Monday, February 4, 2008

The Importance of Being Prepared

AAI Program Coordinator and Guide, Coley Gentzel, writes on the importance of being prepared for your climbing trips.

In climbing, when things start to go wrong, the problems are usually a result of multiple or compounding bad decisions or breakdowns in the systems. Of course, there are many examples of situations where one major catastrophic event or act of god was the sole purpose or cause, but more often than not, big problems are a result of lots of little ones.

This weekend I was climbing a moderate, multi-pitch ice route here in Washington’s Cascades. We had done some scouting that morning to see what routes were in condition before we finally settled on the route we ended up climbing. From the parking lot, we could see that there were two parties ahead of us on the route, which was not surprising considering our late start, the lack of other attractive options in the area, and the moderate but quality nature of the climb.

From the car I could see that there was one climber at the belay above the first pitch and the other climber was still on the ground. It took up about an hour to hike to the base of the climb, and when we got there, the second climber was just leaving the ground. I didn’t pay much attention as we fiddled around, racked up, and got ready to climb. My partner for the day had never been ice climbing before and so we spent some time practicing techniques on the ground before I got ready to start climbing. The second party had chosen a line on the far left side of the climb and were top roping the first pitch.

When I was ready to lead off, I noticed that the 2nd climber of team #1 had just reached the belay at the top of the first pitch. It had been roughly two hours since we had seen them from the parking lot, and for the first time we stopped to think about the this and it became apparent that they were likely new to either ice climbing, multi-pitch climbing, or perhaps both. In a cragging or roadside venue, this is not uncommon at all and I have certainly grown accustomed to sharing routes of this type with new climbers.

I led the first pitch and set up a belay out of the way of the party already on route. The leader had led straight up from his belay at first and then traversed from the far right side of the climb to the far left side of the climb, placing one piece of intermediate protection on the traverse. I crossed under their rope to build my belay, thinking that his 2nd would come to the intersection before mine, and it would be easier for her to step over my rope rather than have to go under it on steep terrain.

As both 2nd’s made progress up the climb, it became very apparent to me that the woman following on the other leaders rope was not confident or comfortable with her foot or axe placements and she seemed very uneasy about everything. Her ice axe leashes weren’t attached or being used properly and as such, she was unable to use her tools effectively. Her feet looked very unstable and she couldn’t seem to get comfortable or secure with her crampons. She eventually worked her way past my belay and started taking out the piece of intermediate protection her leader had placed. When the gear was cleaned, she started working her way onto the steep ice above and as soon as her feet were at eye level, I noticed that both of her crampons were hardly attached to her boots. She was on the verge of falling and looking at a very large pendulum fall because the rope traverse basically straight out from where she was at. The leader above said his anchor was not very solid and eagerly encouraged the follower not fall. Seeing the potential disaster unfolding in front of me, I quickly bouldered above my anchor (not recommended) and clipped a locking carabiner into her belay loop and put her on belay from my harness. As soon as I was able to clip her in and secure the rope, she fell. I was able to keep her on tension from my anchor while I had the leader pay out slack. This slowly lowered her to below my anchor where I clipped her in and where she was safe.

Upon inspecting the woman’s boots and crampons, I saw that she had a flexible pair of mountaineering/trekking boots paired with a crampon that was step-in compatible. Her boots did not have the needed toe welt or rigidity for the crampons to function, and the result was them flopping off of her feet. Not wanting to command the situation and/or ruin the climbers' day out, I made the “recommendation” that they let me lower her to the ground and then the leader could continue to the top and descend with us. Fortunately they agreed, and I didn’t have to take a more firm stance and require this course of action due to the potential safety concerns for them and others on the route if they had chosen to try and continue. I quickly set up up a lower using a Guide ATC with a redirect for the lowering strand backup up with a kleimhiest off of my harness. A few short minutes later and she was on the ground. I led off across the climb with double ropes giving the tail end of one strand to the other leader for him to tie into, finished the climb, built an anchor at the top of the climb and brought both climbers up.

This experience reinforced many concepts for me, and I hope that the couple was able to learn a few things from the process as well. Any one of the issues that they encountered (improper gear selection and application, choosing a route above/beyond ability level, traversing without adequate protection, bad belay anchor) would not have necessarily been a show stopper or serious safety factor in and of itself, but when one or more of these things are present, suddenly you have a recipe for disaster.

In solving the problems at hand, there were several things that made a safe execution of the “rescue” scenario possible. First, being able to identify and realize the seriousness of the compounding factors of an imminent fall, a pendulum fall, and a poor belay anchor was key in knowing when to take quick action. Next, knowing how to effect a full-length lower safely and easily. Third, leading on two ropes made it both possible and easy to add a second climber on the opposite side of the route to our team and finish the route rather than rebuilding anchors and re-structuring our lead rope at a hanging belay know to have poor anchor options. Fourth, using an autolocking belay device made belaying two climbers on two ropes from very different points on the climb possible. Last, none of the other “compounding” factors described above were present on our climbing team.

Recounting this series of events is as much for my benefit as I hope it will be for yours. Things unfolded fairly quickly in this situation and only now, after the fact, can I take the time to reflect on all of the components and factors and more fully understand what allowed things to work out for the better instead of the worst. The thing I am most impressed by in all of this is the importance of proper training and of being properly prepared with knowledge and equipment. With my background in technical climbing and professional training in guiding and rescue techniques, executing these things felt more like second nature or a logical solution to a problem, rather than an overwhelming and complex situation. The motions and components were familiar to me and were all things that I have practiced and carried out many times over the years. In stressful times and intense situations, you need to be able to go into autopilot mode and react appropriately based on the factors at hand. Our courses and trainings are structured with exactly this goal in mind, to help climbers build their base of skills and experience that will prepare them well for scenarios like this and many more, in the mountains and closer to the road. Thorough and adequate training in technical skills, medical scenarios, and decision-making factors should be considered as essential as the right boots, clothing, or hardware for a given outing. If you haven’t taken the time to properly educate yourself in either simple or more complex skills and scenarios, perhaps now is the time?

Safe climbing everyone.


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