prefer soccer and ballet. I am a terrible soccer dad—at my daughter’s first match I asked another parent how many halves were in a game—but besides embarrassment, there are no consequences for my ignorance. Soccer moms and dads with little or no climbing experience can’t fully appreciate climbing’s risks and sure can’t tell if what their child is being taught is correct or complete. To them, climbing is just another after-school activity and they have no reason to question Little Jimmy about his instructor’s competence. He’s got a helmet on, must be safe! Some school climbing programs probably teach their students how to hang a quickdraw, inspect gear, thread an anchor or other fundamentals, but many obviously don’t.

If climbers can’t learn basic safety from a parent or mentor, or at school or at the gym, we are fortunate that accidents such as Traversa’s are rare.

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