Increase Your Safety Margin
December 4, 2008
As you press through into the Extreme grades you’ll soon find yourself running it out, either because there is no gear or because the only gear that the route offers is marginal. In itself, running it out isn’t so dangerous, after all people pay good money to take big plunges into space but in climbing the danger comes when the potential outcome of that long fall may be hitting something on the way down, be that a feature like a ledge or just cratering into the ground. I’ve already covered the gear on offer that may make a difference but here I’ve put down 10 ideas that may make falling off that run-out slightly less dangerous.
1 THE ‘RUNNING’ BELAY
A belayer who can take in even a little slack may make a huge difference to the leader’s chances when they risk coming close to hitting something hard on their way down. I’m sure every climber knows at least someone who has taken a fall where they missed the ground by inches or even touched down lightly on rope stretch. In these cases you can see how an inch either way can mean the difference between making a crater and making just a fool of yourself. This technique is used to suck up those inches.
The basic technique requires the belayer to take in the slack by moving away from the crag as soon as they know their partner is falling, meaning that this only works where the belayer isn’t attached to the crag i.e. it’s only of use on single pitch routes, that is, unless you are willing to hurl yourself off the rock.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the distance from the ground to the first runner, as this has a direct bearing on the amount of rope the belayer can take in. For example if the top runner is 30ft up and the belayer can dash out from the wall by five feet they take in far less rope than if they run five feet with the first runner five feet off the ground (sorry I can’t actually work the maths out, but although I failed ‘O’ Level Maths I can tell you the difference is significant and could be a real leg or life saver).
So the crucial thing to remember is that the first runner(s) need to be as close to the ground as possible, while not reducing the effectiveness of the belayer, which usually means at head height. Runners wouldn’t usually be placed at this height as they would be seen as being a waste of time. It’s vital that the piece is suitable for both an outward and upward pull, because if it isn’t you may find by running back you strip all the gear to the highest runner - not good if the highest runner then rips. (This is a common problem with novice climbers, caused by them standing too far away from the crag.) If no runner can be found at the optimum height then you may want to consider a floor level belay, or a belay out to one side.
To carry out this kind of belay the belayer must give the leader their full attention, making sure the rope is never let out too far, or taken in so tight as to restrict their movement. On most routes of this nature you will know where the danger lies on the pitch and good communication is vital between both climbers.
There is a fine line between shouting “I’m falling” when you feel yourself slipping and being caught by a belayer who runs off and a belayer who jumps the gun and actually pulls you off when you haven’t actually got to the point of falling. It’s, therefore, well worthwhile agreeing a signal that means start taking in.
If you’re using a single rope then an auto belay device like a Wild Country SRC or Petzl Grigri are perfect tools for this job as this allows the belayer to back away with much less chance of them losing control of the rope and dropping the leader anyway. The dangers of this technique are that if you take in slack like this when the leader isn’t actually going to fall far on to gear then you’re raising the impact force considerably, which may cause problems of its own. There is also a high probability that once the leader hits the end of the rope that the belayer may get yanked back towards the rock so it’s vital to wear a helmet, otherwise the belayer may end up being the one who gets injured.
2 THE DOUBLE BELAY
It’s not uncommon for a team of three to go outcrop climbing, meaning one person is always left with nothing to do while one leads and one belays. In some situations, when using a double rope that is clipped through a complex arrangement of runners (especially side runners), it may be worth having two belayers, with each one in charge of one strand of the double rope. This means they can give full attention to just one strand, giving or taking in slack as you need it. When doing so it’s worth clipping two screwgates into your belay device to increase your holding power on the single rope strand.
3 EXTRA SECURITY
On long run-out pitches you need to be 100% sure that your top runners are totally sound. In these situations, and if possible, it’s well worth taking out as much insurance as possible. This means not relying on a single snapgate because if the rope unclips itself (not uncommon), or the karabiner breaks (not likely with modern karabiners but not unheard of), then your long fall may prove considerably longer. This means using screwgates as your main connection between the rope and runners, or better still two snapgates clipped back to back. Also don’t just rely on a single runner if you can see there is the possibility of more; this means two cams in a horizontal gritstone break or three RPs in a slate seam rather than one. If you’re not sure of the strength of the pieces then place as many as you can and equalize the whole lot to a single point.
4 HEADPOINT PRO
Although obviously highly dubious to the traditionalist, many climbers who want to climb bolder routes, but without the full E factor, will top rope them first, both to maximize their chances and to limit the danger involved. Although frowned upon this is one of the beauties of rock-climbing, if it feels right for you - and you are not damaging the rock - then anything goes. If you’re treating the route as practise for the real thing then you can go for the full headpoint and preplace your runners while on the top rope, so you’re totally confident in their ability to stop you, plus it gives you something for which to aim.
On some routes it may be very difficult to arrange the best protection while on the sharp end, forcing you to push on rather than gain the security of an RP or micro cam. Doing so may give you the confidence to start up the route, giving you a gentler intro into the next grade. This, of course, is changing a bold trad route into a sporty sport route and although reducing the climb’s grade it still gives a taste of being on the sharp end and helps you hone your marginal protection skills, so that once you’re climbing these routes ground up you’ll know what to expect.
5 LEARN ABOUT WHAT IMPACT FORCE MEANS TO YOU
Impact force is what governs whether or not a marginal piece holds or fails. If you can keep the impact force - the maximum amount of force applied to the object - below the strength of the piece then it will hold. Understanding how this works may allow you to make a 1kN piece hold a 3kN fall or a 1kN fall rip out a 1kN piece. The most important thing to understand is that the energy that must be absorbed is never absorbed instantaneously and solely by the runner, as the many parts of the belay chain each take a little slice of that energy as well, plus it’s further divided over time, further reducing the force. The rope, your harness, your body, the rock, the extender, the belayer’s harness and body all absorb some of this shock with, of course, the greatest slice going to the piece that’s being fallen on. This is why low impact force is important in a rope, because as it stretches it applies the energy to the piece slowly, spreading the energy over a longer time. It will spike and then lower again as the force is held (unless the piece rips out that is). The stretchier the rope the longer it has to dump the energy and this is why half ropes, which are far stretchier than single ropes, are so great for free climbing because they have such a low impact force.
Knowing this and using half ropes isn’t the end of the story, one thing to remember is that every acute angle between the piece that’s being fallen on to and the belayer reduces the rope’s ability to move and stretch and, therefore, only allowing a smaller percentage of the available rope out to absorb the shock and thereby increasing the impact force. The best way to avoid this is to extend all runners to the best of your ability, even if that means using 60cm slings rather than sporty 10cm slings and ideally the rope(s) should run directly and uninterrupted by angles from belayer to leader.
One other way of reducing shock loading further is to increase the time your system has to absorb the load by using shock absorbing slings which are designed to rip apart under loading, taking the sting out the fall. Although still widely seen as being exotic I think they are well worth carrying on many bold routes, especially those that involve micro wires and other low strength pieces.
Finally, don’t take repeated falls on to bad gear on the same rope end, as the rope will lose some of its stretchiness with each fall. If possible lower off and lead on the other end for a while.
6 DON’T FORGET THE SPOT
It’s often assumed by some belayers that once the leader has tied on they don’t need to be alert until the first runner is clipped. In fact, the belayer’s job is to keep the leader as safe as possible once they leave the ground and it is this unquestionable rule that lets the leader push it, knowing that down below someone is ready to lock off the ropes and check their fall. This means that until that first runner is clipped, the belayer should spot the leader, just as one would do if bouldering. Low down they can catch a fall and higher they can reduce the severity of a fall by fielding the climber so they don’t crash backwards once they hit the ground, which may not stop a broken ankle from 20ft up, but may well save a fractured skull when the climber crashes backwards once they hit the deck.
When spotting try and gauge how much rope needs to be paid out until the first runner is reached, plus a metre or so, so that you can give them your full attention until the rope is clipped. It may even be worth tying a figure of eight in the rope so that you don’t have to switch to belaying as soon as the leader is near the gear, as this may prove the most hazardous time, as they will need to remove one hand to place or clip gear.
7 CRASH LANDING
If you’re worried about falling off then check out the landing zone first, both so you know which way to fall (if possible) and to spot potential hazards. The classic ankle or foot breaker is the half submerged rock and it may be well worth padding the landing out with your rucksacks which make very good makeshift crash pads if filled with clothing and closed down tight. If you have a bouldering mat in the car anyway then don’t be scared to use it if it increases your safety margin and allows you to push it, as I know plenty of hobbling climbers who wished they’d had a mat to slow them down. 8 BABY
Try not to be so focused on the blankness of a route that you forget to see the potential runners either side of it. If you can climb up and place a side runner at either side you may well take some of the sting out of the route, which although reducing the grade of the route is still counted as a ground-up ascent and is what climbing is all about; making yourself safe through using your head. When baby bouncing you may put unusual forces on your karabiners so make sure they are as strong as possible and make them screwgates if you can.
9 ESCAPE ROUTE
There often comes a time in a climber’s career when they find themselves committed but unable to make the move necessary to reach safety. If you’re unable to down climb and you don’t want to just jump, then your only option is to get rescued. In these situations it’s obviously best if there is another team nearby to drop you a top rope so you can make the move in safety. When doing so you must make sure you are communicating fully with the unknown climber above and even then treat the rope you’re given as being dubious so continue placing gear as you go.
An old mate of mine, Nigel Prestidge, once tried to solo London Wall at Millstone Edge (a hard E5) but unfortunately once halfway up he suddenly had second thoughts. Totally alone and without a harness he shouted until a guy appeared at the top of the crag and lowered him a rope with a figure of eight in the end. Not thinking twice, Nigel put his wrist in the figure of eight and started climbing. Cranking up the 6a crack he finally made it to the top only to find the guy who’d saved him was simply sitting unbelayed on the edge. When Nigel questioned the strength of this belay he just replied: “Well youth, if you thought you could solo it then I reckoned you wouldn’t fall off.”
If you find yourselves the only ones on the crag then the only option is to build a solid upward pulling anchor (tree, large boulder, runners) and attach the rope to it so that you can run around to the top without leaving the leader unbelayed. If you’re using a double rope system then you can untie one rope (the one with the least important runners clipped to it) so that you can take this round and belay from the top. With a single rope this isn’t an option, meaning you either need to have thought of this eventuality and brought a second rope, which is unlikely, or you’re going to have to cut what’s left of your rope and try and use this instead, which although costly is better than standing there like turkeys waiting for the mountain rescue to arrive.
10 ALWAYS WEAR A HELMET
I recently heard about a guy who fell one and a half metres and cracked the back of his head on the ground. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and even though he fell such a short distance he unfortunately died. Don’t just wear a helmet because you’re worried about rockfall. More people die due to their heads hitting something than something hitting their heads and on run-out routes there is a distinct possibility of doing that. So ends the lecture.