09 June 2016
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).
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:
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:
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!”.