Falling On Ice and Mixed Belaying
A few friends sent me links to this video a while back:
Now, as most readers likely know, I firmly believe falling on ice is generally a very bad idea. This video shows a guy testing that theory; he falls off and not only doesn’t break anything, it all looks pretty happy. He does come pretty close to lower-angle ice, but he’s judged it all well enough and it works out. This is a piece of evidence, as opposed to belief. Sometimes falls on ice work out just fine. I’ve also seen people break a leg top-roping when the rope stretched too much. My good friend Rob broke his ankle so horribly while traversing a few feet above the ground that it took years of work to get back to his old level. I have a number of friends who have really, really messed themselves up falling off while ice climbing. It’s dangerous.
I actually like these guys and their video because they do something that too many of us don’t: Question our assumptions, and look for real evidence. They found that a good ice screw will hold a lead fall, and did it in a sort of safe way. This seeking understanding of systems and ideas is important to me. This fall could have had a bad outcome, but they got enough things right for it to work. I always urge people in my ice and paragliding clinics to try and work with real numbers, and evidence as opposed to belief. The more technical understanding we all have the better. So this video is another piece of information. Just don’t fall off when slightly out of control, a long way above a screw, with uneven terrain below or you may share my friend Jack Roberts fate. That’s another piece of data that needs to be factored in.
I’ve been doing a ton of mixed climbing lately. In this arena I’ve always given and sought an attentive belay, but I’ve had a few experiences lately that really made me re-think my approach to mixed climbs and belaying the same. We all think we give a pretty good belay (like driving it’s the other people who aren’t as good), but mixed climb are often bolted somewhat like sport climbs so the “sport belay” tends to start happening. A month ago I fell off maybe ten feet up a mixed climb with the rope clipped two draws up. My belayer barely caught me before my back impacted a sharp rock spike, the same spike that messed my friend JD up a few years back. Just before I fell off I’d asked him to tighten the rope up a bit as I thought of JD’s accident. If I hadn’t of done that I might too have smacked the rock spike. Scary. But it gets worse…
A week later I again stick-clipped the second bolt, and then somehow fell off while clipping the third. Before I clipped I tested my tool aggressively, felt good about it, but boom, it popped. That has only happened to me a few times in life, and never while clipping low to the ground. I ended up in exactly the same position as in the first fall: Back inches off a sharp rock spike. Same bolt clipped, but I was clipping the next one as I fell so a lot more rope in the system. Somehow my belayer had gotten enough rope in that I didn’t deck. I really owe the health of my body today to her attentive belay. I am fairly certain I would have decked hard with the first belayer.
A few days later I was belaying a friend of mine on a local mixed cave route. He blew a move low, and he’s a bigger guy than me. I had the rope well organized, and he stopped close to the ground, but not on it. Had I not just had my own “holy shit!” moment I might not have given him the uber-focused belay that kept him off the deck. I also used to think stick clips were for wusses. I’m going to go buy a better one now.
In mixed climbing it’s all really, really good until it isn’t, and it’s easy to get a little bit lax on belay duty. Mixed falls tend to be far more aggressive and explosive than sport climbing falls; more outward force, more head-over-heals stuff, and just more unexpected. Let’s keep it tight on our leaders, and remember to clip at waist level when possible instead of high over head; this keeps the outward force on the top tool lower and reduces the amount of rope in the system (less loose rope generally equals less chance of hitting the ground, counter-intuitive for a scared leader but important to remember).
In my ice clinics I often have to really get belayer to suck up the rope hard when the climber is low to the ground on an ice top-rope; if there’s 50M of rope in the top-rope it will stretch a solid couple of meters or more under body weight. I’ve seen a few accidents over the years from loose top-ropes, again a good reminder to keep ‘em tight while TRing.