Taking a ground fall is perhaps one of the worst experiences a climber can have, worse also for the belayer and anyone unfortunate to be standing close by. Most falls are short, and over before you know it, the rope coming tight, the fall held by the instinctive yank on the belay plate. Most falls on trad climbs are rare for most, maybe one small fall for every 50 routes climbed, one big fall (5 to 10 metres) in every 100, the reason being trad routes tend not to be so fall off able as sport climbs (less steep, more ledgy, and on trad gear). Most climbers tend to ‘slump’ on the rope (it amazes me how someone who’s boxed out of their head can still manage to reverse the hardest moves to avoid falling onto gear!), or fall within their body zone (from feet to waist), so are unspectacular and safe. Falling is a natural feature of climbing, and it’s true that you won’t get good - or enjoy - at climbing until to accept falling (learning how to fall is also a skill worth developing).
Ground falls on the other hand are not what you want, and can be broken down into two types: hitting the ground from low on the climb (an intro fall), and falling high on a route and hitting the ground (a high catastrophic fall).
High Ground Falls
This type of dangerous, if not terminal, fall can be the result of the route having no gear, or gear spaced enough high up so that you lose your height advantage (the higher you are the harder it is to hit the ground!), or simple gear failure, or failure to place gear! Avoiding this type of fall could probably be described as what climbing is all about, the keystone of climbing safety.
The other day I watched a climber do a classic E1 in Dalkey Quarry that features some hard moves at the top (a traverse out on polished footholds), that can be well protected with small cams or opposed wires (the gear is almost above the leader as they traverse out). At the end of the traverse, you have one more sketchy move to reach up to the lip of an overhang, which you hand traverse to the top, and again you can get opposed wires and cams here (but less obviously). In this case, perhaps because he lacked experience, or perhaps because he expected it to be unprotected (a common mistake with those new to E grades), he placed gear in neither place and instead sketched his way up the top of the climb, his last gear twenty feet below him, a slab thirty feet below that. If he’d fallen he’d have decked out before the ropes had a chance to check his fall. As in most cases, he didn’t fall, but such sketch has a habit of biting you sooner or later (usually a monster fall that only clips your wings). Now it’s not good to dwell on hitting the deck when climbing, but when you’d seen it happen (and heard it!), or visited mates in the hospital whose legs are pinned into metal cages, or people who’ll never walk again, well then it’s worth considering. The way to avoid catastrophic ground falls is as follows:
- Learn to place gear when you are offered up the opportunity by the rock.
- Carry a rack big enough so that you don’t have to scrimp on protection.
- Climb on double ropes so you aren’t forced to skip gear for fear of rope drag.
- Extend gear well, and carry longer draws for trad climbing so you don’t run out (well-extended gear will stop drag and reduce the risk of gear falling out) (cragmanship article here on a suggested range of quickdraws to carry.
- Don’t be bold unless you’re treating the climb as either a walk or a solo: place gear everybody length (the same as a sports route).
- If you have a single spot for protection that your life depends on (say the gear before the crux or a run out), then double it up (two pieces clipped into one rope each, or two pieces equalised).
- Don’t avoid placing gear in fear of running out, instead focus on where you are, as the higher you go the safer you are.
- If the gear is marginal then place more. Ask yourself ‘is this bomber’ or ‘is this shit?’. Twenty pieces of shit gear may be as good as five bomber pieces, but five shit pieces are putting your faith is not so much.
- When leader never scrimp on the gear on the ‘easy’ stuff, as often when you get to the hard and steep stuff you may find you can’t place good gear.
- Don’t worry about people thinking you’re a scaredy-cat because you put in protection every four feet, that’s what I’d call being professional.
- Always be aware of what you may hit if you fall (you can often delay a fall, or jump out), or if you may hit the ground, or ‘something’. Remember that a ledge is just as hard as the bottom of a route.
Now intro falls are falls that take place after the first runner has been placed, where the ground is still close, and are probably the most likely place where the ground falls take place, especially for those pushing their grades. Most climbs are not like climbing wall routes, where you have bolts spaced apart in such as way as to reduce the risk of hitting the deck on the bottoms clips, or have nice holds to grip while clipping. No, many routes feature insecure, maybe bold or run out starts, perhaps starts that are polished, or steep, or have little gear. Also, the ground is at your feet, a ground was often strewn with stones and boulders and various traps to catch the falling leader. The first thing to do is realise that the bottom of the climb, those first moves, those first runners, are the danger zone of the climb. It’s here that you and your belayer must be on guard to the chance of a ground fall. Here are a few tips for reducing the danger:
- Wear a helmet, as many ground falls result in traumatic head injuries, as the climber falls forward or back when they hit the ground.
- Make sure your belayer also wears a helmet, as having a leader land on you with a full rack is also highly injurious.
- Place gear just off the ground, or on the ground, as this will protect you from tumbling down the bottom of the crag (on high crags you need to make an actual belay).
- Check out where you need to land if you fall, and move and small stones or boulders out of the way, or pad the landing (a stone the size of a grape will shatter a heel bone).
- Place protection as soon as you can, and consider climbing up, placing it, then reversing if the climbing is hard, plus check out what other gear you can get higher.
- If you place gear low, then get higher gear, you can always climb down and clean it to reuse higher.
- Thin ropes have a lot of rope stretch (about 30%), so if you’re six feet up, and the first runner is at your feet (so 3 feet below you), you will hit the ground (unless you pull your legs up sharpish).
- To reduce stretch clip both ropes into pieces close to the ground as this will reduce stretch, plus make it easier for the belayer to check your fall.
- The difference between a broken spine or coccyx can be measured in inches in such falls, so reduce your fall as much as possible by not clipping the first runner (if it’s all you have to keep you off the deck), with a single krab, not a quickdraw, or clip the loop on the cam, not the extender.
- On some routes it’s worth using a locker on your bottom piece to make it 100% secure, but also to reduce the risk of having the rope twisted out (not that hard when the gear is close to the knot on the harness). A good example of this would be a route like The Flange or Stanage that has a tough move at the start protected by a single bomber wire that’s easy to unclip.
- In this war of inches it’s vital that your belayer pays full attention and has no slack in the rope at all, just enough for you to move.
- A light belayer should be secured to the ground so as not to be yanked up like a yoyo.
- Also make sure the belayer is not stood out too far from the bottom of the climb in this intro section, remember you need to have the minimum rope out until the leader is safe.
- If you’re worried about using vital gear so close to the bottom of the route, then the belayer can always tie off the leader later and clean the piece and throw it up to them.
- A belayer can also reduce the fall length by sitting down or jumping off a rock when they know the leader is falling, taking in a little rope in the process (just make sure you don’t pull them off!!!).
So what if you do hit the deck? Well in most cases people tend to hit the ground on rope stretch, and many seem to have the lives of a cat, just brushing themselves off. But some don’t, some seem OK, and try and get back up, feeling embraced, then fall off again, this time harder still (you can’t climb well well rattled). Others seem ok only to drop down dead, some injury hidden deep inside them. And so if someone hits the ground you need to take it seriously, get them to sit down, have a drink, take stock, and see how they feel after half an hour. And if they’re ok then either try something easier or safer or get them to try again, only this time tell them not to “fucking fall off!”.